The New History of Humankind by David Graeber and David Wengrow

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THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING, BY DAVID GRAEBER AND DAVID WENGROW. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 704 pages.

ONE OF THE MAIN PROPOSALS that David Graeber and David Wengrow highlighted in The dawn of everything, their invigorating rewrite of human history, is that the ancestors of our prehistory were not mere thoughtless clods, but rather idiosyncratic, self-aware social organizers, living through a “carnivalesque parade of political forms”. . Today, we might use words like “anarchist“, “communist”, “authoritarian” or “egalitarian” to describe their activity, but this language does not represent the sheer weirdness of real case studies: big cities without authorities or agriculture (Göbekli Tepe), tribal nations spanning continents (Cahokia), social housing projects (Teotihuacan) and populations that oscillate between horizontalism and tyranny over the seasons (Nambikwara, Winnebago, Nuer). For 40,000 years, people have moved between various forms of equal and unequal social structures, building hierarchies and then dismantling them, propose Wengrow, an archaeologist, and Graeber, the late anthropologist/anarchist activist. The authors argue that, rather than being less politically self-aware that people these days, people in stateless societies were considerably Following so. How did we get stuck?

To adopt a “Paleolithic politics”, for Graeber and Wengrow, is to draw strength from the fact that humans have long experimented with how to organize themselves and that the path of social change is anything but linear. Indeed, one of the most daring arguments in the book is its stand against a teleological view of our current situation: its insistence that the first 300,000 years of humanity offer a past that is both more varied , violent, hopeful – and all in all more interesting – than what we’ve flattened it to be, and that it could be the same for our future. The premise is exhilarating and its implications are only beginning to be considered. The sweeping conclusions Graeber and Wengrow draw from their sources have been the subject of intense scrutiny by scholars like Kwame Anthony Appiah, but I don’t think it will really matter. The book’s optimism in the face of the impending political polarization of climate catastrophe and social collapse is in itself a provocation.


A diorama of the Cahokia Mounds at the Cahokia Mounds Museum Society in Collinsville, Illinois.

What could such a tome have to offer the art world, which has seen a proliferation of work in recent decades that blurs the line between art and community activism? The history of art is full of utopian thoughts, but The dawn of everything recontextualizes this impulse in a long period of social reorganization, millennia before the creation of terms like “relational aesthetics” and “social practice”. Of course, one cannot directly compare the cogs of artists, the small-scale provisional projects – a Thomas Hirschorn in the Bronx, a Tania Bruguera in Queens, a Tino Sehgal at the Palais de Tokyo – to our distant ancestors of the last ice age. Despite all the sweeping claims found in press releases, wall texts and reviews, there is a growing consensus that today’s most ambitious social experimentation takes place far removed from traditional artistic activity. . The 2011 Occupy protests, recent mutual aid initiatives, and wave of strikes and labor movements across the country have more in common with the global creation of the prehistoric ancestors of Wengrow and Graeber than with the institutionally sanctioned art presented by non-profit organizations, museums and biennials. But perhaps we should think of a history of relational art with a much broader temporal, geographical and disciplinary footprint. That we didn’t call these ancestors artists says more about the limitations of contemporary frames in interpreting the human imagination than it does about their creative abilities. Social practice, the authors suggest, is not a rarefied subgenre of contemporary art as it has been presented recently, but the cornerstone of human political activity.

Reading the The dawn of everything, one has the impression that a political conscience is an artistic conscience.

Today, it is easy to see the art field as a kind of R&D department for capitalist production, or as an anemic simulacrum of the “experience economy” of a real revolution. Reading the The dawn of everything, however, one has the impression that a political conscience is an artistic conscience. This vision allows us to look at works of art with renewed optimism, as little windows into alternative ways of life rather than as “artificial hells”. Graeber and Wengrow date the first evidence of “complex symbolic human behavior” – or what we might call “culture” – to 100,000 years ago. They frequently cite sculptures, cave paintings and earthworks as evidence not only of creative expression, but also of the changing social formations their production necessitated: large-scale mobilizations of skilled and unskilled labor. skilled in creating the two hundred unique animal pillars of Göbekli Tepe, for example, or traces of matriarchy in the art of Minoan Crete, in which all visual representations of authority figures were representations of women. However, the book’s deeper implications for art are philosophical. “We are dealing, again, with powerful modern myths,” the authors say of the dominant narratives of history that want to present our present circumstances as inevitable. “Such myths don’t just inform what people say: to an even greater extent, they ensure that certain things go unnoticed.” Like artists, Graeber and Wengrow set out to create counter-myths, based on new material evidence.


