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A DAWN OF EVERYTHING
Q: What do you think about the new history (A Dawn of Everything) by Graeber and Wengrow?
I very much enjoyed this book — as I enjoy all attempts to both revise our assumptions about history & stay updated with recent archaeological evidence.
Although many of my friends have pointed to this text as a radical socialist rethink of human culture combined with a diatribe against developmental stage theory, I found it much more nuanced. In fact, I think it goes a long way toward specifying the form of a coaxial multipath stage-set developmentalism.
This book has many fun bits of particular information (e.g. the role that North American indigenous nations played in sourcing the humanist ideals of the European Enlightenment) but I am most interested in summarizing their general and recurring observations derived from leading edge histories. Here is what I find them constantly restating:
(a) plural pathways: there is no single linear developmental math leading from primitive savagery to modernity
(b) variations: cultures at every phase of history are more politically, artistically and temperamentally varied than we have hitherto assumed
(c) creative relationalism: cultures often co-created each other, even at the expense of apparent practicality, through a process of schismogenesis (deliberate mutual differentiation)
(d) optionalism: the absence of certain cultural and technological signs might frequently indicate intentional critique and refusal rather than incapacity
(e) nuanced developmentalism: broad historical unfoldings and convergences do occur.
What can we draw from all this?
Human cultural development, insofar as we accept that concept, proceeds from one diverse set of mutually-instantiated variations (spanning the whole range of what we call “political” styles) to another equally diverse set — and along a multitude of pathways.
This development must be viewed as growth in terms of options rather than instantiations. I.e. a culture that encounters, understands and rejects state-hood is not less developed than a culture that embraces state-hood. They both have reached the point at which statehood is a comprehensible option.
Let’s break all that down a little more.
Below is an image suggestive — certainly not comprehensively! — of the idea that a large set, range or spectrum of ways-of-socially-being-in-the-world evolves through diverse trajectories toward the possibility of stabilizing at a “larger” (i.e. more inclusive range of types of perspectives, capacities and pattern-recognitions) stage that is also characterized by a wide variety of different approaches. It is NOT the case that anarcho-tribalists evolve necessarily into hierarchical authoritarians. The exact opposite could occur and nonetheless still count as development.
Any versions of any “level” can follow pathways, negotiating between more and less humanly and ecologically healthy modes of their own style, to another level that also affords a great variety of social modes:
And here (below) is a very simplified look at major level-like phases of anthropological development. This does not imply a “better” but rather a migration from one set of variations and capacities to another set that includes the first set and proposes either additional innovations and/or critical restorations and solutions to problems not addressed at the previous stage.
Note that I place both postmodernism and metamodernism outside of the range of progressive/regressive movement between layers of culture. Once multi-paradigmatic and inter-contextual vision is activated we are dealing with a new framing which, however, can trend two contractive/divisive/reactive or expansive/harmonizing/creative:
And regular readers of my scattered material will know that I periodically propose a “coaxial” developmental model that teases apart variables commonly conflated in more linear approaches. Here I take up some of the issues raised in A DAWN OF EVERYTHING via inspection of the plurality of meanings of the word “savage.”
Savage, sauvage & wild can (positively or negatively) imply several different things. A regression to a problematic subhuman intensity. An early stage of cultural developmental involving village life, craft lineages and prominent immersion in untamed ecology, hunting-gathering & sensory adaptation to organic complexity and intensity. The idea of “the savages” has been used tpo romantically praise and derisively marginalize many cultures (Northern Europeans were savages to the Romans but North Americans were savages to the Northern Europeans).
We can see on a coaxial graph both the problem of conflating “a culture” with a lower mode of human functioning AND the ongoing possibility of generating developmental stage models — as long as they tease apart cultural capacities from human maturation:
So, again, my takeaway from this enjoyable book is the need for coaxial multipath stage-set developmentalism (with the assumption that development does not imply replacing one system with another but rather a migration from a smaller set of options to a larger set that still functionally includes the previous operations in some form).