david on marshall

13 page doc by david graeber on marshall (on culture) sahlins via nika dubrovsky (for reading group on marshall’s book) – [https://docs.google.com/document/d/1HKnxqS_22Rql1CQtpXiiqy57Atz4RThus6873ST0kd8/edit]



Sahlins was something of a prodigy, the over-eager youth who sat in on Polanyi’s lectures..Wrote a library dissertation in 1954, at the tender age of 24, on big men and chiefs, one he later said he’d never have accepted, and started teaching in Michigan again – the closest major anthropology department to his own native Chicago. He played a part in coming up with the evolutionary band, tribe, and state model that still haunts archeology, and was to the end of his life a good friend of Marvin Harris, who became the life-long most famous advocate of “Cultural Materialism” – a genuine attempt to create a systematic, even predictive, science of culture on materialist grounds. But they ended up in an enormous controversy in the ‘60s over such issues, fought out in the New York Review of Books, oddly enough, which at the time was something of a lefty journal.

He eventually became more of a substantivist than evolutionist – writing Stone Age economics, and his probably most influential essay “The Original Affluent Society”, while he was gradually doing some real fieldwork, in Fiji, and also Hawaii, but at the same time getting increasingly involved in anti-war campus politics in Michigan in 1972. His most famous political intervention at the time was his coming up with – the title is somewhat contested by Eric Wolf, who claims he was co-inventor with him—the idea of the “teach-in.” But the key break in his career by all accounts came when he spent two years in Paris, on the invitation of Claude Levi-Strauss, who made a very specific mission to convert him to the cause of structuralism – but which also meant he was present during the famous events of May ’68, when he apparently had an office just down the hall from Jean Baudrillard. Back then, semiotics, using structural approaches to analyze consumption and capitalist ideology, seemed like the real cutting edge of radicalism and many were seduced.

stone age econ.. foreword to stone age econ.. original affluent society..


But by the ‘80s, he had shifted gear, to the sorts of concerns that first really appear in the little book we’re reading in this seminar: Historical Metaphors and Mythic Realities, that is, how to reconcile that sort of semiotic approach—which starts with meaningful structure, and in this sense is very American (Levi-Strauss being a devoted student of Boas, and not, like Durkheim and Mauss, a sociologist)—and then tries to reconcile it with history. This was the great debate at the time. There was this sense that Structuralism had made a profound breakthrough by temporarily placing historical change on hold: starting with Ferdinand Saussure’s famous break with historical linguistics.  Levi-Strauss, in patching together

  • Saussurean langue, Sr and Sd
  • Jakobsen and Troubetskoy’s componential phonology with its binary oppositions
  • A little gestalt psychology (patterns as wholes)
  • Anthropological notions of cultural pattern and categories

Seemed to have opened the secrets to all cultural meaning. But only at the expense of having nothing to say about historical change and hence, effective human action. This was a dilemma. To solve it, Sahlins essentially went back to his origins, a phrase he was taught by Leslie White, the world is under no obligation to correspond to the cultural constructions you place on it.”

graeber make it diff law et al


end of the last expedition of Captain Cook, the British explorer, killed in Hawaii on St. Valentine’s day 1779. 

he was a kind of Enlightenment celebrity, seen on the European side as an icon of civilization, even of the industrial revolution: of a humble Yorkshire background, self-made man who rose through technical competence, a math whizz, learned navigation and sailing


Famous for his patience, tolerance, forbearance, fortitude, attention to detail, professionalism. He’s there not to conquer like Cortes but to open new markets through peaceful means, with two ships Resolution (Cook) and Discovery (Clerke). Spread the message of free trade, industry, and enlightened self-interest to new parts of the world. Was a kind of apostle of what would now be called “Neoliberalism” and then was just called “Liberalism.” The ship was seen also as a floating Enlightenment, full of scholars to record the natural history of the places they discover, botanists, astronomers, landscape artists…

pirate enlightenment et al


Maori example is the most extreme, and hence useful for illustrative purposes. You end up with an idea that all fertility, all creative power, comes from the gods. But this means that the very act of living, producing, becomes war, endocannibalism even, as you get up in battle gear to harvest sweet potatoes. 

