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Crooked Timber on David Graeber
April 7, 2012 1:07 PM   Subscribe

Crooked Timber's online seminar on David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years (previously, previously, previously and previously).

Late post by John Holbo not included in the first link.

Graeber's response.

Henry Farrell's response to Graeber's response.
posted by nangar (20 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
from Graeber's response: "I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July."

In the Top 10 Reasons the Paper-Based Book Publishing Business Is Doomed (Or Should Be), I think that comes in at #3.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:33 PM on April 7, 2012


This is a fascinating discussion, related to some things I have been thinking about for some time, from the perspective of the wired drive for status among our species. Holding debt and having debt are two sides of the same coin. The thing we have to work for is finding the means and processes to evolve new rewards for behaviors that reward debt systems that are not harmful to human development. We will never eliminate the drive for status, but we can change what staus *means*. This is the big challenge, because those who have become wealthy within one system of reward are going to be very unlikely to give that system up. Thus, the need for ground-up. I think this will happen as our species becomes better networked, but maybe not. Call me an optimist.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:40 PM on April 7, 2012


This was a shit-show of an online discourse. I still want to read Graeber's book, but its lessened my enthusiasm. I think I understand the "delegitimization" bit, but man talk about alienating an audience. Gabriel Rossman comes off as a true class-act.

I think this blog post nicely sums up the toxicity that a certain kind of academic culture can incubate.
posted by stratastar at 2:47 PM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


I was wondering when this would show up here, given our own checkered past with Graeber...
posted by gerryblog at 4:35 PM on April 7, 2012


Couldn't agree more, Stratastar. I often find myself wanting to like Crooked Timber more than I actually do in practice. The sarcasm and intellectual flag-nailing prevalent in many posts and a large proportion of the comments bring a kind of drama I associate with the worst parts of LiveJournal and the political blogging scene. There's far-too-often for me an element of personal sniping between other internet econ celebrities, it can be very insular and in-group at times.

Of course, Graeber saw those stakes and wilfully raised them to a level that really surprised me. However, I do think the structure and nature of CT also facilitates silly responses like that to a degree.
posted by smoke at 4:45 PM on April 7, 2012


Graeber saw those stakes and wilfully raised them to a level that really surprised me.

It's worth noting that this isn't exactly a debate between equals. Graeber has had to fight to be accepted in academia, and I highly doubt that Farrell has had to deal with anything close to that. So when Farrell writes a post shitting all over Graeber's book, he's acting as a part of the establishment that Graeber has been butting heads with his entire life. So when someone like Farrell approaches his work with so much baggage behind it (most of the points Farrell argues against aren't actually said in the book, but are what a man like Farrell would assume Graeber believes), that has to be upsetting.

That doesn't mean I disagree with you. While he had a right to correct the record, and even to do so rudely, but to threaten his entire body of work over a blog post is petty. I think the tables have kind of turned, Graeber isn't exactly the establishment but it isn't like he has to add aggression in order for his words to make an impact. This whole thing is caused by a series of bad calls, but Graeber doesn't deserve to be dismissed over it.

There is a section of Debt where he talks about honor, quoting some smart dude who said that honor is surplus dignity, the dignity that you have the potential to take from others. In order to have honor, you have to refrain from insulting the dignity of others, or some such. I'm probably getting it entirely wrong. Anyway, its clear that Graeber isn't super interested in storing up honor, but other people still view the world that way, and by writing what he did Graeber has lost some honor in their eyes. I just don't think he cares.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 5:39 PM on April 7, 2012 [3 favorites]


This turned into a total bunfight (I am a fan of Graeber's work and read CT, so I saw it in real time).

What I felt was going on under the surface was really a clash of two world views - the technocratic liberal CT house position and Graeber's anthropologist anarchism. As I read, it seemed like the fury of the clash was really an expression of the threat that Graeber's ideas pose to CT-ism.

