Sunday, 21 November 2021

Justin E.H Smith & Anthropological Psilosophy

 The word for philosophy in Sanskrit is 'darshan-gyan'- the knowledge and understanding of what is seen. What happens when you see kids engaged in a role-playing game? The answer, of course, is that you smile and reflect on the mutability of all things. Kids swap roles in games because they see that every role has its own unique interest and utility. But nothing is fixed. There is only 'lila'- cosmic play

Sadly this is not what happens when an academic philosopher looks at anything. He sees what he wants to see so as to talk bollocks.

Justin E.H Smith writes

I have seen many things (corpses, the Northern Lights, a beached whale), but a few sights have left a particularly vivid impression. One is of a boy I spotted in Istanbul eighteen years ago. He was fifteen or so, with a pathetic whispy moustache, wearing a suit for what appeared to be the first time. 

This is silly. To be 15 is glorious. A wispy moustache is cool more especially if it testifies to genetic descent from the Gokturks who conquered so much of the world. Everybody wore a suit for a first time at some age or another. 15 is precocious. In the last 18 years, the Turkish economy has grown very rapidly. We are speaking of a 30 year old who has done well for himself as have others of his cohort. 

We were in the textile district of Zeytinburnu, and it seemed to me he was likely beginning a new life in his father’s small business, though I could be wrong.

That business is no longer so small. That boy is now exporting to the ends of the earth and travels regularly to London and New York and Shanghai. He may own property in such places. He hasn't wasted his life studying and teaching worthless shite. 

 Whatever the occasion, the boy had deemed fitting 

that should read 'deemed it fitting'. Smith can't even write proper English.

to commission the labor of an even smaller boy, nine years old or so, 

A shoe-shine boy is self-employed. There is a contract of adhesion. It is not the case that a 15 year old commissions random 9 years old to perform some particular service. The 9 year old must already be in that line of business. 

to shine his shoes. The shoeshine kid was kneeling on the ground, 

as opposed to what? Leaping in the air? 

scrubbing away with rags and polish from his portable kit, a borderline-homeless street gamin for whom all of our rhetoric about the sacred innocence of childhood means nothing at all. 

Nonsense! A shoe-shine boy has sacred innocence just as much any other child. Smith may be thinking of rent-boys or philosophers or other such people whose earnings are predicated on their assholes or the shite they write. 

The fifteen-year-old stared down haughtily, like a small sovereign, 

This is the delightful aspect of this game. The two kids have managed to create something theatrical and enjoyable out of a routine transaction. But they could swap places just as easily- like in games of cops and robbers. It is boring to be a 'small sovereign'. Polishing shoes seems more fun. The reverse can also be the case. The shoe shine boy will do a better job of posing as the haughty Sultan. 

and the nine-year-old, knowing his place, did not dare even to look up.

This is not Satre's waiter who is busy acting the part of waiter. These are kids playing a game. Behind this performance, we see the Sufi doctrine of transposition- Sultan Mahmud becomes the slave of his slave Ayaz. 

Such is the way of the world, our collective, complacency-inducing clichés invite us to think on such occasions. 

This cretin's brain is stuffed with cliches. He does not understand the Islamic ethic. But even from the Western perspective, what is visible here is the danger that child labor might reduce productivity later on. People should stay in skool till they achieve Smith level uselessness. 

Curiously, such a thought comes to us most naturally when we are observing an instance of domination as it were from above. 

This is not domination. The shoe-shine kid gets paid. Smith too gets paid for his puerile pedagogy. 

The haughty kid dared to look down on the lowly kid,

No he didn't. Both kids were playing a game though no doubt there was utility to the transaction. Smith looks down on both coz they were Muslims and 'Asiatics'. By some measures, Turkish per capita Income tripled during the relevant period. It is unlikely that a 9 year old smart enough to make money as a shoe shine boy did not become a property broker or something of that sort within a decade.

and yet if he had noticed he was being observed his haughtiness could quickly have curdled into shame. 

No it wouldn't. The 'haughtiness' would have turned to rage. The Westerner was clearly a pedophile. If he hadn't run away his head would have been kicked in.

The further haughtiness of the ultimate obsever, in turn —in the event, me (as far as I know I was not being observed myself)— seems to arise from

stupidity. That's the problem with being a virtue signaler. You get stupider and stupider.

 the passive and prejudicial presumption that 

two kids role-playing with gusto are actually equivalent to Satre's waiter or the African American pullman porter putting on a deep Southern accent 

the world of Turkish textile merchants and their sons is somehow a more accurate approximation of the mythical state of nature than what we are used to seeing in, say, a fast-food drive-through or a CostCo self-checkout.

