11 June, 2006



Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Paperback)

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (Paperback)

David Graeber, (wikipediaInfo) ... intrepid anthropologist and anarchist, talks about the magical battles and spiritual jujitsu of Madagascar, the trials of being a political dissident, and the emerging "Anarchist Century."

Q: Are you an anthropologist that.s an anarchist or an
anarchist that happens to be an anthropologist?

David Graeber: I guess it depends on what kind of day it
is. In a way, both. I guess I considered myself an
anarchist for most of my life, but then I.ve been
interested in anthropology for most of my life, too. I
imagine they came from the same impulse which was this
sort of belief that there.s got to be something better
than this. An interest in human possibilities.

Q: Much of your anthropological work was done in
Madagascar. Why did you choose Madagascar for your
doctoral thesis?

David Graeber: That.s an interesting question. I wasn.t
originally thinking of studying Madagascar when I went
to graduate school. I was sort of vaguely thinking
somewhere in Indonesia. There seemed to be various
practical reasons that that wasn.t such a good idea.
Polynesia was also an option but I decided not to go
there because I didn.t want to eat yams everyday. I
don.t really like yams.

Then my advisor mentioned I should take a look at
Madagascar, so I started reading about it. I started
reading folk tales, actually. I wanted to get an idea of
what people were like there. What I found was they.re
incredibly subversive. There.s all these stories about
people playing tricks on God. It just seemed like these
were people whose attitude I would appreciate.

Q: What does that mean that they were playing tricks on

David Graeber: I could tell you a Malagasy folktale but
it would take awhile!

Q: Well, actually the Malagasy are quite fascinating!
Their focus on the afterlife as opposed to focusing on
the present life. What did you encounter in terms of
that belief? Did you see it really infiltrating their
daily lives?

David Graeber: It.s everywhere. It.s omnipresent.
Wherever you are, and where I was, there were tombs
everywhere. In fact, people.s houses were made of mud
brick. Only houses of the dead could be made of stone.
They had these stone tombs and some were beautiful and
shiny and some were old and broken down. Almost nowhere
where you go in the countryside was there not a tomb in
sight somewhere. So you.re just surrounded by memories
wherever you go all the time. History is sort of in the
ground, in the landscape. It.s interesting though,
because in a way it.s very oppressive. Ancestors are
constantly trying to hold you down.

Q: Tell me about famadihana.

David Graeber: Famadihana are rituals where you remove
your ancestor's bodies from the stone tombs in which
they are buried and wrap them in new cloth. It's unique
to highland Madagascar: I'm not sure there's anyplace
else in the world where people take all the bodies out
of tombs every five or seven years like that. The
curious thing I found though was that while everyone
spoke of these rituals as memorials, as ways of honoring
and remembering the ancestral dead, they were at the
same time ways of escaping and even destroying them.
Because the bodies are very dry, mummified almost, but
when you dance with them, tie on their new silk mantles
(with cords, and you pull very hard!) you basically
pulverize them and ultimately start merging them
together and consolidating them so that some at least
can be forgotten. You are reinventing and re-editing and
reworking your history in the most tangible, physical
way. And at the same time, it's also a celebration, at
the end you lock them in their tombs again, and have a
huge feast, play music, celebrate your freedom as it
were from memory. Even though without those memories,
you would be nothing.

Q: I read that you.re main study was on the descendents
of noble families versus the descendents of their

David Graeber: I was in this community called Betafo,
pronounced (Bey-ta-fu). It.s about half divided between
those whose descendents were noble, and half of them
were descendents of their former slaves. Any noble
village is always surrounded by a series of moats and at
the center of the moats there.s the tomb of the noble
ancestor. If the descendents of slaves so much as touch
it, guns go off inside, they say.

Q: Oh my, guns!

David Graeber: However, overlooking to the northeast
they have the tomb of this ancestor who.s sort of the
most important ancestor of the slaves. They claim he
actually wasn.t a slave, he was a wandering astrologer
and magician whom they tried to enslave and they ended
up locked in this seven year magical battle involving
each other.s rice crops. Essentially he won because of
the weather.

Q: Who controls the weather?

David Graeber: The descendents of slaves. They are all
mediums and so forth. Now, all of this is happening at a
time when the state has largely abandoned them. Nobody
is governing them. The people are governing themselves.
So, they had a little problem with that. Somebody ran
off with an entire storage kit full of rice belonging to
a prominent elder. The elder decided, enough is enough.
We need to have a collective ordeal.

Q: What are collective ordeals?

David Graeber: The way you have collective ordeal is you
take some water and you take an object made of gold and
you take a little dust from outside the ancestral tomb
and you mix it all together and everybody takes a sip.
They line up everybody in the community and they say,
.If I were the one who did this, may the ancestors
strike me dead.. And then whoever the next person who
dies is the one who did it.