But even if it’s just in social terms, it means inevitable decline. Thus the generative principle which the gods represent is gradually being lost and diffused. They are most embodied in the eldest son, [who is set apart for the gods as it were, the first thing] – only the chief is really equivalent to the god, as a sort of living ancestor who generated the group and therefore represents it. There’s no place to go but down. However, the idea of appropriation leads to seeing a way out. Marrying outside a way of raising status: because this is a cognatic system, or at least has a cognatic element, which lets you. Also, a general idea of strife between humans and gods, ability of humans to steal divine power… But there is also an eternal dependence on them because humans are not able to reproduce or to make things grow without them

all in an idiom of strife: if gods are creative, humans are destructive (especially males, who are in this the paradigm of humanity), and oddly, the god who is the ancestor of human beings is Tu, the God of War. Hawaiian version is KU – the king plays his part


people like Cook seen as beings from beyond the horizon, ie, sky, mythical lands there called KAHIKI (ie, TAHITI)… In particular, as an incarnation of figure called LONO – usually called diety of reproduction and human welfare, as in agricultural and healing rites, who comes in periodically

women’s reaction is similar to what happened on other Polynesian islands, such as Tahiti. The main reason seems to be: the women wanted to have children. Because in one of these lineage systems, this is one way that’s absolutely guaranteed to raise your status and that of your family. This is a very “Polynesian” system where marriage is a relative thing, you have noble women who’ve had 40 husbands over the course of their life, often several a time… Commoners have no genealogies but one obvious way of raising your status is having a child by some noble; even commoner husbands don’t mind having their wife do this as it becomes a way of domesticating your own noble, as it were, who is henceforth tied to your district where you’re going to be a bigshot as a result

at any rate, sex was essentially religious, a sacrament, and pleasure was the proof of the presence of the divine. It’s almost exactly the opposite of the Christian conception operative among the people on board, which even if they’re not much religious sets the standards. Question is what is the authoritative set of categories and the Europeans immediately start defining things in totally different terms: that which is sacred (ie, off-limits, not to be touched) is not divine creativity but private property; pleasure is distant from gods, not close; women willing to have sex for no reason are prostitutes, so you reward them with private property… So they started giving them little things – which the women of course accepted, i.e, nails especially, or anything made of iron – and redefining the relationship at least in their own minds

so key idea: who establishes the categories which define what’s going on. That’s where power ultimately lies. In these early days it was very much up for grabs, and both sides are applying entirely different rubrics to the same events



it’s both a 4 month period in which the god Lono returns, especially the few days of its climax 

it’s a common Austronesian return-of-the-ancestors period, when need them to fertilize the crops.


so when Cook showed up, there was a perfect coincidence with the Makahiki festival. Actually, both times. The second time he arrives November 26, 1778, just before the Pleiades rise which is supposed to set the whole thing off. Comes from the East, which is direction of Kahiki and various mythic (some floating) islands of creator gods. He lands on the exact bay where there’s the temple where the great procession is supposed to start and end.


invite Cook to set up his shop (observatory, etc) in the Temple of Lono. The priests also own the land behind it from which Cook gets his supplies and equipment. Their interpretation becomes the “authoritative position”, so if others contest it, that’s what they’re contesting. Often the chiefs do – really resent the priests

remember the secular chiefs and king had been off at war when Cook arrives; there’s an idea of Lono as “original god of the people” who stands for a longterm concept of legitimate rule, now challenged by ideal of conquering king. So there is, perhaps, an element of populist struggle here

the quarrel over the theft of a boat led to Cook trying to kidnap the king, using superior firepower, which was his usual technique for getting things returned. 

the big problems come after he comes back again because that’s not supposed to happen. Rituals are defined by their predictability, after all; history is that which you don’t know what’s going to happen.

