david on beyond power/knowledge

david graeber‘s – Beyond Power/Knowledge- An Exploration of power, ignorance and stupidity – (2006) – via kindle version from anarchist library

[also have notes on same piece here: david on power, ignorance & stupidity]

notes/quotes from 14 pg:

starts w story of his mom dying – utopia of rules et al


As an intellectual, probably the most disturbing thing was how dealing with these forms somehow rendered me stupid too. How could I not have noticed that I was printing my name on the line that said “signature”? This despite the fact that I had been investing a great deal of mental and emotional energy in the whole affair. The problem, I think, was that most of this energy was going into a continual attempt to try to understand and influence whoever, at any moment, seemed to have some kind of bureaucratic power over me—when what was required was the correct interpretation of one or two Latin words, and correct performance of purely mechanical functions. Spending so much of my time worrying about how not to seem like I was rubbing the notary’s face in her incompetence, or imagining what might make me seem sympathetic to various bank officials, made me less inclined to notice when they told me to do something foolish. It was an obviously misplaced strategy, since insofar as anyone had the power to bend the rules they were usually not the people I was talking to; moreover, if I did encounter them, I was constantly being reminded that if I did complain, even about a purely structural absurdity, the only possible result would be to get some junior functionary in trouble.. t

every word.. oh my..

interpretive labor.. structural violence.. spiritual violence.. et al


As an anthropologist, probably the most curious thing for me was how little trace any of this tends to leave in the ethnographic literature. After all, we anthropologists have made something of a specialty out of dealing with the ritual surrounding birth, marriage, death, and similar rites of passage. We are particularly concerned with ritual gestures that are socially efficacious: where the mere act of saying or doing something makes it socially true. Yet in most existing societies at this point, it is precisely paperwork, not other forms of ritual, that is socially efficacious. My mother, for example, wished to be cremated without ceremony; my main memory of the funeral home though was of the plump, good-natured clerk who walked me through a 14-page document he had to file in order to obtain a death certificate, written in ballpoint on carbon paper so it came out in triplicate. “How many hours a day do you spend filling out forms like that?” I asked. He sighed. “It’s all I do,” holding up a hand bandaged from some kind of incipient carpal tunnel syndrome. Without those forms, my mother would not be, legally—socially—dead.. t

Why, then, are there not vast ethnographic tomes about American or British rites of passage, with long chapters about forms and paperwork? The obvious answer is that paperwork is boring. There really aren’t many interesting things one can say about it.


This essay is not, however, primarily about bureaucracy—or even about the reasons for its neglect in anthropology and related disciplines. It is really about violence..t

What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence—particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence. . t I think this approach allows potential insights into matters that are, in fact, both interesting and important: for instance, the actual relationship between those forms of simplification typical of social theory, and those typical of administrative procedures.


We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force” in turn is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence..t



All of this is obvious enough. What’s of ethnographic interest, perhaps, is how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life, without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them. It’s almost as the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of violence..t

libraries too..

French is actually referred to in Malagasy as “the language of command”; it was characteristic of contexts where explanations, deliberation, ultimately, consent, was not really required, since they were ultimately premised on the threat of violence..t

language as control/enclosure et al

literacy and numeracy both elements of colonialism/control/enclosure.. we need to calculate differently and stop measuring things


But this has very profound effects, because it means that the most characteristic effect of violence—its ability to obviate (remove) the need for interpretive labor—becomes most salient when the violence itself is least visible, in fact, where acts of spectacular physical violence are least likely to occur. These are situations of what I’ve referred to as structural violence, on the assumption that systematic inequalities backed up by the threat of force can be treated as forms of violence in themselves. For this reason, situations of structural violence invariably produce extreme lopsided structures of imaginative identification..t

structural violence.. interpretive labor.. et al

Generations of women novelists—Virginia Woolf comes most immediately to mind—have also documented the other side of such arrangements: the constant efforts women end up having to expend in managing, maintaining, and adjusting the egos of oblivious and self-important men, involving an continual work of imaginative identification or what I’ve called interpretive labor..t This carries over on every level. Women are always expected to imagine what things look like from a male point of view. Men are almost never expected to reciprocate. So deeply internalized is this pattern of behavior that many men react to the suggestion that they might do otherwise as if it were an act of violence in itself.


Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules, statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification..t


As an ethnographer, then, he ended up doing something very much like traditional women’s work: keeping the system from disaster by tactful interventions meant to protect the oblivious and self-important men in charge from the consequences of their own blindness.

Would it have been better to have kept one’s hands clean? These strike me as questions of personal conscience. I suspect the greater moral dangers lie on an entirely different level. The question for me is whether our theoretical work is ultimately directed at undoing, dismantling, some of the effects of these lopsided structures of imagination, or whether—as can so easily happen when even our best ideas come to be backed up by bureaucratically administered violence—we end up reinforcing them..t