david (w) on freedom
Happy and sad to announce the publication of my (2022) Radcliffe-Brown Lecture, “For an anthropology and archaeology of freedom” – in memory of David Graeber, and with thanks to Georges Sioui for generous guidance on matters of Wendat intellectual history.
Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/davidwengrow/status/1562439201613721605
links to 12 pg pdf download from british journal (in parenthesis are journal page numbers)
In memory of David Graeber
‘When the history is unrecorded,’ he (radcliffe brown) went on, ‘we can only indulge in conjecture, and conjecture gives us neither scientific nor historical knowledge.’
Because what I intend to argue is that the two issues are inseparable: to deny the historicity of any society is also to deny its capacity for freedom. Of course, the point has been made before, but largely in philosophical terms.3 My intention here is to explore this nexus between history, anthropology, and freedom in a more focussed way
I will be drawing from a new body of work that developed over more than ten years’ collaboration with David Graeber, the anthropologist whose shoes I am asked to fill here (David’s favourite shoes, I should add, were made of alligator skin, and I watched with amazement as they slowly disintegrated over the course of those years, yet somehow remained, miraculously, on his feet). Radcliffe-Brown’s anthropology offers a good point of departure.
Its focus would be on describing and characterising the very possibilities of human freedom: ‘how freedom is exercised in different social contexts and cultural traditions.’ In response to this proposal, my own lecture will argue five points. First, that such an ethnography already exists. Second, that it lies at the very foundations of anthropology as a discipline (and of ethnography as a method). Third, that its primary locus was the Americas, specifically the Eastern Woodlands of North America, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fourth, that it was carried out as much by Indigenous observers and intellectuals as by Europeans. Fifth, and finally, that its results made a significant contribution to what we now call ‘the Enlightenment’, including what we have come to regard as exclusively Western notions of liberty
Indigenous people are assumed to have lived in a quite different mental universe
to Europeans, inhabiting almost a different reality (or ‘ontology’)
and indigenous weren’t/aren’t legit free.. so imagine how we have no idea what legit free people are like..
A key strategist of the Wendat Confederacy, a coalition of four Iroquoian-speaking peoples, Kandiaronk (his name literally meant ‘the muskrat’ and the French often referred to him simply as
‘Le Rat’) was at that time engaged in a complex geopolitical game, trying to play the English,
French and Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee off against each other, with the initial aim of
averting a disastrous Haudenosaunee assault on the Wendat, but with the long-term goal of creating
a comprehensive Indigenous alliance to hold off the settler advance.14 Everyone who met him,
friend or foe, admitted that Kandiaronk was a truly remarkable individual: a courageous warrior,
brilliant orator, and an unusually skilful politician. He was also, to the very end of his life, a staunch opponent of Christianity
There are first-hand accounts of Kandiaronk’s oratorical skills and dazzling wit
Pierre de Charlevoix, the Jesuit priest and historian, described Kandiaronk as so ‘naturally eloquent’that ‘no one perhaps ever exceeded him in mental capacity.’ ‘An exceptional council speaker, he was not less brilliant in conversation in private, and [councilmen and negotiators] often took pleasure in provoking him to hear his repartees, always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.’‘He was the only man in Canada’, Charlevoix notes, ‘who was a match for the [governor] Count de Frontenac, who often invited him to his table to give his officers this pleasure.’
One thing is worth noting at the outset: thatIndigenous Americans lived in generally free societies, and that Europeans did not, was never really a matter of debate in these exchanges.19 Both sides agreed this was the case. What they differed on was whether or not liberty was desirable.
Equality, insofar as it existed among the Wendat, was a direct extension of freedom; indeed, its
expression. All were equal, insofar as they were equally free to obey or disobey orders as they saw
fit (which, again, has almost nothing in common with the European notion of ‘equality before the
law’, which is equality in common subjugation to a sovereign). The democratic governance of the
Wendat and Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, which so impressed later European readers, was
an expression of the same principle: if no compulsion was allowed, then obviously such social
coherence as did exist had to be created through reasoned debate, persuasive arguments, and the
establishment of social consensus.
At this point, and in drawing my case to a close, I want to turn from historical critiques back to
modern ones. Let’s recall some recent objections to an anthropology of freedom: ‘it carries a lot of
genealogical baggage, it challenges the ethnographic commitment to taking seriously other worlds
. . . and it threatens to undo some of the major insights that were won through the social sciences’ decentering moves.’34 In light of the material and arguments presented here, I would like to make
almost exactly the opposite case, as follows.
Our understanding of the concept of freedom is problematic, I suggest, precisely because its
genealogy is artificially truncated, *to exclude the contributions of Indigenous peoples and
thinkers.35 Honouring the commitment to take other ways of living seriously means, first and foremost, doing the archival work of uncovering those conceptual and philosophical debts we owe to
non-Europeans. Far from threatening to reinstate a Eurocentric view of the social sciences, I
propose these are in fact baby steps towards **decentring our grasp of global history – by questioning processes of intellectual appropriation, and challenging the purification of European systems of knowledge – including the roots of what we have come to call the ‘Age of Enlightenment’.36 With this in mind, a major question remains: how exactly did the Indigenous societies of North America’s Eastern Woodlands come to develop political sensibilities that were to have a deep influence on Enlightenment thinkers? How did the Wendat, and neighbouring societies, come to embrace values of human freedom which would have a profound impact on Europe and, ultimately, on the world? Here we might echo A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, and concede that the ‘only possible answer’ would lie in their history, and their archaeology.37
*rather.. to exclude the possibility that we have no idea.. no ie’s of what legit free people are like
**rather.. letting go of history ness