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? 


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Seminar participants,

    As advertised, the seminar runs through Friday, April 24 Pacific Time.  It’s been a stimulating experience, and I thank everyone for taking part.  Thanks in particular to David for kindly agreeing to participate. 

    David’s fine essay and our various takes on it underscore the timeliness of anthropological thought, paradoxically so since the Shilluk of the ethnographic present are no more and most of us have only a passing knowledge of Nilotic societies.  The essay is timely because it examines specific ethnographic material with an eye to discovering how Shilluk life is infused with a complex mix of politics, history, myth, and ritual.  Through that process, David asks us to consider how Shilluk grapple with “the fundamental dilemma of the human condition.”  From that, I think, we are led naturally to confront that dilemma in our own societies.  As with the Shilluk, events have overtaken us; it is no longer possible – if it ever was – to compartmentalize experience, to keep a tidy emotional and conceptual house.  Huon puts it very well:    

Why are people so interested in a strange case that Evans-Pritchard supposedly put to bed with his structural functionalist reanalysis fifty years ago? I would say that it is because this case, with its accent on the sublimated, the mythic and the religio-ideological aspects of politics strikes a chord at a time when, at least in Europe, nobody knows how politics is really supposed to work any more. . .  the ways of participating in politics are up for grabs and the framework described as 'rational' in the past is no longer taken for granted. Those are some of the features that make digging into the strange political ways of the Shilluk and their notions of sovereignty, or indeed any of the thousands of ethnographic case studies provided by anthropologists (what about the Buid or the Winnebago...). 


    In the day remaining to us, let me ask you to share any final thoughts you have on the fascinating material we’ve been discussing. 

    Thanks again. 

Final thoughts? Premature, I think. But we mustn't forget to thank Lee Drummond for stepping up and organizing this conversation. 

We must also reach out to Kristian, Huon or interested lurkers. This discussion was the second step in what could become a long, fruitful and delightful exploration. To proceed further, we need someone to step up, recommend an article or think-piece that they have found fascinating and lead a discussion of it. 

It could be you. 

Thanks for organizing Lee. Great text; the discussion helped me explore lots of new labyrinths in my mind, so thanks also to all who gave individual contributions. I heartily concede to Huon's assessment. And: it was a blast that the author himself could join the fray; hope that can be arranged also in future seminars. If to mention a downside-issue, I'd wished more voices were involved. But hey, who's to blame, probably highly coincidental!? I do suspect though that a scope of 1,5 weeks, with long posts on a daily basis, might be daunting to many as the time/energy it takes. It sure had me distracted from other important chores...alas, though I have some ideas for new texts, I don't have the surplus to take up organizing responsibilities in the near future. But as winds blow down, sure thing!

Thanks Lee! Great text and engaging discussion as Kristian said. I look forward to the next development, but can't be sure if I will have time to run a seminar. OAC is a funny place (I mean this, the ning site, I can't speak for its facebook twin) which means you can never predict what will happen next with it. So, (he said in a ponderously philosophical tone) it is a bit like life itself...

 If to mention a downside-issue, I'd wished more voices were involved. 

On that point, and on the whole, despite the interest these seminars always seem to generate (e.g. in terms of hits on the page) the general principle is that people prefer the feeling of being invisible as, indeed, this scientific study shows.

...which could be tested by allowing anonymous participation (with all its murky mob-risks).

Huon Wardle said:

 If to mention a downside-issue, I'd wished more voices were involved. 

On that point, and on the whole, despite the interest these seminars always seem to generate (e.g. in terms of hits on the page) the general principle is that people prefer the feeling of being invisible as, indeed, this scientific study shows.




    The seminar, like any rewarding intellectual experience, has left me with questions, in this case one overarching question.  David’s essay develops an “archeology of sovereignty,” and treats the Shilluk case, not as a “primitive” example but as one in which the basic elements of political power are particularly prominent.  Perhaps, but only perhaps, the Shilluk represent Lévi-Strauss’ account of the Nambikwara as “a society reduced to its simplest expression.” 

    I think it’s fair to say that seminar participants have found “sovereignty” a rather slippery concept.  David has noted that his subject is not the origin of the state.  Rather, it seems to be about the conditions under which a social arrangement forms with one individual (the reth) being able to conduct arbitrary violence against a populace, that power then serving as a catalyst to transform the populace into “a people.” 

    My lingering question is: In undertaking an archeology of sovereignty aren’t we by implication beginning to develop an archeology of inequality?  Here I don’t refer to the emergence of political institutions or of what has been called “social stratification.”  I mean, quite directly, the origin of inequality.  Huon posed essentially the same question early in the seminar, but it remains unexamined now that we’re at the end of the seminar.  I would suggest that, at least since Rousseau’s Discourse, the origin of inequality is a preeminent question for social thought.  Somehow human societies transformed from fairly egalitarian bands of hunters-gatherers into hierarchical forms which feature Pharaohs, Sun Kings, Russian oligarchs, software billionaires.  How? 

    We must thank David for opening the door on this necessary discussion, this archeology. 




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