dead zones of imagination

intro’d to essay it here via nika dubrovsky for museum of care (3 versions.. lecture 2006, essay 2012, book – longest version 2015 – ch1 of utopia of rules – starts p 45):

Nika Dubrovsky (@nikadubrovsky) tweeted at 9:12 AM on Fri, Nov 13, 2020:
Our reading group tonight: we will be discussing David Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination.”
with Vassily Pigounides

To care about someone is to imagine the perspectives of that person.

eisenstein i know you law

and/or to set everyone legit free.. and save a ton of energy by assuming good

and/or for people so they can play (david on care and freedom – talk (2019) at chaos communication congress) at 41 min:

you take care of a child so the child can go and play.. that’s what children actually do when you take care of them

from dead zones of imagination – 25 pg pdf (2012) by david graeber

convo notes from reading group here: m of care – nov 13

my notes/quotes from reading here:

Dead zones of the imagination: on violence,
bureaucracy, and interpretive labor. The
2006 Malinowski Memorial Lecture.

structural violence, bureaucracy, interpretive labor


The experience of bureaucratic incompetence, confusion, and its ability to cause otherwise intelligent people to behave outright foolishly, opens up a series of questions about the nature of power or, more specifically, structural violence. The unique qualities of violence as a form of action means that human relations ultimately founded on violence create lopsided structures of the imagination, where the responsibility to do the interpretive labor
required to allow the powerful to operate oblivious to much of what is going on around them, falls on the powerless, who thus tend to empathize with the powerful far more than the powerful do with them. The bureaucratic imposition of simple categorical schemes on
the world is a way of managing the fundamental stupidity of such situations. In the hands of social theorists, such simplified schemas can be sources of insight; when enforced through structures of coercion, they tend to have precisely the opposite effect.

This essay is an exploration of certain areas of human life that have tended to make anthropologists uncomfortable: those areas of starkness, simplicity, obliviousness, and outright stupidity in our lives made possible by violence.
By “violence” here, I am not referring to the kind of occasional, spectacular acts of violence that we tend to think of first when the word is invoked, but again, the
boring, humdrum, yet omnipresent forms of structural violence that define the very conditions of our existence, the subtle or not-so-subtle threats of physical force that lie behind everything from enforcing rules about where one is allowed to sit or stand or eat or drink in parks or other public places, to the threats or physical intimidations or attacks that underpin the enforcement of tacit gender norms.

i see any form of people telling other people what to do.. any form of measuring/accounting.. as structural violence

Let us call these areas of violent simplification. They affect us in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet no one likes to talk about them very much. Indeed, one might argue that social theorists seem to have a particular aversion to dealing with the subject because it raises profound issues of the status of social theory itself, and anthropologists dislike talking about them most of all, because anthropologists are drawn, above all, to what might be called areas of symbolic richness or density of meaning, where “thick description” becomes possible. The preference is understandable. But it tends to warp our perceptions of what power actually is, and how it operates, in ways that are both decidedly self-serving, and that in
overlooking structural blindness, effectively become forms of structural blindness themselves.

story of his mom

utopia of rules – (ch1 is whole essay)


Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected. It also exemplifies what I have come to think of as the defining feature of certain utopian forms of practice: that is, ones where those
maintaining the system, on discovering that it will regularly produce such failures, conclude that the problem is not with the system itself but with the inadequacy of
the human beings involved—or, indeed, of human beings in general.

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” and this despite the fact that I had been investing a great deal of mental and emotional energy in the whole affair? The problem, I realized, 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 all that was required was the accurate interpretation of one or two Latin words, and a correct performance of certain 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

without those forms, my mother would not be, legally—hence socially—dead


part 2

It’s interesting that just about all these works of fiction not only emphasize the comic senselessness of bureaucratic life, but mix it with at least undertones of violence. That is to say, they emphasize the very aspects most likely to be sidestepped in the social scientific literature.

lit & num as colonialism

fuller too much law et al

The real core of the anthropological literature on bureaucracy, even at the height of the “literary turn,” took the completely opposite direction, asking not why bureaucracy produces absurdity, but rather, why so many people believe this is the case.


