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. My original idea was to write commentary as I went, but rereading the older posts it doesn’t work. My new plan is to read a chapter and write a quick summary+reaction, and then to go back a few days later and write a post expanding on what I remembered with more thought.
So I’ll treat this previous post as the first reading and clean it up later. Then this other previous post is a sort of break in the action. The post you’re reading now will finish the second chapter and look back on the book so far. Quotes and direct commentary are in the regular font. [Tangental thoughts I drifted into are italicized and in brackets. Skip ’em if you’re trying to get through all this.]
The heart of the second chapter, and of the whole book so far, is a Wendat orator named Kandiaronk, who appears in dialogs written by an “impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Acre, Baron de la Hontan.” De la Hontan joined the French army and was posted to Canada. He became fluent in Algonkian and Wendat, and after falling afoul of the Governor-General and/or the Jesuits he returned to France where under the pen name ‘Lahontan’ he eked out a living writing pamphlets, most famously dialogs starring his erstwhile American friend, Kandiaronk. Kandiaronk pulled no punches in laying out the flaws and hypocrisies of the French (and by extension all Europeans.) Why did Europeans take orders as if slaves (even while enslaving others)? Why did they tolerate their countrymen living in grinding poverty? How could they believe that a prophet in a small country of the world was the universal son of God whom all should worship and obey or face perpetual torture in a burning pit? Why were they so obsessed with materialism and money? Why were they generally so unhappy and dishonorable? Kandiaronk’s criticisms hit home with Europeans and certainly hit home with modern readers. No one knows how much of this was actually Kandiaronk and how much Lahontan. Kandiaronk was definitely a real person and Lahonton certainly knew him in America, and Kandiaronk may have even visited France (As part of a Wendat embassy to the French king), but like Plato’s Socrates or St. Mark’s Jesus it’s hard to separate the writer from his source. The two Davids claim that their academic peers see these dialogs as mostly Lahanton and very little of Kandiaronk. The two Davids want the world to reverse the credit.
In any case Lahontan’s work was very popular and went their multiple printings in various languages. And he had lots of imitators. So the booksellers’ shelves of European accounts of far-off people where soon supplemented by far-off people’s accounts of Europe. “Just about every major French Enlightenment figure tried their hand at a Lahontan-style critique… Montesquieu chose a Persian; the Marquis d’Argens a Chinese; Diderot a Tahitian; Chateaubriand a Natchez; Voltaire’s L’Ingenu was half Wendat.”
Like I said, this is the heart of the chapter and like the Europeans at the time, any reader is left wondering about the questions Lahontan/Kanidronk raise. Why in our society do we passively watch the poor die like animals? Why does oppressive authority intrude into so many parts of our lives? Where did all this come from? Dawn of Everything is billed as an alternative to the Enlightenment answers to these questions with their racism and colonialism–and pessimism. If Rousseau can’t imagine where we go from here, the two Davids imply that they can and will.
The other real strength in the chapter and the book so far, is that novelty of the authors’ anarchism. Political discussions today almost always seem to come about between the right who defend inequality as inherent in freedom and the left who criticize inequality as a threat and barrier to freedom. Both want freedom while accusing the other side of trying to take freedom, but the real argument is over inequality. The right says inequality is inevitable and probably good. The left says it isn’t and isn’t. But the left (and I’m on the left) is stuck because they don’t see a clear way out of our current inequality. The two Davids really are liberating here. In the first chapter they pointed out that talk of ‘inequality’ doesn’t really address the actual problem: rich people have too much political power. In this chapter they go further by pointing out that many indigenous groups were very free while still having inequality. We don’t have to put off the desperate need for freedom while pounding our head against the currently intractable problem of inequality. This is bracing stuff. It’s where the two David’s really come closest to delivering the fresh perspective they’ve been promising.
Another fun and useful detail is that the Davids claim Rousseau never used the phrase ‘Noble Savage’. It’s a later sort of short-hand insult, like saying 19th century historians believed in a ‘Whig view of history’ (Or the 2 Davids themselves in the previous chapter identifying scholars as ‘Hobbesian’ and ‘Rousseauean’.) Kind of like Humphrey Bogart never said ‘Play it again, Sam’ in Casablanca and Machiavelli never said ‘The ends justify the means.’
Other interesting stuff in passing: Possible influence of Leibniz’s advocacy of Chinese models for European monarchy. Is the concept of equality before the law a type of inequality to the sovereign?
So that’s the good. What about the bad? Well, in the last post I wrote about the 2 Davids’ confusion regarding written and spoken language and related issues. So that’s a big mess.
Even worse in a more obvious way is their love-hate-obsession with Rousseau is just awful. It feels like half the damn book so far is David + David bitching about Rousseau. A book supposedly about the ‘Dawn of Everything’ spends most of its first two chapters obsessing over one philosopher and whenever it seems like they’re finally going on, oh no, they circle back to Rousseau again. What the hell is wrong with these people? It’s ridiculous. Especially because the whole vaunted point of the book was allegedly getting away from the eurocentrism. Honestly, I read stuff written in England about 17th century Virginia that was less eurocentric than the Dawn of Everything so far. The 2 Davids want to leave us admiring Kandiaronk’s brilliance; but they end up leaving us frustrated by Rousseau’s instead. It’s just a failure on all levels.
[I’m not an expert on ‘critical theory’ since despite reading about it for last thirty years none of my professors were of that ilk, so I never saw it deployed face to face which is apparently where it has its power. But it seems to me the real probem with ‘critical theory’ is that while it wants the reader to be an equal to the text it does this in a politically inept way that inadvertently ends up increasing the importance of the text.]
Even worse is their hypocrisy concerning of ‘indigenous voices’. They claim that they are championing overlooked indigenous perspectives, and that this is in keeping with overlooked contemporary scholars of indigenous descent who are trying to get those perspectives properly respected but are ignored. D+D explicitly say they are supporting that work, but they never name any of those scholars! It’s like saying, How dare no one remember the name of What’s-his-name?
So that’s the good and bad (and ugly) of Chapter 2. It ends like this:
“This is not, then, a book about the origins of inequality. But it aims to answer many of the sames questions in a different way. There is no doubt that something has gone terribly wrong with the world. A very small percentage of the population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion… We need to approach the evidence of the human past with fresh eyes.”
What we really need is not fresh eyes (Not that I believe for an instant that David’s and David’s eyes are fresh) but fresh evidence. Archaeology, linguistics, and ethnography give us that fresh evidence. Hopefully, that’s where D+D are going.