|analoguehorizon on Wed, 8 Dec 2021 19:35:59 +0100 (CET)|
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|Re: <nettime> The Dawn of Everything (very short review)|
So, I finished reading "The Dawn of Everything", the new book by David
Graeber and David Wengrow. In many ways, it's the perfect book for our
dark historical moment. It's all about historical possibilities, yet not
in the future, but in the past. Thus, an escape and an inspiration.
It's an amazing read, so full of detail that's impossible to summarize.
You really should read it yourself.
I'll just focus on the structure here. The book aims to deconstruct the
dominant linear narratives of human culture, in which the "agricultural
revolution" (which wasn't revolution) and the emergence of cities (which
were frequently used only for seasonal gatherings) inexorably lead to
inequality, domination, and "the state". There are two conventional
versions of this story: the loss of freedom/equality (Rousseau, Hariri,
etc) or the gain of civilization (Hobbes, Diamond, etc). Graeber and
Wengrow argue, in dizzying archeological and anthropological detail,
that both are wrong and severely curtail our imagination of social
potential. Their baseline assumption is that humans since the neolithic
are our cognitive equals. No more, but also no less intelligent than we
are, hence also no less capable of making decisions their own lives,
individually and collectively. So, no more treatment of foragers as
semi-apes living in small bands, unable to overcome by supposed
constants like Dunbar's 150 people threshold (after which social
stratification sets in).
And decisions they made. The historical record reveals a "carnival
parade" of social forms, most of which do not fit the linear accounts.
Thus, non-modern societies have something to teach us, because they have
solved many of the problems we are grappling with. And, indeed,
historically they have. E.g. they make a strong case that the
enlightenment notion of personal freedom was first formulated by the
indigenous critique of European culture, by people like the Wendat
leader Kandiaronk. To structure the historical diversity of social
forms, they develop the notion of three sources of freedom: the capacity
to move away (and be received somewhere else), the capacity to refuse to
obey commands, and the capacity to collectively remake social relations.
At the same time, there are three sources of domination: violence
(sovereignty), knowledge (bureaucracy), and charisma (competitive
politics). It's easy to be reminded of Max Weber's definition of forms
of legitimate power (traditional, charismatic, rational) here, but
Graeber/Wengrow's notion is much more flexible because these sources are
not mutually exclusive, but rather they can be layered in top of own
While the three freedoms are related (take away one and the others will
start to crumble), the sources of domination are not. Often, only one of
them played an important role, while others were absent. Sometimes two
were co-present and only in the modern state, all three come together.
And, this is their political point, they don't need to stay together in
While the book is great, it has a glaring hole in it. What is almost
entirely missing is the discussion of how this "carnival parade" of
social forms structured the relation to the environment, or, more
generally, how they were embedded in, and impacted on, the metabolic
system. While for much of the historical period they cover, this might
not have been too much of a concern, it is clearly one for us now and if
we are to remake our social relations, then this will be a key dimension
to transform. But it would probably be too much to ask from one single
book, already long enough, to cover everything, even with this title.
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