Istanbul was a place where a shoe-shine boy might become Grand Vizier. But equally he might join a Sufi khanqah or, better yet, demand a khirqa without any initiation. 

But this is of course an illusion. The fifteen-year-old was channeling particular historical forces that pressed down upon him unawares,

No he wasn't. The shoe-shine boy's patter, whatever it might have been, had a particular emic resonance. There was a blessing (barakat) in the transaction. The boy was advertising his auspiciousness. His patron was playing up to that patter. Auspiciousness is also about 'faking it till you make it'. God confers his favor only on those who are prepared to receive it. Spread out your hands and ask. God does not stint

There are no 'particular historical forces' here whatsoever. 

 and that are far less distinct from anything I do at a Starbucks, with all the historical forces that press down upon me, than they are from the actions of a Paleolithic mammoth hunter or a New Guinean hunter of heads.

Why stop there? From this perspective they are also far less distinct from a cat farting on a galaxy far far away.

 The boy had perhaps seen his father humiliated by creditors;

Equally his Dad might have got his start as a Shylock. 

his father had perhaps humiliated him in a similar way;

as opposed to humiliating his son by turning up to the Annual Sports Day wearing a blonde wig and fuck me stilettos. At any rate that's my theory of why Smith is so shit. 

and now the boy was just passing the humiliation downward along the great chain of social being. 

A 9 year old is not humiliated when he wins a customer thanks to the superior quality of his patter. But he is also signaling diligence and humility- important Islamic virtues because 'Imarat' is based on 'Tijarat'- Sovereignty is based on Commerce. 

This chain however is one that is ultimately formed by capital, by debt, by sedentism, by the state tyranny of which domestic tyranny is to some extent only a microcosm, and by a number of other factors that place even the most brazenly lupine behavior of man towards man in quite a different context than the state of nature.

Very true. Wolves pay the sheep they kill and devour. Probably this is because of Capitalism and Globalization- right? Wolves should understand that the Bankers own their fangs. But the Bankers are in thrall to the Wool cartel. Sheep and Wolves should unite to overthrow Neo-Liberalism. 

 No, that’s entirely the wrong frame of reference.

There is no 'frame of reference' here. There is merely a fairy story about 'the state of nature' which we know involved cooperation as well as competition which might lead to either conflict or peaceful demographic or other replacement.

Smith next turns to a discipline as worthless and wrong-headed as his own- anthropology. 

What people then may we more veridically hold up as living in such a state?

None. One may as well speak of some people who have helped us as 'angelic' and others whom we don't like as 'demonic'. But neither angels nor demons actually exist. Veridically we are talking nonsense. 

 The Sakha people of the Lena river basin in northeastern Siberia, whom I’ve come to know rather well, both through books and through people, over the past years, appear to be a splinter group that settled in this extreme climate region in the middle ages in order to evade the tyranny of the rising Mongol Empire.

After the American Revolution, 'Loyalists' had to flee to Canada and elsewhere. Fleeing is a function of fighting, or being otherwise associated with, the losing side. Septs who pledged loyalty to the new hegemon and who rose in its polity didn't consider themselves to have submitted to 'tyranny'. Those who fled from the triumphant Washington may have spoken of him as a tyrant. History has forgotten their names. 

 Mongol tax collectors-

didn't exist. The 'daruga' was a Governor or other administrator. Smith is speaking of expeditions to collect tribute not tax-collection which involves individual assessment rather than a collective levy. There is another reason that the Imperial tax-collector analogy is misleading.  the Sakha belonged to a favored ethnicity or linguistic group which was recruited into and could rise up in the ranks of the Golden Horde.

Stupid anthropologists may not understand this but even if they did they'd still write nonsense because that is what pays better. 

couldn’t be bothered to enter the coldest inhabited region on earth, and so the newly formed Sakha ethnie in turn adapted to the new exigencies of life and lived in relative freedom from outside domination, though with a complex hierarchy from within. 

This is silly. The Sakha would have been absorbed into the emerging Khalkha- indeed some were- confederacy. Equally, some Khalkhas who killed the wrong person might head North or North East to put himself beyond vengeance. However, such population movements also responded to what we could call 'price signals'- i.e. opportunity cost ratios. Anthropology can't explain this. Economic Geography can. 

