lost people

lost people.png

by David Graeber



first intro here:

added to books to read


@davidgraeber if u were teaching writings of david graeber, where would u start?

Lost People…it’s my best book. A little long but raises most issues I’m later to explore

no luck w library requests.. or used bookstores.. then while reading on kings.. this:

from this thread of ch 5 tweets:

@davidgraeber ‘all powers of command – whether royal or colonial power – seemed to fuse together in people’s minds as so many extensions of the principle of slavery, of making one person an extension of another’s will as a result’ @davidgraeber

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/monk51295/status/972570415045394432

got this

@monk51295 all this is just stuff that was in my book Lost People, which I always felt was a pretty good ethnography, that no one ever ever reads

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/davidgraeber/status/972577273726586881

which led to this

@monk51295 @davidgraeber It’s accessible online if you don’t mind that format

DG, well maybe, reading huge ethnographies is Lost on People :P :D

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/inside_lemon/status/972624999830999040

and this

@monk51295 Library Genesis

Original Tweet: https://twitter.com/dreamysleeper/status/972639436210130944

i did download it from library genesis.. but now can’t find that specific link (or i’d put it here)

so finishing my spot reading of on kings.. then onto lost people.. yay

(rather.. reading them both now.. and undercommons by moten and harney)

(rather.. read the undercommons.. now to lost people.. then maybe back to on kings)

also.. library just emailed me.. they now have a copy of lost people



for my mother who wished to live long enough to see this book come out

book 2007.. Ruth R. Died March 15, 2006



i did find myself a little disturbed in the course of writing .. with some of the imperatives of academic production..  i was continually being advised to reorg the book.. why don’t you broaden its appeal, ..t..colleagues told me, by making it a book about the crisis of the sate of africa.. it should be a book about the weight of the past.. about slavery.. the advice was nothing if not well intended and made a great deal of sense considering the fact that most academic books sell copies largely when they are assigned in courses, but it always sat uneasily on me. it seemed somehow to do a kind of violence to the experience.t.. it’s all a little reminiscent of arguments that, say, balinese culture is ‘about’ hierarchy or ritual or some such. nonsense!.. a culture isn’t ‘about’ anything. it’s about everything.. people don’t live their lives to prove some academic’s point… t


the ambitions of ethnography used to be – at least, i always thought it was – to describe or at least give access to a universe, a total way of life. while this might seem, in retrospect, to have been a bit overweening and simplistic, it seems at least more respectful that reducing the lives of one’s former friends to illustrations of  a single theoretical argument.

1 – betafo 1990


i was first drawn to betafo because people there didn’t get along.. when dealing w outsiders, the impulse is always to emphasize the solidarity of one’s community, so as to gain a kind of moral authority that comes from embodying it; when that solidarity clearly does not exist -as in betafo – people retreat into silence..

in betafo they didn’t do that..  .. several more than willing to talk about its conflicts.. mainly because.. they wished to rise above them..

roughly a third of the population in this part of  madagascar were called onona mainty ‘black people’ .. mostly made up of the descendants of 19th cent slaves..


the factions in betafo were not just ‘white’ and ‘black’ they were seen much more as a matter of nobles and their former claves..  (royal ancestor named andrianamboninolona)


the general rule for malagasy towns: almost everybody grows food; everybody sells something..


endless multitude of tiny transactions, almost as if people were intentionally trying to ensure that the meager profits to be had from buying/selling local products ended up divided among as many hands as possible..


lack of hard numbers seems a minor price to pay.. t

the quality and texture of this study follow directly from my style of research. it mostly consists of people talking.. often, of many talking at once. i rarely conducted formal interviews..  the political aspects of conversation are one of the major theoretical issues of the book..t

i always assumed when you see hesitation, confusion, tension, ambiguity, when people seemed to want to talk about something and not to want to talk about it at the same time, that this is/was the surest sign there was something important going on..


i came to the conclusion that it was this very process – men building up the placid surfaces that women would then mischievously puncture and expose.. that history and moral discourse really consisted of.. the object only existed when it had been halfway ripped apart


(on whether or not there was an active govt there – was told there wasn’t but appeared to be).. the key issue in most western defns of the state is its power to coerce.. states use violence to enforce the law.. the classic defn here is weber’s: an organization ‘will be called a ‘state’ insofar as its admin staff successfully upholds the claim to a monopoly of the legit use of physical force in the enforcement of its order’ .. a defn like this is mainly a way to focus the mind; it is not much use for determining whether or not any particular org is a state, since for that, everything depends on how one defines ‘successfully’..  most malagasy, i think would have agreed the ability to apply force in this way was essentially what made a state what is was.. even though.. in most of malagasy countryside, the state had in reality become almost completely unwilling to do so..


the most significant thing about violence in arivonimamo is that there was very little of it..


registering property, along w births/deaths, was one of the main things such offices did..

people’s broader sense of justice – the feeling for instance, that no accepted member of the community should be completely deprived of the means of making a living..

everyone knew no one would enforce a court decision..


after revolution of 1972.. things really began to change.. by 81.. govt was insolvent.. ever since. malagasy econ history has mainly been negotiations w the imf..  immediate result was fall in living standards.. madagascar is now one of the poorest countries on earth


resources for rural areas dried up.. by time i was in arivonimamo, the only sector of admin that was receiving any significant funding was the ed system.. for those not ensconced in the ed system, the govt provided nothing, but it also had next to no immediate power over their lives..

still govt offices continued to exist.. must have realized that, had they/people refused, nothing would have happened.. so, why did they play along?

memories of violence were mainly important because they define what people imagine a state to be about…  people seemed to accept that a govt was essentially an arbitrary, predatory, coercive power..  but one theme of official ideology everyone did seem to take serious.. malagasy unity…


in contemporary anarchist circles it has become common to talk of ‘taz’s, ‘temporary autonomous zones’..  temp cracks/fissures, ephemeral spaces in which self org’d communities can and do continually emerge like eruptions, covert uprisings.. free spaces flicker into existence and then pass away.. if nothing else., they provide constant testimony to the fact that alts are still conceivable, that human possibilities are never fixed..

self org ness

in rural imerina, it might be better to talk about a ‘provisional autonomous zone’ rather than a ‘temp’ one: in part, to emphasize that it does not stand quite so defiantly outside power as the image of a taz implies; but also, because there is no reason to necessarily assume its independence is all that temporary.. betafo, even to a large extent arivonimamo, stood outside the direct control of the state apparatus: even if the people who live there passed back and forth between them and zones, such as the capital, which are very much under the domination of the state.. their autonomy was tentative, uncertain, it might be largely swept away the moment a new infusion of guns and money restores the apparatus; but then again, it might not.. some might consider the current situation scandalous. myself, i consider it a remarkable accomplishment..  after all, austerity plans have been imposed on nations all over the world; few govts have reacted by abandoning the bulk of the population to govern themselves; not would many populations have been so well prepared to do so…


i don’t mean to romanticize the situation. what autonomy rural communities have has been won at the cost of grinding poverty; it is hard to enjoy one’s freedom if one is in a constant scramble to have enough to eat..

betafo stood effectively outside state power.. it did not stand entirely outside it.. for all the efforts to maintain zones of autonomy, the reality of coercion has by now reshaped the terms by which people deal w each other; in certain ways, it has become embedded in the very structure of experience..t

in imerina, just about everyone consider themselves a christian.. 2/3 protestant, 1/3 catholic.. govt may no longer have means to compel children to attend school.. but attendance is still close to universal.. at least at the primary level.. at same time.. there is a certain ambivalence about both these institutions.. particularly the schools.. the ed system in imerina has always been seen as a tool of power, and always too .. id’d w vazaha..  took form under french colonial regime.. maintained only by constant threat of force…

the undercommons.. harney domination law

what maintaining a credible threat of force actually requires: mostly a matter of coordination..crucial thing is to be able to ensure that a sufficient number of such violent men will always be able to show up.. whenever/wherever there is an open challenge to one’s authority..t


requires.. infra.. but once built.. can serve other purposes.. roads built to transport soldiers will also end up carrying chickens to market..  but if it wasn’t for the soldiers.. roads would never have been there.. and at least in madagascar, people seemed perfectly well aware of that..

most of the people who work in a state bureaucracy – pretty much any state bureaucracy, anywhere – are, on a day to day level, much more concerned w processing info than w breaking people’s skulls. but the same is true of solders/police. rather than see this fact as proof that violence plays a minor role in the operation of a state, it might be better to ask oneself how much these techs of info are themselves part of the apparatus of violence..t..essential elements in ensuring that small handful of people willing and able to break skulls will always be able to show up at the right place at the right time.. surveillance, after all, is a technique of war, and foucault’s panopticon was prison, w armed guards..

most malagasy.. as least the ones i knew.. are accustomed to diff standards of perception. .. unlike most americans, they did not see anything particularly shameful about fear..  this was one of the things it took me longest to get used to there:  i had been brought up to assume confessions of fear..were at least a little bit embarrassing… most malagasy seemed to find the subject pleasant and amusing; they took a veritable delight in telling me how afraid some people were of vazaha, sometime even how much they themselves were..  that govt work largely thru inspiring fear in their subjects was simply obvious to them..  it seems to me that, insofar as western social science has a tendency to downplay the importance of coercion it is partly because of a hidden embarrassment: we find it shameful to admit to the degree to which our own daily lives are framed by the fear of physical force..


schools, anyway, are ultimately a part of this apparatus of violence: in malagasy, one does not speak of ed as conveying facets and info so much as skills: the words used, fahizana, means ‘skills, knowhow, practical knowledge’.. the kind of fahaizan one acquires at a school however was seen as an essentially foreign one.. a fahaizan vazaha, opposed, as such, to malagasy forms of know how.. the techniques taught in school were seen as, essentially, techniques of rule..  in part this is because the school system was itself part of the infra of violence: it was designed primarily to train functionaries; secondarily, technicians.. the style of teaching as entirely authoritarian, w heavy emphasis on rote memorization, and the skills that were taught were taught w the expectation they are to be employed in offices, workshops, or classrooms org’s around certain forms of social relations, what might be referred to as relations of command..t

the undercommons.. et al .. schooling the world

the assumption was always that some people would be giving orders, others were there to obey. in other words, not only was this system designed to produce the competences required to maintain an infra of violence, it was premised on social relations completely unlike those current in other aspects of daily life, ones that could only be maintained by a constant threat of physical harm..