when he died, treated as an apotheosis by Enlightenment publicists (as Bernard Smith documents): ie, painting of him ushered into History by Fame, with four corners of the empire all bringing tribute to George III. “Brought agricultural arts rather than the cannon’s roar”, an anti-Cortes. A kind of Christology surrounds his death – he creates and discovers new lands, regulates stars, like a primal Adam he names lands and thus possesses them, plants flags, etc… Commemorates with stamps and metals. Seen as a new kind of hero

similar process in Hawaii: for a while after Cook’s death, Europeans for understandable reasons avoided Hawaii, treacherous, they seem to friendly then they kill you. And the Maui kingdom is pretty harsh and extractive in dealing with foreigners; people have to stop for provisioning but usually have to come with major firepower and there are attacks from the nobles, pitched battles. However, the real unifier of Hawaii, KAMEHAMEHA, from Hawaii itself, claims to have avenged Cook’s death by killing that king (but also eliminated the priests of Lono), and became the owner of Cook’s relics, and therefore convinces people he has a special right to access to foreigners. He’s nice to them, gets weapons, and engages in a very long war back and forth with Maui. Getting hold of Cook’s bones was a big coup here, and by the early 1800s these are integrated into a new Makahiki ritual: carry them annually in procession as they once did with LONO. So they can frame him as a civilizing hero, responsible for Peace and Agriculture, in much the same way; but it also becomes center of state-building because that’s where they start systematically collecting taxes. Have emergence of a state in Weberian sense, disarming the populace, in fact, and gradual conversion of human sacrifice into capital punishment… New basis of rule more around Lono than old Ku, 



Comes back at Sahlins guns blazing, basically arguing that in doing so, he’s really reproducing classic colonial myths: a myth, as he puts it, of conquest, imperialism, and civilization. European explorers had this strange obsession with the idea that the people that they would encounter would see them as gods. You get it as early as Cortes, who with the Aztecs is self-consciously playing with an manipulating these ideas–it’s entirely unclear if the Aztecs or anyone else really took it all that seriously, or it changed their behavior towards him—and it’s reproduced over and over. It’s such a familiar trope we’ve seen it in a million movies, from “the Man Who Would Be King”, where some British adventurers discover a lost city in Afghanistan where one is taken to a reincarnation of the divinized Alexander (himself, an earlier Western conqueror) to to the Ewoks in Star Wars (who worship CP30), Kirk himself various Star Trek episodes, to the natives who worship Johnny Depp in the Pirates movie, and so forth an so on – though as those examples reveal, there’s often the dangerous underside where if you’re found out to be mortal, or just run out of your time, you’re also killed or sacrificed or whatnot. 

(I might note in passing, since we are speaking here of Western myth-making, that the original Star Trek seems to be entirely modeled on the Captain Cook expedition: their five-year mission, which was peaceful, except they took warships just in case, to explore strange new worlds, but just for scientific documentation and diplomatic communication rather than conquest or exploitation, with the minor difference that the heroic Enlightenment hero is Captain James Kirk instead of Captain James Cook, and the Enterprise instead of the Endeavor.)

And there’s a deeper dig here: that Cook in framing himself as a new sort of Enlightenment adventurer is a model for the anthropologist himself, a subtext that big white theorists like Sahlins might be magnifying Cook – vicariously – because they really secretly identify with him.

So there is a basic mythic template here and it’s a European one. Given that we have every reason to believe that Europeans would be inclined to interpret mysterious religious behavior directed at them in terms of that template, no matter what their intended meaning, we need to have more evidence than just their own fanciful interpretations that this was really happening.

This seems only reasonable. You could probably turn it into a general sociological law, the “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” If someone you know to be committing atrocities accuses the other side of being equally guilty, that’s not to be considered evidence in itself, since it’s almost impossible they wouldn’t be saying that. (It also of course doesn’t mean they didn’t, sometimes it’s true, it’s just that they’d be saying it even if it weren’t true so their assertion has no weight in itself.) Similarly, if someone asserts that policies designed to benefit the rich are really in the best interest of the poor as well – again, it might be true, but the fact that people in positions of institutional authority are asserting this means nothing in itself, and doesn’t make it any more likely to be true, since, some would be telling rich people what they want to hear regardless.


