Anarchist Anthropology

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

by David Graeber
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology

There has been some controversy recently over the “firing” or “letting go” (depending on your perspective) of associate professor and self-describe anarchist David Graeber of Yale University. I’m in no position to form an opinion on the justification of his dismissal (nor are most people who have formed an opinion from what I’ve seen). Most point to his scholarly qualifications, which are no doubt manifest, as testament to the injustice being meted out. I would simply point out that there are more factors that are examined when making a commitment to a new member of an organization; someone whose professed ideology is based on the active disruption of systems of control might not be someone that others want to work with regardless of his other merits.

The whole dust-up was ultimately not that interesting; it broke down along the expected lines of division. But in following the discussion, I came across a link to Graeber’s remarkable pamphlet-length essay, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology” which is available as a free PDF download. Update: actually that free download seems to be gone. Damn capitalists! Update: My mistake. I was overly aggressive in my use of AdBlock and it had removed the link to the PDF!

I couldn’t agree with many of his points, but he presented arguments that gave me a different perspective on issues such as democracy and traditional cultures. But his vision of self-governance is ultimately impractical and perhaps even dangerously utopian. He attempts to inoculate Anarchism from any association with the horrors inflicted by uptopianists by saying that everyone should be utopian in outlook even if it can never be achieved; that imagination should be a core political principle. While this is certainly an admirable outlook, the overall tone is rather tendentious.

He presents Anarchism as more of an attitude that has existed as long as mankind itself, than as a set of theories; the reason why it hasn’t been codified into a theoretical framework is that practitioners never thought is was necessary to do so; it was just the way they chose to live. Anarchism shares many of the same goals as Marxism, but is more focused on action than theory or analysis. In fact, it’s against the whole concept of “policy” which by its very nature implies some manner of enforcement.

His critique of majoritarian democracy is a bit jarring. He sees the idea of “The People” as being a fiction that simply allows a bureaucracy to take over. Anarchists don’t want a representative government; they want direct democracy where decisions are made by consensus. He makes the interesting point that democracies weren’t recognized in some cultures simply because there wasn’t an explicit vote. His point is that there are other forms of democracy that are more consensus-based – this is anarchism and it’s the foundation of many traditional cultures. And this is where anthropologists come in: since they have such a vast storehouse of knowledge on how different societies work, they should have a voice in the political conversation.

Its hard to see how this could scale up to the level of national policies though. He states that modern societies have not abandoned the principles that make up more traditional societies. This may be true, but the hallmark of a modern society is the level of specialization that it both requires and allows.

How would such a society come about? Through a withdrawal he says – a coming together of different groups to achieve common purposes while ignoring the current system. Primitive societies have shown how this can be done. He makes the interesting point that in the past it has been Western societies that have been pushing their views of governance onto the third world, but recently, some have been turning to the third world for examples of new modes of social interaction. He gives the example of anarchist groups who studied the collectivist decision making of the Zapatistas in Mexico as a guideline.

Overall the work is a compelling, eye-opening read regardless of your political views.

» Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005 | Permanent Link

The Beaufort Scale

Defining the Wind : The Beaufort Scale, and How a 19th-Century Admiral Turned Science into Poetry

by Scott Huler
Defining the Wind

This book was given to me as a gift from a friend and I have to admit, when I realized what it was about, my first reaction was, jeez, “footnote history” has finally hit rock bottom; what could possibly be more boring than the history of the Beaufort Scale?

I set the book aside for weeks, but I just happened to be listening to the local NPR affiliate where the author was being interviewed. He was a pretty engaging speaker and made the story sound (remarkably) rather compelling.

Scott Huler was actually a copy editor who became enchanted with the poetic descriptions that accompany the otherwise dry wind speed notations of the scale. He became something of an amateur historian in order to trace the history of the scale and Francis Beaufort, the man behind it.

What Huler does best is to provide a bit of historical context to why such a scale would be of importance. By providing a common vocabulary which associated wind speeds with their effects on everyday objects, people were able to quantify observations that were up to then merely qualitative. This was important for a number reasons. First, it was a time when, as Huler say, “nothing wasn’t important”; in other words, people lived much closer to the natural world than we do today and every detail was relevant. Also, Beaufort lived during the age of “first order” science, a time when the data was being accumulated that would lead to the great discoveries in the future; in fact, as Hydrographer to the Admiralty, he was responsible for placing Charles Darwin as the naturalist aboard The Beagle under the command of Robert Fitzroy.

He provides some insights into Beaufort himself. He was a man who was devoted to the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and maintained meticulous notes and diaries (some of which kept a dark secret—which he kept encoded.) For years he was the first and only user of his scale, but once he was elevated to the position of Hydrographer he was able to direct its use in the rest of the Admiralty.

Huler shows how the descriptive elements of the scale itself have changed with the times to reflect people’s everyday lives. It was following the changes in the text that brought Huler to the realization that Beaufort wasn’t even responsible to the text as he had come to know it.

So while Beaufort is credited with popularizing the chart, he neither invented the idea of associating descriptions with wind speeds, nor with the poetic descriptions that Huler found so stirring in the first place. This would seem to undermine the very premise of the book, but in fact Huler’s overall passion for the subject and its times makes the book an enjoyable (and quick) read.

» Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2005 | Comments (1) | Permanent Link