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.
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?
Replies are closed for this discussion.
Kristian Garthus-Niegel said:
First, it is not quite clear whether Graeber means that this condition goes for all of us, or whether he is merely pinpointing a culture-specific ontological orientation. Hence, if other phenomena of political sovereignty are similarly the fruits of aggregates of people coping with ‘fundamental human conditions’, are they the same ones, or do they have to be re-excavated in each individual case?
It's not?? I thought (hoped) I had made it clear that this was a Nilotic conception, though it's of a broad general group of such formulations typical of the larger region (and we can argue how that region is to be defined, maybe including the Middle East and even ancient Greece, but definitely not, say, China or Polynesia let alone the Andes.) No doubt conceptions of the great dilemma of human existence have certain broad family resemblances but they are by no means uniform. But I agree with my old teacher Marshall Sahlins that some such dilemma will be seen as existing; that human life will be seen as a basic problem in some sense, pretty much anywhere. I also suspect that sovereign powers as they develop in different parts of the world will, indeed, see themselves as providing a kind of magical (part)-resolution of that problem - another position I think I share with Marshall - but whether this is true, and how, is a matter that obviously bears much further research.
Second (a point also raised by Lee in his first post), Graeber may indeed have identified one prototypical social form by which humans cope with existential dilemmas, i.e., by subjecting themselves to political sovereigns. Yet, as the realist stream mentioned above clearly illustrates, political sovereignty does by no means emerge everywhere, hence humans can deal with such dilemmas in multiple social forms. Lee suggested that we try thinking of alternative forms, which threw many of us to the realists. As an alternative, Graeber could try to unravel further the particular circumstances that gave rise to the 'political sovereign'-form of coping among the Shilluk (which might prove to lead down a more Wolfian trail).
Again, I thought I was being more clear here than I turn out to have been. I hardly believe that sovereignty is the only solution to such dilemmas or even to be honest a particularly good one! I don't even think it's the essence of government. Modern states, for example, seem to bring together three separate foundational principles of power: a principle of sovereignty, a principle of administration, and a political field of competition (which was historically, more an aristocratic form, though now it's often seen as "democratic.".) This is even part from any actual democratic elements. These three seem to have entirely separate origins, by no means depend on one another, and are currently in the process of drifting apart. (Hence we have a global administrative system now, but no global principle of sovereignty or global political field.) What I was doing in this essay is exploring the internal logic of the principle of sovereignty by looking at the Shilluk as a relatively pure case. Obviously truly pure cases don't exist, but the Shilluk seem to have a strong principle of sovereignty, but almost no administration, and not much of an open field of political competition (except during interregnums.) This is why I find it so interesting.
Actually this is not what I argue at all. The Shilluk are a Nilotic people closely related to the Nuer and Dinka. In the standard shorthand understanding that emerged from Evans-Pritchard's time, the Dinka were the generic Nilotics, the Nuer were "Dinka plus segmentary lineage system" and the Shilluk were "Dinka plus sacred kingship." Obviously this is hugely simplifying but it never occurred to me that anyone familiar with the basic history of anthropological study of the region would think that I was arguing the Shilluk represent the fundamental way in which society comes into being, since the Dinka and Nuer are obviously societies of some sort and they come into being entirely differently. What I WAS trying to argue is that the notion of sovereignty and some notion along the lines of what we call "the people" are mutually constitutive and that the Shilluk, being a case where that principle of sovereignty exists in relatively pure form, with comparatively little in the way of administrative structure or political field, for instance, (and again, please, note words, "relatively" "comparatively" I'm not saying these things are entirely absent), provides a remarkably clear illustration of a dynamic that can be observed anywhere where a single centralised form of violence is seen as constitutive of the political order.
John McCreery said:
Should we perhaps consider the elephant in the room? David Graeber is an American anthropologist. His national myth describes the formation of a new society through rebellion against a tyrannical king. And perhaps nowhere on Earth today is the intoxicating brew of unfinished utopian projects and random acts of violence more evident -- or at least more publicized.