how is this diff that our/any compulsory ed system..?

the ambivalence toward research and book learning, then, was based on a perfectly sensible appreciation of the situation. everyone considered knowledge in itself a valuable, even a pleasant, thing; everyone recognized that the skills one learned in school opened spheres of experience that would not otherwise be available, to types of info and networks of communication that spanned the globe. but these skills were also techniques of repression.. by training people in certain methods of org and not others.. (how to keep list s and inventories, how to conduct a meeting..) the system ensured that no matter what their purposed, any large scale network they put together capable fo coordinating anything – whether it be an historical preservation society, or revolutionary party – will almost inevitably end up operating somewhat like a coercive bureaucracy.. 


this is one thing i mean when i say that coercion had become internalized in the structure of experience..  a whole domain of experience, characterized by certain, ultimately coercive ways of dealing w other people, which everyone to some degree participated in; even if they tried to limit their effects.. t.. and in betafo, there was the added problem that these forms of knowledge were definitely associated w certain people more than others..

voluntary compliance..

one might say there were three important groups in betafo: rich nobles, poor nobles, and slaves.. .. not strictly accurate.. the ‘nobles’ were never really nobles; the ‘slaves’ are certainly no longer slaves..

aren’t we all..?


an issue i will be treating in more detail in the next ch.. for now, suffice it to say that this was an even more fundamental way in which coercion had become embedded in the structure of daily experience: the very existence of a division between ‘black’ and ‘white’ people is seen as testimony to a history of violence.. in betafo, both groups suddenly found themselves confronting each other w/in a de facto autonomous zone,  a place where the props of state violence has suddenly been kicked away.. the result was a political struggle; in the end a major political confrontation..

formal political institutions, in a place like betafo..had become almost meaningless.. the accustomed strategy of dealing w power was to fend it off and try to establish an autonomous, malagasy domain outside its sight.. sheltered from the ‘political’ domain and the threat of violence on which it was based..  the result was that, when state sponsored institutions began withering away, new ones did not arise to replace them.. w no overtly political sphere… politics had to be conducted thru other means.. as a result.. everything became political.. manipulating stories.. interpreting dreams.. preventing other from eating garlic.. claiming credit for freak acts of weather..  became principle medium of politics..

the rest of this book is not, for the most part, about the relation between betafo and the state (real or imagined) but about how politics is actually conducted in such unusual circumstances.. this is a book about the relation between politics and history..


as w any work of anthropology, this work sets out from the assumption that the best way to gain insight into such pan human questions is to look at people who seem to go about the same things in the most unfamiliar ways..  the tradition of the dead generations does indeed weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living: often literally..

social science, after all is very good at describing things that have already occurred in such a way as to imply they could have been predicted beforehand.. it is rarely able to actually predict anything.. i wanted to write in such a way as to keep an awareness of this alive in the account itself: to retain a sense that one can never be completely sure what these people are about to do..  it’s not that i am trying to deny the degree to which their lives are shaped and constrained by larger forces; i just don’t want that to be the only point..  in a way, what i’m trying to do is perhaps not that diff from what i’ve said so many malagasy themselves were doing: carving out a small, somewhat tenuous space of autonomy and freedom w/in social theory itself..


this is a social world that is not only rife w human purposes, but w people actively discussing the rights/wrongs of them. inevitably then – as w michael lambek’s work on ‘moral practice’ which this very much recalls – this leads to an emphasis on the political status of narrative, gossip, secrets.. it also means the people i talk about the most are not typical members of the community – most are characters, oddballs, eccentrics of one sort or another – but this is probably inevitable too: much of the moral life of a community, probably anywhere, is spent in endless convos about such people, and they usually end up playing a role in its most dramatic political events..

i don’t mean to suggest this is the only proper way to write an ethnography.. or even that anyone else should necessarily try to write this way.. perhaps what follows is the inevitable result of a researcher interested in history showing up in the middle of such a semi insurrectionary community, in a highly individualistic culture, in a community full of what often seem the best gossip in the world. but i think it’s the only way to write about betafo which begins to do justice to the people living there..

2 – royal authority


what i’m mainly interested in, is not the perspectives of such people (drs, teachers, merchants, pastors, pharmacists, engineers), but of what are in merina called olona tsotra ‘simple people’ the vast majority who continue to spend most of their time in small towns like arivonimamo, rural communities like betafo, or the poorer districts of the capital.. to explain how authority is seen to work among such ‘simple people’ about legit and illegit, ways of acting in the world.

i’ll start by talking about royal authority. since there have been no actual royalty in imerina for a century..  perhaps less important to understand what the merina kingdom was really like than to understand what people think it was like now..


the way people talked about ‘medicine’ often seemed only one or two tenuous steps away from social science ..not only that it was ultimately human intentions that shaped the social world, but also, that this was largely thru the power of words.. it was ultimately the names of the various objects.. that determined what they could do


19th cent texts always speaks of royal power as a matter of ‘gathering people together’, making them all ‘agree’ to royal rule.. but.. when assemblies actually held.. people expressed agreement by offering hasina:  in effect.. creating the power by which they had just been brought together.. the people became people in their act of recognizing a king, who embodied their will to be united as a people..t

perhaps there’s a nother way.. to be united as people.. no..?

io dance ness. . of our already interconnectedness


written histories continue to be the foundation of their status..


it makes sense to rural people that books should weigh in on such matters because such books are themselves associated w a certain sort of power that nobles also embody;

i came armed w a fairly extensive set of terms i had become familiar w from the 19th cent merina kingdom.. the kingdom itself was org’d on the principle of fanompoana.. or ‘service’.. everyone had to provide fanompoana of some kind..

on kings

(in my using those terms).. seemed to give informants pause.. people would respond in careful, measured tones..  it did not take me long to realize they did not think i was asking about royal service. they thought i was asking about slavery..


the id of slaves w soldiers is particularly startling, since in the 19th cent slaves would have been the last people allowed to carry guns.. still.. obvious reason ‘soldiers’ are people who follow orders..


the one constant was the notion of chains of command, of orders backed up by the threat of force.


by the early 1840s slaves already made up about 40% of the merina population.. the class of truly large-scale slaveholders was, from the beginning, a small one, largely confined to the cliques of military officers who, by then, were in de facto control of the state, and some members of the high nobility, but most slaves were owned by small proprietors. in fact, it was perhaps only the poorest fifth of merina households had no access to slave labor whatever..

with the queen’s conversion in 1869, the scope of fanompoana was expanded even further to include universal compulsory ed in mission schools, building of and attendance in local churches.. most of these appear to have been widely resented, even if most merina accepted the underlying principle of person al service to he sovereign..

the effect on daily life was undoubtedly a vast growth in the scope of relations characterized by the direct giving and taking of orders..  the 19th cent merina govt was essentially a military govt..  even the schools – primary ed became compulsory by the late 1870s – acted mainly as recruiting centers for the military..


result.. wage labor.. was entirely performed by slaves.. they had become only section of merina population willing or able to work for wages


by the end of the 19th cent, the meaning of fanompoana had been broadened to include obligations to pay taxes, perform military service, attend state schools and even churches.. all the institutions which were later to become the bulwarks of the colonial state..

after 1895, they became id’d completely w foreign domination. schools, offices, and workshops, were seen as places in which orders were to be followed w/o question

one reason the memory of slavery had become so embarrassing, then, was that it was a contradiction w/in their sense of national id, a continual reminder that they had once treated their fellow malagasy in the same way as foreigners were now treating them..

indeed if slavery set the measure of all other relations, it was not a subject people liked to talk about.. to the contrary. it was more the sort of issue no one wanted to talk about but that everyone seemed to end up talking about anyway..


it was as if the continuing presence of a population of ex slaves, living in close if often uncomfortable proximity w the descendants of their master, had made the whole issue so troubling that it had to be continually hidden, until in the end it began to seem the hidden reality behind everything..t

on kings

the reluctance to openly command others is part of a more general aversion to any relationship in which one party is seen as directing the actions of another. this aversion is the real explanation for dislike for wage labor..t

work – solving other people’s problems..  (not a good idea)

earn a living ness

i could never figure out, just from watching such groups, who, if anyone, was supposed to be in charge.. even fathers would avoid openly directing their adult children; in fact, the more someone aspired to be seen as a legit figure of authority in a rural community, the more they would avoid to appear publicly giving orders..

3 – negative authority


reader might now be left w impression that the inhabitants of rural imerian are simply anti authoritarian. nothing could be further from the truth

rarely formulated explicitly.. no one ever told me ‘it is wrong to tell others what to do’.. or .. ‘we malagasy do not believe in giving orders’ that would have been palpably absurd, since people do in fact give each other orders all the time.. particularly women, who in households are alway sending children off on errands, assigning each other tasks, assigning task to their menfolk. it is mainly in public contexts that orders are considered inappropriate..

