Greg Coates, The Palm at the End of the Mind

The penumbra is where light fades into darkness—the most elementary metaphor we possess for the threshold that separates the familiar realms in which we live and those impinging realms that we subject to endless speculation, but that ultimately elude our grasp. (Jackson, 238)

Ever since the beginning of the semester, the concurrent question that has been addressed is, “What is at stake?” My answer based upon the past six weeks is the reality or sacredness of people’s religious experiences.” After all, William James concluded at his Gifford Lectures that the specialists, or what I would call the truth-holders are the people who are observed (James, 438). If one holds James premise as true, there are a few questions that confront the ethnographer. The first question is who defines “the real?” A second question is, “what methodologies best observe and record the realities of the sacred?” The third and final question focuses on the limitations and biases of the ethnographer her/himself and the very methodological and analytical tools she/he uses to gather what can be observed and more importantly that which cannot. I argue that the tension embedded in the third question is necessary for safeguarding the real and sacred of the people who are observed as well as the humility and integrity of the researcher. With these questions in mind, I know to look at Michael Jackson’s The Palm at the End of the Mind, Robert H. Sharf’s The Rhetoric of Experience and the Study of Religion, and Don Seeman’s Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual.
The Palm at the End of the Mind is anthropologist Michael Jackson’s attempt to understand the connectedness between people’s relationships, religions, and how those interactions create the real. He writes “I only have a sense of being grounded in something I can only call ‘the real’ that connects my life to the life of the earth itself, its generations succeeding one another over time, its multiple geographies and cultures” (Jackson, 1). Jackson continues by associating ‘the real’ with one’s well-being. He writes, “Basic to all these reflections is the view that one’s well-being depends on one’s relationships or connected ness to an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherness’ that lies beyond the horizons of one’s own immediate lifeworld” (Jackson,7). This is remarkable since the author stated with great integrity about his own bias. In his approach to this ethnography, the author writes, “as an anthropologist, I was intrigued with whether something one might call ‘religious experience’ could be identified in all cultures and all people (including skeptics like myself), and what meaning could be ascribed the term ‘religion’” (xi).
The focus of his research is what Jackson refers to as ‘border situations’ that brings an ethnographer up against the limitations of language and knowledge (something greater than empirical observation) and yet opens up new ways on understanding one’s self and her/his relationships with others including the divine (xii) that can be empirically observed in the human experience. The image that the author uses is penumbral which is existentially described as “an area in which something exists to a lesser or uncertain degree” and “an outlying or peripheral region.” (xii). In addition, the author locates the penumbral in the “shifting spaces between statements, descriptions, and persons, and in the course of events.” (xiv). His methodology was primarily through interviewing people and reading stories of his own family.
What strikes me as unique about Jackson’s research on the universal experience of connectedness and suffering is that he is trying to understand his own personal issues like the death of his maternal grandfather (48), his first wife’s death (61), the summary of his mother’s journal (93), and finally his own journal (158). As he works on his own experiences, he summarizes the ethnographer’s dilemma in quantifying the penumbral regions as mystery. He writes, “What we call a mystery is the result of a refusal to translate phenomena, either external or intrapsychic, into shared meanings . . . Yet, for all this, there always remains something that cannot be explained away—something residual, irreducible, and fugitive” (167-68).
Yet, as I read Sharf’s article, I could not help but draw a connection of Jackson’s penumbral regions as Sharf’s mystical experience and his argument against the biases of anthropologists. He writes, “If we can bracket our own presuppositions, temper our ingrained sense of cultural superiority, and resist the temptation to evaluate the truth claims of foreign traditions, we find that their experience of the world possesses its own rationality, its own coherence, its own truth. (Sharf, 268). Unfortunately “The perennialist’s position on the mystical experience is “wholly shaped by a mystic’s cultural environment, personal history, doctrinal commitments, religious training, expectations, aspirations, and so on” (Sharf, 271). This is the same warning and Seeman makes to the cultural anthropologists. Seeman writes, “As a hermeneutic enterprise, cultural anthropology tends to assume that ordered and coherent meaning is the primary desideratum of social life. (Seemans, 55)
Yet in his argument against the perennialist position, Sharf introduces a theory called Quaila. He writes, “Qualia (the singular form is quale), penumbral is a term proposed by philosophers to designate those subjective or phenomenal properties of experience that resist a purely materialistic explanation . . . In short, qualia refer to the way things seem . . . qualia are construed as essentially private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience” (Sharf, 283).
The same private, ineffable, and irreducible properties of experience can also be seen in Seeman’s article titled Otherwise than Meaning: On the Generosity of Ritual. Once again we encounter Jackson’s penumbral region and Sharf’s “other’s experience” as Seeman describes Rabbi Shapria’s overwhelming experience of suffering—his qualia—during the Holocaust. Seeman writes, “Suffering ‘beyond measure’ simply devastates the subject with no hope for bearableness . . . this becomes paradoxically the ground for a different kind of relationship to agency in suffering, based not on the quest for meaning—or even the meaningfulness of ritual—but on the ethical gesture that Levinas calls ‘the medical’” (Seeman, 66). Seeman continues, “In the shadow of that collapse, only ritual gestures—the act sacred study rather than its content, the act of self-sacrifice rather than its potential for success, or the act of ritual observance without hope of efficacy—remain in place (Seeman, 67).

