How Lifeworlds Work: Emotionality, Sociality, and the Ambiguity of Being

How Lifeworlds Work: Emotionality, Sociality, and the Ambiguity of Being

by Michael Jackson


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Michael Jackson has spent much of his career elaborating his rich conception of lifeworlds, mining his ethnographic and personal experience for insights into how our subjective and social lives are mutually constituted.
In How Lifeworlds Work, Jackson draws on years of ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa to highlight the dynamic quality of human relationships and reinvigorate the study of kinship and ritual. How, he asks, do we manage the perpetual process of accommodation between social norms and personal emotions, impulses, and desires? How are these two dimensions of lived reality joined, and how are the dual imperatives of individual expression and collective viability managed? Drawing on the pragmatist tradition, psychology, and phenomenology, Jackson offers an unforgettable, beautifully written account of how we make, unmake, and remake, our lifeworlds. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226491820
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael Jackson is Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

Read an Excerpt


In spite of the mass of literature on primitive ritual that exists, it is extraordinary how few of the accounts we have give a clear idea of the feeling-tone of the actors engaged.

«AUDREY RICHARDS, Chisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (1956)»

Ritual, Affect, and Transitional Phenomena

When we tell stories about our lives, we often focus on a single defining episode, as if the meaning of our life came into focus at that particular moment, sealing our fate. Undergoing initiation, crossing dangerous seas in search of a better life, losing a loved one, giving birth to a child, suffering a life-threatening illness, living through war, surviving a natural disaster, or falling in love may all mark such limit situations. In the following chapters I emphasize and explore the mixed emotions stirred in us at such times, and the power of ritual to channel these emotions in ways that strengthen rather than weaken the social order. If Julius Caesar's crisis at the Rubicon in 49 BC is an appropriate image of these themes, it is not only because limit experience increases uncertainty, heightens risk, and threatens chaos; it is because "crossing the Rubicon" suggests that the passage from one phase of life to another entails a crisis of emotional and social control. Thus, as legion XIII marched through the shallows of the Rubicon and thereby broke the law on imperium, Julius Caesar ominously declared, alea iacta est — "The die is cast." As fate would have it, Caesar was never tried for this infraction, since the ensuing civil war saw his assumption of absolute power as Dictator Perpetuo of the Roman Empire. Whether Caesar later reflected on the risk he had run in leading his legion into a province where he had no rights, we do not know. But when we look back on the make-or-break moments in our lives, we often find it hard to remember how devastated or imperiled we were, or how close to death we came, for our newfound life has long become more real to us than the life that preceded it.

For many anthropologists, the phrase "crossing the Rubicon" will evoke images of the ritual process, and bring to mind Arnold van Gennep's and Victor Turner's seminal writings on liminality. Against the grain of conventional views of ritual as a means of maintaining social cohesion and ensuring social continuity, Turner's focus was on the capacity of ritual to transform people's lives, and the catalytic power of symbols. Ritual symbols, he argued, do more than mirror social ideals; they reflect grudges, grievances, and passions that "cannot be directly explained either by abstract structural principles or by factional or personal conflicts conducted with cognizance of those principles. Even the individual symbolic objects and actions cannot be explained as epiphenomena of social structural processes." Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was a turning point for Turner, for it inspired him to see that symbols were "'multivocal,' that is, susceptible of many meanings," emotional, sensory, conceptual, and social.

Though this observation serves as my point of departure, I am less interested in Turner's metaphysics of liminality and communitas as "a fructile chaos, a fertile nothingness, a storehouse of possibilities," than in the ways in which rituals are at once instrumental and expressive, fusing natural and cultural imagery, and integrating both social and emotional imperatives.

Because we have evolved as both a social and an emotional species, any account of our humanity must reckon with the paradoxical and problematic implications of human phylogeny. Despite the widely held social scientific view that it is difficult to describe let alone understand the inner experience of others, and its corollary that this difficulty justifies a focus on what is manifest in behavior or expressed in shared symbols, I take the view that emotions are neither inaccessible nor simply "cultural constructions ... that do not necessarily represent the inner states of participants in social life." In solidarity with Robert Desjarlais's argument that emotions of loss and longing among the Hyolmo of Nepal cannot be explained solely as discursive strategies, I refuse to reduce felt experiences to the cultural meanings that are attributed to them. In her classic ethnographic account of emotions among Arctic Utku, Jean Briggs writes that, with regard to the emotions of hostility and affection with which she is principally concerned, "there is only one ideal, which is applicable to all human beings, Utku or not, over the age of three or so." She continues, "I judge this from the fact that the emotional behavior of all human beings is criticized in the same terms." Even though Utku words for various feelings "cannot in every case be tidily subsumed under our words: affection, fear, hostility, and so on," Briggs's descriptions of emotions and the contexts in which they find expression makes it clear that the Utku repertoire is similar to our own.

