David Graeber throws down

David Graeber’s response to the Crooked Timber event on Debt: The First 5000 Years is one of the most invigorating polemics I’ve read in a long time. There’s a lot in here, including some insightful reflections on strategies used to “delegitimate” work outside the mainstream, but as a public service, I think it’s important to highlight one particular part:

The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.) The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong. I should have caught it at the proofreading stage but I didn’t. I did catch it when the book first came out, tried to get the publisher to take it out, and have been continually trying since July. All to no avail. I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July. Allow me to reassure the reader: You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is, especially as the stupid line has been held out, reproduced, sent around in every conceivable way to suggest that nothing else in the book is likely to be factually accurate To which all I can reply is: well, notice how this is the only quote in the book that happens with. That one sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that. In fact, I’ve communicated with, or read reviews by, scholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists, etc, etc, and none have noticed any glaring errors—in fact, the most frequent reaction is that it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.) The book is pretty meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review. The problem is I haven’t been able to get the one idiotic garbled sentence out despite my utmost endeavors. But it will be. They promise. Soon.

Totem and Taboo

I’ve been reading Freud’s Totem and Taboo over the past couple weeks. One thing that strikes me is how foreign his approach is to contemporary academic sensibilities, at least in the circles I’m most familiar with. Obviously no one wants to use racist and derogatory terms such as “savages” and “primitive peoples,” but it seems that the solution that most of those doing ambitious philosophical and theoretical work in the West have chosen is never to mention such people at all.

Continue reading “Totem and Taboo”

Agamben and economics

To follow up on this Jameson quote on Agamben, a quote on the relationship between slaves and kings from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years that seems relevant for a similar reason:

If one looks across the expanse of history, one cannot help but notice a curious sense of identifiation between the most exalted and the most degraded; particularly, between emperors and kings, and slaves. Many kings surround themselves with slaves, appoint slave ministers… Kings surround themselves with slaves for the same reason that they surround themselves with eunuchs: because the slaves and criminals have no family or friends, no possibility of other loyalties–or at least that, in principles, they shouldn’t. But in a way, kings should really be like that too. As many an African proverb emphasizes: a proper king has no relatives, either, or at least, he acts as if he does not. In other words, the king and slave are mirror images, in that unlike normal human beings who are defined by their commitments to others, they are defined only by relations of power. They are as close to perfectly isolated, alienated beings as one can possibly come. (209)

The more I think about it, the more the systematic exclusion of economics from Agamben’s project seems bizarre — and the more interesting it is that it explodes onto the scene in such a disorienting way (seemingly both for author and reader) in The Kingdom and the Glory.