I've been reading CT for years and (although I feel like the comments section has gone downhill in the past year or so) have learned a LOT from them. The people who post there seem genuinely to be kind and thoughtful exemplars of their class. At the same time, they are always very interested in...recuperating critique, maybe? Sort of making things cozy again? David Graeber is basically saying "all the social and economic rules that have led to your status and your cozy lives as successful academics are historically conditional and based in violence, and I have the anthropology to back up what I say". He's a more radical critic of their position than China Mieville (the other radical who is popular over there) and because he's an academic (as Mieville is not) he is harder to recuperate or dismiss.

I felt like strategically it was maybe a bit unwise to front-load his response the way he did. But I am also skeptical of the unwritten rules of upper middle class academic engagement, where we must all make nice to each other no matter how much we differ - it turns everyone's political positions into a game or a hobby, something lightweight where our moral differences don't matter. Graeber really believes what he believes - it's not a hobby or a career-maker for him (as much as Debt has taken off.) He lives his beliefs, good or bad. So to read Farrell doing the whole academic dance of "this is a purely intellectual disagreement and I'm also going to slam you for being an irrational radical while pretending that's not what I'm doing"...well, it would frost anyone's goat.

TL; DR - when there's a serious moral conflict, the rules of politesse go out the window. Graeber pretty clearly views this as a serious moral conflict, where a lot of the CT-ites are trying to recuperate it to an upper middle class policy discussion.
posted by Frowner at 7:11 PM on April 7, 2012 [14 favorites]


I spent about fifteen minutes reading the Graeber Crooked Timber post. I did not get near to the end of it.

Some remarks.

1. Graeber is brilliant and a very good writer. I will not soon forget the piece he wrote about his experience with putting his mother into a nursing home and her subsequent death.

2. He appears to me to have a block around internet discourse. I have observed him picking fights with fairly insignificant bloggers (the ribbonfarm guy), metafilter posters, and people reviewing his books on Amazon.com. He seems not unlike the anecdotal cartoon guy who is disturbed that somebody is wrong on the internet. He might do very well to hire Matt or Jessamyn or even two or three of your favorite metafilter posters to coach him on internet culture.

3. I haven't read Debt the first 5000 years yet as it is a long book and a big commitment but it is on my list and I am 95 % sure I will learn a lot reading the thing.

posted by bukvich at 9:43 PM on April 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


I can definitely see where you're coming from Frowner, but I would perhaps give more weight to your theory if Graeber wasn't so eager to start questioning Farrell's qualifications etc. It contributed to the overall pissy response of his post. Like I said, I think CT enables it, but he rose to the occasion.
posted by smoke at 11:43 PM on April 7, 2012


In fairness to Graeber, he was responding to people who questioned the legitimacy of his work in ways that were actually quite dismissive, just veiled behind a certain distant and professional tone. And Graeber's reply makes it pretty clear, I think, why he believes that their criticisms were insubstantial and also why he objects to them using him as an opportunity to show off, rather than addressing him as an equal.

At the same time, I personally would have preferred it if he had not set out the first part of his essay as an analysis of how the responses attempted to "de-legitimise" him. I think he was right to point it out - Rob Horning's essay is just offensive, for example, and quite callow - but by making it the locus of his rhetoric, it looks like he is doing the same thing to his critics that they are doing to him. I found myself wanting to see the substance of his argument - the details of why he thinks that Farrell's criticisms are inadequate. He gets to that - but you have to wade through a rather odd bit at the beginning where he seems to be doing the Marxist/anarchist equivalent of what his critics did to him.

As a side note, China Mieville is an academic, at least some of the time: he has a Ph.D. in international law from the LSE, has published a book about it and now teaches at the University of Warwick (in the creative writing department, but still - he has direct experience of academic life). I think that with Mieville, the difference is that they were talking about politics only obliquely - a lot of people are quite capable of liking science fiction whose politics is radically different from their own (I love Tolkien, for example, but I am not a Roman Catholic).
posted by lucien_reeve at 12:53 AM on April 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


As regards questioning Farrell's qualifications: I think Graeber's point is quite clear here. It isn't that he thinks Farrell is a bad academic (though he may do). It is that he thinks that Farrell unfairly accused him of blinding political bias and is pointing out that Farrell is actually guilty of this (in his opinion).