The cover of L'Aube de tout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

The book also situates art within a larger realm of human activity: play. Not all Neolithic creativity was put to productive use: ceramics were invented long before the Neolithic era to make art and figurines, later becoming kitchen and storage containers; the Greeks invented the steam engine, but only to open the doors of temples in evocation of divine powers; Chinese scientists first made gunpowder for fireworks. “For most of history, therefore, the ritual play area constituted both a scientific laboratory and, for a given society, a repertoire of knowledge and techniques applicable or not to pragmatic problems.

The game’s heuristic extends to the book’s analysis of social forms, including “playing kings” and “playing police.” In Natchez society in present-day Louisiana, for example, the Great Sun (as the divine monarch was called) wielded unlimited power in the royal village – a cabin in a huge earthen plaza adjacent to the temple. But the ruler’s power was limited to his immediate vicinity. Outside the royal village, if subjects were disinclined to obey the orders of its representatives, they could ignore them or settle in nearby wealthier quarters with independent business ventures, military outfits, and politicians. foreign contradictory. A game element was also introduced into a sort of ritualized hostility practiced by the Natchez, whose common people annually pretended to ambush, capture and prepare to kill the king until a second simulated warfare group intervenes to save him. This tension between the sovereignty of the monarch and the imaginary revolutions of his subjects turned into real hostilities during the European invasion, when some districts chose to ally with the French and others did not. Among the Mandan-Hidatsa and Crow peoples of what is now Montana and Wyoming, a police force with full coercive powers would be instituted during the sensitive summer months around the buffalo hunt. During the cooler winter months, these entities would be disbanded entirely, these temporary “chiefs” and “policemen” stripped of all their powers. While this sovereignty was no less real for its temporary nature, a collective predisposition to societal experimentation, for “play” perhaps, enabled a near-constant flow of conscious political transformation.


A 1758 drawing by Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz depicting Chief Natchez known as Grand Soleil.

The dawn of everythingThe rewriting of human history parallels more recent efforts by art institutions to rethink the canon and its narratives of linear progress. The first chapter on “Native criticism” is integral in this regard, recovering the impact of Native American thought on the tradition of the Enlightenment. It focuses on the assessment of European society made by the Huron-Wendat statesman Kandiaronk, pseudonym known as Adario, in an influential 1703 text written by a French aristocrat stationed in Canada. “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still do not see a single way of acting that is not inhuman”, Baron de Lahontan quotes his interlocutor in a passage criticizing the sadness and the bitterness of the European composition, its competitive nature and its obsession with ownership. (Wengrow and Graeber posit that if “the West” has any real meaning, it resides in the legal and intellectual tradition that sees property rights as the sole basis of social power.) Adario continues: “To imagine that one can living in the land of silver and preserving one’s soul is like imagining that one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Adario has long been seen as a prop or rhetorical figure rather than an actual person, although according to the writers we have hard evidence to believe he was based almost entirely on Kandiaronk. To even call Kandiaronk an “American intellectual”, as Wengrow and Graeber do, is a revolution at the level of the word, which clearly shows that there was rigorous intellectual debate at the very beginning of contact between European and American civilizations. .

And finally, what about the book’s insistence on “humanity”? At a time when so many artists, curators and academics are rushing to “decenter the human” in their work, The dawn of everything invites us to do the (much harder) job of reframing the interwoven questions of what humanity was, is, and could be. In the book’s conclusion, Graeber and Wengrow modify their original question – how did we get stuck? – by another: how did relations based on domination and violence become normalized? The authors’ generous rehabilitation of humanity suggests that perhaps we don’t need to transcend the idea of ​​the human, but rather remember the older ones.

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