Against the argument that emotions are created by culture, I follow anthropologists like Briggs and Francis Hsu in insisting that while the ways in which love, hate, rage, and despair are named, interpreted, and expressed will differ from society to society, these emotions themselves are generally the same for all humankind and shared with other animals. Indeed, contemporary research on mutual emotional recognition, both conscious and subliminal, in humans and animals, confirms what intuition has always suggested — that facial expressions, emotions, and moods can be registered and read across species barriers. As Charles Darwin pointed out in 1876, "Most of the complex emotions are common to the higher animals and ourselves," and contemporary research on grieving in animals offers poignant and compelling proof of Darwin's pioneering insights.

If affective and sensory experience have often been screened out in social science, this is not necessarily because it is methodologically difficult to observe "subjective" phenomena or discriminate natural emotions from cultivated sensibilities, but because emotions are often identified with personal life or seen as synonymous with animal instincts and must, so it is argued, be suppressed if human social existence is to be viable. By conflating sociality and rationality, many thinkers have assumed that reason is the moral force that keeps our baser instincts in check, preventing anarchy, hence "the word polis ... the place of rational order," and its derivatives, "politeness" and "police."

From the assumption that sociality requires the suppression of emotionality it is a short step to claiming that social science can leave the study of the emotions to psychologists or ethologists. Rather than perpetuate this view that (irrational) feelings and (rational) ideas, or emotionality and sociality, are essentially incompatible, I argue that they are mutually implicated in human life, and that our analytical task is to explore their interplay. Moreover, emotions must be seen not as mere by-products of ritual action, but as intrinsic and vital to it. "Pleasure and pain," Georg Simmel observed, "as well as certain instinctive feelings that serve the preservation of individual and species, have developed prior to all operation with concepts, judgements and conclusions." Primary emotions are the very cause of social interactions, and the reason such interactions emerge in the first place. Even when emotions are performed rather than authentically felt, they are felt as "affecting presences," and have real effects.

Methodologically, a double perspective is required in which intrapsychic experience and intersubjective experience are given equal weight. Strong emotions like joy, rage, love, grief, shame, anger, fear, jealousy, and envy may overwhelm or undermine what is socially or morally prescribed, but those same passions are not only crucial elements in every social relationship but critical to every person's sense of his or her humanity. It is in responding to the emotions of others that social bonds are confirmed, just as it is in expressing one's deepest feelings that one's own individuality is consummated. It is hard to imagine a person utterly devoid of feeling, though social scientific texts are replete with such figures, reduced to their roles and more or less conforming to social norms. Inasmuch as social science has sought to emulate the physical sciences in order to avoid subjective bias, it has come dangerously close to mimicking the effects of brain injury or psychosis, in which depressed affect renders social relations impossible. Disinterestedness may go hand in hand with a phenomenal ability to remember facts and figures, as A. R. Luria observed in his case study of a famous mnemonist, but "S" had a poor memory for faces because faces were constantly changing, depending on emotion and mood, and he could not understand poetry or engage with other people at a deep emotional level. In short, an absence of feeling is not only a sign of alienated intersubjectivity, but suggests that social scientific descriptions of human life that are devoid of feeling are equally pathological. At the other extreme, however, the unbridled outpouring of emotions is hardly compatible with moral and social functionality. To be consummately social is, therefore, a matter of integrating social mores and personal passions both within oneself and in one's relations with others.

The Wedding Haka

In January 2016, a young New Zealand couple, Aaliyah and Benjamin Armstrong, posted their wedding video online for their friends and family. The video "went viral," moving millions of viewers around the world, many of whom knew nothing of Maori culture or the tika tonu haka that was organized by Benjamin's brother and best man for the occasion. If this haka was emotionally charged for the friends, family, and strangers who watched it and shared it via international social media, its impact was even more powerful for the groom and his bride. Explaining later why she was moved to respond, Aaliyah said, "I felt the need to show love and respect back." As for Benjamin, after having stood for some time, apparently impassive before the haka party, he too responded with the contorted face (whakapi), lolling tongue (whatero), bulging eyes (pukana), quivering hands (wiri), body slapping, and foot stomping (takahi) that impart such physical power to the haka's chanted words. Indeed, the power of haka to stir us emotionally and enlighten us intellectually depends on just this fusion of reverberant sound, muscular action, visceral sensation, breath, and nervous tension. "For the haka is the message, born of the soul, spoken by the mouth, and expressed through the body (Ko to haka hoki he kupu korero, he mea whakairo e te ngakau, he mea whakapuaki e te mangai, he mea whakatu e te tinana)."

Here, then, are the soul-stirring words of the tika tonu haka:

Leader.Ki aro (Pay attention)

Kia whakaronga, kia mau! (Listen up, take your stance!)


Leader.Ringaringa e torna, (Arms outstretched,)

kei waho hoki mai! (out and back!)

