graeber’s debt

Detail of the cover of 'Debt: The first 5,000 years' (Graeber 2011)
David Graeber‘s book Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011) just arrived on my desk. Unfortunately at the moment I don’t have the time to sit down and read it in peace. Nevertheless I skimmed through it, read a bit here and there, and then couldn’t help but beginning to read it from the front cover on.
    It won’t be long and Graeber will owe me hours :-)
    There are books with which I do maintain a love-hate relationship. While reading those I constantly do have the impression that there really is something more than worthwhile, original, and important in them. But I have a tremendously hard time to really grasp those ideas I sense. That’s because under pains I have to labor myself through overly complicated prose. Have to struggle with a style which is on the brink of illegibility, sometimes well beyond. In particular I do have in mind Foucault‘s ‘Archaeology of Knowledge’ (1972 [1969]), Saïd‘s ‘Orientalism’ (1978), and Bourdieu‘s ‘The Logic of Practice’ (1990 [1980]). Foucault is the worsed. There can’t be a shadow of a doubt about the quality of the ideas contained. But the style of writing is abysmal.
    Not so with Graeber’s ‘Debt.’ Quite to the contrary. Although the ideas, knowledge, and conclusions Graeber conveys are far from being simple or trivial, his prose is clear as glass and perfectly understandable. Above that ‘Debt’ is an interesting, even thrilling read. Deep insights, perfectly readable for both, the specialized anthropological audience, and the wider public.
    But Graeber can’t be reduced to the role of plebeian tribune. He is the kind of engaged intellectual Sartre and Bourdieu demanded. And his is an engaged anthropology of the kind Thomas Hylland Eriksen demands (2006). Plus, Graeber is a high profile scholar praised by the elder sages. Maurice Bloch wrote about Graeber: ‘His writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world. I have never made such a strong claim for anybody in any reference I have written.’
    After Margaret Mead and Clifford Geertz it seems that anthropology again has a superstar, being read and being effective far beyond the boundaries of anthropology and academia. Deservedly so.

BOURDIEU, PIERRE. 1990 [1980]. The logic of practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. First published as Le sens pratique. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
ERIKSEN, THOMAS HYLLAND. 2006. Engaging anthropology: A case for a public presence. Oxford, New York: Berg.
FOUCAULT, MICHEL. 1972 [1969]. The archaeology of knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications. First published as L’Archéologie du Savoir. Paris: Gallimard.
GRAEBER, DAVID ROLFE. 2011. Debt: The first 5,000 years. New York: Melville House.
SAÏD, EDWARD WADIE. 1978. Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Bryan Alexander Friday, 9th December 2011 at 20:34

    I’m still chewing over the book. The historical arc was amazing, up through 1800 or so. I liked his reimagination of ancient history, and it made me rethink stuff he didn’t discuss – Kieven Rus, the early Roman republic, late Byzantium.
    But I’m not sure he carried it into the late 20th century decently. The past generation of hyperfinancialization is very weird, and needs better exploration.