7 Replies to “Greg Coates, The Palm at the End of the Mind”

  1. Greg how would you compare Jackson’s approach with that of Geertz or William James’ The Variety of Religious experience? In your opinion do they support the claims of reality that Jackson makes?

    1. Thank you William for the question about Geertz and William James. If I understand Geertz to articulate that all knowledge is local and religious experience is form, my answer is no. However, I do see Geertz’s approach to Seeman’s presentation of Rabbi Shapria in that all that was left after overwhelming suffering was form. As for William James, I believe James and Jackson are in agreement. Both believe that there are empirical observations can can and should be made with religious experience. However both also agree that there are experiences to use Jackson’s words that exist at “The Palm at the End of the Mind. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Geertz and James.

  2. Greg, thank you for your precis and for tying together this weeks readings. You’ve noted Jackson’s focus on the liminality, the way that these “indeterminate” zones reveal the limits of both knowledge and language, and also how Jackson turns to autobiography as one way of exploring and analyzing these moments. I was also struck by how Jackson chose to present his analysis of these spaces, specifically the way that he used short essays, poetry, and anecdotes instead of a sweeping narrative and analytical argumentation. It seems to me that this decision says something about the limitations of ethnography and the ethnographer (which Seeman’s work also highlighted last week). It seems that Jackson’s style serves a rhetorical purpose, but I wonder if it is also a comment on his topic of study? Does his choice hint at the need for ethnographic humility in the study of religious experience broadly.

    1. Thank you Chelsea for your observations. Jackson’s ethnography read to me in many ways as an autobiography that was being developed through his interactions with people and journals within the context of suffering. I do believe that his ethnography is about the struggle of the limitations of ethnography and the ethnographer. I believe all three readings address the limitations and thus the need for humility. I look forward to hearing more about your insights as well as the class concerning these important issues.

  3. Thank you Greg for your Precis. And Thank you for bringing the three readings from this week in conversation with each other. I was also intrigued by Jackson’s analysis of the limitations of language, and how suffering is one of the major life events in which we are no longer able to grasp our experience. It seems to me that Jackson acknowledges this limitation and is not as interested in addressing semantics, as he is in showing the interconnectedness of individuals, descriptions, etc, and how such connectedness leads us into the Penumbral areas of experience. How do you think his idea of the Penumbra connects to Kleinman’s argument about intersubjectivity of experience ?

    1. Thank you Tala for your comments and question. You ask, “How do I think Jackson’s view of Penumbra connects to Kleinman’s argument about intersubjectivty of experience? I think Jackson would argue that Penumbra is a universal experience among humans because it occurs in the “shifting spaces between statements, descriptions, and persons, and in the course of events” (xiv). I believe that Jackson himself encountered Kleinman’s instersubjectivity (a shared feeling of care and affection) with each of his 61 interviews, poems, and/or anecdotes. I look forward to hearing more about your understanding of any connection between Jackson’s penumbra and Kleinman’s intersubjectivity.

  4. Greg, this was a very insightful precis. Thank you for your questions and analysis. “The real” is a great starting point for our conversation in class today because is is both a poetic attempt to touch something ineffable and a word that is used to signify something with a tangible reality. Jackson’s work takes the former definition and he struggles over the course of the book to, in my opinion, lead us to sensing how the real manifests ‘in-between’ people, places and objects. His illusions to art, poetry and narrative are ways to evoke an elusive quality, which he believes we all can relate to. However, Sharf’s article challenges this notion of what he would translate Jackson’s term into- experience, whether religious or mystical. Is it “real”? I loved this question. I don’t think there is an answer, but rather the question pushes back at religion scholars and anthropologist to consider how their response to such a question colors their work. I concur with your statement that Jackson’s penumbral regions are the same as Sharf’s mystical experience and I look forward to putting the two works into conversation.

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