Book Summary: The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-being / Michael Jackson

In his book, Michael Jackson looks deeply into the lives of three individuals, Emmanuel Mulamila, Roberto M. Franco, and Ibrahim Ouedraogo while shedding some light on their journeys that concern the endurance of life via different ethical modes of being, how these individuals approach and derive meanings from their extraordinary encounters in life, and what role migration and the desire to move, abandon a past, plays in the key moments of these individuals’ lives. In order to do so, Jackson records a day-long conversation he had with Emmanuel, a series of conversations and email exchanges with Roberto, and a period of talks and visits to Ibrahim, whose lives were so similar yet vastly different. Similar in the sense that there was a very close connection between migration and the question of well-being, while there were vast differences in not only the contents of their lives but also how they reflected on their past and their aspirations of the future. To me, the book stands as a very unique anthropological approach, one that is perhaps too marginalized in the broader circles to be seen worthy of any research grants, as Jackson narrates. 

Jackson quotes Albert Camus who asserted that the fundamental question of philosophy is to judge whether life is or is not worth living. Thus, Camus explained suicide as a response to “a life that has become insufferable or meaningless” (p.2). Jackson notes how Camus failed to consider migration as a “way out”, “or address the dilemma of every migrant for whom life in his or her home place is social death, yet for whom rebirth in a foreign land may prove illusionary” (p.2). Therefore, Jackson treats migration from an existential perspective while bringing phenomenological approaches, as he claims “Moveo ergo sum. Along with all living things, we move through life” (p.3). So, the author sees the migrant as exemplifying a universal aspect of existence. “Either we are moving or the world is moving — about, under, or above us” (p.3). Having presented migration as an “ethical quest for existential fulfillment”, Jackson raises the question of “to what extent we are justified in moving across class, cultural, national, and discursive borders in our quest for life itself, even though we may infringe moral or legal norms in doing so” (p.6-7). His own attitude towards his down-to-the-very-individual methodological approach can be perceived in his words as he writes “If we are to avoid the trap of becoming infatuated with our own intellectual-cum-magical capacity to render the world intelligible, then the vocabulary ‘we’ all too glibly project onto ‘them’ must be tested continually against the various and changing experiences of actual lives” (p.4-5). Or else, the author sees the danger of committing the violence of reducing the agent into a mere object–“a drudge, a victim, a number, assimilated to a category, a class, or a global phenomenon” (p.5). Therefore, he explains his anthropological concern as exploring the worlds within worlds, penetrating into microcosms while coming into the “questions and generalizations we make concerning the hegemony of the macrocosm, whether this is conceived historically, culturally, or ethnically” (p.24). Thus, this anthropological concern has its focus on “the indeterminate relationship, the lack of fit, the existential aporias between the person and the world in which s/he exists” (p.24).

Although it would be an exhaustive and an ill-suited attempt to try to summarize the lives of these individuals in this writing, as it would be too reductionist according to the ideals that Jackson pursues, I believe it would still be apt to provide some frames of their lives and how the author then provides some food for thought accordingly. When Emmanuel narrated his school years back in his native village in Uganda and how he and his sisters were subject to various forms of physical violence that took place in the form of “punishments”, which led him to leave the place and move to his grandmother’s and start cleaning houses instead, he interestingly says “it was from that period that I stopped being immobile. I stopped being home. That’s the time I realized that if life got too hard for me, I had the alternative to leave” (p.32) — which echoes with Jackson’s comments on Camus’ argument. In his later years, when Emmanuel switched schools, he had to bribe the bullies at times and be prepared to be beaten by turning himself to stone, at other times in order to protect himself and others — thus finding himself in between the numerous contrasts between innocence and malevolence, which leads Jackson to argue that “the difference between ethical and nonethical action is determined not by measuring an action against some abstract norm but by considering its context and social consequences” (p.35). Interestingly, when Emmanuel shares the story of how he was persecuted by his aunt, Jackson makes the radical claim that Emmanuel’s oppressors did not necessarily operate by malice but rather they fell prey to “the pressures they were under in critical situations where morally, politically, and economically, the world seemed not only disordered but perverted” (p.56), which I believe poorly directs the reader’s focus to the “macrocosms” without entertaining the possibility of how “microcosms” are constituted by ethical choices which may, at times, rightfully or not, be subject to the criticisms of moral frameworks that we inevitably hold and share to some extent. Later in Emmanuel’s life, he encounters Nanna, a Danish anthropologist that met him in Uganda during her fieldwork and decided to marry him. During the author’s conversation with Emmanuel, Nana recalls the bureaucratic hardships she faced in legalizing their marriage and getting Emmanuel citizenship. She says, “all these requirements had to be satisfied; otherwise the state had every right to send Emma back to Uganda. Michael, I cannot tell you what it is like living under this pressure. And in a country, my country, internationally known for its humanism” (p.59), which raises interesting questions and doubts about borders, immigration policies, and the possibilities of re-creating a new life via migration. During his time in Denmark, Emmanuel struggles to find a job for a long time, despite his qualifications, and faces despair and the dilemma of going back to Uganda as a failure or staying as a non-bread-making father. He eventually miraculously encounters an old friend that helps him land a full-time job, which makes the author reflect on how Emmanuel saw it as a kind of a “heavenly intervention” and then invokes the work of Hans Lucht’s ethnography on Ghanian fishermen moving to Italy and writes “just as the sea will only yield its bounty if given respect in the form of periodic sacrifices and conformity to the protocols of fishing, so the world at large will only open its doors to those who are prepared to yield a portion of their agency to the powers-that-be, submitting themselves to the hardship of prolonged waiting” (p.81). 

