The Migration of a Name: Reflections on Alexander in Africa

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Essay Excerpt

In this dialectic, self-reflection and scholarly study, creativity and interpretation arise together and are united. For me, this process of reuniting aspects of our being that are habitually fragmented is a form of making whole, of healing. And I have sought a form of writing that unites the poet and the ethnographer in one script, merges the poetic and ethnographic in a single style, and follows the hermeneutical example of Gadamer: "to see through the dogmatism of asserting an opposition and separation between the ongoing natural 'tradition' and the reflective appropriation of it" (1976:28). It is in this sense that my quest for Yilkanani, which began in a town in northern Sierra Leone in 1969, was eclipsed by a wider search for Alexander, and became finally a journey into that region where history and biography converge. An anthropology that so forth rightly reflects upon the interplay of biography and tradition and makes the personality of the anthropologist a primary datum entails a different notion of truth than that to which a scientistic anthropology aspires. It is a notion of truth based less upon epistemological certainties than upon moral, aesthetic, and political values. It is, indeed,a pragmatist notion of truth in which, rather than reduce experience to abstract categories by a process of systematictotalization, we seek to disclose the complex and open-ended character of experience and the role interpretation plays in the process of self-making. It is a conception of the anthropological project that leads us directly to a concern with the ways we say things, for we become less interested in announcing definitive explanations than in opening up new possibilities for thinking about experience. Richard Rorty uses the term "edification" for this process" of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking"(1979:360). While "edification" may consist in the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical period, or between our own discipline and another discipline," Rorty notes that "it may instead consist in the 'poetic' activity of thinking up such new aims, new words, or new disciplines, followed by, so to speak, the inverse of hermeneutics: the attempt to reinterpret our familiar surroundings in the unfamiliar terms of our new inventions." Edifying discourse is "supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings" (Rorty 1979:360). (Jackson, 246)

About the Author

Michael D. Jackson came to Harvard in 2005, with ethnographic experience in Sierra Leone and Aboriginal Australia. His work has been strongly influenced by critical theory, American pragmatism, and existential-phenomenological thought. Through a direct engagement with the everyday situations and struggles that characterize human life in any society, irrespective of its specific historical and cultural conditions, the ethnographic method of participant-observation promises not only an extended and deeper understanding of ourselves in relation to others and otherness; it may provide new insights into the limits and possibilities of both comparative analysis and viable coexistence in a multiplex world. He is the author of numerous books of anthropology, including the prize-winning Paths Toward a Clearing and At Home in the World, and has also published three novels, a memoir, and seven volumes of poetry. His most recent books are Life within Limits: Wellbeing in a World of Want (2011), Being of Two Minds (2012), Road Markings: An Anthropologist in the Antipodes (2012), Between One and One Another (2012), and Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology (2013). The focus of his current research and writing is ethics and migratory experience.

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