Everyone.Kss Kss

Leader.Tika tonu! (What is right is always right!)

All.U ... e! (In ... deed!)

Leader.Tika tonu! (What is right is always right!)

All.U ... e! (Ah ... yes!)

Tika tonu atu ki a koe, e tama (Be true to yourself, my son)

Hiki nei koe aku whakaaro, pakia! (My concerns have been raised about you, so pay attention!)

He hiki aha to hiki? (What is this problem you are carrying?)

He hiki roa to hiki? (How long have you been carrying it?)

I a ha ha! (Have you got that? Right, let's go on!)

E tama, te uaua ana (So son, though it may be hard for you)

E tama, te maro (And son, though it seems to be unyielding)

Roa ina hoki ra (No matter how long you reflect on it)

Te tohe o te uaua na (The answer to the problem)

E tau nei. (Is here within you.)

Ana! Ana! Ana! Aue ... Hi! (Indeed! Indeed! Indeed! Yes ... Indeed!)

In Aotearoa-New Zealand, this haka is often taught in high schools, its message pitched at adolescent boys on the threshold of manhood. It challenges a young man both to address his difficulties with courage, and to find within himself the resources to persevere and triumph. The haka is also commonly used at coming-of-age parties and graduation ceremonies, and may be performed at funerals (tangi) as a way of paying respect to someone who helped a youngster through hard times. Indeed, it can be argued that learning and performing haka is fundamental to a Maori person's sense of self, cultural belonging, and well-being, both spiritual and physical, in early childhood as well as later life.

Embodied in the tika tonu haka is the emotional confusion of a young person passing from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence, bachelorhood to marriage. If emotional ambivalence marks such transitions, it is because one's elation at the prospect of entering a new phase of one's life is mingled with grief at the life one is leaving behind. Moreover, while one is happy to see a son, brother, or boon companion embrace his future, there is anger too that he is marrying, migrating, or leaving the family fold. The gamut of these emotions runs from the awe (wehi) inspired by a charismatic authority figure to a mingling of excitement and fear (wana) to a surge of empathy and love (aroha) to intense anger (peruperu), sorrow, and grief (pouri). The haka provides a ritualized means whereby these emotions can be verbalized and acted out in a culturally choreographed and controlled way. Haka is "disciplined, yet emotional."

This, then, is the work of ritual — to facilitate the expression of potentially divisive and uncontrolled affect in a form that simultaneously provides an outlet for the emotions of several individuals while affirming the solidarity and like-mindedness of the group to which they all belong. In psychoanalytic terms, an ego-syntonic outlet for a variety of individual feelings is found in the orchestrated performance of a body of people acting as though they were one.

But ritual action not only creates the illusion of consonance between individual affect and collective behavior, or body and mind; it also mediates a vital relationship between the physical and metaphysical dimensions of human life. When haka was performed before battle, or when the All Blacks perform a haka before a major rugby game, it is not only because two opposing groups confront each other, one destined to win and the other to lose; it is a confrontation of life with death.

Perhaps the most famous warrior haka was the haka Ka Mate, composed by the Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha around 1820, during a period of impending war with the powerful Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto tribes in the Central North Island. On his way to meet his enemies, Te Rauparaha visited an ally, the powerful Tuwharetoa chief Te Heuheu, who warned him that another old enemy was pursuing him, and that he should seek the protection of kinsmen at Lake Rotoiti. As the war party closed in, Te Rauparaha was enjoined by his kinsmen's tohunga (priest) to descend into a kumara (sweet potato) pit, and for his wife to sit on him. The dispiriting power (noa) of the sweet potato and the woman would together sap the spiritual power (tapu) of his enemy's incantations. As the noa countered the tapu of his enemy, Te Rauparaha muttered, Ka mate, ka mate? (Will I die, will I die?) under his breath, and when his pursuers left the region he exclaimed, Ka ora, ka ora! Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru nana nei I tiki mai whakawhiti t era! (I live, I live! For it was indeed the power of a woman [noa] that fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!).


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Table of Contents


Part 1

Ritual, Affect, and Transitional Phenomena
The Wedding Haka
Spoken Emotions
Making Palaver
Crossing the Water
Positions, Dispositions, and Transpositions
The Raw Material of Ritual
Initiation and Rebellion
The Weather of the Heart
Surviving Loss and Remaking the World
Death’s Aftermath
Role Reversals and Mimetic Rites
Being a Part of and Being Apart From
Coping with Crisis

Part 2

The Dynamics of Kinship
Kinship and Scarcity
Relative Distance
Husbands and Wives
Elder Brother–Younger Brother
Joking and Avoidance
Existential Inequity: Favoritism, Fathers and Sons, and Fadenye
The Emotional Life of Stories
Force Fields
Political Emotions
The Ferensola Story
Words and Deeds

Coda: Emotions in the Field


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