Michael Herzfeld’s The social production of indifference
(1992), which begins by framing the question thusly:

‘..If one could not grumble about “bureaucracy,” bureaucracy itself could not easily exist: both bureaucracy and the stereotypical complaints about it are parts of a larger universe that we might call, quite simply, the ideology and practice of accountability.

accountable ness.. one of the red flags we’re doing it/life wrong

When we move away from ethnography and enter more rarified domains of social theory, even that “yes, but” has been known to disappear. In fact, one often finds a remarkable sympathy—dare one say, sense of affinity?—between scholars, who generally double as academic bureaucrats, and the bureaucrats they study.
ie: Weber saw bureaucratic forms of organization—public and private—as the very embodiment of impersonal rationality, and as such, so obviously superior to all other possible forms of organization that they threatened to engulf everything, locking humanity in a joyless “iron cage,” bereft of spirit and charisma (1958: 181). Foucault was more subversive, but in a way that made bureaucratic power more effective, not less. In his work on asylums, clinics, prisons, and the rest, bodies, subjects—even truth itself—all become the products of administrative discourses.


It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in either case, their popularity owed much to the fact that the American university system during this period had itself become increasingly an institution dedicated to producing functionaries for an imperial administrative apparatus on a global scale.. ie: operating within the military-intelligence apparatus

One might even speak here of the gradual emergence of a kind of division of labor within American universities, with the optimistic side of Weber reinvented (in even more simplified form) for the actual training of bureaucrats under the name of “rational choice theory,” while his pessimistic side was relegated to the Foucauldians. . This gave Foucault’s emphasis on the “power/knowledge” nexus—the assertion that forms of knowledge are always
also forms of social power, indeed, the most important forms of social power—a particular appeal.

intellect ness


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. 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 they 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.

inspectors of inspectors et al

part 3

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
ie: 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 indeed be summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if 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 physical harm..t

In all these formulations, “structural violence” is treated as structures that have violent effects, whether or not actual physical violence is involved. This is actually quite different from my own formulation, more consonant with the feminist tradition (e.g., Scheper-Hughes 1992; Nordstrom and Martin 1992), which sees these more as structures of violencesince it is only the constant fear of physical violence that makes them possible, and allows them to have violent effects. Racism, sexism, poverty, these cannot exist except in an environment defined by the ultimate threat of actual physical force.

one could argue it’s this very tendency toward abstraction that makes it possible for everyone involved to imagine that the violence upholding the system is somehow not responsible for its violent effects..t


All this becomes even clearer when one looks at the role of government. .. In the part of rural Madagascar where I
did my fieldwork, for example, that governments operate primarily by inspiring fear was seen as obvious. At the same time, in the absence of any significant government interference in the minutiae of daily life (via building codes, open container laws, the mandatory licensing and insurance of vehicles, and so on), it became all the more apparent that the main business of government bureaucracy was the registration of taxable property. One curious result was that it was precisely the sort of information that was available from the Malagasy archives for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the community I was studying—precise figures about the size of each family and its holdings in land and cattle (and in the earlier period, slaves)—that I was least able to attain for the time I was there, simply because that was precisely what most people assumed an outsider coming from the capital would be likely to be asking about, and therefore, that which they were least
inclined to tell them.

What’s more, one result of the colonial experience was that which might be called “relations of command”—basically, any ongoing relationship in which one adult renders another an extension of his or her will—had become identified with slavery, and slavery, with the essential nature of the state.

gare enslavement law et al

In the community I studied, such associations were most likely to come to the fore when people were talking about the great slave-holding families of the nineteenth century whose children went on to become the core of the colonial-era administration, largely (it was always remarked) by dint of their devotion to education and skill with paperwork.