So they did this, but then there was a problem. The
needed dust. Well, dust from what ancestral tomb?
There.s lots of tombs, there.s different groups here.
So, the astrologer, who.s the guy who controls the
medicine and controls the weather, decided, .Well, we.ll
just take a little from both.. And they did this, this
was what I was told, this was a year before I got there,
so I didn.t see this. But, it was the rainy season, so
everyday it.s nice in the morning and then clouds roll
up, and then usually it rains at night. So, they did the
ceremony in the morning and that evening, so everybody
tells me, there was a freak hail storm that destroyed
only the rice of those people who had organized the
ceremony since both ancestors were mad about being mixed
together. And that was the point. The people realized
that they had profound problems of getting along, here.

So it.s really an essay, or the book is really about
symbolic work there and people fighting over the meaning
of history, and the long, deeply-rooted historical
grievances, through every means except physical
violence. But every type of symbolic violence possible.
Nobody was actually hitting each other or doing anything
physical, but through every other means they could be at
war, they were.

Q: In your bio, I read that in your dissertation
Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural

David Graeber: Soon to be a book!

Q: ...Soon to be a book! But your bio states that your
dissertation is about .magic, history, and the political
role of narratives.. I was intrigued by the magic. What
type of magic did you experience there?

David Graeber: Oh, any type conceivable. I often like to
make distinctions between theological and humanistic
cosmologies. Cosmology is where people assume the great
powers that control the world are distant and divine
Another way I like to think of it is that there.s a time
of mythical origins where people have powers that we
don.t have now. Powers of creativity-their ability to
act on the world was profoundly different in its nature.
So that things that were done in that time, whether it's
the mythological age, the epic age, the heroic age, that
cannot now be repeated.

The interesting thing about magical cosmologies is that
almost anything that anyone could ever do you can do now
if you figure out how. So the assumption was that all of
these powers are actually available if you now who knows
how to do it and you can pay for it.

Q: Really? So there are people that are in touch with
the magical powers?

David Graeber: Yeah, it.s just a matter of technical
knowledge, it.s a matter of having the right connections
through various ancestral spirits. But the descendents
of slaves are the only ones who know how to do this kind
of thing and are considered to be good at it.

Q: I find that the people who aren.t the royalty, even
in our American classes, are the people who do all the
work, and would know how to do all of those things.

David Graeber: Yeah, and there.s a very common thing
that you see all over the world when it comes to mediums
I like to refer to as spiritual jujitsu. That is when
you take your weakness and turn it into a positive.

Q: Spiritual jujitsu. I like that a lot. That.s a great

David Graeber: It.s really common. For example, with
people who are subordinates of others by their status.
Slaves exist so as to be the agents of the will of
someone else, of important people. They.re just
following orders, they.re an extension of someone else.s
will. And when you.re possessed by a spirit, you become
the extension of someone else.s will completely. You are
essentially them. But if you.re that subordinated, in
fact you become very powerful because you are the king.
So it.s turning your weakness into one of the greatest
strengths possible.

And there are large parts of Madagascar, not the part I
was in specifically, where, for example, the west coast,
when the French colonized Madagascar, the big thing is
to try to co-op the leadership. So they found the royal
family and tried to win them over, when, in fact, the
royal family are the junior branches of the tree, the
ancestors being more important, the older the royal
ancestor, the more senior. And very quickly it became
clear that the people really running things were all
dead and they only appeared through mediums who almost
always were old women of common or slave descent. And
it.s not like a French colonial is going to go and visit
with an entranced woman in a s?ance. So it was a way of
putting power into a place where your oppressors can.t
get at it.

Q: This brings up some questions pertaining to your
other side, David Graeber the Anarchist. In your article
entitled, Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement Of
The Twenty-first Century, you begin by talking about the
"movement of movements." What is this movement referring

David Graeber: It's what is usually referred to in the
press as the "anti-globalization" movement. This seems a
silly name, since almost no one involved actually
considers themselves opposed to globalization - in the
sense of the effacement of borders, free movement of
people, possessions, and ideas... Some people call it
the "global justice movement", some people the
"alternative globalization movement", some people call
it the "movement of movements" because there are so many
diverse movements within it and no single overarching
vanguard or leadership.

Q: The word globalization has been passed around a lot
recently. Can you talk about the difference between
imperial vs. genuine globalization?

David Graeber: I always use the example of NAFTA. Since
the US and Mexico signed NAFTA, the size of the American
border guard has more than tripled. They put up walls
and call it globalization. We have to bear in mind that
just a few hundred years ago, international borders
didn't exist at all. And even in the 1890s, things like
passports were considered antiquated barbarisms. In a
lot of ways we've moved backwards. Real globalization
for me would mean a genuine effacement of borders,
moving towards some notion of global citizenship - not
in the sense of subordination to a single global state,
that would be a disaster, but rather, in the sense of
recognizing that everyone on this planet is ultimately
part of the same community and beginning to think about
what we all owe to one another as a result, of creating
forms of movement and solidarity that ignore the
apparatuses of nation-states entirely.

