Welcome to an Informal Seminar on David Graeber’s HAU essay, “The Divine Kingship of the Shilluk: On Violence, Utopia, and the Human Condition, or, Elements for an Archaeology of Sovereignty.”

    Welcome to the seminar.  Several persons have expressed an interest in participating, so it should be a lively time (forgive me if I don’t write “energizing” or, God forbid, “empowering”).  The seminar runs through Friday, April 24.  Please know that the seminar is not “closed” – OAC members are encouraged to contribute their ideas at any time during the seminar.  Hey, it’s totally cloudthink! 

    And on to the introduction:     


    David Graeber is a conceptual alchemist: he transforms the dross of our commonsense assumptions into sparkling, counterintuitive ideas that describe a world utterly unlike the one we think we inhabit.  In his modern classic, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, he advances, with tremendous erudition, the claim that debt – which we assume we acquire through the exchange of money – in fact preceded by a long way the creation of money.  In the essay before us in this seminar, on the divine kingship of the Shilluk, he proposes an even more provocative idea: Sovereignty, here in the form of kingship, is not an outgrowth of processes within an established society, but the very phenomenon – the king’s ability to wreak wanton violence on a populace – that brings what we call “a society” into being.  

“. . . the arbitrary violence of divine kings—firing randomly into crowds, bringing down natural disasters—is the perfect concrete expression of what makes a people a people—an undifferentiated, therefore political group. All of these peoples—Bari, Pari, Lolubo, etc – became peoples only in relation to some particularly powerful rainmaker; and owing to the rise and fall of reputations, political boundaries were always in flux.” (page 12)

    This is a radical proposition, one that strikes at the foundation of social theory.  We are accustomed to think that human groups constitute themselves in relation to other groups, and from those relations conflict invariably seems to flow.  Graeber would claim that such intergroup relations occur after the fact, the crucial fact here being that it is the arbitrary violence unleashed by a sovereign (in his effort to become a god) against his subjects that impels them to coalesce as “a people.”  It is the antithesis of Durkheim’s famous “effervescence.” 

    Graeber’s detailed analysis of the exotic, now antiquated, Shilluk thus poses what may well be the most critical question in social thought: Why are there societies at all? 

    In my “Invitation” to the seminar I suggest that Graeber’s essay poses a whole set of issues more specific than this overarching puzzle (see Invitation), and seminar participants are asked to pursue any of these or, preferably, introduce their own concerns.  There is much to explore here.  David Graeber has kindly agreed to participate in the seminar, so some of your contributions might take the form of direct questions to him.  I hope it is a rewarding experience for all – participants as well as readers. 


Preliminary Inquiry.

    To start things off, I’d like to mention an aspect of Shilluk kingship that intrigues me, one that looms large in Graeber’s analysis: the king is at once the source of the health and prosperity of his subjects and, in his god-like persona, the agent of their death and misery.  Hence the chilling epigraph to his essay: “God kills us.”  This contradiction is one among others that pervade Shilluk society / culture (for the sake of brevity I won’t detail them here) and that together comprise what he describes as the “fundamental dilemma[s] of the human condition.” 

    How is it that a beneficent divine being is also a murderous psychopath?  Pondering this critical question caused me to reflect on a daunting puzzle that has been with me for a long time: the role of the shaman in lowland South American Indian groups.  I’m not an Africanist, and the size and complexity of African societies frankly intimidate me, but my concern here is, I think, not too much of a reach.  Like the Shilluk king, the Amerindian shaman – two of whom I’ve known fairly well – is at once a source of health  and a killer.  In what one might call his “public relations” guise, he heals the sick by invoking the spirits through shak shak rattle and chant.  But on the “dark side,” he turns his power against someone, often the person who has afflicted his patient, and kills or injures him by shooting a spirit dart (usually a quartzite crystal).  Again, as with the Shilluk king, this is dramatically counterintuitive.  It’s as though you visited your family doctor, who diagnosed a serious condition that required surgery.  He then recommends the best surgeon he knows for such a case.  Then, as you grasp at this ray of hope, he informs you that the surgeon is also a professional assassin. 