Raises key questions:

  • first of all, there are no Hawaiian texts. So how can we make generalizations about Hawaiians when all we have, for the 18th century, is texts written by British people. How can we filter out their own mythic perspectives? The endless conflicts between their own accounts – even the ships logs and narratives written by the same people present very different versions of what was going on. But at the same time that might just mean there were different mythic frameworks, just as there were differences between priests and chiefs
  • there is no such thing as a “native point of view”. That’s always a reification, a construct. Natives are just people and they’re thinking and arguing with each other just as much as anyone else. The way that people argue with each other is much more similar cross-culturally than either their premises or their conclusions. This is what he means by “practical rationality”: “I refer to a mode of thinking, not to a mode of thought.” They were improvising in a difficult situation, they weren’t sure what was going on. 
  • Not a “god”, a chief, divinized on death. There was endless pragmatic maneuvering though, which is rooted in a “pragmatic rationality” that is universal and which Sahlins’ Structuralist language tends to deny or cover up, thus denying the entire basis of our common humanity (which he claims to find originally in Buddhism). (There’s also a psychoanalytic perspective, the motivator is a dynamic unconscious which is also shared by all…)
  • At the same time what’s covered up in all this is Captain Cook’s own extreme violence – and this is where the psychoanalysis comes out

The latter is crucial. One could argue that Obeyesekere are talking past each other, they are effectively talking about entirely different things. The main factual bone of contention is hardly something anyone would normally care about: did Hawaiians treat Cook as the living incarnation of a god, or as a godlike chief who became the actual incarnation of a god after his death? Why is this even important? But really Sahlins is writing a book about Hawaiians, and Obeyesekere is writing a book about Cook. Sahlins is asking: what happens when something completely unprecedented enters into a total cosmological system: Hawaii was as close as you’re going to get to a cultural bubble, an island chain in the middle of a vast ocean, with one uniform cultural group speaking the same language living on all the islands and nobody else, not unaware of the outside world but with fairly limited encounters with it. Then suddenly people from halfway around the globe they can’t possible know anything about with inexplicable customs, technologies, purposes, appear literally out of the blue. How do they marshal their existing cosmological, economic, social, political schemas to be able to make sense of this? How are they forced to change those schemas and structures as a result

“the world is under no obligation to conform to your cultural constructions”

Obeyesekere is ultimately asking an entirely different question: why did Cook, committed to an ideal of peaceful exploration, the proto-anthropologist, end up killing so many people? Why was he so violent? Because while he certainly didn’t destroy whole civilizations on the scale of Columbus or Cortes or Pizarro, he left an awful lot of corpses behind for a peaceful scientist. So Obeyesekere sets out “to describe the trail of violence, beginning with his stay in Tonga in April 1777, that led Cook to his death in Hawai’i on 14 February 1779.” He says he lacks the materials to do a proper psychoanalysis, use mythic models

  • Prospero model – maintains his integrity and identity
  • Kurtz model – loses identity and descends into savagery himself


In his third voyage, the argument goes, Cook starts unconsciously slipping into the behavior he thinks is typical of the savage; 


And basically argues that he does say there were profound differences of perspective and strategy on the part of the Hawaiians (between men and women, nobles and commoners, priests and chiefs, etc etc), but that these differences can only be understood within a larger cosmological and cultural rubric which is overall, different from what the British thought was going on. 

  • By denying this, we end up only talking about the powerful. It’s the historical equivalent to the postmodern anthropologists who are just thinking about themselves
  • The principles underlying our action cannot be reduced to our reasons for acting in any specific case. I.e., we can explain why someone got married by asking her, but not why there is an institution of monogamy
  • To get at these structural questions of underlying principle, a somewhat external view is required. If you just become a member of society then you just reproduce what a native would have said, so there’s no need to do so at all because there are plenty natives already. (A little like “If I were Napoleon what would I do?”) 

whalespeak ness et al.. no idea what legit free people are like


Relation of relativism and authority

Who is to speak for who? Though Sahlins says, well, is it that, but are we going to listen? 

any form of m\a\p.. people telling other people what to do et al

need 1st/most: means to undo our hierarchical listening to self/others/nature so we can org around legit needs

imagine if we listened to the itch-in-8b-souls 1st thing everyday & used that data to connect us (tech as it could be.. ai as augmenting interconnectedness)

Questions: does any system of relativism imply a universalization of certain kinds of authority?

What about the “sacred goats”? 

What would happen here if a flying saucer showed up? 





stone age econ

affluence w/o abundance

david on marshall

marshall on culture