Hands on the Cave Wall: the neverending human revision of inequality and community

We have been discussing the 'Archaeology of Inequality' on the OAC and as usual some of the discussion was a little chaotic, some a bit elliptical, but there were some striking insights there it, or at least so it seems to me.

Two strands stood out.

1. The trend toward inequality is ongoing and inevitable. John argued that the trend toward hierarchy in human affairs is inevitable because Pareto-Barabasi style 'winner takes all' processes appear whenever networks form and arrive at a certain scale. In this view, regardless of human intentions, whenever a resource becomes available and begins to accumulate then a relatively tiny number of actors will acquire radically disproportionate access to that resource. More broadly, when we look across a whole range of phenomena from avalanches to evolutionary adaptation, to human economic activity, we find that, once elements are networked then a few nodes will attract most of the activity (or goodies) in the network (see Keith Hart on this).

I agree that we can observe these kinds of effects at work in different human domains -- for example the more that 'money' becomes a meta-symbol that can be deployed across very distinct scenes of human value then the more the Pareto-style effect seems to take hold -- greater and greater quantities of this abstract money commodity accumulate in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of actors. Piketty and others have commented on this in depth. 

If this effect is an ever-present potential in how social relationships organise themselves into networks then it is also a potentially very dangerous one. Money, for example, isn't just an abstract symbol, it works because of trust between people about how the abstract signifier and certain things in the world connect to each other -- in other words, it effects not only what the world means to the people who live in it, but also what their own lives mean to others around them. If, for example, by merely sitting on money, by way of compound interest etc., certain people can trap huge quantities of the money-signifier rather than redistributing it back into the network then this can have drastic effects on the economic activity of (and the meaning of the world for) most other people. Similarly, (we started by talking about Graeber's paper on Shilluk kingship) if the use of violence becomes concentrated in one person's hands in a society, then society itself starts to take the shape of something inherently arbitrary and violent. 

If all this is true, then, ideologically and practically there seem to be various ways that human beings can respond to it. For example, according to Pospisil, Kapauku Papuans are (or were in the 1950s) secularist business-minded (almost Ayn Randian) libertarians, but they could nonetheless see the dangers of hoarding money (shell money, cowries, in this case) for their individualistic economic set up. So they took a drastic approach: anyone who refused to redistribute their personal money-hoard in loans to new business ventures (business took the form of raising pigs) was taken out and shot. The money, now under the control of relatives, was reissued in loans to budding entrepreneurs.

However, the Kapauku don't have a monopoly on solutions to the dynamic of inequality. Four possible kinds of response (a quad borrowed loosely from Mary Douglas) would include the following practical philosophies:

1. variants of Fatalism, Stoicism, Buddhism: you may not like it but unequal distributions of capacities and goods are inevitable--get over it, radically accept it, look inward at what you can change in your own thought processes, not outward at events over which you have no control.

2. variants of Vitalism, Libertarianism, Individualism: be the hub of your own network, revel in your own uniqueness and the inequality and unevenness of things; take delight in specificity instead of looking for order; wallow deeply in the irrationality of human intentions and the chaotic arbitrariness of how the world manifests itself.

3. variants of Contractarianism, Communitarianism, Keynesianism: acknowledge the danger of incipient unequal access to good things, but act collectively and individually to change the dynamic by all means possible-- use rational and emotional forces to educate, inculcate shared responsibility, redistributive ethics etc.

4. variants of Epicurianism, Platonism, Hinduism etc: the world is by nature hierarchically ordered; invigorate and enjoy the values of a hierarchical society -- everything and everyone can occupy a fulfilling position in the social order from which they can come to understand themselves and the world.

