Introduction And Index To New Series On The Dawn Of Everything

This post will be updated with an index, and possibly with other related readings.

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow is an effort to evaluate and replace a fundamental set of ideas about human history.

The Authors. David Graeber was an American anthropologist, famous partly because he’s one of the few academics who identify as anarchists. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2005 but was denied tenure for obscure reasons having nothing to do with his anarchism, I’m sure. He took a position at the London School of Economics where he taught until his untimely death in 2020. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. I’ve read Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He also wrote Bullshit Jobs.

David Wengrow is an archaeologist at the University College of London. Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

The Subject of the Book. Since the mid-18th Century, people have thought that human beings of more than 10,000 years ago lived in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, small groups that foraged for nuts and berries, and hunted for small game and fish. Eventually they developed agriculture and stopped their nomadic life-styles. This led to the idea of property, and as populations increased they began to live in small settled groups, then villages, then towns, and then in cities. Hierarchies arose to deal with the ensuing complexities, and bureaucracies and rules enforceable by state violence, and all this led to civilizations as we know them in all their hierarchical splendor. It’s an inevitable process, repeated around the world.

Graeber and Wengrow attribute this story to Rousseau, in an essay entitled Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, written in 1754. and to other Enlightenment thinkers of his day. It’s a pervasive story, one we all learn as if by osmosis. There is no alternative. This book is a first step towards a different origin story, one with much wider potential for human societies.

The authors explain that they set out to write about the origins of inequality, making Rousseau’s essay a good starting point. But they realized that wasn’t a very smart question, and that there are better questions, starting with why is that the question everyone asks, and moving on to other questions, such as:

1. Why are we stuck in a single social structure, repeated with minor variations everywhere?

2. Why are we satisfied with living in a society in which the interests of some people are considered sacrosanct, while the interests of some other people are not entitled to any consideration whatsoever?

3. Why do we claim to be free, when almost all of us are forced to work for and be bossed around by someone who has vast material wealth, or face starvation?

4. Why should economic power be convertible into political power?

5. Why don’t we ask any of these questions?

That last one is mine, of course. We’ll see if there are answers in this book.

Background. I’ve written about several of these questions in other posts. My series on Pierre Bourdieu, index here, explains how the dominant class preserves its status. I describe Elizabeth Anderson’s work on freedom in another series, index here. We’ll see how Graeber and Wengrow compare; they don’t mention either.

Most of the books I’ve discussed at Emptywheel were written by mainstream Western thinkers. They generally work from a common history, and a common understanding of how we should think about our history. This means that the factual, evidentiary, basis of these books is more or less common knowledge. When new information is added to that store, we understand how to approach it, how to evaluate it, and we can usually integrate it into our existing picture.

For example, I have a general grasp of the history of Imperialism in the 19th Century, so when I read that extended chapter in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism, there was information new to me, but it fit nicely into my general picture. Consequently I was able to follow along with Arendt’s thinking on the issue, and how it connected with her theory of the rise of Nazism.

This book isn’t like that at all. I don’t know much at all about the data I’ve encountered so far (I’m on Chapter 3). I knew about Rousseau’s essay generally, but knew nothing of the context. This makes it impossible for me to evaluate any of the data. I don’t know if things are being taken out of context, or how pervasive knowledge of Native American politicians was among French thinker of the Enlightenment. I can’t read all the original works myself, and don’t want to. I don’t know any anthropology, and my knowledge of archaeology is at the Discovery Channel level.

As a result, I can’t really do much more than repeat the evidence given by the authors, which doesn’t seem useful or even sensible. Instead, I’m going to state certain points from Graeber and Wengrow for discussion and give a flavor of the evidence. I’ll let everyone see the detailed backgrounds for themselves. That seems like the best way to spell out their ideas. For myself, I can say that the evidence is fascinating, and totally new to me.

Graeber identified as an anarchist. The book makes room for anarchy as a possible form of social organization, but that’s not the subject matter. The theories laid out here will support many different forms of social organization. The authors just want us to throw off the depressing idea that the only way to structure a society is in terms of property, with protection of property rights by hierarchies and bureaucracies as the only organizing principle. Our ancestors seem to have tried numerous forms of social organization. So can we.
Featured Image by Ed Dunens via Flickr.

What Have We Been Reading?

I’ll go first.

1. The Constitution Of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch. It’s a practical discussion of epistemology, the philosophy of how we know stuff. I’ve discussed it in several posts, notably here. The second half discusses his suggestions for dealing with lies, disinformation, trolls and generally with the Insurrection Party led by TFG. I haven’t read it because it seems hopeless. See No. 7 below.

2. The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I’ve just started this book, and it’s fascinating. The story we are taught is that human societies evolve sequentially from small bands of hunter-gatherers to agriculture to small trading towns to cities to states, with more and more complicated governmental structures. This is called progress. The authors say this story comes from Jean Jacques Rousseau, and has colonized our minds.

