david on creative refusal

reading for m of care – aug 19 – culture as creative refusal – by david graeber [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263145746_Culture_as_Creative_Refusal]

suggested in m of care – aug 5

from museum of care fb page.. (linked to image):

With David Graeber’s latest book (co-written by David Wengrow), The Dawn of Everything, coming out in October this year, we thought it might be a good idea to dedicate the next reading group to ‘Culture as Creative Refusal,’ which develops as one the of key points of the book.

Link to the text: https://drive.google.com/…/1s2q…/view…


notes/quotes – 20 pg pdf – (2013)


What I would like to do in this essay is to talk about cultural comparison as an active force in history. That is, I want to address the degree to which cultures are not just conceptions of what the world is like, not just ways of being and acting in the world, but active political projects which often operate by the explicit rejection of other ones.


No culture exists in isolation; self-definition is always necessarily a process of comparison.. I think ..that large-scale projects of mutual self-definition have played a far more important role in human history than either anthropologists or historians have usually imagined

graeber values law

Part I: World History

To make my case here I will draw, first, on an unlikely set of sources: Marcel Mauss’s notion of civilizations; a peculiar essay written by the American anarchist thinker Peter Lamborn Wilson (perhaps better known by his sometime pseudonym, Hakim Bey); and finally, the work of British archaeologist David Wengrow.

david wengrow

Mauss: noted dramatic examples of non-diffusion of even extremely practical technologies by neighbouring peoples. Algonkians in Alaska refuse to adopt Inuit kayaks, despite their being self-evidently more suited to the environment than their own boats; Inuit, similarly, refuse to adopt Algonkian snowshoes. Since almost any existing style, form, or technique has always been available to almost anyone, he concluded, cultures – or civilizations – are based on conscious refusal.


Wilson: The peculiar thing about these effigy mounds is that they seemed to be self-conscious celebrations of natural forms. In conjunction with the rejection of hierarchy, war, and farming, they might even be seen as a kind of utopian, self-conscious primitivism, an enchanted landscape fashioned into a self-conscious work of art… Is it possible, Wilson asks, that the much vaunted ecological consciousness of so many Northeast Woodlands societies might not be, as almost everyone assumes, simply a cultural given, but bear traces of a similar conscious rejection of urbanization?


The idea that at least some egalitarian societies were shaping their ideals and institutions in conscious reaction to hierarchical ones is not new.. In recent years, we have even seen a small emerging literature on the ‘anarchist’ societies of Southeast Asia.. such societies being seen as deliberate rejections of the governing principles of nearby states, or even as societies that had defined themselves against those states in much the same way as Wilson has argued for the North American societies above, that is, through a process of schizmogenesis (creation of division)


This work has revolutionized the whole conversation about the nature of egalitarian societies, at least within the academy. But I think it runs the danger of leaving us with the unfortunate impression that these reactions and refusals cut only one way. In fact, I think reality is far more complex. Acts of creative refusal can lead to new ideals of equality, new forms of hierarchy, or often, a complicated mix of both.

let me turn to my third source of inspiration, the work of David Wengrow – in my view the most creative archaeological thinker alive today – on the Bronze Age potlatch. ..treasure troves full of large amounts of extremely valuable metalware that appear to have been self-consciously abandoned or even systematically destroyed. The remarkable thing is that such troves never occur within the great urban civilizations themselves, but always in the surrounding hill country, or similar marginal zones that were closely connected to the commercial bureaucratic centres by trade but were in no sense incorporated. Hence the comparison with potlatches. Most of the great, extravagant feasting cycles of the seventeenth century Huron or Great Lakes region, or the nineteenth-century Northwest Coast, or twentieth-century Melanesia, occurred in exactly this sort of context: societies being drawn into the trading orbit of other commercial-bureaucratic civilizations, and thus accumulating vast quantities of new material goods, while at the same time rejecting the ultimate values of the societies with which they were in contact. The difference is that the societies we know about historically, outgunned and outnumbered, were quickly overwhelmed. The Bronze Age barbarians, in contrast, often won. In fact, they left an enduring legacy, for it was exactly these potlatch zones that eventually produced the great epic traditions and ultimately the great philosophical traditions and world religions: Homer, the Rig Veda, Avesta, and even, in a more attenuated sense, the Bible. Here is where Chadwick comes in, since he too saw the great epics as having been written by people in contact with, and often employed as mercenaries by, the urban civilizations of their day, but who ultimately rejected the values of these civilizations.


The question we cannot answer is whether all these features are reactions to the life of the cities, or whether this is more a matter of pre-existing features that began to take on much more elaborated form when societies organized around them encountered urban commercial-bureaucratic civilizations. After all, there are only so many ways a political system can be organized. Nonetheless it is clear that schizmogenetic processes of some kind were going on, and probably on both sides, as urbanites learned simultaneously to admire and revile the ‘barbarians’ surrounding them.