They had advanced metallurgy, a revered warrior class with armor and swords, 

coz, normally, guys who can split you open are treated with contumely not reverence- right?

and four to five months of seasonable temperatures each year that enabled them to build their economy around livestock. Those who went even further north however, perhaps to escape not just Mongol domination but domination from within by their fellow Sakha,

why stop there? Why not say, Sakha's would sometimes go to the toilet to escape domination? 

largely adopted the geographically determined lifeways of the Indigenous Tungusic (e.g., Evens and Evenks) and Paleo-Siberian (e.g., Yukaghir) peoples: reindeer husbandry, in particular, but also seal-hunting and other circumpolar forms of subsistence common also to Greenland and Canada. 

How strange! We would have expected them to tak up the 'lifeways' of Manhattan stockbrokers or Hawaiian windsurfers. 

At the same time as some Sakha were arriving from the south and taking on Arctic habits,

as opposed to the habits of Malaysian chiropractors. 

 socially marginal ethnic Russians

who were not socially marginal at all. Some were princes. Some- like the famous Stroganovs- were 'commoners'. As for Cossacks and Pomors- they were locally dominant groups whose skills in horsemanship, in the former case, and seamanship, in the latter, gave them high status and salience. 

 were arriving from the west and doing the same, leading to a convergence in forms of life across people with different phenotypes and different historical trajectories that brought them into the same region and into the same destiny.

Which is how come White peeps in Siberia don't speak Russian, they speak indigenous languages- right? Why stop there? Why not claim that people of European ancestry in New York speak Lenape and spend their time hunting and fishing and sleeping in wigwams? 

Who among these groups is “Indigenous”? 

The guys who know their ancestors didn't come from somewhere else. 

We might in this case feel this is the wrong question to ask, but this feeling may in turn help to prime us for the further realization that the encounter zone of the Slavic, Turkic, Tungusic, and Paleo-Siberian peoples is in fact fairly representative of every corner of the inhabited globe, even those we take to be the most hermetic and (therefore?) the most pristinely representative of humanity in its original state. 

But this is also true of any encounters whatsoever. The most pristinely representative of a TV remote and the most pristinely representative of stuff in my freezer mysteriously end up together- at least over Christmas when I've been at the eggnog. 

In their half-posthumous new book, the anthropologist David Graeber (1961-2020) and the archeologist David Wengrow (1972-)

who is merely brain dead

suggest that “even” the pre-contact Amazonian groups we generally take to conform most closely to the definition of “tribe” or “band” were likely aware of the Andean empires to their west, and may also have had, at an earlier time, relatively complex state structures that they consciously abandoned because they were lucid enough to come to see these as inimical to human thriving.

This is silly. 'State structures' take up resources. They are abandoned when they generate no social surplus over their cost. 'Human thriving' means the same thing as cattle or cats or grass thriving. Humans could be considered a self-domesticated species. We 'thrive' in the same way as animals and plants which are useful to us have thrived. This is why England has many dogs but hardly any wolves. 

 The groups Europeans first encountered in the rainforest, in other words, may also have been splinters that broke away from tyrannies, just like the Sakha fleeing the Mongols, and to some extent also like the Mountain Time Zone libertarians grumbling about the tax agents from the mythical city of Washington.

Oh dear. Smith thinks Washington is 'mythical'. I must stop now to flee tyranny and go to the toilet. Smith probably wrote this shite fleeing the tyranny of the toilet bowl which demands endless tribute from his asshole. 

It may be that more or less all societies that appear to us

i.e. people to whom it appears that Washington D.C is just a myth. 

 as “pre-state” would be more accurately described as “post-state” — even if the people who constitute them are not in fact fleeing from the center to the margins of a real tyranny, they are nonetheless living out their statelessness as a conscious implementation of an ideal of the human good.

Very true. The only reason the Jarawa don't have a Lok Sabha and a Rajya Sabha and a Civil Service and an Air Force is because they are consciously implementing an ideal of the human good. 

 Even if they have not observed Inca ceremonies through the forest thicket from across a mountain ravine, 

In the same manner that a pervert observes cheerleaders defecating while jerking off

they already know enough about tyranny simply from the expression of innate personality tendencies of individual members of their group —boastfulness, bullying, pride—, 

I have those traits. But I am not a tyrant because I am shit at winning followers or running things. Indeed, successful tyrants may have very pleasant personalities. If they are poor administrators or pick a fight with a stronger neighbor they will quickly perish. 

and have developed rational mechanisms to ensure that these traits are countered by ridicule, dismissiveness, and other mechanisms that keep any would-be tyrant in his place.

