Jan Patrick Heiss, Musa: an essay (or experiment) in the anthropology of the individual.
How to open up anthropology to the study of the individual? How to make the individual a subject in its own right of anthropological engagement? What would an anthropology that focuses on the individual and not on the society and its culture look like? Can we avoid diluting the individual in generalizations that are primarily concerned with the society? These basic questions, both methodological and epistcmological, are at the core of Heiss's monograph, Musa: an essay (or experiment) in the anthropology of the individual. Musa is written to illustrate how a focus on the individual can supplement traditional anthropological approaches, and make explicit what often remains implicit. Through a thick description of Musa, a Hausa peasant in a remote part of South Central Niger who has been slightly anonymized to protect his privacy, Heiss tries to persuade the reader that anthropology can only benefit from making room for the individual. From the outset, I have to say that, as an intellectual project, Musa is charming; as an experiment, it does well; and as an essay, it is equally well articulated. And if we have ever wondered whether anthropology could shift effectively onto the individual, Heiss gives us a resounding 'yes' in this monograph.
After the Introduction, Chapter A introduces the setting of the study, stressing the social organization of Musa's village. Kimoram, its geographical, economic and ecological features, and the structure of local governance. It gives a useful background to the whole monograph. Chapter B is devoted to the methodological approaches and the theoretical context of the study. Methodologically, Heiss's approach consists in participant observation and in shadowing, i.e. following, Musa. Not only did Heiss shadow Musa in his home town of Kimoram, but he also followed him to Nimari, Nigeria, where Musa lived as a labour migrant. Beyond the normal expectations and challenges of fieldwork, Heiss also reflects on the implications of writing a monograph on an individual. Chapter C offers Musa's life history and describes his daily household routines and field activities in Kimoram. Chapter D shifts to a detailed account of Musa's relations, interactions, and social and family obligations. Being Musa is not just about being a Hausa male peasant who works on a field; it is also, and primarily, about being a father, son, husband or ex-husband, uncle, nephew, friend, etc. to different people. This chapter, the most substantial of the monograph, zooms into Musa's connections and presents us with a thick description of his interactions with his family members and other people in Kimoram and Nimari. Being in Nigeria adds significantly to Musa's life and certainly opens another window onto the ways in which Musa perceives himself, negotiates his being in the world and navigates his web of relations. Chapter E attempts to offer an answer to the question of who Musa, the individual, is. As a person in a web of relationships, he is a being with desires, emotions, hopes and aspirations, all shaped by values he holds dearly. As a Muslim seeking higher Islamic learning, Musa found in Islam a normative framework that shapes his world view and ethics. Influencing his decisions and choices, Islam has also defined the possibilities and opportunities of his life. In Chapter F, Hciss locates his book within a wider theoretical engagement with the concepts of actor, person and individual. Bringing philosophy and anthropology into conversation and relying on Michael Jackson and Albert Piette, Heiss argues for an existential anthropology that attempts to articulate a more explicit theory of the individual. Criticizing static perceptions of personhood, he contends that, as a subject, Musa is better understood in the fluidity and malleability of his existence. In Chapter G, Heiss draws on peasant studies and the influence of Islam on social and individual lives to make sense of Musa's life; but rather than drawing on a social theory of religion, or Islam, Heiss simply highlights the impact of Islamic norms and values on Musa's choices, decisions and behaviour. Finally, Chapter H provides a summary of the book.
Overall, Heiss's project is anthropological but takes great inspiration from philosophy, and in particular from Ernst Tugendhat. As Hciss shows, approaching Musa from an existential perspective helps shed light not only on the individual, but also on the economic, political, religious and social conditions that make existence possible or impossible. Musa does exist with his desires, expectations and obligations. Understanding Musa's life as an integrated whole, which shows that 'persons not only fight with their environment, but also with themselves', and 'that people can step back from their aims in favour of others or in favour of values' (p. 50), Heiss shows that anthropology can engage with individuals without understanding them only as the products of what we might call society, community, group or even culture. However, part of the challenge of reading Musa resides in the fact that it takes the reader in various directions and opens out into so many topics that it can feel eclectic and overwhelming. Chapter D and some other sections are long and sometimes repetitive (for example, pp. 105 and 107, 257 and 258). Also, the idea of magani or healing, important to Musa, is not exclusively Islamic, and one wonders how non- and pre-lslamic practices and values have influenced Musa, and how they arc in turn understood by him. Despite such flaws, this book is an important contribution because it adds to the literature on Hausaland, masculinity and labour migration. Moreover, it illuminates how existential anthropology can help make sense of life projects and personal trajectories in a self-consciously Muslim African society.
Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2017|
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