Yup, I read The Dawn of Everything too. It was a super! It’s a collaboration between an anthropologist and an archaeologist, rethinking what it means to be human, here on Earth. It’s a hopeful book about the many different histories in our past and present, which set the stage for possible futures, that are not predetermined and foreclosed on by the current predicaments we find ourselves in now. It is rich with disciplinary citations–they fully admit it’s really a citation vehicle for marshalling the recent literature on how the history of us humans is a lot more complex and interesting than the linear, teleological stories of civilization we were told in grade school. But despite this scholasticism it pulls you along with a storytelling force, all the way through the 692 pages, and millenia, with a lightness, colorful language, a sense of humor, and candor that are really kinda startling.
Lots has been written and said about this book already, especially given its timing with David Graeber’s premature death. These are just some selfish short notes for me to recall what I thought were the main insights.
The thing that I probably don’t need to note down because I’ll remember it, is that western notions of freedom and equality owe a citation debt to indigenous North American’s critique of European settler society. The book starts and ends on this point, and in between Graeber and and Wengrow develop their idea that Freedom is really about:
- Freedom to physically move somewhere else if you want to.
- Freedom to modify and create new social relations.
- Freedom to disobey.
These three freedoms are offset by three means of domination that lead to hierarchical power structures that curtail freedom:
- Monopoly on violence.
- Control of information.
- Charismatic leadership.
They use these different axes of freedom and domination to explore past ways of living from the archaeological record. They also use anthropological findings from more recent cultures, because really there’s only so much we can understand by looking at what has been left behind–some blanks need to be filled inductively using what we know now about the variety of ways humans have lived more recently.
The collective force of these findings contradicts the usual narrative that increasingly social complexity brings about necessary hierarchies of control. So called hunter-gatherer societies that preceded the agrarian “revolution” were actually highly experimental, and took many shapes. Forms of hierarchical domination existed before farming and property, as did egalitarian, decentralized forms of commoning.
This complexity suggests that our future as a species will contain more experimentation (not less), and that our present predicament as capitalism is burning the world, is NOT foreclosed by current systems of domination. Dawn of Everything is an eminently practical book about hope, and how what we tell ourselves about the past matters for how we think and operate in the present.
As someone interested in the study of information, its history, and especially the role of archives in society, G&W’s point about the control of information as a tool of bureaucracy and domination was kind of exciting. They draw on recent archaeological evidence that points to knowledge and writing systems that predate the use of writing for bureaucratic purposes in agriculture.
It was once widely assumed that if bureaucratic states tend to arise in areas with complex irrigation systems, it must have been because of the need for administrators to co-ordinate the maintenance of canals and regulate the water supply. In fact, it turns out that farmers are perfectly capable of co-ordinating very complicated irrigation systems all by themselves, and there’s little evidence, in most cases, that early bureaucrats had anything to do with such matters. Urban populations seem to have a remarkable capacity for self-governance in ways which, while usually not quite ‘egalitarian’, were likely a good deal more participatory than almost any urban government today. Meanwhile most ancient emperors, as it turns out, saw little reason to interfere, as they simply didn’t care very much about how their subjects cleaned the streets or maintained their drainage ditches.
We’ve also observed that when early regimes do based their domination on exclusive access to forms of knowledge, these are often not the kinds of knowledge we ourselves would consider particularly practical (the shamanic, psychotropic revelations that seem to have inspired the builders of Chavín de Huántar would be one such example). In fact, the first forms of functional administration, in the sense of keeping archives of lists, ledgers, accounting procedures, overseers, audits and files, seem to emerge in precisely these kinds of ritual contexts: in Mesopotamian temples, Egyptian ancestor cults, Chinese oracle readings and so forth. So one thing we can now say with a fair degree of certainty is that bureaucracy did not begin simply as a practical solution to problems of information management, when human societies advanced beyond a particular threshold of scale and complexity.
This, however, raises the interesting question of where and when such technologies did first arise, and for what reason. Here there’s some surprising new evidence too. Our emerging archaeological understanding suggests that the first systems of specialized administrative control actually emerged in very small communities. The earliest clear evidence of this appears in a series of tiny prehistoric settlements in the Middle East, dating over 1,000 years after the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük was founded (at around 7400 BC), but still more than 2,000 years before the appearance of anything even vaguely resembling a city. (pp 419-420)
This chapter “Why the State Has No Origins” goes on to describe some of these archaeological sites of writing and record keeping in great detail–which was a lot of legit fun to read, and suggests several bits of reading I want to follow up on: Abrams (1988), “The People as Nursemaids to the King” in Graeber & Sahlins (2017) and Hyland (2016) among them.
This way of thinking about record keeping, as something that does not need to be a tool of scaled social control is currently being developed by scholars studying community archives (Caswell, Migoni, Geraci, & Cifor, 2016; Flinn, Stevens, & Shepherd, 2009; Hurley, 2016; McKemmish, 1996; Punzalan, 2009), which broadens and deepens our understanding of record keeping practices as simply organs of the state (Duranti, 1994) or corporations. There’s also the idea of small data practices that have a long tail of operation despite our current obsession with singular big data sites (Abreu & Acker, 2013; Ford, 2014). In my own dissertation research I used Foucault’s concept of Governmentality as a way of thinking about this spectrum of records use, since it applies at different scales (from the family all they way up to the state) (Summers, 2020).
However my read of Dawn of Everything in part suggests a much more complicated and richer picture, where record keeping and memory practices can have their foundations in different areas than The State. Records are instrumental for reshaping social relations of all kinds on all scales. I remember one of my committee members, Katrina Fenlon, suggesting during my defense that as I looked at how valuation practices in archives are often connected to forms of use (including misuse and disuse) had I also considered the enjoyment that was often at play, literally, as government employees building a digital forensics system to track criminals (some of whom happened to also be avid gamers) collected video games. Dawn of Everything was a good exercise in broadening the historical and collective imagination. I recommend it, and don’t be intimidated by its heft if you enjoy a good story.
Here are some discussions of The Dawn of Everything that I found fun. If you ran across others that you liked please drop me a line:
- What is an “Egalitarian Society”? David Graeber & David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything”
- The Dawn of Everything: How Graeber & Wengrow’s book sets us up to fail at politics
- The Ingredients of Hierarchy: Graeber & Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything
- What Causes Seasonal Political Structures? Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything
- Annalee Newitz: When it’s time to disobey
- Ezra Klein: A Weird, Wonderful Conversation With Kim Stanley Robinson (just mentions TDoE at the end, but the interview reminded me so much of it, I just wished Robinson talked about the connection betweet it and his Years of Rice and Salt).