Plenty of peeps were laughing at Hilter. Then his goons started killing them and suddenly they weren't laughing any more. But the same is true of people who make useful innovations or who prove to have great administrative ability. 

This is the sense of Pierre Clastres’s “society against the state”: societies that lack state structures are not in the “pre-” stage of anything, but are in fact actively working to keep such structures from rising up and taking permanent hold. 

Till they get conquered or otherwise demographically replaced. But the same thing may happen to societies with more costly but crap state structures.

They do this to differing degrees, with many societies around the world exhibiting a sort of seasonal duality 

unlike ours where we are free at all times save those of national emergency

in which they are subject to tyranny during the months of the buffalo hunt or the rainy season or the period of potlatch or inter-clan commerce,

to take orders for some specific purpose at some particular time is not evidence of having bowed your head to tyranny. Nor is the case that any genuine tyrant gave his people a holiday from obedience. Smith is simply using the word 'tyranny' to refer to things which are not tyranny at all. We might equally say that we are subject to tyranny when we are not shitting. We flee tyranny every time we go to the toilet to take a dump. 

 and then the hierarchy dismantles itself again and they all become as it were “anarchists in the off season”.

Unlike us who are anarchists all the time- save during an Emergency like COVID during which we accept some rational restrictions on our liberty imposed by our elected representatives. But we aren't really anarchists at all. 

As Graeber and Wengrow write of the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest:

who probably have some very nasty things to say about anthropologists.

[I]t was winter —not summer— that was the time when society crystallized into its most hierarchical forms, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastline of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over compatriots classified as commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, resorting to smaller clan formations — still ranked, but with entirely different and much less formal structures. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter — literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

So these guys thought a guy who changes his name literally becomes a different person. The fact is, lots of us go by different monikers in different situations and with different people. Thus Rishi Sunak may also be Honeytits Cumbucket hoping to plug the fiscal deficit by offering to perform degrading sexual services online. 

In the authors’ telling, it is really only in the 1950s and ‘60s, with the quantitatively precise work on daily calorie intake and other such measurables spearheaded by such anthropologists as V. Gordon Childe (1892-1957), that the idea of “man the hunter” took hold, 

among a small group of shitheads. 

and the default setting of the species was taken to be a seasonally invariant, efficiency-maximizing, and culturally lifeless prehistory. 

In other words, prior to the research of some shithead, everybody assumed that people went out to plough the fields in the depths of a snowbound winter.

When “man” in “his” “natural” condition is determined to be doing but one thing, 

we know a shithead is talking. 

a basic flexibility between forms of life, adaptability to both expected seasonal variation and to longer-term unforeseen changes, become correspondingly less salient for research. 

This isn't research. It is stupid shit.

And when these are screened out, the narrative of monolithic unidirectional progress from bands to states becomes vastly easier to maintain.

There is no such narrative. We understand that 'Dark Ages' may supervene when States collapse. 

In their opposition to this narrative, Graeber and Wengrow are building most immediately on the crucial work of James C. Scott, who has shown that repeatedly and in several different places in human “pre-history”, societies reverted from agriculture back to hunting and foraging, that they did so by choice,

in the same sense that we shit our pants when we can't get to the toilet in time. True, we had the alternative of lowering our trousers and shitting on the floor but that gesture might be misunderstood. 

 and that for several millennia farming existed alongside other viable forms of subsistence 

These are associated with population collapse. Subsistence is not occurring when lots of people are dying. 

in the absence of any well-defined state structure with all its usual indices of inequality. This adaptability should not be at all surprising, given that there are many societies still in existence that alternate seasonally between sedentism and nomadism, as they move their grazing animals up and down in elevation in harmony with changing patterns of vegetation.

This is a discovery process. We may as well speak of portfolio managers as acting in harmony with global markets. 

 But the prevailing view

among shitheads

 is that there can be no states without sedentism,

coz Genghis Khan was actually a farmer- right? Horsemen and sailors happy to travel thousands of miles play no part in state formation. 

 and that states succeed bands as a “higher” stage of development, and that therefore transhumance must be some sort of “transitional” stage on the way to finally “settling down”. The part of the year that is spent wandering complicates the narrative of sedentization that is presupposed by the narrative of progress from bands to states.