They claim that we have learned a lot since the early 19th C., and it mostly contradicts this story. They call on extensive research in archaeology, Wengrow’s primary area of study, and anthropology, Graeber’s, to draw a completely different picture. There are a number of ideas like the following, ideas that offer a different way of imagining the possibilities of an advanced technological society:

Back in the 1960s, the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres suggested that precisely the opposite was the case. What if the sort of people we like to imagine as simple and innocent are free of rulers, governments, bureaucracies, ruling classes and the like, not because they are lacking in imagination, but because they’re actually more imaginative than we are? We find it difficult to picture what a truly free society would be like; perhaps they have no similar trouble picturing what arbitrary power and domination would be like. Perhaps they can not only imagine it, but consciously arrange their society in such a way as to avoid it. As we’ll see in the next chapter, Clastres’s argument has its limits. But by insisting that the people studied by anthropologists are just as self-conscious, just as imaginative, as the anthropologists themselves, he did more to reverse the damage than anyone before or since. P. 73.

This idea resonates with me. I’ve seen the art produced by our ancestors from 25,000 years ago, in caves like the Font de Gaume in Southern France. It’s near Les Eyzies-du-Tayac-Sireuil, which is home to The National Museum Of Prehistory, and several reconstructions of the living quarters of the Magdelanian culture. From the mouth of the Font-de-Gaume even today you can see walnut trees and, I imagine, wild asparagus, berries, and small game in the underbrush. The Dordogne River is nearby, full of fish. There are large abri, cut-outs high up in the cliffs, which make decent living quarters. I’m not sure what more they needed to live pleasantly. Why would they submit to domination by one of their band? Why would they follow some loudmouth who wants to take over some other abri in some stupid war?

There’s a review of the book by William Deresiewicz in the Atlantic. If you need encouragement to read this book, here it is.

3. Pride, Prejudice, And Other Flavors by Sonali Dev. This novel centers on a family descended from royalty in India. The parents immigrated to the San Francisco area, and did very well indeed. It’s loosely modeled on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, a particular hero of the author. The “flavors” come from Indian cuisine as practiced by a chef raised in England and trained in Paris. He comes to the area to take care of his artist sister who has a brain tumor that only the surgeon daughter and protagonist can hope to eradicate, and only at the cost of her sight.

The connections to Pride and Prejudice are well adapted to current times. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth forms a prejudice against Mr. Darcy because he rejects her at a dance. Besides that, he behaves like he’s better than everybody else, which she attributes to his wealth and his arrogance. Consequently she can easily use him as the object of her wit. In Dal’s retelling, this plays out between the surgeon and the chef in a more complex ways, involving both both their histories.

As an aside, I also like the Bollywood flic, Bride And Prejudice, which is set in the India of today; it’s a lot of fun.

4. Reputation by Lex Croucher. This first novel is set in Regency-Era England. It imagines the lives of 20-somethings from the upper class, free from parental supervision, and freed from all constraints by the wealth and power of their families. The protagonist is a well-read, well-educated, and thoughtful young woman of the middle class, caught up into the lives of the rich young. It’s a life filled with parties, drugs, liquor and even a bit of sex. For me the sensibility of the novel is so 21st Century that it didn’t work as a period piece. It will be published in the US next year.

5, The Elegance Of The Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This is an extraordinary novel. Barbery studied philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-Saint-Cloud in Lyon (I think) and taught at Université de Bourgogne. There are a number of themes in the book, but one that stands out for me is the effort to put the ideas of philosophy into action in the lives of the characters. For example, one character is a 12 year old girl of extraordinary intelligence, who has decided that there is no point to living so she plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. The meaninglessness of life is a concern of the main character as well. This is a nod to The Myth Of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, in which we are asked why we don’t commit suicide in the face of the absurd.

There are discussions of some of my favorite things, food, music, and art. As to music, the use of Mozart’s Confutatis from The Requiem is hilarious. I love Dutch still life paintings; here’s the subject of that link. I’ve always liked philosophy, some of which is powerful, and some of which, like Barbery’s description of the a philosophy dissertation on William of Ockham, seems ridiculous.

The author doesn’t think much of upper middle class French society, and it shows. That’s fun. It’s fun to think how these criticisms would work in US society.

I refuse to acknowledge any flaws in this book. And the translator, Alison Anderson, is dazzling.

6. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. This novel is grounded in the life of Erdich’s grandfather, a Chippewa leader who was instrumental in preserving the reservation and way of life of his Turtle Mountain Band. Most of the book describes the lives of the members of the Band in the mid-50s. Perhaps the most valuable part for me was the way visions work for the characters. At one level if felt like magical realism, but it seems so grounded in their lives that I felt an intuition about how it might work in my own life in our hyper-technical society.

7. Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I took up this book at the suggestion of commenter Epicurus. I’ve just started, and perhaps I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. In the meantime, two observations. First, the book is beautifully written. It’s easy to follow the argument; the examples are clear and precise; and the introduction shows how he came to think about things as he does.

Second, the idea of two systems of cognition is intuitively appealing. Years ago I read a book about epistemology that used the terms intensive and reflexive to describe two separate ways of thinking. I’d guess we’ve all had the experience of self-checking that goes on when we think of something we might say, or write something, then a separate voice in our heads pipes up with objections. So is the idea that we don’t know much about what lies below either of the two systems. Studies of vision show that much of the computation is done before the image reaches the brain, so it seems reasonable to think there’s a lot of pre-computation in each of the two systems. Things are happening in our minds we can’t perceive.

That’s most of what I’ve read over the last few weeks. So, what have you been reading?

Update: Thanks to everyone for the marvelous array of books and the discussion. I hope everyone found something they’re excited to read.

And Happy Holidays to all!
Image by Janne Poikolainen, creative commons license.