    Introducing the notion of divinity here greatly amplifies the puzzle, the dilemma.  The Amerindian “doctor” (who is called just that in the English Creole of Guyanese Arawak and Carib) derives his powers to heal and kill from the spirit world; he is in touch with and in a way a part of a supernatural realm.  The belief in the existence of that world – the belief in a divinity of some form – is inseparably bound up with a life lived in a social world, a “society.”  This is the disturbing fact to which Graeber’s argument seems to alert us:  A normal life regulated by custom and moral rules is possible only by incorporating the principle of a supernatural force which at any moment may rain down death and destruction – terror, in short.  And if divinity entails a moral order, then the inverse of that proposition may hold, that a loss of faith in divinity, in immortality, entails the end of a moral order.  No belief in God, no morality.  You can do anything; nothing is excluded.  It is Ivan Karamazov’s thesis. 

    So the question is even more pressing: If a notion of the divine, of the supernatural, is of such fundamental importance to social life, how have we come by it? 


Views: 1825

Replies are closed for this discussion.

Replies to This Discussion

If a notion of the divine, of the supernatural, is of such fundamental importance to social life, how have we come by it? 

And old, but fundamentally sound answer: The unexpected. Every human life is filled with unpredictable events, some totally amazing — like the Japanese blues harmonica player I heard last night, first time I'd ever heard sounds like that—some totally awe-inspiring—the birth of a child, for example—some devastating. We don't know why. There must be some reason we cannot see or comprehend. 

Do take note, however, the divine may not be supernatural, existing somewhere outside nature, as it is in Nilotic and Abrahamic traditions. In traditional Chinese cosmology, gods, ghosts, and ancestors all exist in the invisible Yin world that exists alongside with and interacts with the Yang world of everyday life. But Yin and Yang are both part of the same cosmos. 

But, returning to the topic at hand, I wonder if David Graeber has read David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban...?  Kilcullen is a rare bird, an anthropologist who is also a professional soldier and security consultant. He advances a similar theory of the origins of social order at every level from criminal gangs to the nation state, likening them all to a type of fish trap found in Papua New Guinea. Security is the bait and violence the barbs that prevent escape. 

From the paper:

"Everything is happening as if the reth’s subjects were resisting both the institutionalization of power, and the euphemization of power that seems to inevitably accompany it. Power remained predatory. ... however ... there was no regular system for exacting tribute. Instead, the king would intervene in feuds between communities that had resisted his attempts at mediation" 

"The apparent paradox is, as I’ve emphasized, typical of divine kingship: the king, like God, stands outside any moral order in order to be able to bring one into being. ... It was ... as if ruthlessness ... was to be limited to the royal sphere, and the royal sphere carefully contained and delimited from ordinary life ..."

"Bataille’s position is ultimately profoundly reactionary, reading authoritarian political institutions back into the very nature of human desire. My position is more hopeful. "

Wow, what a rich text this is; as an offer of food for though, Graeber deserves a Michelin! 

Lee, wonderful that you've gotten David himself to pay attention to the seminar. Hopefully he can correct us if we're getting over our heads in claims about what he intends to say; several were already forwarded which I personally see as somewhat dislocated.

Trying to take a more rigorous mindset to my reading, seemingly endless cracks and fissures emerge; where to start? If I'm not alone in this feeling, there is a real danger here that we get lost in erratic shadow-boxing; hopefully we can be mindful about upholding some degree of joint focus as we go. 

John (and previously Huon), you seem to suggest we discuss this as piecemeal to a general social theory of power centralization (and, by extension even more generally one of social order).

Lee, in your opening above, you forward we take it as lens for discussing the ultimate origins of supernatural beliefs among humans.