Then suppose we proceed as anthropologists used to do by expanding our vision in search of comparative perspective. First stop, the 20th century, when dreams of violence as the great purifier set the world aflame. Hitler Stalin, Mao, their lesser epigones, the list is virtually endless. All embodied visons of new societies recreated and cleansed of ancient dross by the fires of war.
Step back a bit further and realize how our dreams of little communities united by shared values and peaceful exchange fail to match the realities of life among Comanches, Apaches, Iroquois, Aztecs,Incas, Dyaks, Mongols, Somalis or Zulus. Again the list is endless.
But this way lies delirium. Let us get down to the case at hand. In Graeber's analysis the Shilluk become a parable, an exemplary tale of universal human interest. Humans become societies by killing kings. But what else can we say about them?
Can someone find a map showing the distribution of Nilotic peoples in the early 20th century, to give us a sense of where the Shilluk are located in relation to the Dinka, Fong, Nuer,etc.? We are told in the paper that Shilluk territory was relatively densely populated, and that the Shilluk, far from being peaceful peasants, raided the Dinka and the Fong. We know that to the north was Egypt with a deep tradition of divine kings -- though to what extent 20th century Shilluk were aware of this tradition remains unclear. This anthropologist speculates: Are we looking at a situation like that described by Leach in highland Burma, where long political cycles oscillate between the ambitions of petty king wannabes who model themselves on the Burmese and Thai-style kings in the more populous deltas downriver from them clash with the eqalitarian ethos of those who live deeper in the mountains but are tempted by the sins of civilization? Or is this pure rubbish?
I should clear up something: When people tend to get into to papers like this and argue nuances til the end of time, not much happens ( it happens to me sometimes, hence, if i am not careful), which seemed to me the opposite intention of this paper.
So does this paper have activist relevance or not or maybe? I think it does, as you stated, it adds to the current literature, and hinted at what might be a part of the beginnings of the state, not an investigation into the 'nature of the state', but the beginnings of various underlying principles of current state power.
I'll take a look at Toni Negri, I never heard of the guy.
I agree that there are other ways, than 'the people approach'
Thank you for replying David. I really enjoy reading your stuff, even if I misinterpret from time to time.
David, thanks for your extensive replies; it surely put a lot of debris in place. I'm glad you acknowledge that more research is needed to (dis-)qualify the purposed link from existential dilemmas to sovereignty. Considering its current somewhat quasi-religious character, I think it has little power to convince anyone outside the narrow circle of already converts. Personally though, I'll corroborate to your activist mission any day.
To your question Lee, as I see it, there's only the odeur of fresh morning coffee and the distant rumble of thunder (or the cluster bomb splinters flaying your football-playing children to pieces!). Or whatever. Which is to say that I'll courtly back down from discussions of grand Ur-questions in this context (hence also my issues with "fundamental human conditions"). My primary interest is to understand the text on its own conceptual premises (a mark I feel Mann doesn't quite hit in his review of Wolf).
To me, David's clarifications of the cultural nature of arbitrary violence are very instructive. Constructing undue moral justifications in retrospect of one's stepping on other's feet seems to prevail in most all human relations.
Many thanks for your thoughtful critiques of seminar contributions to date. While the argument in your essay is refreshingly lucid, I think the difficulty – and elusiveness – of the notion of sovereignty has led us participants down interpretive pathways you did not intend. I’d like to explore that in just a bit, but first:
In your response to Huon’s question about what is arbitrary about arbitrary violence, you provide a graphic account of state-sponsored terror:
It's been my observation that even in those bureaucratic and systematic forms of state terror, that role of randomness, inexplicable and unjustifiable force, does play an important symbolic role. My direct experience here has been of activist friends who've been arrested and imprisoned. The one thing they always remark on is the jailer's insistence on making up random charges that they know aren't true, that are often on the face of it absurd, even when, in some cases, they could just as easily have made up more plausible or even true ones. . . . . . and on to examples of jailors’ exercise of arbitrary harassment.