Nonsense! Empires will recruit such people or else they may themselves set up as proto-Imperial overlords. The same is true of fishermen who have to travel farther and farther afield. That's how the Portuguese and other Western European Empires got their start. 

And in fact we don’t even need to look as far as semi-nomadic pastoralists; until very recently it was common in Western Europe to “flip” the social order every now and then, in a way that was also determined ultimately by the cycles of the agrarian calendar. When things went à rebours for a limited time, nobodies got to act like kings,

Nope. There were roi faineants and plenty of Warlords or Princelings competing to become the next hegemon.

 and sometimes kings had to submit to humiliation by nobodies, even allowing psychopaths and criminals to sit in the throne and to act the part for a time (or more specifically, people socially recognized as psycopaths and criminals, as the real king may in fact be both of these things himself, even if this fact is ordinarily only acknowledged sotto voce).

What is Smith getting at? The sacrifice of a substitute who is treated as 'King for a day'? But that sort of thing wasn't universal at all. It was just a fad at some times in some places. 

 We know the last dregs of such reversals from festivals such as Carnival or Halloween, which have something to do with popular religion, but are also periodically supressed in the name of that same religion when the lines of its authority have become blurred with those of the state.

Very true. Queenjee, Gor' bless 'er, is only able to reign thanks to Notting Hill Carnival. Capitalism itself would fall but for little kids trick or treating on Halloween. 

In other words, even absolute monarchies with fully sedentary subjects have been known

by shitheads who think that if you go by a different name then you are literally a different person

 to practice anarchy “for a limited time only”: controlled anarchy that is both in the service of the state but also a full-fledged parallel reality, like dreams or story-telling,

or this fairy tale.

 anarchy that continues to exist alongside or in alternation with the state.

when you are asleep and dreaming or when you have taken mind altering drugs. 

 It is only in the most recent era of totalization of civic life 

as opposed to the days of chattel slavery

—where some of us now have eyeball-tracking software that follows our faces eight-to-ten hours a day as we work from “home”

where Simon Legree is whipping us incessantly and forcing us to pluck cotton while our wife and kids are sold down river

in order to ensure that we aren’t doing anything anarchic on company time— 

unless that's what's good for the corporate brand

that this parallel reality has been monitored and administered out of existence, 

because if you try to quit your job, Stormtroopers will smash your door down and riddle you with bullets.

or at least reduced to the hours of sleep, in which we just can’t do otherwise than hallucinate a topsy-turvy world, 

this is not a hallucination. It is hysterical shite. 

and the state so far has not been able to come up with a way to stop us.

Wake up sheeple! Joe Biden is a fucking Nazi!

When the “quants” such as Childe 

a Marxist archaeologist with no mathematical training

took over a certain portion of the discipline, they left the interpretation of culture to those anthropologists who welcomed a corresponding retreat from any claim to scientificity. 

A material culture is not the equivalent of a 'people'. We have seen great changes in material culture since Childe topped himself but have not changed as a people. I suppose Childe was useful because he allowed Lefties to cling to Engelian or nakedly racist stupidity- like, if niggers have nice ruins, Aryans must have come and built those ruins-right?

An earlier generation of work in cultural anthropology, notably the rich legacies of Marcel Mauss (1872-1950 and Franz Boas (1858-1942), helped to solidify the long-dominant narrative according to which the history of humanity is a progression from pre-state to state-based societies, and that where there are states there is also inequality, but this equality is compensated by a leisure of the mind that is more conducive to creativity and to the efflorescence of material and symbolic culture.

So, this 'discipline' was always shite.

 Meanwhile hermeneuticists like Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), having retreated from any claim to the sort of authority that can tell you “how things really were”, to invoke the positivist definition of historical research offered by Leopold von Ranke, were in no position to dispute the claims of the quants.

Yet Geertz prevailed though the whole point about actions is that they are 'thicker' than any possible concept of them whereas the semiotics of any semiotic approach is very thin stuff indeed. 

While Mauss and Boas had been sensitive to the ultimate arbitrariness of cultural expressions —in the end, people do stuff because they want to, not because it maximizes calorie efficiency or body-surface heat-dispersal or some such thing—, late-twentieth-century scholars such as Childe came to treat human “prehistory” as if it were a branch of engineering. 