This, it seems to me was the second strand of our discussion:-

2. Hierarchy means nothing without the human capacity for symbolisation and thence the creation of a cosmological 'outside' for human experience. In a series of dazzling interventions Lee pointed to the fact that before you can have the idea of hierarchy you have to have a cosmology. And he suggested that to understand the invention of cosmology you have to recognise the drug-induced, mind-altered state of the shaman who becomes the translator of the cosmos idea for what then becomes a community. We have in other words to start with cosmological awareness itself. Rather than summarising, here is one post by Lee from that exchange:

 Regarding the “lost space” of prehistoric hand stencils:

In one way or another the 'outside' is the cosmological shell. In that respect, and I don't think anyone has remarked on this to my knowledge, these hand 'prints' are quite revealing. They are created by spraying pigment across the surface of the hand, -- the hand creates a lost space around which the pigment falls on the cave surface. Suppose that what is at work here is a reflection on the subjective inside versus the cosmological outside.
    This is an important idea that leads into the depths of an inquiry into the nature of symbolization.  The image of a human hand, its representational form, is not a concrete thing but, as you say, a “lost space,” an absence.  For me this thought evokes the foundational argument of Eco’s semiotics: communication – meaning – is an absent structure.  Recall that the first version of Eco’s (ponderous and canonical) A Theory of Semiotics was a much less formal essay in Italian, La struttura assente.  Essentially the same idea surfaces in Leach’s classic essay on animal categories, in which he argues that the continuum of animal life is broken up by conceptual gaps – absences – that demarcate traditional categories of animal (pets, livestock, game, “wild” animals).  Mary Douglas on taboo also employs that kernel argument.  I pirated the idea in framing a theory of culture in Dreamtime:   

In the spirit of Galileo, if not with his rigor, I would suggest that the anthropocentric Cartesian cogitoholds only if, invoking the principle of cultural generativity, we conceive of humanity as an absence at the center of things, a cipher to be filled with meaning through the operations of an artifactual intelligence.  The fact that people think at all, that they are cultural beings who do things and effect changes in their surroundings, is due to the pronounced uncertainty, the relentless unclarity of their lives. 


    I’ve often wondered about those hand stencils in the caves.  They are among the earliest extant form of human symbolization, but how can we begin to reconstruct the meaning they held for their creators?  As well as their intriguing “lost space” composition, I wonder about: Why hands?  Why not say, feet, or even a stenciled head (produced by another artist as the subject pressed his head against the cave wall)?  A thought I had is that the human hand is an excellent sign of both human distinctiveness and – what folks now like to go on about – agency.  In a world populated by humans, animals, and totemic spirits, the human talent to make things, our artifactual intelligence, and thereby create a whole new class of beings (tools) was hugely important. 

    The only way to go beyond speculation about the hand stencils and other cave paintings and petroglyphs is to continue in the vein of Lewis-Williams and look closely at the subject matter, context (which drawings occur together), and location (which part of the cave) of images.  Even so, there remains a thick veil between the Upper Paleolithic mind and our own (and run the clock ahead twenty or thirty thousand years, and guess what?).  So, your thought that The Sorcerer may be a monkey god, a source of hilarity is as plausible as other interpretations (I like the idea because it’s so different from my own first impression: I found the image chilling – thinking, I guess, what if I’d seen that thing coming at me in my dreams?)  

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Huon, Keith, thanks for these remarks about Rousseau. The more I have thought about it, the more it has seemed to me that Huon's distinction between (natural)inequality and (conventional) hierarchy has a lot going for it. It would, for example, allow me to distinguish clearly between the inequality predicted with mathematical certainty by random graph models and the moral or political judgment that the existence of this sort of inequality is or is not a good thing.

That said, I wonder if we are stuck with Rousseau's 18th century understanding that nature is what has become and, thus, unchangeable while convention is becoming and, thus, subject to alteration. Today we might say that both nature and convention change, albeit at different rates and via different processes. We might, then, for example, debate whether climate change should be addressed through efforts to reduce emissions from industry, automobiles or cattle farming or, alternatively, if the change is inevitable — as some now believe it to be — about how to address its consequences, the need for billions of people to move from what are now coastal but will soon be submerged parts of the Earth to other places, to note just one example.