Jackson then moves to the life of Roberto, who lives a very onerous childhood in poverty and who had to attempt to cross the US-Mexico border several times via the arrangement of smugglers to unite with his family and, more importantly, to move towards a hoped existential well-being. The hardships Roberto faced, along with the traumatic events that he witnessed during the smuggling and border-crossing processes, urges Jackson to quote and write “we cross borders, but we don’t erase them; we take over borders with us” (p.121). However, for Roberto, like in the case of Emmanuel, problems of well-being are not solved after leaping into a new life in a new environment as Roberto was constantly subject to violence from white supremacist groups and other forms of racial discrimination that occurred in his neighborhood, and in his school — as he had to go through ESL training. It is at this period that Roberto turns to God and embraces Evangelicalism which vastly shapes the decisions he makes in the future and the meanings he gives to his encounters in life. Eventually, the rollercoaster ride of ups and downs in Roberto’s life, along with his ethical choices fueled by his faith, helps him achieve a dream — that is to get into Harvard and pursue his intellectual interest in History. In his presentation of Roberto’s sayings, Jackson finds the opportunity to share his thought on the justification for ethnography, which he sees not epistemological but existential. According to him, “It cannot presume to know the other, for this would be to claim the last word, to bring dialogue to an end by declaring that something is now settled and grasped” (p.128). Jackson believes that, rather, the ethnographer “seeks to provide an ethical justification for the engagement with the other–answering the ethical summons to enter into that other lifeworld, not to achieve perfect comprehension of it but to call into question, and place in brackets, all that he or she customarily privileges as natural, moral, legal, or human” (p.128).

The author then moves to the story of Ibrahim, who met with Jackson’s cousin’s friend, Evelien, in Ghana, as she was volunteering for an NGO, and, after keeping in touch with Ibrahim even after her return to the Netherlands, decides to go back and marry him. Being the son of a chief, yet witnessing many deaths around him due to hunger, Ibrahim too comes from a childhood tainted with sorrow and poverty. After some fortunate events in which life smiled upon him, he climbs up the socioeconomic ladder and becomes an administrator of an hotel, before moving to Amsterdam with Evelien. Since Ibrahim often provides his own comparison between the two lifeworlds that “make” him the person he was, Jackson decides to spend more time reflecting on Ibrahim’s observations and feelings. A prominent theme that Ibrahim shares is the individualism and extravagancy he witnessed in Amsterdam. According to him, “back home, when you have a problem, the whole family is involved. Here, when you have a problem, either you or the state has to solve it” (174). He further comments on how “you cannot do everything that you want to do. There are always rules that will stop you crossing borders, […] It is papers that count, not words. No one trusts anything you say. […] There is no more truth in words” (p.205), which Jackson sees as not a matter of being in between two worlds but of being dismembered as the person is no longer able to integrate into a familiar community; “And so the migrant is obliged to re-member himself, to constantly piece together, like a bricoleur, new assemblages from the various aspects of his past and present selves” (p.205). And by touching upon the constant changing of the self, the author notes the inter-relationality of the self and how it is under constant change, embodying the traces of life, and quotes William James who says “a man has many selves as there are individuals that recognize him and carry an image of him in their mind […] and that a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes, and his house, his wife and children […]” (p.203). Towards the end, Jackson remarks how, for most people in the world, endurance is fundamentally more important than happiness, as was reflected in the stories. And thus, he argues that “human rights always reflect the interests of the dominant class in any society”, which generalizes and universalizes its own “hierarchal model of what is appropriate and healthy for the bios politikos” (p.223).    

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