The Modesty and Provocation of a Grand Style, by Alejandro de Acosta

A Review of:
Graeber, David. 2007
Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire
AK Press

I recall that one of the most electrifying experiences of my late teens was a reading encounter with Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process. I enthusiastically interpreted it as a manual of social and political possibilities. I remember being inspired to write what was at the time the longest essay I had ever composed, a sort of grand theory of power and repression in light of the concept of entropy. I also remember, if less well, subtle changes in my relations with my peers—a glimpse, perhaps, of a new sense of community. Teenage utopian pipe dreams! Speculative, roughly hewn attempts to understand everything! Intellectual enthusiasm, precisely! I now find myself asking: how and why did I abandon that sort of reading? But rather than propose an answer to my question (it has to do with my continued engagement with universities, I’m sure, but that’s only so relevant here), I’ll take up what it was that made me go for that sort of interpretation to begin with. However crude my first games with anthropological concepts might have been, there is nothing crude —or so it seems to me now!—about the idea that these texts were effective precisely because above all, they both seemed eminently practical and communicated a feeling of possibility. This reflection was provoked for me by David Graeber’s collection of essays, Possibilities, which in its own way repeatedly summons just that exhilarating sentiment for which his book is named.

When I read Turner I was, if only intuitively, an anarchist. And a certain perspective on anarchists might well describe us as constantly enacting, often simultaneously, what appear to be two kinds of anthropology. We often demonstrate a speculative concern with the ultimates of what-it-is-to-be-human, including the denial that there are any such ultimates. We equally often engage in the practical study and development of alternatives to existing social practices characterized by domination. Now, how are these spontaneous anthropologies connected with the academic discipline that bears the same name? How can the writers of texts that perhaps seem only to be practical manuals relate to and respond to those who insist on reading them as manuals? David Graeber’s brief, provocative pamphlet, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004), asks these questions. Most interestingly, he proposes that anarchists were not naïve to be fascinated with, for example, Marshall Sahlins or Pierre Clastres, and conversely that academic anthropologists might have good reasons to respond to anarchist interest in their work. Graeber suggests that pursuing the convergence that has already begun, as an explicit project or series of projects, might have desirable results for all concerned. What struck many of us immediately upon reading the pamphlet was how he suggests all this; I mean Graeber’s witty and intelligent tone, the prose in which he manages not so much to ask entirely new questions, but to make compelling connections between so many existing forms of thought and practice. Graeber draws together not only the speculative and practical components of anarchists’ anthropology, but convincingly makes the case for linking them with an anarchist anthropology—which almost already exists as that of the academic tradition, endlessly betraying its more reprehensible tendencies.

The twelve essays in Graeber’s Possibilities take up in greater detail many of the suggestions that made Fragments so fascinating, offering thorough discussions, for example, of the resemblances between slavery and wage labor (Chapter 3), of the constitutive imagination (Chapter 4), and of violence as the least intelligent social relation (Chapter 12). Indeed, reading Possibilities, I felt at first that Fragments must be something like its epitome in the ancient sense of the word, such as the surviving letters of Epicurus that condense his doctrine. But there is no doctrine here; Fragments is, in a sense so rare today, a pamphlet: a short text meant to provoke, and thus of necessity presenting more problems than solutions, more questions than answers.

Fragments, then, is precisely not a manifesto. The same goes for Possibilities. There is little that could be described as a doctrine here, much less an ideology. There is, however, that same intelligent and witty voice of Fragments. I want to underline this voice or tone of Graeber’s, his style, because it suggests so much by itself: a sensibility, an attitude that is at once practical (I almost want to write commonsensical) and ever so curious, ever so open; I imagine that he must be a great teacher. The signature of this style is an almost deceptive use of common phrases like “of course” and “after all,” which nearly always seem to precede what I take to be profound intuitive leaps. The character of Graeber’s thinking, however, is such that these intuitive leaps are never presented as private discoveries. Few academics could be described as less concerned with claiming personal ownership of their ideas. This is what I would call Graeber’s modesty. He suggests that we might do well to abandon discussing the ideas of Foucault and the other usual suspects of so-called high theory as if they were solitary geniuses, and acknowledge rather their broader intellectual and social milieu as the real source of their theories. In this light Chapter 9, “The Twilight of Vanguardism,” is especially rich.