Q: What are your opinions on Thomas Friedman's The World
is Flat
vs. John Perkins' Confessions of an Economic
. Which view of globalization is more accurate?

David Graeber: Don't get me started on Friedman.

Q: Why do you call the 21st c the anarchist century?

David Graeber: Maybe I'm an optimist. But if you look at
the world from a long-term historical perspective, it
just seems obvious to me that current arrangements
cannot last. Capitalism particularly by the way.
Everybody has a different definition but the one thing
everyone agrees is that capitalism is based on an
imperative of infinite growth: if a firm doesn't grow,
it fails; if your GDP doesn't grow, you're a failed
country.... Don't get me wrong: if you want the economic
system that will produce the maximum number of consumer
goods, capitalism is definitely the thing. But infinite
growth is simply not sustainable - it wasn't when you
only had twenty or thirty percent of the world's
population in consumer economies, and certainly isn't
once you have countries like India and China as equal
players in the game. So something's going to give, and
it probably won't take all that long, because history in
general seems to have accelerated lately.

Of course, we have no idea whether what comes afterwards
will be better, or even worse. This is why I think it's
so important we at least start talking and thinking
about what might be better. But the moment you start
looking at revolutionary paradigms as inherently
legitimate, it becomes obvious that most of those that
were popular in the 20th century are entirely
discredited, and mostly for good reasons: anarchism is
one of the few that stands intact. And in fact that's
where all the creative energy is really coming out of.

Q: What has your life been like since all of the media
attention? I've read you've been getting chummy with the

David Graeber: Yes, that's a common pitfall of being a
dissident in the United States. Suddenly they develop a
profound interest in your taxes. Other than that,
however, I seem to have gotten off pretty easy. I
remember during the Republican Convention, Nightline put
out a list of the fifty most dangerous anarchists in the
US supposedly coming into town. Half of them were
friends of mine. What exactly was dangerous about them,
I'm not sure - but I was actually rather hurt that I
didn't make the list.

Q: Which anarchist organizations do you belong to?

David Graeber: At the moment I'm a member of the IWW
which New York is engaged in a series of increasingly
successful campaigns to organize Starbucks workers (we
have three declared shops and several more pending) and
mostly Spanish-speaking workers in restaurant supply
shops in Brooklyn, a campaign that's moving along very
quickly. I'm part of the broader PGA networks - that's
the global network initiated by the Zapatistas, along
with rural direct action groups in places Brazil and
India, indigenous organizations, anarchist groups in
Europe, and so on - and taking part in discussions about
recreating something along the lines of the old Direct
Action Network in North America. But we're really just
starting to think about what we're going to do with

Q: Do you think your activism has distracted you from
your anthropological work, or has it inspired it?

David Graeber: Oh, I think there's been an enormous
confluence. When I first got involved in the Direct
Action Network
in New York, I certainly never imagined I
was there as anything but an activist. The movement that
I'd always wanted to exist, it seemed, suddenly did
exist, so I just wanted to jump aboard.

Q: What are your plans for the future? What books are
you working on/movements are you involved with?

David Graeber: I'm not sure. Obviously I need a new job.
I have the year off next year to do that - and I've got
all sorts of feelers and possibilities from the UK,
France, and even from China, actually, but the US
academy.... well, let's just say the academy here is
much more conservative than they like to think. I'll see
what happens. I was thinking of going back to Madagascar
for a while, and maybe even to Nepal. I have invitations
from grad students to give seminars on value theory
everywhere from Kyoto to Michoacan. So I guess I'll be
traveling a lot. It's kind of ironic - one reason I got
into anthropology was because I don't come from a very
wealthy background, but always wanted to travel. As it
turns out, or the last twenty years or so, I've mostly
been too broke, or too busy, to do much of that. Now
finally I have a chance.

I also have a whole bunch of books about to come out, -
or at least I hope they are. The Madagascar book should
finally be coming out next year. Also a book of essays
on theoretical ideas coming out of new social movements
that I coedited with Stevphen Shukaitis. Finally, I
finished a very long ethnography of direct action which
I just sent off to Verso, but I'm not sure how long
that'll take to appear since it would come out maybe 600
pages and it's almost impossible nowadays to get a book
that long published. I'm working on a whole series of
other projects: something about the Medieval Indian
Ocean, something about the concept of debt, something
about divine kings in East Africa and the notion of the
state as a constituent war between sovereign and people,
a theoretical piece about the relation of power and
stupidity. If nothing else I keep myself busy.



Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Paperback)

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (Paperback)
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posted by u2r2h at Sunday, June 11, 2006


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