Received assumptions

Every once in awhile a book comes along that makes me totally rethink my received or assumed knowledge by shaking up the usual perceptions. The most recent book to have wrought such a rethinking on my part is The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. The effusive blurbs–and there are many–on the MacMillan page the preceding link takes you to strike me as accurate; on every page or two I find myself saying, “I have to look that up! I never heard about that! I need to read that book/author/article!”

Beyond the illuminating information, though, what excites me most about this book is how revelatory it is concerning human possibilities. These authors (unfortunately Graeber died in 2020) are drily funny and unrepentantly anarchists among the scholars of so-called pre-history. The research they gather and present, and their theories based upon what we now know about ancient peoples, upend the evolution of human society that I was taught and that seemed so logical I never thought to question–the foragers/hunter-gatherers/agriculturalists/city-makers “development” of human societies and cultures that Rousseau’s philosophical state-of-nature idea essentially founded. I was aware that archeological discoveries have been found that challenge the narrative, but I wasn’t aware of how many of these are being examined and the amazing data they reveal. I was aware that views of indigenous peoples, past and present, are most often through a lens of “Western civilization” and tainted by the assumptions of researchers but was not alert to my own blind spots and received assumptions.

Which makes me pretty much a human being, right? We do tend to short-cut to our beliefs and accept the “logical information” we learn from parents, teachers, and other authorities. Then, we use that framework to test out the logic of other assumptions. Sometimes that framework is not as strong, correct, or universal as we thought. And it feels marvelously disruptive, sometimes, to buck the system, make art, behave differently–illogically–and find that new ways of thinking about the world can be fun.

This is a very long book, and you really want to stop and read the footnotes, which are excellent and super-informative. I am a fast reader but am taking my time with this one, savoring each surprise and thrilled at the ingenuity of human beings. From a political and from an earth-stewardship perspective, Graeber and Wegrow say the societies of the past teach that the current structure of most cultures (greed- and power-based hierarchies that require property rights and that leave vast numbers of people starving) is not the only and inevitable outcome of human communities. We are not inherently in Hobbes’ world, but neither are we in Locke’s. Mills’, or Rousseau’s.

I love the commonsense approach that says human beings are adaptable, curious, inventive, and complicated–so it is unlikely that we spent most of 30,000 years “doing nothing” until suddenly: agriculture, writing, cities, technology, beer! (Not necessarily in that order.) Graeber and Wengrow find human beings endlessly fascinating, and their enthusiasm is contagious.

During cold days and long nights, when the world seems not entirely right and I wonder whether we have the motivation to make things better, this book has shown me many ways people can find solutions, get along together, find time to sing and play and maybe even live without money, boss men, and kings most of the time. We can be free to do what we want and still help others out, free to hang out and enjoy each other’s company, or get together and build a monument…it’s what people have been doing for thousands of years. Right now we’re kind of stuck in capitalism and oligarchies and warfare and pollution and climate change, and that won’t change in my lifetime. But it is good to know that this sort of thinking is not the peak of human development in a real sense. That gives me an odd sense of hope.

Also, books like this one provide so many stories and ideas and new concepts and terrific words that I am sure it’ll filter into my creative writing endeavors one way or another. Poems on the Jōmon sites or Mesolithic kelp-belt people? One never knows what will creep into my subconscious mind.

Jomon pottery, between 11000 and 7000 BC. Hinamiyama site, Japan.

8 comments on “Received assumptions

  1. marmcc says:

    On my list. Some interesting critiques of it too, coming in from scholars from various directions. See articles in The Guardian and Atlantic as a start.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Suache8 says:

    Re “The Dawn of Everything”

    Unfortunately, that book lacks credibility and depth.

    In fact “The Dawn of Everything” is a biased disingenuous account of human history (www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavour geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

    Fact is human history since the dawn of agriculture has “progressed” in a linear stage (the “stuck” problem, see below), although not before that (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). This “progress” has been fundamentally destructive and is driven and dominated by “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding and acknowledging the nature of humans). And these two married pink elephants are the reason why we’ve been “stuck” in a destructive hierarchy and unequal class system , and will be far into the foreseeable future (the “stuck” question — “the real question should be ‘how did we get stuck?’ How did we end up in one single mode?” or “how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles” — [cited from their book] is the major question in “The Dawn” its authors never really answer, predictably).

    “All experts serve the state and the media and only in that way do they achieve their status. Every expert follows his master, for all former possibilities for independence have been gradually reduced to nil by present society’s mode of organization. The most useful expert, of course, is the one who can lie. With their different motives, those who need experts are falsifiers and fools. Whenever individuals lose the capacity to see things for themselves, the expert is there to offer an absolute reassurance.” —Guy Debord

    A good example that one of the “expert” authors, Graeber, has no real idea on what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title) — see last cited source above. Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

    “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

    “The evil, fake book of anthropology, “The Dawn of Everything,” … just so happened to be the most marketed anthropology book ever. Hmmmmm.” — Unknown

    “Never hide the truth to spare the feelings of the ignorant.” — Mikhail Bulgakov

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    • I appreciated the Bell article, so thank you. Nonetheless, I’m not one for book-bashing. Any book that gets readers to look at other perspectives has at least some value, even when what I take away may be that I disagree in part (or, in rare cases, in whole). As a reader, I was well aware of Graeber’s anarchist leanings, which certainly come through in the book. I’m not appalled by his thinking; human society, after all, has had space for a huge variety of social experiments. No one (except an ideologist) says we have to agree. Cherry-picking occurs all the time in arguments of all kinds, and a careful reader maintains an awareness of that. It doesn’t interfere with enjoyment of the book’s style or premise or keep the information from being interesting–a reader like me will follow up, read the footnotes, read at least some of the cited authors’ works, and consider the whole. I found so much intriguing material about pre-history in this text despite what may be a flawed argument and appreciated learning more about indigenous critique of European culture.

      In the Graeber essay you mentioned, I see no error in these words: “the actual reality of human life… is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings.”

      A collective or myriad set of individuals deciding to choose differently may indeed be a fantasy now. But there’s nothing wrong with imagining the story differently, and asking readers to think about that–it’s one reason I like speculative fiction.

      The use of freighted language and “Unknown” quotes are not compelling rebuttals (at least, not in my culture).

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  3. Dave Bonta says:

    Read this book last year, slowly, as you say, with a second bookmark for the footnotes. As someone who’s been reading anthropology fairly obsessively for decades, I’ve been badly wanting someone to write this book; the fact that they happen to have been fellow anarchists is gravy. Even being aware of the newish theory about Cahokia’s role in the development of Eastern Woodland thinking about personal freedom, I hadn’t quite managed to put the puzzle together on my own. And I loved the breezy style.

    Liked by 1 person

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