In what is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had, I’m reading and blogging The Dawn of Everything by David Wengrow and David Graeber. So far this isn’t working well. In frustration I stopped at the end of the last post and said:
I think we need to stop here and talk about rhetoric, written and spoken, and how it relates to Jesuits, Wendats, Greeks, and freedom.–Me
In the past literacy was useful. It was practical. The elite of Renaissance Europe didn’t begin sending their sons to universities because they preferred reading and writing to boar hunting or jousting. They didn’t. They just realized at a certain point that a liberal arts education was the best way to succeed. Right up to the adoption of the telephone, and to some extent up to commercial airline travel, business, government, diplomacy–or any other public institution that spans any distance–was based written letters. Government was letters. Trade was letters. Banking was letters. Diplomatic reports were letters. Spying was letters. Regulatory enforcement was letters. Military campaigns were conducted written orders. This was especially true up until recently of centralized governments. Empires and large territory-spanning states cannot exist without record-keeping and correspondence. In his Barbarian Conversions Richard Fletcher describes how pagan kings often converted to Christianity largely out of the desire for a literate bureaucracy that would reinforce their authority.* When leaders of pre-state political systems want to become true hereditary kings, one of their basic tasks is to figure out how to create an administrative system. And wherever empires grew more centralized they relied more and more on writing.
One of the side effects of record-keeping systems, is that once created they can be used for other stuff: lyrics, love letters, prayers.** The Greeks used their writing system for something they called historia. Based on a root meaning inquiries it became popularized as word for a written account of the past. Not, ‘history’ was not the past itself, but the written account of the past. Not the events; the story of the events.
In this original usage the Greeks, Chinese, and Romans had histories, because the Greeks, Chinese, and Romans wrote about their pasts. The Celts and Slavs had no history, because they did not write about their past. That’s not an insult. It doesn’t mean they were less intelligent or worthy or beautiful. They used their time to do other things. They had pasts, of course, just not history. But it sounds like an insult, that sounds unfair, so we try to soften the blow by saying, Sure they have a history, it’s just not a written history. Which is bizarrely like saying, Sure this culture has metal tools but their metal tools happen to be made out of stone. Or, Sure, they have paintings but they just aren’t visual paintings. It’s a bizarre way to talk about history, but we can’t see it, and in the process we aren’t able to see writing as the game-changer it is.
This is especially puzzling it the case of the two Davids because they are anarchists who hate state systems. Like most on the left (including me) they see the European conquest of the Americas mostly as a horror. But unlike me, they don’t see that the centralized control permitted by writing was the central cause of European conquest of the Americas. Far more than steel or guns or crosses or even horses (which mattered a lot more than guns). Lacking this awareness one is left to understand the conquest either through (1) a warped overemphasis on the importance of mechanical technology***, and/or (2) a warped view of conquest. Instead of seeing the colonizing powers as normally stupid, cruel humans empowered by the extraordinary power of writing, we are to imagine them as abnormally, unusually stupid or cruel.
Having eliminated the advantages of writing the 2 Davids spend a lot of time trying to convince the reader that indigenous people were just as smart as the people who conquered them. But I don’t know who they think the reader is. Does anyone deny this? All human societies have speech, and many indigenous people, as the Davids quite rightly note, are far more skilled at public speaking than the subjects of bureaucratic empires. Cultures are the specific habits, rites, skills, and duties cultivated by different groups. Different cultures cultivate differently. Modern Americans are good at driving cars, buying groceries, and watching television because that’s what we do. Indigenous people talk a lot. They debate, persuade, plead, apologize and do all else in their councils and gatherings. That’s their primary form of public life and public speaking is intimately tied to all social life. The Wendats before the subjugation by the French, like the ancient Greeks before the subjugation by Alexander the Great, were good at speaking because they did a lot of it.
They were also, and this the Davids get exactly right, free. There was almost nothing in the way of compulsion. Even among Great Lakes societies that had leaders, the leaders could only encourage, persuade, or criticize, they could not command. All societies have what we might call ‘peer pressure’ but even that, unlike a modern high school, was more carrot than stick. How all this works is not much gone into, and of course we should mention that the Aztecs, Incas, and others definitely operated with all the compulsory power of the Assyrians, French, or Romans, but other societies truly were free. Freer than we are today, and much much freer than 17th century Europeans. This freedom is as well-attested by observers, both friendly and hostile, over the entire history of the last several centuries.
