Book Review: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Steven Shaviro, professor in English at Wayne State University
David Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is filled with interesting and provocative ideas. Graeber wants to ally the discipline of anthropology with the anarchist currents that have shown up, most recently, in the anti-globalization movement. Each, he says, has a lot to offer the other.
What anarchism can offer anthropology, according to Graeber, is a way out of academicist impasses, a way that anthropology might change the world, rather than merely interpret it. This is the most upfront side of the book, but also its least convincing one. For I fear that here Graeber overly idealizes academia, and the discipline of anthropology in particular.
Graeber is far more interesting when he writes about what anthropology can offer anarchism. Graeber discusses Marcel Mauss' theory of the gift as an alternative to orthodox economic assumptions about the centrality of markets and "exchange", and Pierre Clastres' arguments about societies that explicitly sought to avoid the formation of a State.
Many anthropologists would agree that there is an affinity between anthropology and anarchism and there are many convinced anarchists among anthropologists, but fewer of them might support "resistance against civilization" as the webpage Radical Anthropology calls for. Nevertheless, this website has some interesting articles, like Anthropology and Anarchism by anthropologist Brian Morris at Goldsmiths College, London. (UPDATE: The website was closed down, I've linked to copies in the Web Archive)
See also another review on Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology in Green Pepper Magazine that among other states that "in the last three decades of the twentieth century, it was the work of Sahlins and other critical anthropologists such as Richard Lee and Pierre Clastres that produced some of the most outstanding changes within anarchist theory."
>> download "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology" (Link updated)
Comment from: David Graeber [Visitor]
Unfortunately, the Green Pepper review seems to be written by someone who doesn’t actually know how to read, or anyway, radically misstates most of my positions. Really it seems to be a prolonged angry trply to one or two sentences in the middle of the book where I make fun of academics obsessed with certain ideas of Foucault. At no point does it address any one of the actual theoretical points _I_ make, just screams its rage that I have dissed the author’s academic hero, howing fleetingly.
Shaviro is much better in that he doesn’t attribute to me positions I obviously don’t hold (ie, saying I wish to preserve academic boundaries when I explicitly say I want to blow them up). But some of the criticisms I found puzzlng. For one thing that idea that anthropology can’t be a liberatory tool because it’s tainted by a history of imperialism and genocide. Obviously it is, but my question is: why is that true of anthropology, and not of, say, history, sociology, political economy, philosophy, or even literary theory? Every one of them was created within a context of imperialism and genocide.
The main difference is that while anthropology studied the victims, obviously at first in all sorts of racist and obnoxious ways, the other disciplines simply pretended that they did not exist or were of no significance, thus effacing them in a way far more radical than anthropology ever had. To say that anthropology, therefore, is too tainted by violence for even knowledge it accumulated about those otherwise ignored societies to be the basis of any liberatory thought, while treating those other disciplines as unproblematic, at least in this regard, strikes me itself reproducing the same violence of effacement it wishes to critique.
And as for the critique of consensus process as a mode of decision-making: well, there’s all sorts of bad consensus process out there no doubt. But what’s your alternative? My point was simply that if you’re not going to be forcing a minority to accept a majority view, ie using police and guns or other coercive means, then you ultimately have to get everyone to agree to at least go along with collective decisions. Historically, when stateless societies go about making collective decisions on an egalitarian basis, they do it by some kind of process of finding consensus, for that reason. How would Mr. Shaviro like them to go about it?
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