I agree. In fact, I think what makes a state’s bureaucratic violence especially terrible / terrorizing is precisely that it is carried out (in the U. S. and other Western “democracies”) within a state apparatus supposedly guided by an ideology of freedom and of justice before the law. Every politician trumpets his country’s embrace of “the rule of law” in contrasting it to those awful terrorists who operate without such a rule. It is the awful contrast or disjunction between that ideology and the behavior of your friends’ jailors that adds to the outrage. And of course, your friends’ experiences – being charged with chipping paint in jail cells and so on – dwindle to insignificance in the face of the carnage on the streets of cops (“to protect and to serve”) gunning down young black men. State violence vs. individual violence should be a major topic in contemporary social thought. To date, though, probably the best monograph I know on the subject is A Clockwork Orange.
Again, thanks for reiterating your argument; there should now be less room for our wide-ranging responses:
What I WAS trying to argue is that the notion of sovereignty and some notion along the lines of what we call "the people" are mutually constitutive and that the Shilluk, being a case where that principle of sovereignty exists in relatively pure form, with comparatively little in the way of administrative structure or political field, for instance, (and again, please, note words, "relatively" "comparatively" I'm not saying these things are entirely absent), provides a remarkably clear illustration of a dynamic that can be observed anywhere where a single centralised form of violence is seen as constitutive of the political order.
I’ll try to be brief here, though your account raises complicated issues. First, I think seminar participants have difficulty with it – I know I do – because the notion of “sovereignty” is pretty much missing from the anthropological lexicon (at least from mine). And the “archeology” of that notion adds an extra layer of complexity.
I really like your idea – a brilliant thesis – that “a people” comes into being only through the agency of an individual’s (the king) violence directed at them. But there are a host of inside-outside issues I mentioned in an earlier post. Inside: For “a people” to coalesce, does there need to be a pre-existing reservoir of sorts of our old friend, “primordial sentiment,” or can the phenomenon just spring up ex nihilo? On the “outside” forces at work, social arrangements always seem to involve several competing powers. Here an anecdote must suffice (as my word count grows). Recently I saw a TV interview with a Special Forces soldier just returned from Afghanistan. He related that his outfit’s counterinsurgency efforts sometimes involved going into a village and passing out little Afghan flags. They were met with uncomprehending stares from the villagers: “Why are you giving us these scraps of cloth”? Uncomprehending stares in return from the Special Forces guys: “But these are the flag of Afghanistan, you know, your country, your nation.” More uncomprehending stares. The villagers recognized the power of a headman, who kept them in place with some sort of authority along with a few strong arm henchmen. The headman in turn had relations with other headmen in the area, some friendly, some hostile. That’s about as far as it went. The villagers might well find themselves caught up in these headmen’s intrigues, but as far as a country called “Afghanistan,” well, they were clueless. And then, to add another, especially terrifying “outside” indication of power (sovereignty?) the drones would strike.
Very complicated, but should end here.
First stop, the 20th century, when dreams of violence as the great purifier set the world aflame. Hitler Stalin, Mao, their lesser epigones, the list is virtually endless. All embodied visons of new societies recreated and cleansed of ancient dross by the fires of war.
I think this is a rather odd comparison considering that there was no mention of: CNT/FAI revolution in 1930s Spain, The Ukrainian Insurrection during the Russian revolution in 1900s, and The Paris commune, as historical comparisons to MAO etc, and why they 'failed.' Not mention the countless aboriginal groups that are fighting today, such as the EZLN.
Please note "the list is virtually endless." Citing a few of the better known examples is all I was intending to do. To keesp this topical I should likely have included ISIS.
Apologies for temporary absence. I was overwhelmed.
I have been a huge fan of this essay since before it found its published niche in HAU's first issue. What is so great about it? First, the Shilluk have been a standard of my anthropological education. For example, Max Gluckman always launched his introductory lectures on politics, law and ritual with the Shilluk case. And the Oxford-based ethnography of Nilotic peoples stands out. But David's scholarship here is unparalleled in my experience. Then there is the quality of the writing, rigorous but not scholastic. But this skirts round the main point which, from what I have read of the discussion so far, is not transparent to many contemporary readers. As R.H. Collingwood asked, What question is this the answer to?
