Academic journal article The Geographical Review

J.B. Jackson and the Play of the Mind: Inquiry and Assertion as Contact Sports

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

J.B. Jackson and the Play of the Mind: Inquiry and Assertion as Contact Sports

Article excerpt

The title of this essay and the idea driving it come from the merging of a few impressions. First, J. B. Jackson's use of vision and sight was a lot more vigorous and immediate than my use of vision and sight. When he looked at a landscape, this was a very physical, direct, tactile sort of encounter; in other Words, looking at a landscape was, for him, literally a contact sport. Second, Jackson wrote memorably and vividly about sports and play and had quite a sound understanding of the inner world of sports. Third, Jackson took up the intellectual activities of inquiry and assertion in a manner and with a style that was decidedly different from the ways in which most academics engage in those activities - or at least from the ways in which academics write up the results of their inquiries. In other words, Jackson and academics play the sport of inquiry in quite different ways, and it seemed to me that exploring those differences might be illuminating.

Consider the stance that Jackson took toward universities and academics. Here is an emblematic quotation:

Like most laymen I had no conception of the Byzantine complexities of the academic world; it seemed a vast tangle of departments, programs, committees, and struggles for promotion and tenure and fellowships and grants, out of which the initiates skillfully wove lifelong shelters for themselves, but which could only bewilder and frustrate the outsiders. (Jackson 1980d, 2)

This is a classic statement of distance and outsiderhood from the academic enterprise. But think about it: This man taught at Harvard and Berkeley for years; he was - certifiably - an acute and penetrating observer of the activities of human beings; and we are supposed to believe him when he says he does not understand much about academics? Unless I have missed something important, when it comes to academics, Harvard and Berkeley are the belly of the beast, and for Jackson to say that he doesn't know much about academics is the equivalent of Jonah saying that he doesn't know much about whales.

Jackson's stance, as I understand it, works as a popular and effective strategy for some pool players. A fellow walks into the bar, strolls over to the pool table, says to a player, "Just how do you get those little balls to go where you want with that stick?" He then waits until someone is willing to make a bet - before settling in to reveal that he actually knows quite a bit about how to get results from that stick. Jackson, I would say, knew a lot about academics - knew enough to play us like harps, and one piece of evidence for that proposition is the visible and conspicuous fact that so many of us, certified members of the academic tribe, attended the 1998 University of New Mexico conference in his honor.

My argument thus merges those three opening observations into the idea of inquiry and assertion as activities that Jackson played like contact sports. It was not only that he came into direct and immediate contact with the subjects of his inquiries, but he also played the academic game like a contact sport, strategically colliding with academic postures and positions and generally coming up with plays, steps, spins, and moves that left referees and umpires scratching their heads - if, in fact, this is a sport with referees and umpires.

Did Jackson break the rules that govern academics involved in the play of the mind? Or did he discover - and demonstrate - that the rules that others have been scrupulously observing are not actually enforced? I myself think that he brought to intellectual sport some plays and moves that many other players assumed must be prohibited, but which are not. The point of that observation is not that we should all adopt and practice Jackson's plays and moves, but we could think, with a little more freedom and liberation, about how we ourselves engage in this sport. Here, then, are eight Jacksonian propositions for the play of the mind. …

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