An engineer who uses the Hegelian dialectic rather than calculus quickly blows up any machine he is working on. On the other hand, Stalin called writers and 'cultural workers'  'the engineers of human soul'.

This is very much in line with the reigning behaviorism of the era (to which Chomsky dealt a fatal blow as early as 1959,

before himself going mad and babbling of magical language genes which spread instantaneously and cause some people to emigrate to where they can talk using clicks while others go to where they can whistle.

But behaviorism didn't really die. Indeed, it is the foundation of political correctness and woke ideology which seeks to regulate verbal behavior in a Pavlovian manner. 

though the methods and biases remained broadly entrenched across all the disciplines with an interest in what it is to be a human), 

who is pretending to be smart or simply shitting higher than his arsehole

and ironically it ended up eliminating from view among 

shitheads teaching stupid shite

human societies the very sort of diversity and creativity (add scare-quotes according to taste) that evolutionary theorists continued to recognize among biological species: we kept right on observing island dwarfism right alongside island gigantism, for example, or bright patterns on one species’ skin offering a “dishonest signal” of toxicity, inhabiting the same ecosystem as another related species that instead uses camouflage to avoid getting eaten.

These things were elucidated by mathematical game-theory

There is no single efficiency-maximizing formula at work in such cases.

But the there is a 'regret minimizing' or Hannan consistent formula at work because Knightian Uncertainty prevails. 

 Sometimes, when isolated on an island, a population of animals will get really big; sometimes it will get really small. Both directions can do a fairly good job of helping it survive.

But this isn't a choice and arises out of competition on an anisotropic fitness landscape.

 Similarly, one group of Inuit may exhibit “reverse seasonality” in relation to its neighbors, crystallizing into an elaborate hierarchy in winter, and dispersing into “anarchism” in the summer, while the others do the opposite. 

This is a choice and arises out of cooperation. Some people work in the office during the day doing some things. Other people come in during the night to do other things. Some day-workers may decide to switch to being night-workers because the pay is better. Some night-people may decide to become day-workers because of family obligations or for the sake of a better social life. 

Some hierarchical societies measure a person’s place in the chain of social being by how much wealth that person has permanently hoarded; 

Nonsense! Society has no means to know how much any individual may have secretly hoarded.

others require anyone who seeks a high rank to hoard only temporarily, and soon to give it all away, potlatch-style, in a ritual of ceremonial magnanimity. 

We no longer believe this is the case. The thing was a fairy tale- like the story about the Amazonian tribe which has no concept of personal identity. If you change your name, or people call you by a different name, you are literally a different person. Wait a sec. That wasn't an Amazonian tribe at all. It was the cretin, Smith. 

Such a person is not “generous” — he’s just doing what he has to do to stay on top,

Indeed. Which is why there is a Kavka toxin type reason for the guy to actually 'be' generous. In other words, you may as well have the appropriate affect if no better choice is available- like me on my honeymoon night.

 according to the specific rules of the game that have taken hold in his cultural context and that cannot possibly be rationalized from the outside in terms of energy efficiency or any model of rational agency familiar to economists.

Nonsense! Signaling theory provides the rationalization. However, the thing may not be evolutionarily stable. 

Our inability to conceive of pre-modern peoples as existing all along in complex networks of long-distance exchange, as defining themselves against one another through what Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) called “schismogenesis”, as knowing what states are even when they construct and maintain their societies “against the state”, has as its corollary an equally handicapping inability to exercise the historical imagination in a way that fully appreciates the individual humanity of those who inhabit the deep past.

Very true. Cripples and other handicapped people often point this out. On the other hand, what is being described is not 'societies against the state' but territories where a particular state may have asserted paramountcy but over which it does not exercise full sovereignty. 

We know that anatomically modern humans have been around for 100,000 to 200,000 years, while we find little evidence of symbolic thought until roughly 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. 

but such evidence may have existed. We can't be sure.

This could be a mere result of not looking in the right places, or of the eventual return to nature of all artificial constructions. But still most still agree that something changed in the Paleolithic and that human beings began to externalize their inner lives in new ways.

What 'most will' or will not 'agree' is irrelevant. Farting in a derisive manner may be a new manner in which academics externalize their inner lives. However, once they start doing so they will find it increasingly addictive. The danger is that they will follow through and publish shite like this.