This combination of style and suspicion concerning ideology or doctrine is indeed important, given that Graeber consistently addresses what he calls “grand theoretical issues.” One might be surprised that a contemporary who presents himself so explicitly as an anarchist does not forefront the current array of theories based on identity politics (what conservatives sarcastically though not without a grain of truth call “oppression studies”). That is fortunately not the nature of Graeber’s contemporaneity. The “grand theoretical issues” are precisely those of the founders of the disciplines of anthropology and sociology—endlessly fascinating figures such as Marcel Mauss, whose vast intellectual curiosity and creativity form part of the sort of search for and affirmation of possibilities that Graeber undertakes. On these issues, see especially Chapter 10, “Social Theory as Science and Utopia.” He underlines and affirms what is originally ethical in these founding moments of anthropology: “If one is to try to understand what all human beings have in common, it behooves us to start with the cases that seem maximally different” (259). Graeber always assumes this ethical context of theory, the simultaneous affirmation of differences and commonalities in social practices, and then proceeds to theorize in the broadest possible terms. After anthropology, his preferred theoretical discourse is historical sociology in the “world system” vein. Indeed, his adoption of anarchism is presented not only ethically but also historically; for him, we live in the time when anarchism is the “standard-bearer of revolutionary struggle” (91).

The essays in Possibilitiesare ordered not chronologically but “autobiographically,” in three sections. Reading through them, this arrangement suggests a roughly diachronic or dialectical structure, something like:
1. Initial reflections, in an academic setting, on “grand issues” of theory. Here we find incisive discussions of the history of manners, the concepts of mode of production and consumption, and a re-vindication of the supposedly obsolete notion of the fetish.
2. Ethnographies, incorporating the practical dimensions of fieldwork in Madagascar (archival research, oral history, observation of ritual practices, conversations, and so forth) into the theoretical reflections. Thus the concepts dealt with here, such as the creative imagination, the state, and oppression, are taken up in the midst of dense discussions of local practices.
3. A kind of synthesis of the two, resulting in a theoretico-practical investigation of anarchist practices and theories. The two aforementioned chapters on vanguardism and social theory appear here, along with a lengthy discussion of concepts of democracy and a final essay outlining a future direction for such studies: the ethnography of direct action.

While I think this is a helpful organization, I think one can also read these essays synchronically, so to speak. I’ve already commented on Graeber’s style, the characteristic gestures of which appear in every essay, if not necessarily every page. The sensibility that expresses itself in that style is therefore also equally well distributed. For example, in the first part Graeber often reflects along the lines of Bourdieu on the social location and activities of writers as part of understanding their theoretical positions, making interpretation something other than textual hermeneutics (an approach that philosophers like me still have much to learn from). In the second part, though the essays are far more focused on ethnography, Graeber is often willing to draw out striking conclusions relevant to his “grand issues,” such as the theory of the constitutive imagination, using an “as if” mechanism: “I certainly never heard anyone put it to me quite this way, but one might think. . . .” (206). Graeber is never too concerned with the theory of ideology, and is therefore equally uninterested in refuting ideological positions. He often explicitly distinguishes his approach as action or practice oriented as opposed to ideology oriented, and characterizes anarchism in much the same terms. What interests him in whatever community (academic, Malagasy, activist) is the logic of practices, along with their “immanent . . . moral standards” (235).

Practices and morals: in Fragments Graeber describes anarchism as a kind of “faith,” a term I still don’t know what to do with. Maybe as a philosopher I would prefer something like “intuition.” But so what? In either case the faith or intuition concerns the possibility of interpreting social practices, from the purview of one’s own, of course, but more so from the interpenetration of others’ practices with our own. That is the logic of anthropology in the grand theoretical mode, but it is also the ever repeated and multiple origin of direct democracy according to Graeber: communication between people, however different. Relativism is for him an ethical, not theoretical, attitude. Clearly Graeber’s combination of witty style and grand questions, his “grand style,” condenses both elements of anthropology’s response to its colonial and imperial origins: the cultural relativism by which so many racist and ethnocentric ideas were proven wrong, and the return of a taste for larger theoretical syntheses in structuralist or other modes; thus retaining a kind of relativism but shifting its place, redistributing local practices as an array of “solutions” to common practical “problems.” If his approach rests more heavily on the latter part of the response, this is likely because the theory's operation is always premised on the anarchist faith or intuition that ideologies do not explain, but are themselves to be explained, through an investigation of the concrete practicalities of action and the array of available alternatives to any given set of practices. Here I might especially affirm one of the most compelling arguments against cultural relativism that I have encountered: everything is relativized except authority. (See the end of Chapter 8, “Oppression.”) One can undertake the maximum amount of speculation, as long as it’s adequate to existing practices. I have to note here that substituting “experience” for “practices” is precisely how A. N. Whitehead characterized speculative philosophy, another instance of a return to “grand theoretical issues” within a tradition that had begun to regard them with suspicion or disfavor. And therefore theory, in whatever form, can and should be referred back to existing and possible practices: the theory text as manual! It’s this appeal to possibilities that has always been more or less explicit in the two forms of anarchists’ anthropology, as an explicit utopianism that corresponds to the implicit utopianism of academic anthropology, at least in its “grand” mode. That this utopianism--this “faith”--is manifest in an academic volume published by a radical press, is only one of many signs that some of us are reacquainting ourselves with the ever so familiar yet ever so foreign feeling of intellectual enthusiasm.

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