Here, rather like Marcel Mauss in The Gift, David has left some pretty large clues, but he has also left us to do some of the work. Let me step back a bit. Marshall Sahlins is by no means the sole inspiration for this essay, but he has recently -- in Anthropology Today 31.2, April 2015 -- chosen to publish "An anthropological manifesto: Or the origin of the state". It is partly a refutation of economistic theories of politics, drawing on the anthropological literature of kingdoms like the Shilluk. But he concludes that pursuit of the origins of inequality is something of a chimera. Perhaps "the human sciences should be more concerned with the apparently rare and recent origins of social equality." David's implied question is: how might a people govern itself without rulers and what obstacles stand in the way of that political project? The problem is the nature of sovereignty and the Shilluk case is a historically concrete allegory pointing us towards an archaeology of sovereignty.
Despite his massive scholarship, David Graeber's anthropology is always informed by political questions of this kind. The two are not contradictory. It makes a huge difference. Just look at the discussion so far, the questions that motivate the contributors and the assumptions that support them. You can ask of something, What do you think of it? But you can also ask, What are you going to do about it? There is great resistance to the second question among anthropologists and this alone ensures the discipline's irrelevance to public discourse and policy. David will probably say that he made his purposes perfectly clear, but when his readers are inured to rejecting such a perspective, they can easily miss it.
The argument is that sovereignty is established above all in waging war on outsiders, but it is reproduced daily as a war by rulers on their own subjects. People understand what makes an act arbitrary, given its impervience to any standard notion of justice or respect for others' humanity. This in turn is seen as being god-like. And 'the people' are in a way formed by it, in conjunction with the idea of order which is its twin.
Clearly, a comparative perspective enters this story. Given the author's background and political interests, it would surprising if the United States didn't figure at some level. David does not distance himself from the genre to which he is contributing, from Frazer onwards a desire to extrapolate from divine kinship to a general theory of the state and perhaps also to religion. Maybe we should be more selective in our comparisons, asking if some modern states reveal the logic of Shilluk politics more than others.
David has made no secret of his anarchist poliics, but he also has had plenty practical experience of how hard this is to realise in practice. I take the present essay to be an exercise in excavating some of the large and opaque principles which make that task so difficult, but which an engaged anthropology must illumante profoundly. He has been asked what "arbitrary" might mean. The world has been shocked in recent months by a spate of police killings of black people in the US. I would sugggest that reading this essay would throw much light on this issue. Why is the US so religious and what has this got to do with violence? Why are Americans so afraid of the IRS? Who are the people and how does this relate to racism? Or take the other great revolutionary democracy, France, where police violence often seems to be just as immune to moral or legal constraint. Finally, what is the meaning of this essay for the analysis and future of democracy in Africa, where acounts of irregular governance are legion (the post-colony, architects of poverty, politics of the belly)?
Keith, thanks for jumping in. Since I know that you did classics before you did anthropology, I wonder if you could comment on the relationship of the proposition that
sovereignty is established above all in waging war on outsiders, but it is reproduced daily as a war by rulers on their own subjects.
to Aristotle's three types of constitutions, rule by the one, rule by the several, rule by the many in their just and perverted versions, with royalty, aristocracy and constitutional government as the just form and tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy as the perverted form—where justice is defined as for the common good?
Would it be fair to say that David's argument rules out any possibility of a just royal or aristocratic regime and envisions the ideal as a democracy, which in Aristotle's sense would be perverse, i.e., the kind of mob rule that tramples on minority rights?
P.S. I may no claim to be using these terms in a properly classical manner. They are taken directly from Wikipedia.
I take from David's essay the dialectical proposition that "the people", as in democracy, even in overthrowing monarchy and aristocracy, retains fundamental features of iits formation which are. durably problematic. This would include the treatment of minorities, a subject to which Tocqueville gave much thought, as you know. As Sahlins suggests, the problem should be approached by treating our own societies as recent and often failed political experiments for which there is scant precedent in human history. It is also worth reviving the idea of a republic as opposed to democracy. There the argument is that government should respond to and express the will of the people, but it could take the form of monarchy, oligarchy or democracy. David doesn't bring up the issue of constitutions here, but his direct action politics are based on a critique of formal institutions. My point, contra Aristotle, was that instead of striving for universal statements or typologies, we might fruitfully look at some of the cases that interest us one by one, much as David has here with the Shilluk.