Thursday, November 23, 2006


David Graeber on Anarchy, Madagascar, and Magic

It’s not often that we get to sneak a peak into the minds that will no doubt be remembered. David Graeber is one such mind. But more than a mind, he is a man whose work has been met with varying opinion in the past few years due to the threatening nature of his anarchist beliefs. 

When I met him, I was faced with a slew of discussion topics to choose from. In the scholarly world he’s known for his research on Madagascar. In the world of gossip, he’s known for being the anthropology professor at Yale who was fired without due cause.  Either way you look at it, David is an anthropological scholar, an anarachist, and an all around witty guy with a wry sense of humor one wouldn’t expect from someone so feared by the “ruling class”.      Either way you look at it, David is an anthropological scholar, an anarachist, and an all around witty guy with a wry sense of humor one wouldn’t expect from someone so feared by the “ruling class”.     

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

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

What does that mean that they were playing tricks on God?       I could tell you a Malagasy  folktale but it would take awhile!  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?   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. 

Tell me about famadihana. 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. 

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

Oh my, guns!   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.  

Who controls the weather? 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. 

What are collective ordeals?  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.         

I n your bio, I read that in your dissertation ”Disastrous Ordeal of 1987: Memory and Violence in Rural Madagascar… Soon to be a book!    

  …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?   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.   

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

Spiritual jujitsu. I like that a lot. That’s a great term. 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 séance. So it was a way of putting power into a place where your oppressors can’t get at it. 

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 to?   I t’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.    

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

What are your opinions on Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat vs. John Perkins’ “Confessions of an Economic Hitman “? Which view of globalization is more accurate?          Don’t get me started on Friedman…

Why do you call the 21st c the anarchist century ?      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. 

What has your life been like since all of the media attention ? I’ve read you’ve been getting chummy with the IRS?   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. 

Which anarchist organizations do you belong to?  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 that.  Do you think your activism has distracted you from your anthropological work, or has it inspired it?   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.    What are your plans for the future? What books are you working on/movements are you involved with?     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.         

Rebecca White

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posted by u2r2h at 2:22 PM


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