(ok.. i may have switched some earlier imerian’s to merina.. )

elders and ancestors are seen as legit, however, largely because they are not seen as operating like kings (or for that matter, bossy women) rather than telling others what to do, they are seen as properly intervening in human affairs in order to tell others what not to do.. this is not to say that this sort of ‘negative authority’ as i call it, is not fraught w ambivalences of its own..


tombs are often represented as fixed centers, stones of memory from which children tend to drift away in all directions..  at the most abstract, ancestral authority is a matter of constraint, binding, holding people in..

again, space does not allow a detailed discussion, but there is a basic contradiction between the interests of fathers and sons..  the dual rep of ancestors.. benevolent who give blessings.. or terrifying ghosts that haunt.. ie: causing fires

as we shall see, the fire of 1931 is seen to mark a decisive moment in the history of betafo.. put a final end to betafo’s ancient glory.. point is.. degree to which ancestral memories are seen as an imposition on the living.. backed by threat of terrible punishment.. most intervened to constrain/attack


fathers, unlike mothers, rarely gave orders to children..


when people used the word baiko (‘command’) they were almost always talking about relations based ultimately on force – everything would always go back to talk of property rights, land registration..t.. tribunals, gendarmes, and prisons lurked not far in the background – perhaps not very convincingly, since everyone knew that the state would not really intervene, but still, those were the images..

ownership ness.. as the death of us

anatra had no such violent implications. it was seen as an appeal to conscience, to the hearers’ intrinsic sense of right/wrong. asking the hearer to ‘remember’ the ancestors was reminding her of the very ground of her being..t

your own song ness

w ozona, or ‘cursing’ one returns to compulsion once again. his was the ultimate sanction of ancestral authority

any else could admonish a younger person but ozona was effective only on one’s own descendants..  it was a power to be invoked only if a child or grandchild proved utterly resistant to admonition..


one did not punish a descendant by directly harming them (disease; lose wealth) .. but instead by imposing a constraint, by specifying something they will never be able to do (ie: have children, find prosperity)

the power to impose restriction s(ozona) was the very essence of ancestral authority


jean marie: and back in those days of old there was no thievery, because people all trusted one another. nowadays, however, there are many who end up working for others, and they end up stealing..t

work – as solving other people’s problems..  (not a good idea)


everyone agreed that fatidra is a means to bid people together in a relation similar to kinship, and also seemed aware of the ultimate point: that by taking in each others’ blood and pronouncing the stated imprecations, the parties to a fatidra create a force which acts in the same way ancestors would: by threatening to destroy them if they do not behave properly toward each other… moral ties and mutual responsibilities…


the practice of carrying out collective ordeals can itself be taken as a sign of an essentially solidary, unified community. the logic might seem puzzling at first (anyway it did to me) after all, if it were not for witchcraft – which is the very defn of anti social behavior – ordeals would be unnecessary. but in a community as factionalized as betafo.. armand is saying, such collective ritual cleansing is impossible. the witches exist, but they remain hidden because no one trusts each other enough to do what’s necessary to root them out..t


fokon’olona – ‘communal assembly’.. in everyday speech.. just means ‘everybody’..  a bringing together everyone who lives in the locality (whether same descendent or not) to discuss them (concerns).. rather than by say.. delegating authority to mediators, office holders, or any kind of reps.. anyone affected by the decision has a right to take part in the debate..

redefine decision making


always there is a certain code of conduct – phrased as a set of prohibitions – and in the latter cases at any rate, always a community of people who agree to that code of conduct, a community which only really comes into being thru the act of creating that alien, invisible force..

4 – character


elders who had received their abilities directly from god or the ancestors always also insisted that they never charged money for using them; there was a feeling that the effects of grace should not be tainted by considerations of profit.. now these people were very much a minority among curers and practitioners..

medicine was an extremely commercialized business..  but what was significant about medicine is that almost all practitioners felt at least a little bit uneasy about this fact and while most did, in fact, charge fixed prices, almost everyone i talked to agreed that in principle, they shouldn’t .. they should leave it up to the patient to decide how much they felt the cure was worth..


in madagascar, i found, such description rarely dwelt on exterior features like physical appearance, dress or manner.. description would turn quickly to remarks about the other person’s possible capacities, dispositions, knowledge and intentions.. the really important qualities of a person where always assumed to be those invisible to the eye..

see w heart

strong disapproval of public confrontation.. to that everyday ordinary people were obliged to stoically endure behavior that got on their nerves, and then went home and complained about it.. the nonconfrontational ethos, anyway, was real enough..  by the end i became so accustomed to malagasy standards that during my first month in america i was completely disconcerted and confused whenever i saw two people openly arguing in public..  similarly, calling people violent, swaggering, overly assertive, was strong condemnation; there was very little sense of respect or approval for such behavior, or anything remotely resembling an ethos of machismo, a feeling one has to put up a front of potential physical violence in order to retain honor or respect.. instead, such behavior was itself mostly likely to be considered shameful..

probably the most common term of approval was tsotra, which literally means ‘simple’.. this is a term w none of the negative association it would have in english..  i neer head it used in anything but a positive way.. to be simple means to be open, direct, and unassuming..


the general opinion seemed to be that lies were only evil if done w evil ends in mind


the reason you did not dare to wear clean clothes – to be seen as arrogant – was for fear of envy. others would see your greater health or happiness and resent you, and probably use sorcery against you and you would end up sick.. in so far as people openly discussed it, the desire for equality , in fact, it was almost never as a positive idea, but as a terrible moral evil..

envy was considered the most dangerous and destructive..  by this they did not so much mean envy in sense of covetousness.. the desire to acquire some good/advantage because one’s neighbor had it.. but in the purely destructive sense of wanting to deprive them of it.. or harm them in some other way out of resentment…. ‘perform an act of spite’ was to injure someone thru the use of medicine.. all of this was considered the very defn of evil..

betafo, according to many of its inhabitants, was notorious both for its envy and its sorcery.. just as all personal interaction was assumed to be marked by a certain degree of hidden motives, the reality of envy ensured that communities were full of subtle rivalries/conflicts, endless manipulations/strategies.. most dramatically, envy was thought to inspire continual sexual intrigue


madagascar is a society when sexual relations are, from the age when one becomes physically capable, considered an entirely  normal and expected part of life.. strict marital fidelity, by either men or women, is seen more as a touching sign of devotion than anything one could normally expect..  in betafo.. i was told there was a direct connection between sex and envy.. if you are envious of another person the natural response is to try to seduce that person’s wife/husband…


longstanding literature on the relation of egalitarianism and envy.. in it,,, it is often remarked that one is much more likely to be envious of equals, or near equals, than people who are vastly more rich/powerful.. envy demands a certain parity, or at least, teh ability to imagine oneself in that other person’s shoes..  in this sense, envy becomes a kind of destructive empathy: one has to be able to imagine oneself enjoying another person’s situation in order to experience anger and hostility at the realization that one is not, in fact, enjoying it..

what this implies is first of all that envy si the inevitable concomitant of any fairly egalitarian community; secondly, tha tit arises from a perverse dislocation of the very feelings of sympathy and identification that people like jean marie claimed was the basis of community itself..  if love was a matter of id’ing w others, feeling their happinesses and sadnesses as your own.. id’ing w their needs and so forth, then envy was when that ability to id perversely snapped back into hatred and resentful desire to destroy..

many discussions of envy take, as their initial examples envy of another person’s beauty, talent, or luck – qualities that other person never made any effort to acquire, or even chose to have at all..  but if the aim is use the concept of envy to describe attitudes toward wealth and property, this is not the most revealing place to stat..


it would be much better to begin, as people in betafo seemed to do, w such phenom as the display of wealth and sexual rivalry.. why does a man wish to be seen in flashy clothes, or w a beautiful woman hanging on his arm? it is hard to deny that such people desire to be envied..  in other words, much of what drives people to accumulate wealth to begin w is a desire to arouse feeling of envy in others..  to encourage others to imagine how nice it would be to be in their position,  and then to have to live w the fact that they cannot.. thus envy was not simply a product of egalitarianism – as some would like to claim. it is a driving force behind the desire to accumulate and to establish hierarchies that threatened to break egalitarian communities apart.

envy was the underside of communal solidarity, and witchcraft an inevitable perversion of communal live

5 – a brief history of betafo


since lailoza (child king made bridges out of silk or hair.. father took pity on people’s suffering and cut cord while son was halfway across.. to he tumbled to his death) is the only ancient king most local people know anything about, it can be said that the main thing the kings of imamo are remembered for is self destruction


lailoza’s story has little place in the historical consciousness of betafo.. people know it, certainly.. it’s a famous story.. but few see it as having any real relevance to their own community… this is at least partly because mount ambohitrambo is not visible from anywhere in betafo..


even more important is the fact that the inhabitants of betafo are andriana, and therefore, they do not think of themselves as having been anyone’s subjects.. in so far as they see a connection.. they identify w the kings..

even more importantly.. betafo is not exclusively andriana.. it is divided between andriana and the former slaves.. .. consider andriana status mainly a thing of the past ‘after all, everyone marries everyone else nowadays, so no one is pure andriana or pure hova’ .. in betafo, the andriana

a sense of who they were, of what it meant to be noble, was almost obsessively defined in relation to the issue of slavery..


typical approach to incidents of conflict in malagasy time: if you can’t skip over the issue entirely, then try to make the whole thing look ridiculous..


in this context vazimba means ‘aborigines’  ‘savages’.. the one time inhabitants f a territory whose descendants have been driven away.. the motif of frightening away the aborigines w music and loud noises is a common one in merina.. though i didn’t hear it often in betafo..


even in the 1840s the main sources one has for the history of betafo are the products of bureaucratic procedures..  # of slaves.. # of cattle.. these documents were created to make tax assessments..  the science of writing down names, of enumerating things and dating them, has always been the instrument of a coercive regime.. t

of math and men..  measuring things.. et al

when i asked who were the greatest men of betafo’s past, its true ray amandreny or elders, i would almost always hear the same basic list of names: ralaitsivery, andriantonga, ralaimanarivo, rabe leon. but if i asked about what these individuals were like, what i would usually get were one of two things: wondering remarks on the fahizana, or accusation of injustice..


these skills .. seen as inextricable from the coercive nature of the colonial system which trained them. the techniques themselves were means of extracting money and forced labor, the men who used them wore military uniforms and were backed up by armed gendarmes; even if the names and dates they wrote down were also the very stuff of history…

this is not just my perception; people in betafo saw it that way too..  many were convinced there was an actual book, co authored by some combo of these men.. there is not reason to think such a book ever existed, but many of betafo’s inhabitants insisted that it must

actually i heard about a lot of imaginary books when i was in madagascar.. .. often all this was just a dodge: figure out what the man wants from you, tell him there’s a book that will reveal more than you could ever reveal yourself.. the book, it always turns out, is in another town, in the possession of someone’s cousin, but they can probably get their hands on it in a week or two if they talk to the right person, someone who should probably be passing thru town next tuesday, or.. almost certainly the week after that. it would never actually show up..  but all this was more than just a way of fobbing off annoying researchers. people often really did take it for granted that, whatever book it was they thought i was trying to write, someone else had probably already written it..  in the case of local history of betafo, the situation is the exact reverse of what benedict anderson has called an ‘imagined community’..  t


anderson .. coined the latter phrase in arguing that modern nationalism creates a sense of community – one implicitly modeled on the experience of face to face community like a village, where everyone knows one another – among people who never meet, but are united only by their habit of reading newspapers, written texts. in betafo we have a real face to face community, a village, whose inhabitants imagine their unity to be embodied in nonexistent texts..t

i have described how memories become lodged in stones and tombs and so contribute to the establishment of a sense of community.. tombs are stones as well, but memories of the ancestors inside them can be seen in two ways: as what holds the community of living descendants together, or, as the memories of dead individuals, trying to prevent their names from being forgotten..