The relevant quote:

"Again, think of this in terms of scholarship. The whole point of Farrell’s piece is to say I’m driven by my biases to become a bad scholar. Yet here he has already produced an example of the most slipshod scholarship imaginable: completely misunderstanding, or even failing to notice, central arguments of the very book he has undertaken to critique! Once again, if this was the level of reading skills he had shown in the verbal portion of his GREs, Farrell would have flunked and never got into grad school. Obviously he didn’t flunk. I suspect if he wants to, in fact, he can read exemplarily well. He just didn’t feel in this case he should have to bother. Why? Because of exactly the sort of political bias he ascribes to me."

That seems like a fair point to me? He feels Farrell attacked his qualifications by trying to paint him as a fanatic; in response he is saying "if we applied your standards to you, you'd fail your own test."
posted by lucien_reeve at 1:01 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I understand why he did it and the point he was trying to make, but a race to the bottom seems a shitty way to win an argument to me.
posted by smoke at 1:36 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I read and commented on CT beginning within the first week or so of its debut. And I've felt that it has suffered a long decline as it's become more and more politics-oriented and less and less like an academic blog devoted to academic and personal topics of intellectual interest. For me, everything I don't like about CT can be summarized by how, in its history, the female academic contributors have slowly faded away while Davies's pugilistic style became more the site's cultural norm. And, of course, its increased focus on partisan politics over the years.

Oh, and also Bertram banning me from his threads because I dared to call a blog entry written by a singer-songwriter he admires "crypto-racist" — a sort of judgment regularly offered up by Bertram and other CT bloggers about public figures when they believe it is warranted. That may be irrelevant to the larger issues, but the hypocrisy I believe it exhibited made me think much, much less of Bertram than I had and solidified my sense that CT had become fully assimilated, borg-like, by the expansive, toxic personality of Davies. If only CT could be more like Quiggin or Holbo (or, even better, the little-seen Hargittai and Maria Farrell).
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:16 AM on April 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


a race to the bottom seems a shitty way to win an argument to me.

Fair enough. As I say, I think it would have been better if he had just pointed out that what Farrell was doing was aggressive and rude, rather than escalating.

Like many other people here, I used to enjoy reading CT, but drifted away - except for the occasional round-tables on authors I like.
posted by lucien_reeve at 6:27 AM on April 8, 2012


He appears to me to have a block around internet discourse. I have observed him picking fights with fairly insignificant bloggers (the ribbonfarm guy), metafilter posters, and people reviewing his books on Amazon.com. He seems not unlike the anecdotal cartoon guy who is disturbed that somebody is wrong on the internet. He might do very well to hire Matt or Jessamyn or even two or three of your favorite metafilter posters to coach him on internet culture.

I watched what happened here at Metafilter with Graeber last year in (somewhat) real time, and I think it was the other way around. Frankly, Metafilter came off as Troll Heaven. Quite a few prolific posters did their usual snark-snark-snark thing - what was different was that the subject showed up to respond, and that, apparently, was a big no-no. It brought to mind the old taunt "you can dish it out but you can't take it".

I think what's interesting is that Graeber was able to stomach a far longer interaction at Crooked Timber than he was here on Metafilter.
posted by jhandey at 6:21 AM on April 9, 2012


No.

This guy is very smart but he also writes tripe like this:

For much of human history, systems of virtual money were designed and regulated to ensure that nothing like capitalism could ever emerge to begin with – at least not as it appears in its present form, with most of the world's population placed in a condition that would in many other periods of history be considered tantamount to slavery.

Most of the world's population is not anything remotely close to slaves. This kind of hyperbole deserves nothing but snark. It certainly cannot be taken seriously. I am not saying Graeber the thinker or Graeber the anthropologist cannot be taken seriously. But this is only one example of where he clearly goes way overboard. When he is not going overboard he usually makes a lot of sense.
posted by bukvich at 10:26 AM on April 9, 2012


Most of the world's population is not anything remotely close to slaves.

