Thursday, October 04, 2012

Review: Possibilities

[David Graeber. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire. Oakland CA: AK Press, 2007.]

I read this book mostly by accident. There were a couple of points during my recent sojourn into graduate school when my eyes were bigger than my stomach, so to speak, and I now own a small stack of books that I either read excerpts from for a course but feel I should read in their entirety, or that I bought for use in a piece of writing and didn't end up touching. This eclectic collection of essays by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber is part of the latter category -- I knew his name and he had been on my lengthy "kinda maybe sorta want to read sometime" list for awhile, and that made me jump too soon when it looked like one of the essays in here might be useful for a piece of writing I was doing that ended up going in a very different direction.

The up-side of choosing this particular book by him to read is that it gives a sense of the breadth of his work. Pretty much all of the essays are in some way related to his academic disciplinary home of anthropology and also related to his commitments to both explicitly anarchist politics and to the global justice movement. However, some are clearly academic papers produced for and I suspect originally published in professional journals. Others are clearly movement-based publications that touch upon anthropology more as sensibility than as discipline.

While that breadth is a strength when it comes to using the book to understand Graeber's work, it means that my reactions to the book's contents are extremely varied and complicated. The most obvious example of this is my uncertainty about how to relate to the more explicitly anthropological entries, which were mostly based on his graduate field work in Madagascar in the 1990s. While I appreciate that anthropology as a discipline has probably done more internal reflection on the implications of knowledge production across differences in power than pretty much any other discipline, except perhaps women's studies, and I have occasionally read pieces that participate in that ongoing discussion, I don't feel that I know enough about it to have a firm position of my own in the debates and therefore on Graeber's choices and practices. I am sure that Graeber cannot help but have thought and read and written extensively on such questions. Certainly the few occasions in which writing in the present volume touch upon them are interesting -- the eighth essay in the book, for example, presents Graeber's attempt to escape from the bind of imperial imposition versus disguised imposition through one flavour relativism versus loss of any ability to make judgements through another flavour of relativism. While his suggestion to combine opposition to empire with a commitment to dialogical knowledge production is interesting and attractive-to-me, to be entirely convincing it would, I think, require that he engage much more thoroughly with the anti- and postcolonial writers who might not share that position. And stepping back again to think of the collection as a whole, the relative lack of material reflecting on the ethics and politics of anthropological engagement makes me wary -- again, I'm sure he has done this, but it isn't in this volume. So I found myself eager to learn about the people he lived with in Madagascar, and deeply uneasy at my own eagerness and what it might imply in terms of left versions of appropriation and objectification. Given that the audience for this book, based on the press that issued it, is North American anarchists who are unlikely to have any particular familiarity with debates within anthropology and may or may not have any awareness of the various anti-colonial, postcolonial, feminist, and anti-racist writings that deal with the discipline or with other forms of knowledge production across differences in power, I am wary of the relative absence of this discussion.

Questions of knowledge production and difference are also part of my unease with some of the essays in this volume that do not fall so clearly within the disciplinary bounds of anthropology. The book doesn't always do this, but there are moments where it falls into (or appears to fall into) the common white-lefty-boy trap of treating only marxism and anarchism as possible lineages for revolutionary thought and practice, ignoring important revolutionary histories in various strands of anti-colonial, feminist, anti-racist, and queer uprising that cannot be reduced to either. Even when it isn't as stark as that in the book, and it often isn't, I think there are still lots of valid questions to be asked about whose work is worth serious engagement and whose is passed over -- I'm not saying it's a simple question, but I think my answers would not always be the same as Graeber's.

I should point out that this unease is not at all to say that there are not useful and important ideas in the mix. I think some of his insights in some of the essays are quite important. Often what makes them so interesting is that he contributes them from a grounding in anthropology and anarchism, whereas many (white male) left academics are more likely to be sociologists or historians, not to mention marxists. For instance, Graber's account of the origins of capitalism that focuses on the role of the imposition of manners within and beyond Europe, through a combination of historical and anthropological argument, is worth reading, though the lack of reference to the marxist-derived literature on moral regulation and state formation surprised me. His provisional genealogy of "consumption" is also pretty interesting, not least because it advances an argument that the ways the term is often used in political economy and cultural studies discourse amounts to a form of reification that obscures how many things that get so labelled, particularly in the cultural arena, are actually much more complex, creative, and social processes than "consumption" allows. His engagement with the marxist idea of "mode of production" is interesting, and certainly his focus on social relations being primarily about producing people rather than objects and his overall anti-reificatory stance are both things I like, though again there are other people who have done somewhat related work in heterodox marxist traditions that he doesn't really engage with. I think his observation of the similarities between how differences of analysis are handled in academia and how they are handled in the context of marxist grouplets, pre-party formations, and parties is bang on, and he makes some tentative steps towards an approach to theory in both contexts that deal differently with difference. I don't particularly like his simplistic take on "postmodernism" and "fragmentation" -- not only is there more value in some (not all!) of the material that falls under the over-general blanket of the postmodern than such dismissals generally allow, provided it is mixed and matched appropriately with other things, but often such dismissals shade far too easily into dismissing things that are actually quite useful, from ways of relating to fragmentation along the lines of John Holloway to various ways of understanding difference elaborated by politically diverse radical women of colour. Finally, I do think the final essay of the collection is quite useful -- it looks at the dynamics that have existed between movements and police in North American manifestations of the global justice movement, and it has some important useful insights.

I'm not sure who I might recommend this book to, except perhaps to people whose interest has been caught with one of the specific topics I've mentioned. If you are doing work in one of those areas, by all means check out the appropriate essay. But if your goal is to become familiar with Graeber's contribution to contemporary anti-authoritarian left thought, I suspect it might make more sense to start with one of his single-focus books rather than with this collection.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here. To learn about Scott's new books on Canadian social movement history, click here.]

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