In other contexts, relations of command—particularly in bureaucratic contexts—were linguistically coded. They were firmly identified with French; Malagasy, in contrast, was seen as the language appropriate to deliberation, explanation, and consensus-based decision-making. Minor functionaries, when they wished to impose arbitrary dictates, would almost invariably switch to French. ..French is actually referred to in Malagasy as “the language of command”—it was characteristic of contexts where explanations, deliberation, and ultimately, consent, was not really required, since they were in the final analysis premised on the threat of violence.

language as control/enclosure

decision making is unmooring us law

public consensus always oppresses someone(s)

david on consensus

In Madagascar, bureaucratic power was somewhat redeemed in most people’s minds by its tie to education, which was held in near-universal esteem.

f & b & dm same law and ed and ..


Comparative analysis suggests there is a direct relation, however, between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity it is seen to produce.

Keith Breckenridge (2008), for example, has documented at some
length the regimes of “power without knowledge,” typical of colonial South Africa, where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding.. African subjects.

ie: installation of apartheid in the 1950s, ..obliged African workers to carry extensive documentation ..prescribed ‘rights’ to live and work in the towns and cities” (Breckenridge 2005: 84), govt appreciated it for streamlining administration, police for relieving them of the
responsibility of having to actually talk to African workers—the latter universally referred to as the dompas (or “stupid pass”), for precisely that reason.

relation between coercion and information: that is, while relatively democratic regimes tend to be awash in too much information, as everyone bombards political authorities with explanations and demands, the more authoritarian and repressive a regime, the less reason people have to tell it anything—which is why such regimes are forced to
rely so heavily on spies, intelligence agencies, and secret police.

part 4

Violence’s capacity to allow arbitrary decisions, and thus to avoid the kind of debate, clarification, and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations, is obviously what allows its victims to see procedures created on the basis of violence as stupid or unreasonable. One might say, those relying on the fear of force are not obliged to engage in a lot of interpretative labor, and thus, generally speaking, do


This is not an aspect of violence that has received much attention in the
burgeoning “anthropology of violence” literature. The latter has tended instead to move in exactly the opposite direction, emphasizing the ways that acts of violence are meaningful and communicative.

ie: Neil Whitehead..goes so far as to insist that anthropologists need to examine why people are ever wont to speak of “meaningless violence”
at all. Violence, he suggests, is best understood as analogous with poetry: ‘..deeply infused with cultural meaning’

When I object to this emphasis on the meaningful nature of violence, I’m not trying to suggest that the fundamental point is in any way untrue. It would be absurd to deny that acts of violence are, typically, meant as acts of communication, or that they tend to be surrounded by symbols and generate myths. Yet it seems to me that, just as in the case of bureaucracy, this is an area where anthropologists are particularly inclined to confuse interpretive depth with social significance: that is, to
assume that the most interesting aspect of violence is also, necessarily, the most important
. Yes, violent acts tend to have a communicative element. But this is true of any other form of human action as well. It strikes me that what is really important about violence is that it is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even in the possibility of having social effects without being communicative..t
To be more precise: violence may well be the only form of human action by which it is possible to have relatively predictable effects on the actions of a person about whom you understand nothing. .. t Pretty much any other way one might try to influence another’s actions, one at least has to have some idea who they think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the situation, and what their aversions and proclivities are. Hit them over the head hard enough and all of this becomes irrelevant.
Most human relations—.. Maintaining them requires a constant and often subtle work of interpretation, of endlessly imagining others’ points of view. Threatening others with physical harm allows the possibility of cutting through all this. ..This is of course why violence is so often the preferred weapon of the stupid.


