Graeber & writing beyond the constraints of distinction

Sometimes I think that Bukowski should have employed a more insistent editor and then I remember that the honesty and humility that allowed him to publish so is, in large part, how and why we are able to appreciate him and his work in spite of himself.

Sometimes I feel a similar way about the anthropologist David Graeber – that he might benefit from a more insistent editor. But then I remember just how rare it is that scholars write beyond or outside the constraints of academic distinction. Sure, Graeber’s work often seems rather ‘stream of consciousness’ and at worst, well, sometimes kind of cobbled but he is one of few scholars inspired by an excited, highly politicised motivation to “unfuck the world” as some posters would have it.

His work and ideas circulate well beyond the discipline or anthropology and well beyond academia  – because he gets them out there.

If Graeber’s work has a sense of urgency and his publishing is sometimes ‘expeditious’ it is because his concerns are immediately relevant to pressing social, economic and political issues that have very little to do with academia. And so it should be. I will even forgive him for butchering Nancy Munn’s conceptualisation of  value in the Fame of Gawa.

Here are a few excerpts from Graeber’s writing that illustrate why I admire him (despite, at times, himself and his writing style):

So in this case, the question becomes: What sort of social theory would actually be of interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs? This is what this pamphlet [‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology Date] is mainly about.

For starters, I would say any such theory would have to begin with some initial assumptions. Not many. Probably just two. First, it would have to proceed from the assumption that, as the Brazilian folk song puts it, “another world is possible.” That institutions like the state, capitalism, racism and male dominance are not inevitable; that it would be possible to have a world in which these things would not exist, and that we’d all be better off as a result. To commit oneself to such a principle is almost an act of faith, since how can one have certain knowledge of such matters? It might possibly turn out that such a world is not possible. But one could make the argument that its this very unavailability of absolute knowledge which makes a commitment to optimism a moral imperative: Since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify and reproduce the mess we have today? And anyway, even if we’re wrong, we might well get a lot closer’ (Graeber 2004, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’, Prickly Paradigm Press, p. 10).

It’s worth noting that  ‘Prickly Paradigm Press’ is the brainchild of Marshall Sahlins. Two more excerpts from another text:

‘We are back, then, to a “politics of value”; but one very different from Appadurai’s neoliberal version. The ultimate states of politics, according to Turner, is not even the struggle to appropriate value; it is the struggle to establish what value is (Turner 1879; 1979). Similarly, the ultimate freedom is not the freedom to create or accumulate value, but the freedom to decide (collectively and individually) what it is that makes life worth living. In the end, then, politics is about the meaning of life’ (Graeber 2001 ‘Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value’, p. 88).

And from the next page of the same text:

‘Any notion of freedom, whether it’s the more individualistic vision of creative consumption, or the notion of free cultural creativity and decentering (Turner 1996) I have been trying to develop here, demands both resistance against the imposition of any totalising view of what society or value must be like, but also recognition that some kind of regulating mechanism will have to exist, and therefore, calls for serious thought about what sort will best ensure people are, in fact, free to conceive of value in whatever form they wish. If one does not, at least in the present day and age, one is simply going to end up reproducing the logic of the market without acknowledging it.

And if we are going to try to think seriously about alternatives to the versions of “freedom” currently being presented to us – one which nation-states serve primarily as protectors to corporate property, unelected international institutions regulate an otherwise unbridled “free market” mainly to protect the interests of financiers, and personal freedom becomes limited to personal consumption choices – we had best stop thinking that these matters are going to take care of themselves and start thinking of what a more viable and hopefully, less coercive regulating mechanism might actually be like’ (Graeber 2001, p. 89).

1 Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Current social issues

One response to “Graeber & writing beyond the constraints of distinction

  1. David Graeber

    Nancy didn’t think I’d butchered her argument.

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