Earlier, you also suggested dissecting the sacred/divine distinction, comparing Shilluk divine kingship to other cases of divine kingship, digging into the particular role of gender, and evaluating the content and implications of Greaber's analysis of myth/ritual/ceremonial case-materials. 

Each of these topics will surely make for a wellspring of exquisite academic imagination.

However, I feel that before that, we should try scrutinize for implicit caveats the substance and argumentative structure itself in more isolation. More specifically:

1. Data collection: As explicitly stated, hardly any actual anthropological fieldwork was ever conducted among the Shilluk. The presented data, mainly hauled from amateur ethnological writings of British colonial personnel, has quite a hearsay character.

2. Data type: Heavily dominated by cosmological/ritual accounts, which in the first place was quite likely delivered to British colonial personnel by politically motivated Shilluk elites and specialists.

3. Analytic procedure: More or less exclusively centered in psycho-socially framed symbol hermeneutics.

4. Generalization: The text keeps feeding generalizations at all kinds of levels (i.e. from the Shilluk, to the Nilotic peoples, to centralized states, to the fundamental human condition); yet only two of them are explicitly formulated. The rest come out in much more vague shapes, just so explicit as to keep the reader suspended in a feeling of being continuously on the brink of satori.

Going this way would probably (to begin with) remove us from the "roughly-right"-style anthropological pathos, towards something more dry and exacting.

Specifically, we'd have to  critically review Graber's generalizations by formulating more precisely the practical limitations placed on (4) by points (1), (2) and (3).

Or we join brains straight-away in more creative meanderings.



    Thanks to John, Huon, and Kristian for their initial contributions to the seminar.  Kristian has asked us to focus more closely on the specifics of Graeber’s argument, noting that what we can write about the Shilluk is prefaced by the spottiness of actual ethnographic documentation.  Still, I think Graeber makes a strong case for the dual (schizoid?) nature of the Shilluk king as guarantor of the people’s well-being and as a ruthless killer.  His striking claim is that the violence of the king actually precedes – and calls into existence – the formation of a Shilluk people.  From the premise “God kills us” we reach the conclusion that “we” are those whom God kills. 

    However, Graeber modifies this seemingly inescapable piece of social logic:   


Myself, I would prefer to see the kind of violence he [Simonse] describes not as revealing of the essential nature of society, but of the essential nature of a certain form of political power with cosmic pretensions -- one by no means inevitable, but which is very much still with us. (page13)


This is a hopeful note to the stark claim that violence is inherent in the formation of society, but I would like to ask Graeber – and others in the seminar – what the alternative “form of political power” might be?  Can we have a “for example . . .”?  

If you trace Graeber's argument backwards, arbitrary violence is the definition only of the divine dimension of kingship (or shall we simply say 'political center'). Hence, one might think that manifestations of sacred kingship alone stands violence free. For instance, a few days ago, Norway's aging constitutional monarch, certainly very sacred but nothing like divine, appeared on children's TV to talk emphatically about his fears, worries and experience around a recent heart-surgery. Arbitrary group-therapy? 

Eric Wolf's book 'Envisioning Power' provides several relevant comparative cases to the Shilluk one. In focus are three striking historical cases of sudden peaks in mass arbitrary violence; the Kwakiutl in the late 19thC, the Aztecs in the 15thC, and National Socialism in Germany in the first half of the 20thC. In all three cases there was a movement of ruling elites who increasingly ideologized ('divinified'?) themselves as direct embodiments of cosmological flows. Wolf identifies as the central driver in all three cases some kind of externally induced crisis; in the case of the Kwakiutl, pressures related to external colonizers; in the Aztecs a series of ecological crisises, and in the Nazi-case, the socio-economic crisis following WW1 reparations. Graeber hints that the arbitrary violence observed among Shilluk and other African kings could similarly be causally related to the colonial encounter.