Indeed, one might say it is one of the tragedies of human existence that this is the one form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response.

the most characteristic effect of violence—its ability to obviate the need for what I would call “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,.. t on the assumption that systematic inequalities backed up by the threat of force can be treated as forms of violence in themselves.

interpretive labor.. structural violence et al

For this reason, situations of structural violence invariably produce extreme lopsided structures of imaginative identification.
ie: jokes about the impossibility of understanding women.
The jokes (always, of course, told by men) represented women’s logic as
fundamentally alien and incomprehensible. One never had the impression the women in question had any trouble understanding men. The reasons are obvious: women had no choice but to understand men; ..had little choice but to spend a great deal of time and energy
understanding what their menfolk thought was going on.
Virginia Woolf comes most immediately to mind (e.g., Woolf
1927)—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, involve a continual work of imaginative identification, or what I’ve called “interpretive labor.”

so imagine no one needs to be puffed up.. and all we need to do is listen deeper as we dance


Could it be possible to develop a general theory of interpretive labor? We’d probably have to begin by recognizing that there are two critical elements here that, while linked, need to be formally distinguished. The first is the process of imaginative identification as a form of knowledge, the fact that within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in question really work.

again.. if no relations of domination.. aka: structural violence.. no longer jumping thru hoops and trying to fit in boxes.. self-talk as data et al


The second element is the resultant pattern of sympathetic
. Curiously, it was Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments (1762), who first observed the phenomenon we now refer to as “compassion fatigue.” ..sympathetic observers face a tacit choice between being entirely overwhelmed, or simply blotting out their existence. The result is that while those on the bottom of a social ladder spend a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and genuinely caring about, those on the top, it almost never happens the other way around.

Since I think Smith was right to observe that imagination tends to bring with it sympathy, the result is that victims of structural violence tend to care about its beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them. This might well be, after the violence itself, the single most powerful force preserving such relations

part 5

All this, I think, has some interesting theoretical implications.
Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”—particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly emphasized (e.g., Bittner 1970, 1985; Waddington 1999; Neocleous 2000), has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons.

At the same time, they have significantly, over the last fifty years or so, become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture. ..spend several hours a day reading books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits. ..faceless bureaucracies do seem inclined to throw up charismatic heroes of a sort, in the form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, spies, and police officers—
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.


If I had more time I would suggest why I feel this approach could suggest new ways to consider old problems. From a Marxian perspective, for example, one might note that my notion of “interpretive labor” that keeps social life running smoothly implies a fundamental distinction between the domain of social production (the production of persons and social relations) where the imaginative labor is relegated
to those on the bottom, and a domain of commodity production where the imaginative aspects of work are relegated to those on the top. In either case, though, structures of inequality produce lopsided structures of the imagination.


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 blindness.
The question for me is whether our theoretical work is ultimately directed at undoing or 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.

part 6

Social theory itself could be seen as a kind of radical simplification, a form of calculated ignorance, meant to reveal patterns one could never otherwise be able to see.

black science of people/whales law

david on science of people

They are spaces, as I discovered, where interpretive labor no longer
works. It’s hardly surprising that we don’t like to talk about them. They repel the imagination. But if we ignore them entirely, we risk becoming complicit in the very violence that creates them.
It is one thing to say that, when a master whips a slave, he is engaging in a form of meaningful, communicative action, conveying the need for unquestioning obedience, and at the same time trying to create a terrifying mythic image of absolute and arbitrary power. All of this is true. It is quite another to insist that is all that is happening, or all that we need to talk about.

supposed to’s of school/work.. suffocating – from the day.. the death of us ness..


..master’s ability to remain completely unaware of the slave’s understanding ..slave’s inability to say anything
There is a reason why Elaine Scarry (1985: 28) called torture a form of “stupidity.” It’s not really about making its victims talk. Ultimately, it’s about the very opposite.

All of these forms of blindness ultimately stem from trying to navigate our way through situations made possible by structural violence.
It will take enormous amount of work to begin to clear away these dead zones. But recognizing their existence is a necessary first step.


