Full Version: David Wengrow & David Græber: Farewell to the childhood of man: ritual, seasonality
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What are people's thoughts on this?

It definitely calls into question the prevalent idea that agriculture was when "time, language, number, art won out." This paper notes spectacular burials thousands of years pre-agriculture. I briefly talked to JZ about it, and he conceded that «it could be that instances of symbolic activity ebbed and flowed before symbolic culture became established.»

Some highlights I noted:

«[T]he continued popularity of books (e.g. Diamond 2012; Fukuyama 2011) that preserve Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of humanity in its original state of nature -- innocent of power and complexity -- suggests a reluctance to bid farewell to the ‘childhood of man’, and to embrace a new age of cynicism, where inequality is considered not only natural but also a primordial feature of human society.»

«In Hierarchy in the forest, Christopher Boehm (1999) notes how sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have tended to characterize humans as innately either egalitarian or hierarchical,perpetuating an ‘endless debate’ between the positions of Rousseau and Hobbes. He himself argues that this is a false dichotomy. What makes us distinctly human is instead the inherent complexity of our political repertories, and in particular the range of strategies for resisting domination, which far outstrip those available to other primates.»

«[B]road-brush characterizations of a deep egalitarian past -- before the emergence of farming and states -- sit uneasily with the content of the archaeological record. That evidence [...] leads prehistorians in a very different direction, towards the identification of ranked societies and institutional hierarchy among Pleistocene hunter-gatherers.»

«Spectacular burials [...] have been taken as evidence that -- many thousands of years before the origins of farming -- highly developed systems of ranking existed among at least some Upper Palaeolithic societies. Attention has focused on the extraordinary outlays of labour involved in making the grave goods[;] the highly advanced and standardized methods of craft production; the inclusion of exotic (and therefore prestigious) raw materials; and the association of wealth with young individuals, taken to imply ascribed rather than achieved status. On such grounds we are asked to abandon the idea that Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers were uniformly simple or egalitarian in their social arrangements, and to accept the fundamentally complex and hierarchical nature of their social systems[.]»

«[H]unter-gatherer societies had evolved institutions to support major public works, projects, and monumental constructions, and thus had a complex social hierarchy prior to their adoption of farming»

«Archaeologists can now claim to have pushed back the record of institutionalized inequality to a very early phase of human prehistory. [...] [S]imply observing the existence of inequality in certain aspects of social life and material culture, in certain times and contexts,says little about social evolution in general.»

«[W]e [propose] that strongly dualistic patterns of organization [...] created particular opportunities for the conscious and reflexive elaboration of social structures. This is revealed in the archaeological record as an apparent explosion of expressive activities that address perennial problems of social life, such as the relations between men and women, people and animals, or life and death; and also in the instrumental use of symbolic resources, as groups and individuals explored new types of political arrangements -- hierarchical and egalitarian -- and ways of expressing them materially.»

«[W]e do not have to choose between an egalitarian or hierarchical start to the human story. We just have to bid farewell to the ‘childhood of man’ and acknowledge [...] that our early ancestors were not just our cognitive equals, but our intellectual and philosophical peers too.»
1. This is an important argument to overthrow any grand narrative about the production and enforcement of civilization. We can see the archeology of the origin of power stratification differs dramatically between different societies, and though it's not thought about here I'm willing to bet that it produced wildly different genealogies of power too - which then produced different modes of subjectification, and as noted here it's this social realization that is able to produce new social forms even if not consciously and intentionally constructed. I think this is a significant realization because it means that we don't have to be tied to an origin story of symbols, agriculture, property relations, etc.. - instead of categorizing it with a mostly linear trajectory we get to open the door to more adaptive and potentially subversive dynamics of (un)organization.

2. I'm in the process of studying Foucaudian usage of the apparatus as a technical term for understanding ways power/social relations orient, organize, control, and (re)produce the process of subjectification. It is interesting to note how there are counter-modes of organization that are able to subvert the whole organization of power relations into new and untraversed territories. A very basic way I think an apparatus can be explained is with a pulley: it is something that responds to a need, it serves a strategic function (in this case, leveraging weight). By using the pulley aaparatus we are able to reorient energy to produce a magnified result - in the same way we are able to create counter-apparatuses to leverage a specific symbolic input and yield greater results from it (obviously my position starts with the assumption that symbolic mediation isn't inherently tyrannical - maybe this is a poor assumption to begin with). They briefly talked about the profound liberating potential of festivals - this can be one of those apparatuses; I'm also reminded of Hakim Bey's TAZ before it was recuperated by capitalist commodification (burning man).

3. Im struck by the significance of velocity within the different modes of social organization. As clearly noted by Mauss/Beuchat when they discuss the Eskimo that the "Winter is a season when Eskim society is highly concentrated and in a state of continual excitement and hyperactivity.." and it's with this simultaneous increase in velocity and containment that the possibility for new social modes can be realized even unconsciously. With a rhythmic break by the seasons this velocity and containment is dissipated and through this new (or at least different) processes of subjectification occur at a rapid rate, they even note how people change names and entire identities throughout the year as they transition between different forms of social organization (or different types of apparatuses)

4. The most important part isn't living within this dual polarity at the extreme end of each pole, but the transition in between concentrated and dispersed groupings of people. I think it's through this blurring of clear lines that modes of organization and technologies of subjectification resist calcification and thus permanent power stratification. It's also for this reason that I think the origin story of certain institutions and symbolic regimes isn't so important - the origin story is in a nomadic flux as it's being continually recreated by the transition between different apparatuses and processes of subjectification. I think it's important to note that this casting of these primitive societies show in this essay is a specific snapshot and not a universal way they were organized, they too were in a continuous state of ongoing production and negotiation of history.

5. And last an interesting note, I guess. People who experience childhood trauma almost always have rhythmic asynchronization issues - in social interactions even though you don't realize it we all tend to rhythmically match eachother in body gestures and verbal languagel. This rhythmic social dynamic is almost entirely formed in the first two years of age and it tends to be at this age that trauma is so acute because it effects the basic formation of the brain. Now on a macro level we see this rhythmic quality reproduced in a multiplicity of ways across all kinds of different institutions and dynamics in these seasonally (ryrhmically) re-organizing societies. I can't help but feel that the very arhythmic and stratified quality of our living formation and processes create a society-wide trauma. So maybe it isn't "mediation" whether through technology or symbols that's the issue, it's the interruption of rhythmic life that causes the trauma of civilization.
Thanks Alexander, I hadn't see that article before. After reading it, it seems like a good survey of all the anomalies that the mainstream view of social evolution hasn't been able to account for. I had heard of Gobekli Tepe and the work of Olga Soffer but hadn't really thought of tying them (and other Paleolithic discoveries) all together the way Wengrow and Graeber do. Seeing hierarchy and egalitarianism as interwoven rather than as binary opposites seems to make sense in light of the evidence.
David Wengrow and David Graeber Farewell to the Childhood of Man video:
It seems to me that civilisation is an activity. Being so far submerged into symbolic culture, ritual might very well fit the bill. It's an interesting way of looking at it. I am reminded of JZ's words: «All ritual is an attempt, through symbolism, to return to the timeless state. Ritual is a gesture of abstraction from that state, however, a false step that only leads further away.»

And further (from a different essay), «[t]he conventions needed in division of labor, with its standardization and loss of the unique, are those of ritual, of symbolization. The process is at base identical, based on equivalence. Production of goods, as the hunter-gatherer mode is gradually liquidated in favor of agriculture (historical production) and religion (full symbolic production), is also ritual production.»