In his closing remarks to our informal seminar on David Graeber's HAU paper on divine kingship among the Shilluk, Lee Drummond writes,
I think it’s fair to say that seminar participants have found “sovereignty” a rather slippery concept. David has noted that his subject is not the origin of the state. Rather, it seems to be about the conditions under which a social arrangement forms with one individual (the reth) being able to conduct arbitrary violence against a populace, that power then serving as a catalyst to transform the populace into “a people.”
My lingering question is: In undertaking an archeology of sovereignty aren’t we by implication beginning to develop an archeology of inequality? Here I don’t refer to the emergence of political institutions or of what has been called “social stratification.” I mean, quite directly, the origin of inequality. Huon posed essentially the same question early in the seminar, but it remains unexamined now that we’re at the end of the seminar. I would suggest that, at least since Rousseau’s Discourse, the origin of inequality is a preeminent question for social thought. Somehow human societies transformed from fairly egalitarian bands of hunters-gatherers into hierarchical forms which feature Pharaohs, Sun Kings, Russian oligarchs, software billionaires. How?
This is a good question, but one whose premises need examination. Arguably, both "fairly egalitarian bands of hunter-gathers" and Scandinavian social democracies are historical aberrations in a world where hierarchy is pervasive in nature as well as in human affairs.
The origin of inequality is no great mystery. Pecking orders are common among all sorts of vertebrates. To be unequal is the fate of every human child from birth until maturity. Our parents are the first rulers empowered to employ what is felt as arbitrary violence upon us. Random graph models suggest that without specific constraints all networks will tend to form power law (Pareto curve) distributions in which the Matthew effect, those who have get more, prevails.
Thus, the question shifts. We understand the origins of inequality. But what about its opposite, that always unfinished utopian project we call equality? Where does that come from?
Yes, thanks John for an interesting conversation; we are all as guilty as each of riding our preferred steeds-on-a-stick. I got a lot out of this conversation, though I can see why someone dropping in might think 'hmm, errr... how do I join this melange?'. Since OAC has moved into a backwater phase, there seems no need to rush around looking for papers to discuss.
A final ramble in closing: Over a while, since OAC began in 2009, I have wondered at times what the point of online conversation is, since it can't hope to get deeply into one problem because people have their own interests; and agreement even on headline issues is unlikely. So what is left is an uneven, but often very thought-provoking and exciting, up-turning of insights that people can take elsewhere. I agree that the seminars at least provide a common object to probe and critique and that gives some coherence and commonality to the discussion.
it seems to me that there is a wider issue involved in internet discussion which we could call the 'mirage of transparency' -- people tend to think that if knowledge is put in the public domain in a democratic way (in this analogy the internet is viewed as a baseline for a democratic process of making knowledge transparent and free for all) then the best knowledge will prevail because it is intrinsically superior. Using the internet carries a little bit of the power of those eyedrops that Ray Milland uses in the film 'X' to give him Xray vision so he can see deep into the true reality of things. And to that extent every contemporary internet user who adds their comment onto a message board is a shaman or hierarch. Hence, the 'message board' becomes a kind of democracy in action, every user is a head-tripping primus inter pares.
If not in the 'real world' then at least in the parts of the internet there is, then, a kind of egalitarianism and democracy, but it seems to come at the price of general coherence. My old teacher, Ernest Gellner, used to say that social coherence and scientific coherence vary inversely; the more of one, the less of the other. The problem is that paradigmatic agreement about science is itself a kind of social coherence and, in a way, the internet is all about individuals building a sense of the coherence of their own lives at the expense of coherence more generally -- in those circumstances subjective coherence and scientific coherence start to vary inversely too. This is the post-modern condition, but perhaps what we can hope for is the beginnings of a subjective awareness that, at certain levels -- in our personal capacity for learning for example -- people are not that different to each other, even if they are radically distinct in many other dimensions of worldview and life experience. Maybe by showing the diversity of worldviews and practices, anthropology becomes the means to induct people toward this underlying complex commonality.
It strikes me that there is currently a great appetite generally for the kinds of insights anthropologists bring to understanding contemporary life and so I wonder how to think about that. I came across this self-describing 'lay person' reviewing a well-known anthropology text -- Pospisil's The Kapauku Papuans. I think the clip sheds a very interesting light on how people currently receive anthropological thinking and writing--what they consider it to be good for, and not. (In addition, as a side issue, Kapauku life seems to me to conform very much to the kind of Pareto-style dynamics John described at the beginning, with some interesting twists). So, just to add another quixote-esque 'windmill' --
Huon, thank you. A conversation is only possible when at least two are participating.
I recall a book called The Knowledge Executive, whose author Harlan Cleveland was a man of vast experience in many fields. In this book Cleveland observes that listening to every voice is a democratic ideal but one that is utterly impractical when action needs to be taken. In my case, the desired action is to create a small space on the Internet where more informed and serious conversations can occur. As you point out, they will rarely result in definitive conclusions that require specialized expertise. They may, however, result in shareable insights, and to me that is enough.
I would, for example, enjoy working with you and Lee and anyone else who cared to chime in through Peter Gow's "Lévi-Strauss's 'double twist' and controlled comparison,"from which we might all learn a lot. I would happily organize another informal seminar to explore this piece, though not for a few weeks. I am off to a business anthropology conference in China next week and, on returning, will be setting out for the States to visit the grandkids then to the UK for a tour of Hadrian's Wall and the Lake District, a visit with old friends who live in Cambridge, and finally a network analysis conference in Brighton, followed by going back to the States for another couple of weeks.
But all this may be fantasy. Do you think we have reached the point where OAC, having become a backwater, should be left to quietly stagnate?
I grew up in the countryside, so fishing around in backwaters and stagnant ponds is nostalgic for me as well as interesting in its own right. I am happy to join in a discussion of Peter Gow's paper and maybe I can encourage him to drop in to add a few comments. Don't miss Vindolanda when you visit Hadrian's wall. At least you will be in a better position to judge contemporary British politics than the English nationalist politician, Nigel Farage, who recently said that the English were tired of throwing money over Hadrian's wall at the Scots...
Guys, great rantings! To make these seminars more than 'late-night-pub-talks' (which are in and by themselves great!), one needs some mechanism to keep down the word-count of individual posts. Ideal would be some median between the present discourse and the OAC FB ones.
wise words -- what sort of notional limit do FB posts have? Should say that, since it seemed to be just the three of us poking the fire and staring at the stars, I at least may not have been paying much mind to how many e-words I was offering up to the great spirit of the internet ...
Hi John, I am away in July but the other dates look OK. I have opened a new channel for the inequality/hierarchy discussion.