The Politics of Storytelling

October 13, 2017
Michael D. Jackson
HDS Professor Michael D. Jackson / Photo: Freya Jackson

Professor Michael D. Jackson arrived at Harvard Divinity School in 2005 after many years of ethnographic and teaching experience in Sierra Leone, Australia, Denmark, and New Zealand—just to name a few. A prolific scholar, Jackson has published more than 40 books in subjects ranging from anthropology to poetry to philosophical fiction. He received the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 1981 for his collection Wall.

Jackson is currently teaching “The Politics of Storytelling,” which drew so much student interest that he expanded the class to accommodate nearly 60 students. HDS student Claire Laine interviewed him in his office on campus to discuss the course material, the reasons for the class’s immense popularity, and his latest projects.

Harvard Divinity School: The class focuses on Hannah Arendt’s thesis that storytelling serves as a bridge between private and public realms. What kinds of stories or narratives do you think are missing from our public realm today?

Michael Jackson: To put it in more relational terms, I think there’s always a tension between the stories people have to tell or want to tell and the stories they are permitted to tell in the public square. Hardly a day passes that we don’t see this kind of tension, particularly in a society that licenses free speech. Are there limits to speaking freely in public—when speech is hateful or hurtful? What if speaking in public incites acts that are aggressive or destructive? Hence our ongoing debates around questions of censorship and civility.

There has to be some kind of negotiation of the relationship between what you might call the public realm and what is conducive to the creation of a democratic form of community, and what people deem to be necessary for their own peace of mind (to get things off their chest, to express their opinions, to voice their frustrations, etc.).

HDS: You originally thought you would cap the class at 20, but you decided to open it up once you saw how many students were interested in the course. Why do you think this particular topic—the politics of storytelling—is so popular among students right now?

MJ: There are some clues in the petitions people wrote to be admitted to this class. Quite a few people sought a way of processing their own experiences, particularly difficult life experiences, in the context of studying religion or the humanities. And that led them to take notice of any courses in the field of literature or narrative or storytelling.

This speaks to the theme of Hannah Arendt’s that we are exploring in class: It’s never enough just to tell your own story or express your personal preoccupations, because private matters need to be processed in relationship to others, listening to their stories in return for telling your own, and in trying to find some common ground through this exchange. So this relational perspective of Arendt’s—this idea of the subjective in-between—may have been a challenge for some people who just wanted the course to give rein to their own subjective concerns.

HDS: The class draws from a variety of sources and disciplines, something that is reflected in the genre diversity of your own work. Where does that impulse towards different genres come from? Do you feel that a certain story demands a specific form?

MJ: I would say so. Everything that one feels, that one wants to share or say, can’t always be said in the idiom that comes readily to hand, or that one has at one’s disposal. Quite often, one has recourse to poetry to talk about something to which prose cannot do justice. Sometimes one has recourse to academic discourse to deal with something that perhaps creative fiction would not be a good vehicle for, and so on. So the more arrows in the quiver, the better off one is.

And that’s not just a matter of different literary genres. It’s a matter of life itself. Sometimes silence is called for, not speech. Sometimes acts of solidarity, like marching together, or simply standing in solidarity with other people, are more important than speaking out. So one is always finding or experimenting with different modes of managing or coping with existential issues.

HDS: The content of this class doesn’t explicitly deal with religion. What would you say to someone who asks why this class is being offered in a divinity school?

MJ: Hannah Arendt, who was a secular Jew and not religious in any conventional sense, exemplifies what I think of as the best of the humanistic tradition. Life is a perpetual venture to engage with others in creating a viable social or collective form of life, and storytelling is, for Arendt, a part of that. The vita activa, she called it, by contrast with the vita contemplativa.

What may be thought of and spoken about in terms of a particular faith tradition can also be considered or thought through in a non-religious way. So when I invoke existentialism it is this proto-religious mode of looking at things that I have in mind—methodologies that bracket out theological or theoretical framings in order to explore what Arendt called the human condition. The human condition is there with all its complexities and quandaries before people start thinking about how they’re going to live or understand that condition as religious or non-religious, as rational or non-rational beings.

HDS: And religion is also a place where people bridge their private and public lives.

MJ: There’s no doubt that religious studies programs and divinity schools today are perhaps the last locations in the academy where one can read widely in the humanistic tradition. I’m an anthropologist, but I’m much more comfortable intellectually in a divinity school than I would be in an anthropology department, because anthropologists are less concerned with humanity in the most general sense of the word. Their focus is on human differences—different worldviews and different cultures—and they have for the most part given up on any kind of notion that there’s any such thing as common humanity, or again, to use Arendt’s phrase, the human condition.

HDS: What’s on the horizon for you? What projects are you currently working on?

MJ: I have a book that is now being read by a publisher, called Critique of Identity Thinking, which is in the tradition of the German critical thinkers, particularly Theodor Adorno, and finds both academics and popular discourse equally at fault in the way that they begin discussions of our human situation from the standpoint of identity.

I resist any kind of discourse that anchors itself in identity and proceeds from there. As I said before, I want to get behind categorical distinctions and find and work with what human beings share and how, potentially, people can coexist in a world that is extraordinarily diverse.

—by Claire Laine