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).