Returning to economics, we could accept the proposition that unregulated markets are random graphs which will rapidly generate extreme inequalities and turn our attention, instead, to how this effect can be moderated or reversed, e.g., through steep financial transaction and inheritance taxes. Here sport provides many useful models for rebalancing the game once the season is over.

Or, shifting the focus a bit, we might compare Rousseau's two kinds of inequality with the two models of equality described by Amartya Sen, the one-individual-one-vote model in which all human beings are treated equally, verses the one-share-one-vote model in which those who own more shares control more votes.

P.S. My lull was due to traveling to the States to visit my grandkids. Jet lag has eased a bit. 6/15-6/30, I will be in the UK, touring, visiting friends and attending a network analysis conference in Brighton. I have no idea how Wifi access will work out.

Dear folks, I'll be brief because I'm pressed with time.

Thanks for hosting on this discussion Huon. Being a CPU-fan, I appreciated much your digression into gaming, though I, again due to time-issues, couldn't get into it.

It disappoints me to see you celebrate the punctuation of this thread by such an arcane, ideological conclusion. Rousseau, his poetic talents notwithstanding, was a romantic Utopian with, mildly put, bleach insight into the actual social dynamics that drive equality/inequality formations. Positing individual material egoism as the core mechanism in social inequality, his analysis remained as theological as that of the next-door zealot. What humanity needs is not more paroles, but a theory that can account for contingent equality/inequality-processes beyond the scope of individual action aggregates. Here grounded ethnography stands in a special contributory position because of its unique potential to illuminate the practical significance of all the gaps between the multiple frequencies of social life (i.e. the unintended social effects of ideas in practice).

There's groundbreaking work happening on this kind of social analysis of equality in Nordic anthropology these days. The Norwegian Journal of Anthropology (NAT) is one of the salient venues. As a final contribution to this thread, I'll post the summary of an article published in NAT 2015/1 by my supervisor Halvard Vike, titled "The Nature of Equality":

In this article I discuss the conditions under which social equality may arise and be reproduced, while focusing in particular on the institutionalization of states. Taking three ethnographic examples from Norway as my point of departure, I investigate how political scientist Stein Rokkan's perspective on cross-cutting cleavages may be used to provide a deeper insight into the management of power in public institutions. I further discuss how people's values and interests are translated into political alliances and how the patterns of conflict generated influence institutions formally and informally. A methodological argument forwarded in relation to this is that in order to gain analytical insight into how institutions are embedded and in part controlled in (more or less local) social systems and networks, we have to investigate how people move across formal institutional boundaries, roles and loyalties. Alliances that generate shifting and cross-cutting conflicts may give rise to horizontal forms of solidarity within formal, hierarchical institutions and in this way contribute to controlling power from below, but also to delimiting the effects of politicization processes and insensitivity in public bureaucracies.

The recent formal unions of the plethora of particular-interest activist groups in Greek, Spanish and Scottish local/regional politics seem like excellent contemporary empirical cases for testing this purposed thesis.


    If we’re winding down this very interesting discussion, I’d like to thank Huon for bridging Upper Paleolithic cave painting with current intellectual debate over those critical pairs (dialectical constructs), equality / inequality, and egalitarianism / hierarchy.  I’d also like to flag what seems to me an item of unfinished business – a concern I mentioned earlier but which still hangs there.  While participants have marshaled scholarly references and sophisticatedarguments regarding the two pairs of concepts mentioned above, we’ve skirted a third candidate I suggested: the dynamic role the rational vs. the irrational plays in social life. 

    I’ve recommended Lewis-Williams’ claim that social hierarchy / inequality emerged from the deep recesses of the Paleolithic cave in the form of an individual shaman whacked out on entheogens and speaking as the embodiment on Earth of chthonic forces of creation.   A side trip into Piaroa cosmogenesis identified another example of deep-seated irrationality in the form of a group basing its social relations on the perpetual antagonism of irreconcilable, grotesque deities. 