effacing the memory of the ancestors becomes an endless struggle – and also, a very ambivalent one, since if it were ever entirely accomplished, descendants would be set entirely adrift from their history and, hence, tantamount to slaves.. t

but as i’ve said. no one really knows how most of these tombs connect w one another.. there is merely the feeling that somehow they must.. the feeling somewhere, someone must know how..


even as living humans gradually wipe away the traces of memory inscribed in the landscape, seeing it as ultimately a form of violence, they imagine the whole to be preserved elsewhere, the integuments and connections to be written down, in another type of memorial composed thru a series of techniques which are  ultimately.. just as much mediums of violence and coercion, ..t..if anything, even more so.. by men who had found their homes in the coercive apparatus of the colonial regime..  even the location of the imagined books – always in a town or city, seat of govt offices and admin center, away from the community itself – is obviously significant in this respect..  writing from outside is what unifies the community, which thus sees itself as peripheral.. though this in its own way is nothing new..t

6 – anti heroic politics


i’m not the first to have observed this (that in parts of rural imerina there was next to nothing that could obviously be called a ‘public sphere’ or ‘political arena’).. maurice bloch describes how he arrived in madagascar in the late 1960s trained in political anthropology, only to discover that the objects he was trained to look for were not there.  ie: ‘nor could i observe power conflicts when these emerged into the open; since they did not. my conclusion was that i had nothing to say about politics’


at the same time, he continues, it was clear that people were constantly in one way or another, telling each other what to do, and it was hard not to think of these as a political phenom..

his central argument, in fact, became that in imerina, the formal political sphere has become a sphere where nothing is supposed to happen..  ie: elders deliver speeches.. nothing is openly debated/decided.. all real decisions have been made beforehand, behind the scenes.. once the public even begins.. the result is predetermined

sounds like all of our life today..

his (in claude levi strauss’ distinction between games and rituals) ultimate conclusion is notorious: that societies based on ritual reject history altogether because they do not allow the arbitrary differences produced by events to have permanent effects; instead, they simply reproduce the same fixed structure over and over again..

nowadays there is next to no one left who actually believes that there are societies w/o history.. certainly block is not trying to say anything of the kind.. he was trying to make a point about the nature of authority. the core of his argument is that all political speech tends to resemble ritual in so far as both place radical limits on what it is possible to say..  in imerina, he argues, authority comes down to repeating the words/sentiments of the ancestors in proverbial language, or in carrying out rituals that are also statements of their ultimate rightness and authority. in either case, it is basically impossible to criticize the established order, to argue, suggests alts, to enter a debate…

pluralistic ignorance


p1 – political action; or, the structure of stories


what is political action – most obvious response would be that actions are political in so far as they are intended to influence the actions of others (or perhaps just in so far as they do, because something can be unintentionally political).. the problem w this is that it would mean that, w the possible exception of certain purely technical actions.. all actions have some political component.. this may not be a bad way fo looking at things, but even when one says ‘everything is political’ one normally means something more. one implies that one’s actions have a broader significance, that they relate to more general issues.. so let me suggest a refinement. as a minimal defn, political action is action meant to influence others who are not physically present when the action is being done.. t.. this is not to say it can’t be intended to influence people who are physically present; it is to say its effects are not limited to that. it is action that is meant to be recounted, narrated, or in some other way represented to other people afterward; or anyway, it is political in so far as it is..

saying this is not a denial of the importance of a public sphere. rather, one might say that this is what a ‘public sphere’ actually is, that space in which everyone acts w the understanding that anything they do is likely to be more widely represented and remembered… if no such space is circled off, or more realistically, if the legitimate ways of acting w/in it are radically circumscribed, the process will just become more diffuse and scattered, and, perhaps a little more covert. gossip and reputation, for instance, will probably take on a far more important role in the allocation of authority..

the greatest advantage this defn has it that it makes it impossible to think about politics w/o also thinking about the issue of representation..t

ugh.. that’s the part that doesn’t resonate w me..

perhaps.. because now.. we have the means to not depend on rep ing .. consensus.. et al..?

politics is the process by which people act in the knowledge that their actions will be reported, talked about, narrated, discussed, praised, or criticized by other people. this, in turn, allows us to look at all sorts of familiar issues of representation in a very diff light.. ie: we normally tend to assume that true power is the power to establish definitive texts or authoritative version of events – and by extension, that the person who gets to tell the story of what happened is in ultimate control. but kings are rarely storytellers. they don’t need to be. the truly powerful usually find other people to do the work of rep ing for them..

why even talk of truly powerful ness..

today we have the means to listen to all the voices..  listen to them every day.. rather than give them/us choices/topics to debate.. whatever

as it could be..  2 convos

ie: hlb via 2 convos that io dance.. as the day..[aka: not part\ial.. for (blank)’s sake…]..  a nother way


while i was living in antananarivo i still had a lot of time to myself, much of which i spent jotting down theoretical reflections in my journals. one of my great ambitions at the time was to develop a theory of narrative – and  just before i left for the field, i had put together the outlines of one that would seem to have been tailor-made to complement this approach to politics..

the initial question i had started off on was: what it is that makes a story seem worth telling.. what are the most common ways of framing daily events that would make them interesting enough *to hold the attention of someone who had no prior interest in finding out about the matter?

? *why do that..?

this struck me as a much better – or certainly, more anthropological way to go about thinking about narrative than most existing theories on the subject, which tend to always concentrate on formal genres – fairly tales or novels, but rarely ordinary talk..

how about this for ordinary talk..  2 convos .. idio-jargon/self-talk as data]

my first thinking about the matter set off from a remark by frederick jameson: that in russian folk tales the protagonists are always rep’d at first.. as people who are clearly not up to the task in front of them. often the hero is a simple peasant boy, perhaps a simpleton or cripple, anyway, certainly no match for the ogre or sorcerer or king who’s the antagonist; it is only the intervention of a magical helper which allows him to succeed. but it is just this lack of adequacy, he suggested, which makes the thing a story. it provides an element of suspense…

it struck me that this would have important implications for any theory of social power..


one way to state the matter would be: men tend to monopolize the sorts of work framed in terms of an implicit dramatic structure. men, one might say, tend to get the sorts of work one can tell stories about afterward, women, the sort one tells stories during, to pass the time..  *it is constantly placing men on little stages, while ensuring that most of the work of actually producing and maintaining these stages, and making it possible for the men to appear there, is relegated to their mothers, daughters, and wives..  not limited to gender.. it continues, to a lesser/greater extent, thru every social hierarchy: the more exalted a group/status, the more their typical **activities will tend to take dramatic form.. one which lends itself to being told as stories afterward. the political domain is usually the most dramatic one of all

*interpretive labor ness

**me.. and family/friend gatherings.. not being able to tell much..

another way to say this is that the more powerful a person/group, the more their archetypical activities are likely to resemble games..

johan huizinga: games.. always characterized by certain basic features.. a\ field of action.. marked off from rest of world in space and time  b\ arbitrary rules  c\ series of players whose actions are motivated by   d\ some goal they are not certain to attain

this formulation’s basic features precisely parallel a certain tradition of thinking about the relation of narrative and human action, one which goes back to aristotle.. (then shows stories fitting the 4 above)..  the two models (game and story) have exactly the same form..


this not only makes it easier to understand what it means to say that certain types of action are intrinsically ‘narrativizable’ it also provides a clue as to why such narratives can serve as such powerful instruments of ideology.. that is, why they not only determine who is an actor and who is not, but make it easier for those who are not to accept this situation..

aristotle stressed that a story is an ‘imitation of action’ which comes to an end when that action is resoled..  it is not set in motion by characters; in fact, the characters in a story are themselves defined thru what they do and what they suffer..


it seems to me this is exactly why narratives operate so well ideologically to naturalize arbitrary structures of power.. if you care about the characters and whether they get what they’re after, you just automatically accept the field and the arbitrary rules of the game as they are handed to you..  if you identify w the heroic goals of your leader on the stage, you do not wonder too much about who is setting up the stage, or sweeping it up afterward – even if it is you..

if narrative and representation really are the medium of politics, why is it almost never seen that way?  i suspect that one reason has to do w the role of violence..  the dramatic suspenseful sorts of activity which i’ve said are normally marked off as male spheres of action are often violent ones as well: hunting and war are only the most obvious examples.. in so far as these become the models for all action.. violence comes to be seen as the exemplary form of human action.. in so far as these sort of stories are cast into a larger political stage, they are usually called ‘heroic narrative’.. which are really little more than statements of thee political significance of violence and violent men..


but here is where one might say there is a kind of ideological trick going on. if words and rep are a necessary element of politics, then the emphasis on violence so typical of these stories is in its essence a way of denying this. after all, just about every other way one person has of influencing another’s actions must involve some form of symbolic mediation – whether by words or images or what have you. violence is about the only way to influence another that does not require some sort of mediation. this has two effects.. 1\ violence is one of simplest forms of action to rep..  requires least psychological skill or subtlety.. 2\ by concentrating on violence.. narrators deny the very importance of what they are doing in telling these stories..  it could even be taken as away of disguising the actual mechs by which power is reproduced in the very act of its reproduction..


i spent a lot of time listening to ordinary conversations, at first, trying to make not of narrative forms. but here things were if anything even more striking.. daily narratives almost never took what might be called ‘intentional form’.. they were never structured around some individual’s project of action,

conversations.. lived in improv – it takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say..

the only genre of story that was org’d around a protagonist and their intentional project of action were tales of transgression and retribution..

my reaction at the time was to abandon the whole project..  in retrospect, i think my starting point – that stories hold one’s interest thru uncertainty – was reasonable enough; the problem was that i was working w far too simple a notion of where the locus of uncertainty can lie.. the stories i took as my model were stories of suspense.. such stories are org’d around the protagonist’s’ intentions.. but there are many ways one can org experience to make it interesting enough to warrant listening to.. as a prelim approx.. i might suggest three very common ones:


1\ suspense – we don’t know how will get to outcome  2\ mystery – we don’t know who/why/what  3\ reversals – thought we knew outcome but were wrong

for 1 – listener has to connect w characters.. for 2 & 3 – already involved/connected

my core argument so far has been that politics consists of actions taken in the knowledge that they will affect others not present when one takes them; and that political power is the ability to stop people from acting in this way.. to put it less epigramatically: political action are actions which take place on stage, in the sense that they are meant to be more widely represented.. the operation of political power in society is not to be confused w politics itself. politics as i’ve defined it is an inevitable part of human life; power, the means of its partial repression. it is the system which regulates who is to be allowed access to these stages, and who denied it.  it is a matter of preventing others from acting/speaking or preventing what they say or do from influencing others.. its ultimate sanction is usually the threat of violence…

the language of political anthropology is full of terms like ‘fields’ ‘stages’ and ‘arenas’ .. in most societies, the pinnacles of power hierarchies are marked by game like contests marked off from ordinary society, w their own, arbitrary rules; what happens in these spaces will be repeated, explained and remembered. this is partly because the decision made w/in them have repercussions on the society outside. stories about the most important contests and decisions continue to be told, illustrated, even reenacted long afterward; and this is what history, in most societies, consists of..


but in this light, the merina historical tradition i have been outlining in the last 3 chs are quite unusual..

it’s not that game like contests do not appear.. often too, they are said to have enduring effects on society.. what is missing is any suggestion that they should have.. instead they are made to seem ridiculous.. when ancestor stage fights.. rep’d as little better than children’s games.. if these people had been behaving like adults, it never would have happened.. if they hadn’t been so childishly stubborn afterward, stomping off and refusing to have anything more to do w each other, it would never have had enduring effects.. this way of looking at history can genuinely be labeled ‘anti heroic’ because it takes the very sort of confrontations that would elsewhere be the main theme of heroic history and present them as an ie of the way not to behave..


all of this is apiece w the great disapproval for public confrontation.. but the rejection of heroic history goes further.. in historical traditions, as in ordinary convo, there was  a tendency to avoid presenting protagonists as intentional actors who actively ‘make history’ in the sense of imposing their will up on the world..  this had a powerful effect on basic assumption about how politics was to be conducted, because people generally did not claim authority by id ing themselves w the desires or intentions of people of the past..

ie: ‘heroic politics’ normally brings to mind visions of .. sagas.. wars, .. oaths.. infidelity.. murder.. as a result the living are saddled w all sorts debts and unsettled accounts.. and the political world become a web of personalized obligations: favors to be repaid, insults/injuries that cry out for vengeance.. this sense of debt is just what’s dramatically lacking in imerina.. where no one would admit to having traditional rivals or enemies.. and situations of violence or conflict.. when they are not considered foolish vanity.. were represented as matters of systematic oppression which do not need to be avenged, because they will avenge themselves..


those who wish to claim political authority do so largely by identifying themselves w the purposes of the dead.. nowadays though.. if kings appear in oral history, they are either noble men who abandoned their power or oppressors who misused it.. rarely are they seen as the founders of political institutions.. more often the y are seen as having put an end to them.. certainly they do not embody purposes which others seek to realize.

i don’t know.. via reading twitter for years.. i’m thinking we spend a lot of our time id ing w the purposes of the dead.. ie: hero izing presidents et al.. rather than thinking thru.. do we want womens’ pictures on money or do we want no money.. do we want more people to be able to vote and votes to not be about money or do we want to disengage from voting


p2 – lost intentions; or, stories about trees and objects


it is this very invisibility and lack of defn that can make them (lolo – ghosts/spirits) vehicles of power.. another word for spirits of the dead is fanahy ‘souls’ but fanahy is also the word for ‘character’ .. the inner, invisible aspect of the person that is also the seat of intentionality, desire, and the will..

soldiers and slaves, of course, were not morally neutral images. in rural imerina, there was felt to be something fundamentally wrong about reducing one person to the vehicle of another’s will.. politics was not a matter of rallying followers around a cause, or even, of claiming to rep group interest..t..  it is this, esp which contributes to the impression that there is nothing where we would normally think of as a political domain..


much of the political struggle that did take place on a day to day level, was over who could impose their interpretation of what they ghostly powers were, and esp, what restrictions one had to observe as a result.. this was certainly what miadana’s neighbors did when they scolded her about the local fady..


in the end.. came down to much the same thing: telling others what they couldn’t do

p3 – the conduct of politics, or, stories about people


the trick is to id oneself w potentially harmful, even coercive forms of power w/o at the same time becoming the sort of person willing to do harm to others – which would, of course, make one entirely reprehensible creature who could never be the holder of legit ancestral authority..


w/in a small community like betafo, political action consisted largely of the manipulation of impression.. no one wanted to give the impression they were totally w/o resources… it is best to at least raise the possibility that one might have hidden powers, if only to intimidate others who might otherwise be inclined to hurt you.. on other hand.. the more you are seen as entangled in medicine.. less you can hope to stake a place as .. a respectable elder/rep of ancestors.. if stray too far.. excluded from moral community entirely.. continuum of bonified elders on one end and recognized witches on the other


one reason there were so few genuine elders was that there was almost no one around who was not at least suspected of having something to do w medicine

professional astrologers were by far th most respectable practitioners of medicine..


astrologers were among the only people, in fact, who claimed to gain concrete powers from their ancestor, and by doing so many were able to boast of abilities no one else would have dared to openly admit…


laws of property were enforced by armed police. in betafo this entire apparatus was lacking. instead the fear emanated from ramena’s own manipulation of impressions..


the secrecy seems to have been essential to having one’s power (taken) seriously


to be successful then was to be able to largely withdraw from the cash economy . at least when it came to food.. the fact that very few families were actually able to do this did not detract from the ideal..


since almost everyone was trying to balance a reputation for moral decency against at least the suggestion they might have access to potentially destructive kinds of knowledge, the very circulation of gossip – of info which would help others to stand in judgment over others – had also become one of the most important ways of establishing power

7 – the trials of miadana


scolding them about local fady was one way to establish their seniority..


it was intimidation of this sort, combined w endless stalling strategies and shuffling of papers, complicated legal arguments made in the knowledge that there was no judicial apparatus to appeal to .. t


when someone got sick, he would give them something to clear up their symptoms, but never provide a definitive cure, so they would be back again every month paying the same fee over and over..t

8 – lost people


even when it was not brought about by wholesale mass murder – which it usually was – enslavement meant being ripped away form all of the objects that made life meaningful. it was first and foremost a loss of human relationships, but people at the time tended to speak of it as a loss of place. slaves were ‘lost people’ , wrenched from their ancestral lands, in an alien place among people who did not know them..t


remember most rural communities like betafo were dominated by a relatively small elite of wealthy families..


ancestors were not felt to be nearly such a constraint for those who were struggling to find a solid place; history was not such a burden for those who’d had theirs stolen. (i never found anyone, for instance, able to tell me how slaves were buried)..t

according to any conventional anthropological defn, black and white people shared a common culture. the language they spoke was identical.. there was no substantial diff in marriage customs, clothing, use of deferential speech forms, the kind of music each enjoyed. .. what made the two groups different was a difference in historical experience..

the existence of slavery was, certainly, central to how white people saw themselves in history. for them, the scene w which i began this chapter – rifle bearing merina soldiers rip families apart – could almost be considered a moment of original sin. such scenes, endlessly repeated, ended up creating a population of hundreds of thousands of lost people who have remained among them ever since, a kind of permanent accusation. after the defeat of the merina army at the hands of the french, however, images of soldiers and victims began to merge together in the popular imagination, until the word ‘soldier’ became an emblem for the moral perils involved in any relation of command..  now, in a way , one could say this is a very insightful conclusion.. if what one is trying to do is to understand how such endlessly repeated acts of treachery, mass murder, and destruction had been possible, the existence of structure of command in which individuals completely abandon their autonomy of judgment and subordinate themselves to another is just the place to look..t  contributed to a much larger sense that the past was somehow laced w violence, that it was a terrible constraint on living human beings..


for the descendants of the victims, history looked very different.. like wage labor, relations of command were considered the inevitable result of poverty – so much so that many black people would hire and be hired by their own close relatives..


one of the most striking things about this story is its extremely factual style. the account is full of numbers. facts and figures become the medium thru which the characters live their lives..they were both men who lived their lives surrounded by printed textbooks, slates, rulers, ink bottles, leather bound ledgers, blotting paper, loose leaf binders filled w rafts of printed forms. such were the reasons for their prominence..t  if it were not for these techs of accuracy, they would not have been characters worth telling about.. of course, all this was not simply a way of evoking a milieu (a person’s social environment): the narrator, after all, went thru the same ed system geared to producing petty bureaucrats as the characters in his tory..

the reason such episodes are crucial is that, as i have said, these stories themselves are all about proof; they are ways of establishing authority thru knowledge..t.. the skeptical reader identifies w the skeptic in the story, and then is chastened and surprised.


the two most common moral evils: he is both envious witch and arrogant oppressor


in this light, the backdrop of foreign fahaizana,

the names and dates and figures – which is always, ultimately, the idiom of coercive authority ..t..