It is very difficult to conceive of any form of political centralization that is completely independent from some form of outward (at least implicit) coercion. What I'd purpose is to turn around Graeber's generalization; to make the kind of violence observed in the Shilluk case (as those in Wolf's book), not evidence of the essential/raw/bare nature of political power. but rather case example of the extremes to which the essentially coercive character of political centers may go, providing certain (unfortunate) external circumstances.

To your question Lee, I'd also add that "the formation of society" rests not merely on political process. Hence your question might perhaps be reformulated as: How else may society take shape, lest through politics?

Kristian has, wisely I think, questioned the quality of the data with which Graeber is working in this piece. I offer in return a favorite thought about method. The author is Aristotle, the source Book III-1 of the Nichaomachean Ethics.

"Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

That said, I see no license here for unbridled speculation. We should look for as much precision as the nature of the subject allows. In working with the Shilluk data, Graeber exemplifies for me the predicament of most if not all anthropologists. Once social and cultural anthropologists give up the fantasy that a person, typically in their twenties or thirties, can spend a year or so living with a handful of people and come back with what the courts call the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we realize that we do, in fact, have much in common with our colleagues the archeologists. We all work with data that is fragmentary, incomplete, and may be misleading. We are not scientists in labs conducting controlled experiments. We are detectives, examining apparently random clues and trying to construct stories that will, in the best cases, be true beyond a reasonable doubt. This, to me, is the perspective from which we should examine the evidence deployed in this article.

And, of course, we must argue about our terms. Kristian asserts that the formation of society "rests not merely on political processes." I ask how do we distinguish political from non-political processes? One classic approach attempts to separate the domestic from the public sphere, a domain of private and non-political issues from the political arena. Another is found in the now disregarded maxim of U.S. foreign policy that "politics stops at the water's edge," or, in more conventional anthropological terms, at the border of the tribe where killing ceases to be murder. There are also, of course, the classic attempts to differentiate the academic disciplines by institutional field, politics to the political scientists, economics to the economists, society to the sociologists, individuals to the psychologists; but the first thing taught (used to be taught?) in introductions to social anthropology is that in many societies these institutions are not distinguished.

Thoughts, anyone?

I like Kristian's proposal 

 to turn around Graeber's generalization; to make the kind of violence observed in the Shilluk case (as those in Wolf's book), not evidence of the essential/raw/bare nature of political power. but rather case example of the extremes to which the essentially coercive character of political centers may go, providing certain (unfortunate) external circumstances.

I note that there is no inherent contradiction in this two approaches. On the one side there remains the question of how arbitrary violence is curbed and legitimated, on the other the question of how circumstances affect the form that legitimation takes. 

I note, too, that being exposed to what the victim sees as arbitrary violence is a very common human condition. Aside from a very few countries at a very peculiar historical moment, most children, women, and minorities can testify to this fact. How arbitrary violence becomes divine, sacred or seen as an abomination is very interesting question, indeed.

On data, concepts, analysis: the subtitle makes it clear that this is a work of excavation in search of something: hence it offers 'elements of an archaeology'. Here Kant's definition of archaeology as "a representation of... ancient condition[s]... about which even though there is no hope for certainty, there is reasonable ground for making conjectures" fits pretty well. Then there is Foucault's archaeological approach consisting of an excavatory critique of "the way humans problematise their behaviour (their sexual activity, their punitive practices, their attitude toward madness etc.)." 

One of the books, by Westermann, that Graeber draws on sheds some intriguing light on how Shilluk people viewed their kings, - often fairly flippantly if some of the folktales are anything to go by. (https://archive.org/details/shillukpeopleth01westgoog)

I was beginning to think along the lines Kristian suggested about the contemporary constitutional monarchs and the compromise Bagehot talks about where modern kings are allowed to retain some of their sacred wrapping while giving up capricious use of violence. Then I remembered how back in the 80s Edmund Leach described (along Frazerian lines) Princess Diana as a 'fertility goddess'. And, some decades later, her brother claimed that the princess "a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age"--conjuring with the paradox of the hunter hunted/killer sacrificed/predator made prey. Which, even if it wasn't true in fact, seemed to become true in many many people's imagination at that moment.