    Fast forward to today.  Regarding John’s earlier demurral, I can’t speak about Pharonic  Egypt or early Chinese dynasties, but I do think there are grounds to claim that contemporary societies mostly teeter on the razor’s edge of stability and instability – and which way they go is subject to powerful, utterly irrational forces.  How, for example, would we begin to apply our refined academic discussion to the rise and spread – the appeal -- of ISIS?  A very different case: American society.  Despite centuries of “democracy” and multiple tons of law books regulating everything in a perfectly “rational” way, the fact remains that over forty per cent of Americans believe the Rapture will come within the next thirty-five years.  George Jr. himself, with his finger poised on the button, was a born-againer who restrained himself from hastening the Second Coming via nuclear apocalypse by taking on Saddam instead.  Rational?  Even within the tenets of the neocons’ neoliberalism?  No, more like a cult leader sending the faithful and the apathetic to their doom.  Add Russian nationalism to the mix and we have a witches’ brew of irrationality that is hugely destructive and yet impervious to rational analysis of a given political system.  How do societies operate to perpetuate equality, inequality, etc.?  We know that the historical determinism of dialectical materialism didn’t pan out, and that American corporate capitalism and Russian xenophobia seem headed for the cliff.  Time to consult a Piaroa analyst? 

    So, what would an anthropology of the irrational look like?  

So, what would an anthropology of the irrational look like?  

Or is there a rational route into the cultural irrational?

Before we leave this one, responding to Keith and John, a key issue remains the status of 'nature' or the natural state as raised by Rousseau and in this thread (n.b. 'inequality is a structural denial that two classes have the same nature and rights'). My guess is that part of the difficulty in arriving at a meaningful understanding of equality here and elsewhere lies in the contemporary difficulty of understanding 'nature' in the sense that Rousseau outlined -- i.e. as a stable baseline regarding which 'consenting' human beings decide on how or why they are obliged by others around them. 

Consider, for example, Douglas' comment at the end of Purity and Danger:

"Animal and vegetable life cannot help but play their role in the order of the universe. They have little choice but to live as it is their nature to behave. Occasionally the odd species or individual gets out of line and humans react with avoidance of one kind or another. The very reaction to ambiguous behaviour expresses the expectation that all things shall normally conform to the principles that govern the world"

This is the Durkheimian view of the relationship between nature and human convention -- a somewhat Platonic view whereby, if conventions change, we can always rely on nature staying the same, just perceived in different aspects under different labels or categories. Various anthropologists, including Levi-Strauss and others, have indicated that the problem human beings now face is that their notions -- including the ideas of equality that we discussed here -- have become so out of kilter with a destabilised 'nature' that culture has no foundational referent against which to establish or institutionalise meaningful hierarchies -- conventions, human norms. Nature from this perspective is truly 'runaway' to use Leach's word, subject to utterly unpredictable burst-like effects. Hence the argument, via Latour, that there is in fact no difference between nature and culture; there are rather nature-cultures -- micro-cosmologies in-the-making for which there is no outside or natural scale regarding which they can be judged.

So one aspect of the 'irrationality' of contemporary culture from this point of view is the corresponding sense of the underlying 'irrationality' of contemporary nature. All those programmes where people turn into animals or vampires, video games where they can put their memories into eggs etc. Return of interest in animistic transformation etc. Is this merely another effect of the collapse of methodological nationalism, the rise of corporate mutation (aka financialisation); or is there something more or else at work?

So, yes, what would an anthropology of irrationality look like seems like an interesting discussion to pick up next.

An anthropology of irrationality should focus on the universally most frequent and ordinary form of human irrationality, which is processing odd experiences by way of logical leaps with certain conclusions in mind. An obligatory reading would be Jon Elster's Sour Grapes - Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (1985).

Kristian, you will be able to tell us why Elster is relevant: but my suggestion is that we open a new thread to give some definition to the new topic. There we can discuss what counts (and for whom) as an odd experience and/or a logical leap.

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