– represent the chimerical (wildly imaginative) promise that common subjugation (the action of bringing someone or something under domination or control) could really have make equals of former masters and former slaves.. it wasn’t really true.. ultimately the story becomes one of the definitive checks of efforts of black people to raise themselves up too far; it is about the impermeability of social class.


vazimba are a kind of thing that isn’t seen..  by defn mysterious, invisible, a kind of unknown power..

vazimba were normally invisible; when they did appear it was almost always in the nightmare visions of a child..

for present purposes, what is really important is the longstanding relationships between vazimba and slaves…. there was felt to be some sort of affinity..


slaves felt an affinity w vazimba because vazimba were figures of loss and dispersal.. the one common feature in all stories about vazimba is that they involve people being uprooted, cast out of their proper place.. vazimba are people who have been driven from their homes..

like slaves, then, their defining feature is that they are lost; they embody the complete negation of those ties of descent that bind the living to ancestors buried in ancestral soil.  if slaves were people wrenched from their ancestors, vazimba were ancestors lost to their descendants..


something fundamental about the experience of slaves and their descendants. perhaps one can even say, the experience of slavery itself: at least, in so far as one accepts the common argument that slavery as an institution is founded on the destruction of social worlds..t according to this argument, slaves are by defn human beings that have been wrenched from the society which formed them, the web of social ties which has made them what they are, and left kinless and alien, living a sort of social death..

by this logic, it is the moment described by raombana, the moment when children are torn from their mother’s arms and families broken apart, which makes a slave a slave..

it’s difficult to assess the full implications of such a moment for this historical consciousness of those who passed thru it. rarely do large numbers of people go thru a rupture so utter and extreme. it brings to mind elaine scarry’s observation that physical pain empties worlds of their meaning. in normal life, one is invested in a thousand ways in one’s surroundings, in people, places, projects, things one cares about, so that one’s sense of self expand outward to imbue and become entangled w a much larger social world. one effect of extreme physical pain, she says, is to empty these investments of all meaning; one’s sense of self collapses into the narrow confines of the hurting body. for that moment nothing and no one else is real. the scene described by raombana in a way reverses this: the victims are, for the most part, physically unscathed, but as they are lead off from burning villages, most of the men they have ever known lying dead in bloody pools, women and children dragged from each others’ arms; in a matter of hours, the entire universe of social relation s in which they have come into being was utterly annihilated. the result, as raombana’s friend observed, was a trauma so intense that no mere physical pain could possibly surpass it


if for slaves and their descendants, that one moment, when worlds dissolved away, seems to have reverberated endlessly, it is because such experiences did not stop.. dispersal, families drifting apart, people uprooted from their memories; for most, it was repeated w every generation..

it also happened w/in a cultural milieu which placed an unusual emphasis on the politics of memory.. particularly memories of parents and ancestral homes.. ritual action was esp concerned w the manipulation and transformation of such memories – particularly in women.. in marriage negotiations, for instance, the suitor’s family offered a series of cash payments which compensated either for the nurturance and care the girls’ mother had provided her – such as the valim babena.. the ‘answer for having carried an infant on one’s back’ – or services the daughter herself would no longer be able to provide – the akan kitay ‘gathering firewood’ or alan volfotsy ‘pulling out white hairs’ .. in the latter case esp.. an image so intimate.. evokes a whole world of domestic sentiments.. protective affection, the fear of aging and resultant loss, the pain of ruptured domesticity when the woman moves away – the money, officially meant to ‘ask for the parent’s blessing’ can equally be seen, i think, as recognition of that pain..

for women who had been carried into slavery, evocation of such memories could only serve as a reminder of acts of irreparable violence, of the fact that the entire world of those memories that had been brutally destroyed..

but this rootlessness could, sometimes, open opportunities.. also held out the promise of a kind of power – if one rather dangerous and unpredictable.. slaves, or their descendants, continue to convert images of their own sense of loss into points of access to another world, thru which they can find the means to reconstruct a place for themselves, to bring things together rather than let them drift apart..


when ghosts appear they do so because they embody frustrated desires, a yearning or a longing.. to live again, to play w children, or the sheer desire for children, to be children, manifesting itself in the urge to snatch them, to seize them as the visible emblems of everything the dead have lost. vazimba too are a kind of ghost , and they too are notoriously fond of children..

vazimba are more than nameless, it is the very absence of anyone to remember their names that causes their anger and bitterness, that makes them fierce vazimba; their lack makes them what they are


vazimba were essentially confusing.. they did not so much rep an alt between two things or even a gradual transition where two things shaded together, but often, a zone of extreme confusion where things were capable of flipping back and forth unexpectedly into their opposites: anger and desire, love and hate, deduction and renunciation, healing and assault

it was their ambiguity, after all, that gave vazimba much of their importance..

vazimba are spirits that have lost their place, bodies, memory, their specificity, their name.. they exist in water, unmoored; cast on currents instead of anchored in the ground like the proper ancestral dead.. by containing something which is the essence of flux and dislocation, one creates the possibility of overcoming the dislocation and finding oneself a place..


another theme that has emerged periodically through out this book has been the connection between invisibility and power.. the power to act and transform the world tends to be rep’d as something essentially ambiguous, unknowable, that which cannot be definedt.. it is essentially something negative, in the sense that it is defined primarily by what it is not.  this suggests one way to think about the nature of vazimba.. the victims of ongoing violence and oppression, one might say, have been, in certain ways, negated. they have been denied something: a place, the autonomy to create themselves, to act of their own accord. but by capturing this negation, fixing it in certain powerfully effective images – like vazimba, who are also defined almost entirely by what they lack – it is sometimes possible to transform it int a kind of power..

mediumship itself can be seen in exactly the same terms.. in most of madagascar, mediums are overwhelmingly women.. mediums insisted that when the spirits truly ‘moved in’ them, they lost all consciousness, and even afterward had no memory of what the spirit did/said..  they referred to themselves as the soldier of those kings.. it was a way of using an image of absolute negation as a way of claiming power and authority. .. access to invisible powers, to realize how effective this kind of move can be. in this game at least, everyone agreed that black people had all the advantages..t

9 – the descendants of rainitamaina


slaves, in fact, were people who had been polluted.. everyone has a certain hasina – an intrinsic capacity for action, a hidden grace – therefore, to keep someone as a slave, that power must be broken..t


throughout rural imerina, weather is a political issue..


the terminology people used when they talked about the process of growing rice was in many ways strikingly similar to the terminology of pregnancy an childbirth


from this perspective, the winter is a season in which the ancestor intermingle w living people but from another.. it is a season of release.. it is in the summer that everyone is closest to their ancestral lands… in the winter, they scatter everywhere, looking for money..

during the winter, no one spends much time thinking about the weather. one day is much like any other. in the spring, it suddenly becomes the subject of endless convo.. because everything depends on when the first rains will come..


one of the real puzzles of this chapter is why a man so powerful should have felt so endlessly hemmed in by invisible limitations.. he had a constant tendency to evoke unseen rivals of power equal or greater to his own, then live in fear of them.. he seemed genuinely intimidated..


the cat allows an illusion of freedom, but all the time reserving the capacity for a swift sudden blow that would totally annihilate its object. the power of the state rests on just this kind of control of space.. continual watchfulness, combined w the occasional, precise applications of destructive force..

when kings and govt choose emblems to rep their own power, they tend to emphasize not so much the control of space as the capacity to annihilate it.. lightening, he notes, is in its own way the ultimate symbol of this sort of power because it can strike anywhere, utterly unpredictably, and so swiftly that flight is  inconceivable..


in effect, reaching full maturity became a matter of making a clean break w the world of old black women and identifying himself entirely w that of knowledgeable white men..


it was that very bitterness toward the andrianan, after all, that guaranteed ratsizafy’s own position as affective leader of betafo’s mainty


much of betafo’s politics, i argued, was a matter of circulating impressions in such away as to create at least the strong suspicion in other people’s minds that one might be able to do them harm.. t..but political power..i have also argued, is not simply the capacity to play a game but the capacity to control or regulate it; not just a matter of preventing others from interfering w one’s own projects of action but to prevent them from being able to intro their own version of the story,..t.. or acting in such a way as to generate the stories they wish to circulate…


the memory of ancestors, i have said, i experienced largely as a form of violence.. for the memory of the ancestors of tampon tanana betafo this was doubly true, because they were also preserved thru techniques of memory that were entirely implicated in techniques of coercion.


what is it anyway. . that guarantees andriana status? in earlier times, it was the power of the state.. if anyone of ratsizafy’s status had gone out and built himself a tomb w a trano manara a hundred years ago, armed men would have eventually intervened.. it would have been torn down. in the 20th cent, it was no longer guns but the authority of books and papers preserved in the libraries, archives, and unis of the city, along w that of scholars and teachers familiar w them..t  but as i have endlessly pointed out, the two were not considered to be so very different.. the power to intimidate others which his own skills brought him was nothing compared w that of the efficient, bureaucratic admin of force at the disposal of such men..t  and w which by now, the very meaning of the words like andriana had become largely identified..

in trying to blur the distinction between the power of ancestors and that of medicine.. ratsizafy sought to translate knowledge into status..  he had achieved some limited success.. but in a way the entire project was only possible because the most powerful forms of knowledge and intimidation had been temporarily pushed off the scene. those administering them no longer considered what happened in betafo sufficiently important..  the ultimate lock on his ambitions was the fact that , in the capital and its surrounding villas, descendants of tampon tanana still existed, armed w an altogether more efficient means of making history..

10 – it must have gone something like this


opening the bag in front of strangers seemed to do nothing to dispel the rumors..t

even more than becoming the subject of stories, though, i became a medium for spreading them..  my style of conducting research often consisted of little more than telling people the most interesting facts or stories that i had most recently heard from their neighbors..


neither i am aware of any overt conflicts that arose because of my presence, or because of what someone thought someone might have told me. on the other hand, people certainly did argue thru me..


norbert was obviously one of those people constantly doing things he had reason to regret, but willing to make amends only on condition no one talks about it..


but of course, he (norbert) added, all that is over now.. in the present day, what does it even matter who was a slave and who wasn’t; not it’s only money that makes a difference.. if you have money, after all, it doesn’t matter who you are.. or (it seemed to occur to him that emphasizing money rather dulled the egalitarian point he really wanted to make) it’s not really money, even, nowadays. or shouldn’t be. what really matters is your work..

work ness

i would hear such statement fairly often, when speaking in the abstract w descendants of slaves – as if they felt obliged to state the matter as a principle, if nothing else, to make it clear that they felt such things really shouldn’t matter, even though it was obvious that they did… coming from a man so notoriously bitter as norbert, it was particularly transparent..

we ended up in a prolonged discussion of racial problems in america; i suggested that since americans like to think of themselves as people w/o history, the presence of one part of the population descended from slaves seems a particularly intractable problem, since their history really can’t just be ignored..  well.. said norbert, .. maybe all this history should just be buried after all.. maybe it would be better if we could all forget..

