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.
For Chapter 4 I’m only writing one post rather than an immediate response and a following review, since the chapter’s content is simple enough and it didn’t send me off on a lot of tangents. I’ll divide the post into the good, the bad, and the interesting.
“In modern-day Louisiana there is a place with the dispiriting name of Poverty Point. Here you can see the remains of massive earthworks erected by Native Americans around 1600 BC.” (p141)
“Take the monuments called in Finnish Jatinkirkko, the ‘Giants’ Churches’ of the Bothnian Sea…” (p146)
“…the Calusa, a non-agricultural people who inhabited the west coast of Florida, from Tampa Bay to the Keys. There they established a small kingdom, ruled from a capital town called Calos…” (p15))
“The Natchez Sun [of the Louisiana Natchez], as the monarch was known, inhabited a village in which he appeared to wield unlimited power… Still this power was strictly limited by this own physical presence…” (p156)
The heart of the chapter (and the heart of the Dawn of Everything) is when the David’s break out the anthropology and archaeology. I’d never heard of the earthworks at Poverty Point or the Calusa, and I doubt one in fifty readers knows anything about the Natchez. One gets a tragic sense of what this book could have been if they’d spent more of their pages telling us about case after case of how humans have actually lived.
What we get instead more about what ‘we’ think and should think instead and should not think. The Davids complain about the terminology used by archaeologists, the ignoring of some papers, or the misinterpretation of others, arguments misapplied, forgotten, or overly applied. They complain again about the popularity of the Mbuti, Hadza, and San as examples of foragers. But if I was a teacher, what else could I do? Assign Dawn of Everything? Anthropology, linguistics, and archaeology have presented to the world incredible evidence about our nature as human beings. We have can compare and contrast human societies, states, and cultures in ways Herodotus or Edward Gibbon could not have dreamed of. Maybe the Davids sensed that the world needs a magisterial and authoritative survey of this incredible view of little-known worlds and hoped Dawn of Everything would be there, but either they’re anarchistic rejection of the magisterial and authoritative, or their academic careerist habits, wouldn’t let them write that book. Instead the non-academic reader at least is shocked and demoralized by the inanity of this book. As much as the Davids might want to describe the Nuer they can’t resist caring more about the arguments between the various academics over the Nuer.
As far as the substance of their complaints, most of it just seems like hair-splitting. Maybe my memory is bad, or I didn’t attend conferences, or I did rise high enough in the field, but I just don’t remember anyone not knowing the limits of words. Of course ‘egalitarian’ is a messy word and you have to pay attention to how a particular writer uses it. Of course ‘Archaic Period’ only means, “the period before the period we know the most about.” Doesn’t everyone know this?
Since the bad in this case is also the ugly, I’ll finish our little review with a couple of interesting ideas that the Davids bring up.
“The Wendat had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms.” This is well-stated to me, and I think true. As far as our real chiefs and play freedom, the increase in bureaucracy (both governmental and non-governmental) and the resulting pressures on human well-being is the subject of Graeber’s previous book Bullsh*t Jobs. That book starts much better than DofE although it dissolves to tissues at a certain point. I get the idea that Graeber had a couple of great essays and under the pressure to get a book out padded it with crap. Kind of like a Rolling Stones album.
Finally at the end of Chp 4 the Davids speculate about ‘private property’. I’m at this point actually too demoralized to go back and look up the name of whomever they got the idea from (Do they cite various people? I can’t remember), but their claim is that private property, instead of originating in labor or economic activity, is rooted in concepts of the sacred. The only guarantee your ‘ownership’ of a car or house gives you is to prevent the rest of the world from using or entering it. That tracks much more closely with how people view sacred spaces; they’re taboo to enter for certain types of people at particular times and places. At least according to the Davids for private property that’s a more analogous pattern for non-state people than their ownership of clothing or tools. There’s definitely something about this worth thinking about. And I will. Unfortunately the Davids seem ashamed to present an idea unless its disproving something their academic colleagues are claimed to assume, so this is framed as a refutation of John Locke, which in turn requires that Locke be strawmanned in their previous Rousseau vein. They just don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about when describing Locke. Sigh.
We’re done with Chapter 4 which means 1/3 done with the book. I can’t tell you how excited I was when this book arrived in the mail. So depressing.