Wednesday, September 23, 2020

David Graeber & Combinatorials


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The great merit of structural analysis is that it provides a well-nigh foolproof technique for doing what any good theory should do, namely simplifying and schematizing complex material in such a way as to be able to say something unexpected.* 

Like many others I guess I've been reading bits and pieces by David Graeber, the activist/anthropologist who died this month, much too young at the age of 59. He had just finished a new book in collaboration with an archaeologist colleague presenting the evidence that 10,000 through 40,000 years ago human beings alternated seasonally the way they organized themselves: hunting and gathering in small bands or even single families, then assembling together in small cities. The bands and cities could be either egalitarian or hierarchical. All variations had been found, all four possibilities: equal in both moving and sited communities; hierarchical in both moving and sited communities; equal in moving, hierarchical in sited communities; hierarchical in moving, equal in sited communities.The story that human beings were noble savages living free and equal but were corrupted when settled down with countable and transferable agriculture and accumulation is therefore false. And therefore false is the claim that modern life must be hierarchical as the only outcome of development.** Yes, but.... aren't the newly opened up possibilities arriving too late? Hasn't our falsely claimed to be necessary way of life a firm enough hold on us to guide us to our destruction? 

Graeber argues that living with recurrent fundamental changes in way of life made us human beings able for the first time to create art, made us self conscious, and able in some cases to organize ourselves with procedures to protect ourselves against inequality. So what happened? 10,000 years ago we'd worked this out, and now we fall victim to the apocalyptic global warming and the threatening nuclear and civil wars of Neoliberalism?

The combinatorial system of our species' early life - movement and rest, free or unequal world - was uncomfortably familiar. It was very like my very own,*** I fear, overused system to explain the differences between lives of ritual violence and power mad conformity and lives of creativity and beauty. Could it be that what is left out in our social combinatorial, leaving us vulnerable, is the relation of the individual to the social world, in both movement and rest? With the addition of these elements it becomes possible to identify what kinds of personal life fit in with equal or unequal social life, and might not that knowledge offer not just artistic ability and consciousness, but protection against getting stuck like we are in a world that likely is going to be our destruction? Knowledge of the alternatives of social life without self knowledge has not turned out well. 

Here are the combinations, taken from out of the set of possible combinations, that seemed to me to define basic moral categories: 


Ethical Life:


movement: self defined, world open


rest: self open, world defined

We create playing ourselves through a world undefined in the movement of change.
We rest in the defined world of beauty, with no awareness of self. A society of people seeing the world as beautiful and with no fixed sense of self is likely to be equal.


Vain Life:


movement: self open, world defined


rest: self defined, world open

We are impelled in our movement by passions, unaware of what is driving ourselves, only knowing what world we want to return to or create.

We rest, glorying in the power of our selves, we who have created a world that appears to us only as a reflection of our power.


An Example From Recent History

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, also at the end of his life, was working both on the history of Neoliberalism and the history of care of the self. He had the idea that because in Neoliberal doctrine any interference, any attempt to regulate the marketplace would create inefficiencies, the lack of government intervention in a society defined by the market would allow individuals to 'change, purify, transform, and transfigure' themselves in relative freedom.**** Here was a world defined by the inequality of employer and employee, chained to the movement of markets, in which individuals could care for themselves, remaining to themselves undefined. That is what he thought might be in the future of Neoliberalism. Instead, as we ourselves experience today, rather than engage in self examination and moderation, individuals were pressed to invest in themselves, market themselves, assign themselves a place, a person, and a price.


Further Reading:
Debt Of Conversation
The Technology Of Good
**** Michel Foucault. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982) Care of the self might involve, among other things, 'nightly examination of conscience to prepare restful sleep, the drilling into memory of key precepts so as to have them ready for action, daily meditation to withdraw from the world and remain undisturbed by what is taking place, regular trials of endurance to help resist temptations, arts to cultivate listening so as to better receive instruction, and daily reflection on one’s own death in order to better appreciate what you have and to bear what is to be expected.'