i was about to say that it perhaps it wasn’t a matter of forgetting what happened, perhaps we should always remember that; ..t..maybe the problem was that everyone still could see themselves as descendants of either one side or the other, the slave-owners or the slaves. that’s because black people and white people hardly ever intermarry. if everyone would just mix together



a curious synthesis which if nothing else, showed how often people are presented w multiple strands of possible interpretations w/o knowing how to quite fit them together, and thus are capable of patching together any number of diff syntheses depending on what seems appropriate to the occasion..

what really excited me about my convo w norbert though was his description of the diff statuses of slaves.. (as singer, cleaner, bed-mate, et al).. this at least was something i could ask other people about.. and i tried my best to find someone else who could confirm or supplement his accoutn.to my great frustration, this proved nearly impossible.. mostly i got blank stares and claims of ignorance..


one is tempted to call norbert’s account the naturalistic one, mariel’s account mystified, fantastic. actually, i suspect neither has very much to do w the realities of 19th cent betafo.. ie: could have been little room for specialized troops of singers and dancers or even nursemaids and concubines w no other work to do..

most of norberts’ convo played on three themes: money, work, and sex. work will get you money.. money will get you sex. sexual allure will get you off from work.. his basic model for work was labor in the fields..  real slaves had to work.. the lucky ones escaped that fate because they knew how to fascinate.. to seduce the minds and senses of their masters.. : they ‘fascinated’ the children and so they became nursemaids; et al

but to make his point, he also completely misrep’d history. in fact, male slaves did not really have to work harder than female ones.. if anything, the exact opposite was the case.. the men were often far away; women, more likely to live near their masters where they could be much more systematically exploited..

where for norbert, the issue at hand was the power of certain slaves to influence their masters, mariel’s account was entirely concerned w the power of the masters themselves..


in mariel’s account the andrian a are doing both (slave/soldier and medicine)

the final conclusion was yet another variant on an old andriana them: how the andriana’s own acts of oppression, of subordinating others, had finally come back to haunt them..

if one thing should be clear by now, it is that the dialogic process i described in the first section of this chapter can be very messy and unpredictable..

no way to predict what aspect of things a give person would consider important… none of this, however, is what i really want to emphasize right now. what i really want to emphasize is the constructed nature of the resulting narratives.. all of these convos involved the creation of stories, implicit or explicit, and none or them involved anything like already constituted knowledge… these were not stories the tellers were simply repeating.. but stories they were inventing on the spot... historical inquiry: trying to explain something by evoking the patterns of the past… then reconstructing the hypothetical links which would connect the past and present. it is worth while to consider this process in more detail, i think, because it shows that the differences between how an outside analyst looks at a community’s history and the way its own inhabitants can look at it are not always as different as one might otherwise be inclined to think..t


alliances and lines of solidarity were constantly being reaffirmed, created, undermined, or broken by who took confidence in who, or to what degree, who were effectively collab ing in coming up w an account of what had happened.. and who were shut out of the discussion..

meetings – esp those that take the form of trials – also aim to establish the rights and wrongs of the matter at hand by constructing a definitive narrative.. even more, it was considered a matter of creating an active consensus:  not only should narrative be acceptable to everyone.. but everyone in attendance should play some role in shaping it..

we, the logic seemed to be, are trying to create a story that can being people together (at the very least, the people in the room).. she (juliette.. norbert’s wife) used her stories to drive them apart

most politics do not translate into history..


what connects the story miadana’s family concocted w norbert and mariael’s more abstract historical reflection is more the process by which the creators went about their work.. in each case, someone was creating a story about the past in order to explain a present situation.. the process involved at least two stages: 1\ create description.. implication that it always happens   2\ speculate.. how the present situation could have arisen from the thing


at the very least one might say they always contain 1\ certain ideas of agency  2\ certain notions of value.. which could motivate it..


seems to me that one advantage of applying an historical, rather than a more explicitly scientific, way of knowing to the study of a community like betafo is that it makes it impossible to create a fundamental gap between the analyst and the object of study..  ie: i might have certain advantages and disadvantages .. we might have very different sets of agendas, but there is no absolute, fundamental divide (between me and other story tellers in betafo)

tried to reconstruct the historical universe in which it (ordeal of 1987) took place, so that the reader can understand something of what authority, morality, community, action means here.. only after that have i been able to slowly turn to individuals and events, and then finally, to the specific events in question, by reconstructing how they must have happened.. a process that cannot be separated at any point from the process of their interpretation..

11 – catastrophe


in this chapter, i can finally answer some of the questions posed in the intro.. what exactly had happened in 1987, when a communal ordeal meant to reassert the solidarity of the community ended up being remembered as the final proof that solidarity was ultimately impossible, and thus marking a definitive split between the two..


the more his fame increased, the more he could be seen as drawing on covert networks of money and influence that were almost by defn tainted and corrupt


every now and then, he added, one encounters a historical moment when someone actually says, in public, what others have endlessly repeated behind closed doors, an act almost always accompanied by an enormous feeling of release and transformation..


political events, i have argued, are not just ones that generate stories or other representations; they must, by doing so, have broader consequences. for this to be a meaningful defn, too, these broader consequences can’t just be confined to an ongoing circle of talk; at some point it has to play some role in shaping how people relate to one another in their daily lives.. t

12 – epilogue


if there was one impulse – one might even say one moral imperative – that drove me from the very beginning, it was a desire to explode some of the sense of artificial distance that so many ethnographies create between author, audience, and the people who are being studied..t.. i wanted the reader to be able to think of the inhabitants of betafo as people they could at least imagine meeting and even, under the right set of circumstances, getting to know.. if nothing else, i have tried at least in small ways to always emphasize how – cultural differences notwithstanding –

we do inhabit the same world, and ultimately the same history and the same moral universe; or, if one wants to define history in a more culturally specific fashion, then at the very least, that we all could be sharing one..t


if it (history) has remained among the humanities, in the company of the study of literature, art and philosophy and not that of sociology or political science, i suspect it is ultimately because of some sense that science deals w regularities – if not w ‘laws’ then at the very least w things that are to some degree predictable – and that history tends to focus on the very opposite, on the irregular and the unpredictable..t

it seems to me.. that at least in anthropology, it is this very concern w science, laws, and regularities that has been responsible for creating the sense of distance i have been trying so hard to efface; it is, paradoxically enough, the desire to seem objective that has been largely responsible for creating the impression that the people we study are some exotic, alien, ultimately unknowable other.. t


margaret weiner notes much the same transformation in comparing records from before the dutch conquest of southern bali in 1908 to those which came after it; after conquest, accounts of personalities and dramatic events are immediately replaced by bureaucratic ‘discussions of finance, agricultural production, construction, and public health. it was’ she writes, ‘as if once a region was brought under colonial domination, nothing happened there any longer.. the colonial state produced knowledge mainly in the form of stats and regularities.. t

one reason why individuals disappear from colonial documents is, clearly, because the authors were no longer obliged to take account of them; one of the first things a colonial regime tends to do is to create a political climate in which no single inhabitant of the country is in a position to do anything which could have much of an effect on them..but it was also because they conceived of what they were doing, their mode of rule, in very scientific terms.. 


colonial govts saw themselves as applying techniques of scientific admin..which could bring the country’s economy and society as much as possible under complete, predictable control, and in doing so establish the very parameters w/in which meaningful action was possible..

sounds like mimi today – with mitch talking about creating spaces *we recognize as spaces of learning

but.. at least in madagascar .. there was another side to this story. it was also precisely at the moment when the country had been conquered .. and these rational bureaucratic techniques of admin are being put in place.. that the new admins began waxing poetic (in their unofficial writings) about something they call the ‘malagasy soul’..  this ‘malagasy soul’ soon became a stock theme of french writing on the island. it was rep’d as the sign of profoundly alien mentality, full of quirky passions and dreamy fantasies, ultimately beyond the grasp of the understanding of a simple westerner..t

this is a useful ie, i think, because it’s so obvious what’s going on here. the ‘malagasy soul’ in so far as it was anything more than projection – was a mere byproduct, a confused amalgam of everything that fell outside the extremely narrow parameters set by the authors’ own bureaucratic machinery or the rationalistic regimes which they now had the power to impose..t

modern anthropology, of course, took shape mainly w/in the british and french colonial empires as well. and it too considered itself a scientific enterprise..t

this was the age of structural functionalism.. concerned primarily w ‘norms’ or regularities.. what this meant in practice was that what ethnographers described and theorists discussed was almost exclusively those aspects of social life which were predictable, repetitive: the human life cycle, w its age grades and rites of passage, the domestic cycle, ritual cycles, yearly rounds.. even succession to political office was always treated this way.. in so far as individuals and unique events appeared in ethnographies written at this time, they would usually take the form of case studies meant to illustrate more general processes.


w/the underlying assumption.. individual actors were ultimately irrelevant, that whatever their immediately intentions, they would somehow end up reproducing the same cyclic structure over and over again..t

of course it was easier to think of such people as living outside of history because, for the most part, they were people living under foreign military occupation, w no political rights.. but as time went on, western observers developed an increasing tendency to confuse causes w effects.. rather than the absence of history being an effect of the way the authors chose to describe these societies, it was the result of something profoundly strange about the societies themselves.. these were societies that had rejected history: ‘cold cultures’ , (levi strauss) exotic societies locked in a primal mythic consciousness. and what did this mythic consciousness consist of ? regularities. eternal repetition. the faith that everything comes in unchanging cycles, a ‘traditionalist’ philosophy that actively rejects history, personal idiosyncrasies, the future, and cumulative change in the name of timeless archetypes and the ‘eternal return’.. (eliade)..t

it is probably only fair to point out such doctrines tended to put forward most enthusiastically by people who had only read ethnographies, not ones who had written them. but still, notice what is happening. the very attitude which western observers adopt in the name of science ends up being projected onto those they observe; ..except there, instead of making them seem like scientists..it makes them seem mystical, poetic, strange  profoundly different sorts of human being..t

since the dissolution of colonial empires, anthropologists have rediscovered history.. but something of the old attitude remains. there is still a sense that, in order to be considered objective, one must deny certain aspects of the subjectivity of those one studies.. t..few ethnographies even attain the level of personal engagement one senses in some of most interesting dispatches and reports to be found in precolonial european archives. indeed, i suspect it is just this sort of denial which is ultimately responsible for the fact that critics can still write of anthropology being basically about drawing the boundaries between an ‘us’ and ‘them’ (trinh minh-ha),..t.. to speak as if its fundamental business has always, and must necessarily be, to describe some deeply alien creature – usually referred to as ‘the other’ – so different from the anthropologist and her audience that anything one says about them is likely to be a mere a projection of one’s own self..