What is unusual about our own political systems is rather the fusion of the heroic mode with the principle of sovereignty – a principle with its own peculiar history, which originally stood entirely apart from governance, and which has quite different implications – but one which cannot be more than alluded to here.

Part II: Madagascar

The idea of heroic politics originating in acts of cultural refusal struck me as particularly intriguing considering that my own fieldwork in Madagascar had led me to conclude that politics there was largely an apparently calculated rejection of heroic principles.

on kings.. human history.. et al


This picture was always highly implausible, but more recent archaeological and linguistic research has shown that, rather than being innocent of states and world religions, the early settlers of Madagascar appear to have known all about both, and to have actively decided they wanted nothing to do with them.

In fact, we know that merchants from Malay city-states were trading in gold and ivory in the Zambezi valley opposite Madagascar at this time; it is easy to see how establishing a permanent trading post a safe distance away, on a large uninhabited island, might have seemed advantageous. But it leads one to ask: if Malay merchants brought a group of people, including at least thirty women, drawn from a variety of largely non-nautical people on other Indonesian islands, to such a place – what sort of people might those have been? Later history provides us with a pretty clear idea. Borneo, and as well as islands like Sulawezi, were precisely the places from which later Malay city-states imported their slaves. By all accounts, such slaves made up a very large proportion of the populations of such cities. And what would be the likely result had a group of such merchants established a trading post populated largely by slaves on a giant uninhabited island? If any substantial number escaped to the interior, it would have been impossible to recover them.


Archaeology is beginning to give us at least a rough picture of Madagascar in the first centuries of its human habitation. The early picture is one of striking heterogeneity. There does not seem to be any sense in which we can talk about a ‘Malagasy’ people. For at least the first five centuries, we find instead evidence for a collection of populations of very diverse origins, just about all of them, however, engaged in some form of trade with the wider world (even the earliest sites usually contain pottery from the Persian Gulf and/or China), and most of them not straying too far from the coast.


it suggests the kind of social process one is likely to have encountered in the hinterlands of such trade emporia at the time: extreme hierarchy at the centre, with a servile or socially marginalized population escaping their merchant overlords and forming defiant communities in the interior. Nor is the violence likely to have been simply one way. While gold, ivory and various exotic products were still being traded up and down the coast, the focus of the East African trading economy increasingly shifted to the movement of slaves, captured largely from those same rebel communities.

The intriguing question for me is the degree to which it was itself part of process of cultural refusal and schizmogenesis: that is, what came to be considered Malagasy culture itself coalesced in opposition to Mahilaka, which was, at the time, the principal outpost of the larger Indian Ocean world system, with all the forms of religious, economic and political power it entailed. Or it arose in opposition to that larger system itself. To give just one example: the existence of great stone mansions in Mahilaka, and in other, later medieval and early modern port cities, is quite striking in the light of the general, later Malagasy fady, or taboo, against building stone houses for the living, rather than the dead.

When Maurice Bloch was doing his fieldwork in central Madagascar in the 1960s, he observed a popular tendency to classify everything, from customs and technologies to chickens and vegetables, into two varieties: one considered Malagasy (gasy), the other vazaha – a term that can, according to context, mean ‘foreign’, ‘white’, or ‘French’. This tendency to dichotomize has been observed since colonial times. This is usually assumed to have been a result of colonization. Frantz Fanon famously argued that before the arrival of white colonialists, one could not

The very category is born of relations of violent subordination and degradation. All I am suggesting is that this relationship might go back much further than we think.


What I am suggesting, then, is that what we now think of as Malagasy culture has its origins in a rebel ideology of escaped slaves, and that the moment of ‘synthesis’ in which it came together can best be thought of as a self-conscious movement of collective refusal directed against representatives of a larger world-system.


During the nineteenth century, for instance, foreign observers universally insisted that whatever the typical Merina farmer might have thought of court officials, no one would think to question the legitimacy of the monarchy, or their absolute personal devotion to the queen. Yet when I was in Imerina, a mere century later, I could not find a single person in the countryside who had not been through the higher education system who had anything good to say about Merina monarchy. The only ancient kings who were remembered fondly were those said to have voluntarily abandoned their power. This was not a rejection of authority of every kind. The authority of elders and ancestors, for example, was treated as absolutely legitimate. But anything that smacked of individual, let alone heroic, forms of power was at the very least treated with suspicion by most or, more likely, openly mocked and rejected. Even at the time I labelled it an ‘anti-heroic society’ (Graeber 2007a), since I appeared to be in the presence of an ideology that seemed to take every principle of heroic society and explicitly reject it, as summarized below:

– Rather than politics being composed of a history of personal debts of loyalty or vengeance between heroic individuals, all oral histories represented such figures as foolish, egotistical, and, therefore, as having imposed ridiculous, unjustifiable restrictions on their followers or descendants. .. in a sense, the only completely legitimate way of exercising authority over others – was not to create projects or initiatives (these should rise spontaneously through the whole of the group) but to stop headstrong individuals from acting in ways that might produce such results.