If you read the rest of the book you will see a lot of examples of people who were owned by others but were given some amount of agency over their lives and protection from harm. This isn't a feature of slavery as Americans known it (where slaves are equivalent to cattle), which is something that wouldn't be tolerated most places throughout most of history. While the huge portion of the world that is in debt and overworking themselves to pay it off may not actually be owned by anyone, their lives are very similar to those who were actually slaves.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 10:36 AM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


"While the huge portion of the world that is in debt and overworking themselves to pay it off may not actually be owned by anyone, their lives are very similar to those who were actually slaves."

This is still offensive hyperbole. I often assert that a large portion of the world's women are de facto slaves. And I think they are: they have limited autonomy, they can't own property, their movements and choices are constricted by a few men (fathers, husbands) who have nearly absolute control over them, they have little or no recourse to law. This is what slavery looks like. Not merely being debt.

I'm not trying to minimize how much being in debt is like being an indentured servant or how much this represents a limitation of autonomy. But that's not slavery and it shouldn't be characterized as slavery; especially when even in the present day a large portion of humanity (women...but, apparently, they're not worth discussing) lives in something that is, or is much closer to, slavery.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:57 AM on April 9, 2012


(women...but, apparently, they're not worth discussing)

Where is this coming from? Graeber is talking about both women and men when he talks about most of the world's people living in conditions tantamount to slavery, and one of his many criticisms of economic theory is that it doesn't take women into account. But I think you are under two wrong impressions: that women don't have any choices available to them in the third world (they have fought for many good things), and that men don't face the same kind of helplessness. Don't minimize the experiences of some of the most vulnerable people on earth just to win oppression olympics.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 12:47 PM on April 9, 2012


"Where is this coming from? Graeber is talking about both women and men when he talks about most of the world's people living in conditions tantamount to slavery..."

It's coming from the fact that being indebted is not the same thing as having no rights under the law and being (effectively) the personal property of another individual who has direct control over you. It's offensive to compare being indebted with slavery or the near-slavery that many of the world's women live within.

"But I think you are under two wrong impressions: that women don't have any choices available to them in the third world (they have fought for many good things), and that men don't face the same kind of helplessness."

You are aware that all cultures and women in the "third world" are not the same? In some parts of the developing world, women have many rights and live in relative egalitarianism. In many other parts of the developing world, as well as some parts of the developed world, women have very few rights and are a chattel class. Very few men in the world are similarly disadvantaged. There is little comparison.

"Don't minimize the experiences of some of the most vulnerable people on earth just to win oppression olympics."

This is not "oppression olympics". I specifically, exlicitly said that I'm not attempting to minimize the effective servitude of being indebted. I don't minimize the injustice of what it is to female or a person-of-color in the US, or to be disabled (as I am), or whatever, either. What I am saying is that none of those things are actually anything like slavery while, in contrast, many women in the world today are either literally or effectively the property of their fathers or husbands. That is very much like slavery and if you can't see the distinction, you have a moral blindness. Equivocating being indebted with slavery is offensive when slavery and near-slavery still exist. (Need I also mention that actual, by-definition slavery still exists in the world today in the form of sex-slavery and that, as it happens, it is almost exclusively women who are sex-slaves?)

If slavery actually were something that is entirely archaic and does not manifest in today's world and hasn't in generations (as many people wrongly believe) — and that it still doesn't resonate for some people in living memory (as it still does, in fact, with those are descendants of slaves) — then perhaps invoking slavery in comparisons such as "indebtedness equals slavery" might be acceptable and useful rhetoric. As it happens, however, slavery still exists and also the more familiar version of slavery still resonates among the people and societies in which it existed not-so-long-ago; and so, no, making such comparisons are not acceptable or useful any more than similarly facile equivocations of various injustices to genocide are acceptable and useful.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:26 PM on April 9, 2012


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