again, anthropologists themselves do not often talk this way; it is mainly those who have merely read our books who talk about ‘the other’.. t.. i myself can’t think of anyone i know who has actually lived/worked for any length of time w people of a profoundly different culture who left w the impression that they were – to take one extreme formulation – ‘so foreign that they leave me reluctant to admit they belong to the same species as my own’ (todorov)

obviously then, by the time of writing .. something is falling out. in the field, anthropologists have no trouble recognizing the people we work with as fellow human beings.. but somehow, whatever it was that made them so recognizable is not coming thru in our descriptions..t

perhaps this is not so surprising, considering what some of these points of recognition are.. in my own case, for instance, the most obvious thing which made it impossible to think of the people i met in madagascar as being profoundly different sorts of human being was the fact that they were all so different from each other.. and not only that, the ways they were diff from each other seemed pretty much the same as the ways people were diff from each other anywhere else i’d ever been.  from the moment i started having any sort of prolonged social interaction w people, i found myself sizing them up as individuals: ‘person a seems to be basically well meaning, but incredibly self involved.etc..  it is not hard to see why such assessments tend to get left out of ethnographies.. even apart from the last one/ie (anthropologists have a particularly hard time admitting they could have possibly met anyone in the field who they disliked) it all seems hopelessly subjective..


(on words being difficult to capture a personage).. anyway, the more i got used to using malagasy, the more i started substituting malagsy words for english, w/o ever feeling i was crossing any great divide.. making such assessments is no game.. it is an absolutely inevitable and necessary feature of human interaction.. ie: have some idea how people are likely to behave.. likely to have effects on you.. and your friends..  ie: what would it be like so spend time.. interesting to talk to.. would they try to convert/seduce.. me.. et al..  these assessments are also constantly being tested against reality.. one often gets it wrong.. sometimes disastrously wrong.. often – esp at first – one misreads the cues because of cultural differences..  but sometimes it is just because it is in the nature of such assessments that they are often wrong.. and even after years.. no one’s knowledge of anyone else can ever be quite complete/accurate.. always remains an approx.. people will always retain their capability to surprise you..t

graeber unpredictability/surprise law

it seems to me that one of the prime reasons such assessments get left out of ethnographies – even most self consciously experimental ones – is simply because making them implies a recognition that these are people who have – or have had – some power to affect the ethnographer’s life..  obviously  people who are living together engage in common projects/convo.. are going to have some kind of effect on one another.. but for some reason, ethnographers tend to find the reciprocal aspects of such relations embarrassing.. by blotting out the traces of character, it effaces even the impressions which recognition of a capacity to affect others’ lives will always, necessarily leave behind..


most ethnographers write books safely tucked away in unis far away from the people they are writing about.. by then those people are usually no longer in a position to do anything that will have an immediate effect on them or anyone close to them.. although the reverse is not necessarily the case.. most ethnographers do spend a great deal of time fretting over the possible effects their writing might have – as i, for ie, have worried endlessly over whether i am betraying my friend armand by publishing info that indicates his ancestors were slaves..

i think it’s important to consider this possibility because it suggests how often the invisible walls that appear in our texts are really only made possible by the existence of other walls that are perfectly visible – in this case, of a very large and elaborate apparatus of exclusion which involves such elements as international treaties, border guards, the price of airplane tickets, and the imf. politics does not take place primarily w/in texts, though one might not know it from some of the more abstract debates about the ‘politics of representation’..t

consider for ie the doctrine of moral relativism.. staring from premise that one cannot fully understand any action except in the context of the actor’s cultural universe, concludes that as a consequence, no one has the right to stand in judgment over any action committed by someone w a fundamentally diff world view..  it seems to me this is a doctrine that could only really emerge as a product of imperialism..  elite population whose dominance over world so complete.. they could live lives in full confidence that no one w a fundamentally diff world view would ever be in a position of power of over them.. when you find someone arguing that no westerner has the right to find fault in, say, the cultural presumption that an appropriate response to grief at the death of a close member of one’s family is to waylay and kill some random stranger, they can only do so because of the existence of complex and very efficient systems of control, invoking armies, police, passport,s airport security, immigration laws, and structure of economic inequality, which make it almost inconceivable that anyone who felt that this was an appropriate response to grief would ever end up living in their neighborhood or be in striking distance of their children.. pretenses to some kind of moral superiority, based on their unwilling ness to morally condemn ‘the other’ it seems to me, are often entirely underpinned by tacit support for real walls to shut real other people out. and by refusing to consider someone as a moral person, one provides a perfect justification to continue to exclude them..t


what i am ultimately getting at is that the very least an ethnographer (or anyone else) owes to people they write about is to rep them in such a way that the reader can recognize them as human beings who they might not know, but they could know, as people who have at least the potential to inhabit the same moral universe as she..t.. it means recognizing them as people with the capacity to make history..

mohanty: what basis would we have to criticize the structure of power in the world, unless we at least admit that everyone in the world shares certain things in common.. at the very least, he suggests, we have to recognize that we by now all inhabit a common history (not a series of separate, culturally bounded ‘histories’) and that we all share a ‘capacity for self aware historical agency’..


historical actions.. one might say.. are actions which could not have been predicted before they happened.. or if that is too simple.. actions considered memorable afterwards because they could not have been predicted beforehand..t

history then is the record of those actions which are not simply cyclical, repetitive, or inevitable..t

as w my defn of political action in ch 6, i am trying to be intentionally provocative – ignoring almost everything that’s already been written on the subject, and proposing an alt so simple that it might even be considered simplistic. some readers will no doubt object that the defns i propose for both politics and history are so broad that they threaten to make the terms almost meaningless – leaving no way to distinguish a family quarrel and a revolution or a civil war. perhaps. but this kind of breadth also has its advantages.. it makes it possible to think of politics (and history) as something intrinsic to the nature of social life, even of ordinary, daily interaction; to think of it as something which everyone is always doing, not just the powerful; that engaging in politics or making history does not have to involve preventing anyone else from doing so.. t.. in other words, rather than assuming that power and exclusion are intrinsic the very nature of politics, it allows one to at least imagine a politics and a history that could still be going on w/o them..

these defns have other implications as well. it is really true (as mohanty suggests) that what makes us human is above all our capacity to make history, and if history consists of actions that could not have been predicted beforehand, then that would mean that the fundamental measure of our humanity lies in what we cannot know about each other..t.. to recognize another person as human would them be to recognize the limits of one’s possible knowledge of them. their humanity is inseparable from their capacity to surprise us..t

graeber unpredictability/surprise law

the constant process of assessing other peoples’ characters, which i suggested is an inevitable feature of any relation between people, are so many innumerable imperfect ways of approximating something that is ultimately can not be known: how exactly that person is likely to behave.. but this is why for all they are necessarily partial, flawed.. like bits of cloth pasted over something that’s invisible.. they nonetheless seem to convey such an immediate sense of common humanity.. t


(on fellow anthropologists.. dubious that didn’t know what people were really thinking).. it had never occurred to me one would even be able to know the full motivations of all the speakers in any convo.. it was not even clear what it would mean to

i had assumed that the very act of reproducing the conversation in relatively colloquial language would be enough to convey to the reader a sense that none of these voices are absolutely authoritative, that everything said is at least a little incomplete, slanted and subjective..t.. – which is all any further details would have demonstrated anyhow..


james clifford has insisted that ethnographic knowledge is always, by its nature incomplete and partial, and i will agree that it is a bit disturbing that this point ever had to be made,..t.. that it was not always considered self-evident..  since clifford’s work, and the ‘crisis of representation’ which shook anthropology in the 1980s, anthropologists have become used to thinking critically about the process by which ethnographic knowledge is constructed..

to write in a way which takes for granted that one would never be able to reveal everything, that art is the art of selecting details, is perhaps the hallmark of literary sensibility.. but at moments like this the postmodern sensibility .. for all it draws its inspiration from literary theory.. seems to move in precisely the opposite direction, and ends up slipping into a kind of perverse, extreme scientism: as if it were only if one could know that precisely what everyone was thinking, every hidden strategy at play, that we could have real knowledge. not surprising then that many conclude that real knowledge is impossible..

to me the issue is not whether this sort of knowledge is possible (it obviously isn’t) but why anyone would even want it.. would anyone really want to live in a world where it was possible to have this kind of total and encompassing knowledge of another human being?  by the defn i’ve been developing in particular, it would be the ultimate dehumanization..t


i am not suggesting that we should base our sense of what is fundamentally human on one and not the other.. (universality vs cultural).. what i am suggesting is that we should base it on whatever it is – that invisible point – that is capable of pivoting back and forth between the two..  try on such identities, then hold them out and look at them from more of a distance, in the process of trying to define self.. by defining relation to other human beings..t

zoom dance

that which makes it impossible for either of us to completely understand the other is also what makes us both capable of sitting down together ad trying to make some generalizations about our respective societies and cultures..


i have already noted the malasy tendency to rep the source of human intentions and agency – spirits, ghosts, the soul – as something hidden, invisible, hence which cannot be ultimately known.. this is actually a very common way of rep ing things..  all over the world in conceptions of that aspect of the person which ethnographers most often refer to, in english, as ‘the soul‘ what tyler called the ‘life soul’ .. the hidden seat of human intentionality which gives us the capacity to act..t

even where there is explicit metaphysical theory, people do take it for granted that one cannot ever know really know what another person is likely to do; and usually, that it is from this unknowable place – in the heart, the head, the throat, the liver, wherever one happens to place it – that actions, ideas, new unpredictable things emerge..t

need: a means to undo our hierarchical listening.. so we can hear/see/be that

graeber unpredictability/surprise law

edmund leach once suggested that what unites all human beings is not that they are in possession of an immortal soul, but they are capable of imagining that they are.. perhaps (aside from the part about ‘immortality’) these are really not such altogether different things.



lost people at lse