imagine if we

– As the previous example suggests, it was felt that public and political life should definitely not consist of a series of game-like contests. Decisions were made by consensus.

decision making is unmooring us law.. public consensus always oppresses someone(s)

david on consensus et al

– Similarly, theatricality, boasting and self-aggrandizing lying were at the very centre of moral disapproval; public figures made dramatic displays of self-effacement.
– Curiously, despite the egalitarian emphasis, money and writing were the two features of urban civilization that were embraced and appreciated: everyone was involved in petty commerce in some form or another, and the literacy rate was extraordinarily high.

lit & num as colonialism.. any form of m\a\p

How did this happen, historically? One might well ask: were there, in fact, heroic societies that rural Malagasy were even aware of, to define themselves against? Or was this again the *product of a certain play of limited possibilities? Presumably there were no classic heroic societies of the sort familiar from the Bronze Age in Madagascar, but there were certainly heroic elements aplenty

*aka: sea world


What really happened is a question that can only be unravelled with much further research, but the broad outlines can be made out. ..by the 16th century doing a brisk business supplying weapons to local Malagasy warrior elites, or would-be warrior elites, in exchange for a continual supply of slaves

sea world

Most of what are now considered ‘ethnic groups’ in Madagascar correspond to kingdoms created by these elites. But the warrior aristocrats never considered themselves part of those groups: in fact, they almost invariably insisted that they were not really Malagasy at all. Much of what we know of early Malagasy history comes from the heroic stories of their various battles and intrigues, preserved in Malagasy texts written in Arabic script. These dynasties have since disappeared but the descendants of their subjects still think of themselves as Antemoro and Antanosy. ..Even the Betsimisaraka, who now dominate the east coast and are considered among the most doggedly egalitarian peoples of Madagascar, first came into being as the followers of a warrior elite called the Zana-Malata, made up of the halfMalagasy children of Euro-American pirates who settled the region at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and whose descendants remain a self-identified group in the region, separate from the Betsimisaraka, to this day. In other words, each ethnic group emerges in opposition to their own particular group of heroic semi-outsiders, who in turn mediate, for better or worse, between the Malagasy population itself and the temptations and depredations of the outside world. By such arrangements, the original schizmogenetic gesture of definition over and against the values of port cities like Mahilaka could become, for each new emergent group, a permanent process of definition against their own specific collection of permanent heroic outsiders.

marsh label law et al


so it’s all/always been sea world.. so maybe now simona‘s tweet about dawn of everything makes sense:

The battle @davidgraeber  and @davidwengrow fight in *The Dawn of Everything* is not so much about historical revision, as it is about getting rid of the illusion of a one-shot revolution that takes us back to a single ideal past.


Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/SimonaFerlini/status/1423554211258712067

not that there was a perfect time to go back to.. because all history was/is played out in sea world.. but that doesn’t mean we can’t leap to ie: eudaimonia\tive surplus.. to an undisturbed ecosystem (not a one shot revolution.. a revolution in reverse.. a revolution of everyday life.. revolution as instigating utopia everyday


1\ undisturbed ecosystem (common\ing) can happen

2\ if we create a way to ground the chaos of 8b free people

ginormous diff

let’s be that creative in our refusal ie: a nother way

I have tried to outline in this essay, somewhat schematically, a cascading series of gestures of refusal, reincorporation, and renewed refusal. Heroic societies emerge as a rejection of commercial bureaucratic ones. Some of the logic of heroic society becomes recovered and reincorporated into urban civilizations, leading to a new round of schizmogenesis whereby they are rejected and social orders created around the very rejection of those heroic elements. It would be interesting indeed to see, if we were to re-examine world history as a series of such acts of creative refusal, just how far such an approach could ultimately go.

seems like an energy suck ad infinitum.. but seems like we’re doing something.. so even more addicting/perpetuating to/of the thing/system we’re hoping to refuse/leave

not far enough.. until we creatively refuse all of history ness.. and see it (history) as just us modeling/confroming/copeing to whales/rats ness.. in a non legit sea world/cage.. perpetuating tragedy of the non common


I feel like this text is @davidgraeber’s ideological manifesto. It says that culture can be chosen, shaped, and with it the social design and the course of history could be reshaped.

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/nikadubrovsky/status/1429497027319275520

yeah.. for sure let’s manifesto the idea of changing.. ie: graeber make it diff law et al

but let’s legit make it diff by channeling our energies right (much like the energy such you refer to in saying nika.. don’t want to meet to decide things.. just want to do things – m of care – jan 1 et al).. let’s not focus on refusing what’s there.. let’s focus on what we legit want/need.. rendering all we don’t legit want/need irrelevant s .. aka: not worth our time to even refuse

let’s re\set.. start fresh.. everyday.. by listening to itch-in-8b-souls first thing everyday.. and work/connect off that