Nika Dubrovsky (@nikadubrovsky) tweeted at 6:25 AM on Wed, Nov 18, 2020:
We made a little video summary for our Reading Group: Dead Zones of the Imagination via @YouTube

summary from m of care – nov 13 – reading – by nika, dmitrii and vassily

4 min – d: to interpret someone need imagination.. and how interp labor distribution uneven.. if top of hierarchical relationship have less advantage to do that.. can skip that.. because can force others to do something you want them to do

interpretive labor

5 min – d: to interpret is to imagine.. implies care.. cause have to spend time on it

6 min – d: in (book) modes of production inside/out.. david makes observation – when distant cultures meet for first time.. to speed the (interp labor) process up.. people rely on trade and violence

7 min – d: also works in other way.. people able to accumulate a lot of money/coercion.. they can skip interp labor.. so also can just make them do what you want with money and force

8 min – v: direct reference to foucault – via .. beyond power and knowledge.. ie: power implies knowledge and vice versa.. not necessarily true.. if powerful enough don’t need to know anything about other party

11 min – n: on feminism.. interp labor is a very creative labor.. if some lack ability to do that.. ie: want to end convo then just strike someone in head

13 min – n: on privacy.. then asking defn of knowledge

privacy ness.. idiosyncratic jargon could take care of that

14 min – d: foucault said in order to govern you have to know.. david said in order to govern you have to be stupid

usefully ignorant

15 min – d: systems of measures/weights/currencies.. all on one hand allows to rule by knowing things about what is being ruled.. but at same time.. those infras.. those grand projects that require infras to generate knowledge .. suppress alt forms of knowing.. in diff kinds of practical purposes.. in that sense the knowledgable ruler also has to be stupid.. the very knowledge he needs in order to rule is only possible because some other knowledge is being suppressed

16 min – d: on algos – a perfect embodiment of this peculiar dichotomy between knowledge and stupidity.. being conditions/forms of possibility of power.. on one hand algo infinitively knowledgeable.. more than any person can assess.. can see patterns by being able to process huge amts of data.. but at same time it’s infinitely stupid because no ability to engage in interp labor

algorithm ness

17 min – d: ie: diff between wink and reflexive movement of eye.. if get it.. got it from wrong reason.. ie: data anal.. guessing correctly.. but that’s also in a sense very stupid

18 min – d: that’s one way to connect interp labor to knowledge and power.. also shouldn’t forget knowledge/power has its limits.. basically about modern states

graeber points out this is highly unusual.. most of history power not based on knowledge but on stupidity and violence

n: d called stupidity and violence bureaucracy.. no?

20 min – d: part of his point was just to remind the readers that this sort of foucaultian fascination w B and discipline is very historically limited.. characteristic of certain historical periods.. but now of power as such..

21 mi – d: w B.. one way to interpret.. B becomes violent when rules are followed blindly w/o interp labor.. rule following is a problem of context.. where/how certain rules could be correctly implemented.. if ignore that.. then have to be violent

22 min – n: he was talking about structures set up in diff ways.. ie: death of his mom and filling out forms.. put in submissive positions where he would do stupid things..

23 min – n: we started to talk about post office.. diff type of infra.. decentralized.. et al.. so to my understanding this type of infra run by people and people can change the rules.. otherwise.. infra is the rules.. god like et al.. can’t change et al.. system is a machine.. but we can’t fix it

25 min – n: ie: fb.. built on layers and layers.. so can’t fix it

d: on po.. now difficult to imagine communism looking like a po.. one of essential features of communism by early marx.. that could change rules

27 min – n: n: ie now.. linux.. rules can be changed by anybody.. i think m of c is the model for that.. should have rules.. easy to describe.. but possibility of humans capable to change the rules

v: prejudice by many people anarchism don’t believe in rules.. but not true.. we tell kids (in france) that violence is the weapon of the weak.. so should try to talk to siblings to settle things rather than hitting

29 min – v: on davids’ short essay.. are you an anarchist.. the answer might surprise it

v: on alexander bergman and book abc of anarchism.. on violence being weapon of the weak

30 min – v: on B.. david talks about revolutionary/insurrectionary moments.. when B neutralized.. had tremendous effects of opening up our horizon.. usually followed by creativity.. people experience something similar to that during natural disasters.. something to think about during virus

32 min – v: ie: in french hospitals during crisis.. had activity based pricing.. to limit costs.. comes w tremendous about of B and forms.. during crisis said f all that.. we’re going to care for everyone .. forget the forms..