A different image: one sovereign head of state with his courtiers filmed while they watch another sovereign being executed. 

But I didn't know the seminar had already started.

Seminarians, and all who want to weigh in --

Hi all. I'm just me. Testing if it goes up properly.  


From Lee: Just a note, David "signed in" on the Invitation forum, so I'll just forward his message to the "Welcome to the Seminar" forum.  

38 pages in and I have to reply, because I might not have the time. I understand that I might have missed many things and possibly some humor.

Now that David is here, I won’t have to ponder too much about the writer’s intentions. So, I’ll begin with the feelings I got from reading the first 38 pages.

This essay seems to be the beginning of a cosmology of the state and alienation, and call to movement, in the present.  Therefore, if I am not careful, the purpose of this paper could slide into a kind of metaphysical obscurity that might possibly lead to inaction.

Next, I see hints at “ritual insurrection” and the connection to terror that alludes to a primordial praxis of social dissidence – solidarity, “everyone must be involved”, which also brings up ethical and moral (or anti-moral and anti-ethical) arguments between those involved in egoist movements and those of social movements. Nevertheless, such is for another discussion, or not?

I also interpreted this paper as a struggle for spaces: meta-burden spaces and actual spaces. When human beings had begun to create a habit of placing burden on top of the jackass, they also began to separate; and, eagerly and actually prostrate to the unfathomable - humiliation turns into antagonism, “he will no longer make fun of us” (this quote might have a different meaning) or “he can no longer take our dignity”: insurrection, a fight for actual and meta spaces.

Perhaps Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid should be taught next to Darwin? Or perhaps cooperation and application could be taught, in schools and our homes, over theory and stagnation?  (This is a metaphor for the various actions that might be necessary for a hopeful outcome. Yes, education is important, as are other ‘things’) 

Eugene, in:

This essay seems to be the beginning of a cosmology of the state and alienation, and call to movement, in the present

, you capture smoothly one of my core feelings about the paper. It's an ambivalent one.

If a pretense really is, as we all seem intrigued to feel, to illuminate something profound about the formation of human societies by means of an activist spotlight, there is all the reason to feel uneasy about the conclusions.

Hence the suggestions in my initial post. I'll get back with more sour grapes. 

Eugene, Kristian,

    Thank you for your latest contributions.  Let me join that exchange:


Eugene:  This essay seems to be the beginning of a cosmology of the state and alienation, and call to movement, in the present.  


Kristian:  [in making that observation] you capture smoothly one of my core feelings about the paper. It's an ambivalent one.


    Is it David’s paper that is ambivalent or the social arrangement he describes?  Perhaps the strongest impression I have of Shilluk society / culture is that it is shot through with ambivalence (I suppose this is not surprising, since I accord ambivalence a crucial role in human existence generally).  But consider: the individual Shilluk lived his life in the knowledge that looming over his every experience was a king who was at once benign and tyrannical, who could insure ample rain and harvests or begin randomly firing a rifle into a crowd of his subjects.   I don’t know if one could call individual Shilluk “alienated,” – is that an affliction reserved for us “moderns”? – but they must have harbored strong and complex feelings that moved them, emotionally and intellectually, in starkly different directions. 

    It is an interesting question as to how Shilluk society from the “ethnographic present” of a previous century might be fitted into a comparative study of sovereignty and violence in other societies – perhaps following on Eric Wolf’s project as mentioned by Kristian.  Clearly the matter does not go away with the advent of contemporary nation-states, as David notes:


And genuine “sovereignty” does always carry with it the potential for arbitrary violence. This is true even in contemporary welfare states: apparently this is the one aspect that, despite liberal hopes, can never be completely reformed away. It is precisely in this that sovereigns resemble gods and that kingship can properly be called “divine.” (page 9)

Lots of food for thought and discussion here. 




OAC Press



© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service