That’s all good, and the two Davids are fascinated by the influence of this American freedom on European thought. But the Wendats had no written language, so almost everything we know or think we know about them comes from what Europeans wrote. That didn’t make the Wendats worse. Perhaps, the lack of writing was psychologically liberating in some way. Certainly the absence or writing made it harder to subjugate them. But the Davids are wanting to have their cake and eat it too by claiming that the ideas of the Enlightenment, which spread by literacy, should be fundamentally assigned to speakers and thinkers who lacked literacy. This is really not a propitious claim. Of course we have no way of knowing how accurate French accounts of Wendat speakers were. But that’s not the main problem. Of course, these ideas could not have spread without someone’s literacy, so it seems stingy not to give credit where credit is do, but that’s also not the main problem.
The main problem is, if we want to give readers a contrast to the literate culture of Europe, which the Davids clearly want to do, and which perhaps the world desperately needs, weeed to preserve the uniqueness of that tool of contrast. Let me put that in English. It’s literate culture that puts emphasis on the origin of ideas. Speakers and thinkers in oral cultures mostly try not to do that. Great public speakers in oral cultures want to move or change the consensus, they want to persuade their contemporaries to adopt new customs or enforce older customs in particular ways, and in order to do that speakers very much avoid trying to take credit for ideas. By trying to assign the origin of ideas to indigenous speakers like a 21st century academic the Davids are obscuring the very nature of public speech in oral cultures. A traditional Wendat would want to be respected for their speaking ability, honored for it even, but the measure of that indigenous success is leadership within a group–to be honored as a wise, patient, brave friend, spouse, and parent. An indigenous leader never wants to be seen as an intellectual standing outside a society critiquing it. That would be the role of a prophet or a shaman, a very different role–and a distinction that it would be useful for a reader to understand. So what?
Well, one of the great points David Graeber makes in one of his other books is how trapped we our intellectually. This isn’t the worst time to live, by any means, but it seems a particularly difficult time in which to think. People in most political systems of the past knew that other people held vastly different views from their own. The most ardent communist or fascist a century ago knew that most others were not communist or fascist. They knew those around them could have a hundred different political perspectives and a hundred different systems could rule a people, and new views and systems could be invented at any time. But in the system we live under now (which is increasingly being called ‘neoliberalism’) it seems like no one can really imagine any other system. The only answer to ‘neoliberalism’ is more neoliberalism. Neoliberalism isn’t as bad as communism or fascism, but it’s strange how mentally entrapping it seems to be.
That concatenation applies to the two Davids so far in Dawn of Everything. They know there is something wrong with the intellectual system that they employ and they are trying to work their way out of it, and they’re promising their book will do the job, but what we get (so far) is the same system with some change of the draperies. The Davids don’t offer a different card game, it’s the same with a redesigned deck. They want the history of the Enlightenment told differently, through a native American lens, but this further muddies the American lens.**** It makes it harder for the reader to understand how others societies can function, and how freedom works in societies that have it, and how speaking influences people.
Good things so far in Dawn of Everything:
1. Mentioning that Europeans often wanted to stay with indigenous groups when they had the choice but indigenous individuals almost never wanted to stay with Europeans.
2. Describing how natives viewed Europeans as stupid, craven, dirty, and cowardly for following orders as they did. Pointing out the freedom and lack of compulsion among many native groups.
3. Suggesting that talking of ‘inequality’ doesn’t get at the problem of the concentration of power among the rich.
4. Mentioning (in passing only alas) that equality before the law is a version of equality of subjects before the power of a sovereign.
5. Describing the fascination of Europeans with accounts of the Americas. Pointing out that Rousseau’s essays were part of a general interest in the origins of state systems generated by contact with the Americas.
6. Suggesting that our contemporary American notions of freedom–I should be able to do whatever I want unless it hurts other people–are much closer to indigenous American cultures than European cultures four hundred years ago.
Unfortunately, 47 pages in, the rest of Dawn of Everything so far is dross. It’s all a critique of the critique of the critique. It’s all throat-cramming, strawman, pastiches of the very ideas that the book is supposed to be an escape from.
Next: I slog through the rest of Chapter 2.
*There was more to it than that–by then Christianity was associated with the prestige and wealth of the Roman Empire, the metaphysics was interesting, and ruling classes genuinely admired the calm and pacifism that Christianity sometimes allowed.
**The Inca Empire sent messages and kept records with a system of strings called quipu which haven’t been proven to have been put to literary use, but then quipu are biodegradable and the Spanish burned a lot of stuff.)
***Long after the conquest of the Americas technology was paired with fossil fuels, and this became another true game changer. Seeing ‘technology’ as doing what fossil fuels are actually doing contributes to an anachronistic assumption that technology drives change. Which is a terrible perspective as we confront climate change.
****Not to mention that it’s a dubious interpretation of the Enlightenment. If you want to change the contemporary world, understanding how writers in the Enlightenment changed their own states would probably be more valuable than reassigning their texts. What matters most about, say, John Locke is not necessarily what Davids’ peer academics today think about him.