 Yet we also know that any anatomically modern person has by definition the same brain we do, and while some theorists have speculated on late-stage “mutations”, some as recently as 3,000 years ago, that brought about a sudden propulsion forward in our capacity for abstract thought and our “transcendental” apprehension of our own selfhood, a generous interpretation has to suppose that any AMH’s life mattered as much to that AMH as your own life matters to you, even if she was not manifesting this mattering through woven fabrics, a sharp sense of fashion, or a proliferation of selfies. 

or derisive farts.

Perhaps Graeber and Wengrow’s most affecting accomplishment lies not so much in their new “theory” of the human past, which in any case is only a synthesis of already existing research, as rather in their sympathetic plaidoyer for the singular reality of lives lived in the past, their commitment to the idea that these were real people, as weird and idiosyncratic and unfathomable by quantitative methods as you and I.

Why does this notion require advocacy? Have some mean people been going around saying saying snarky things about how Ancient Modern Human Beings were like totes conformist and just going through the motions in a brain dead fashion? 

 The alternative view is Hobbesian by default, and it is overwhelmingly more popular in our culture.

Because we ensured that the lives of people who lived like AMH were nasty, brutish and short so as to grab their real estate. 

 I go to the Whole Foods with my elderly mother, and she looks at the produce section: “Aren’t we lucky to live in this era,” she says, “when there is such a variety and abundance of foods. It really enables us to enjoy it all, rather than just to survive.”

Luck had nothing to do with it. Killing people and taking their land was what enabled some people and their descendants to eat better than the descendants of other people. 

 This is a sort of entailment from the hypothesis that life before the state was “nasty, poor, brutish, and short”, an existential condition in which, we ordinarily presume, no one had the “luxury” of preferring one food over another, of ever getting their “favorite” for supper.

Even back then, it was 'good to be King'. 

Yet we know of no human culture that does not have strict rules about what may be eaten, 

nor do we know of any human culture where strict rules are enforced where it would be costly to do so

no culture that outside of periods of famine does not have a long list of perfectly edible species of animal that they nonetheless categorically refuse to eat

but periods of dearth or war or siege related scarcity were ubiquitous. When flying over the Andes we all look at our fellow passengers and wonder which of them we'll get to eat first if the plane crashes.

, no culture that fails to organize itself around preferences enshrined into a scheme of values. 

Preferences reflect values. They don't 'enshrine' them. 

“Aren’t we lucky to be here at this festin à tout manger,” every Cree who ever got to participate in an “eat-all feast” is likely to have thought or muttered aloud, each perhaps content with the piece of beaver meat doled out to him in accordance with his social rank, or perhaps aspiring to eat the brains out of the skull some day like the chiefs do, but either way experiencing a condition of abundance and leisure at least as intense as that known by any Whole Foods shopper.

I'm a Whole Foods shopper. I don't see abundance. I see overpriced shite. Still, the place is conveniently located.

Leisure, like calorie consumption, is something that can be measured from the outside,

No. Leisure can only be estimated or imputed. How do we know a guy isn't thinking about how to solve a problem at work while he is going for a walk? Calorie consumption varies according to what bacteria you have in your guy and many other 'internal' factors. The figures quoted are estimates based on assumptions re. the average consumer.

 and the anti-Hobbesian descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for whom man was born free but is everywhere in chains, have long attempted, as in Marshall Sahlins’s magnificent Stone Age Economics of 1972, to show that through our successive revolutions in agriculture and industry leisure has progressively given way to labor as constituting the principal part of human life. It may be true that hunter-gatherers (as they used to be called) engaged in no more than four hours of “work” per day and dedicated the rest of their time to leisure activities, as Sahlins contends. 

But they definitely didn't go on cruises to the Caribbean.

But this neo-Rousseauian estimation is generally proferred in the same spirit

i.e. the spirit of puerile chit-chat- e.g. 'I wish I was a walrus. Then I wouldn't have to my tax returns'. 

 in which we talk about the daily cycles of the lives of lions or koalas — to mention just two other species that spend most of their time sitting around. What is lost is the “why” of the leisure, the fact that all those people were sitting around not just because it is their species-specific condition to do so (though perhaps that too), but because they like to do so, because it is “fun”.

Being a walrus looks like a fun job. Where should I get my PhD so as to be sure of a tenure track appointment as a Walrus at an Ivy League University?

It’s a weird thing to have to insist on: that there is something that it was like to be a member of the prehistoric leisure class, which is to say to have been a prehistoric human being. Graeber and Wengrow’s reanimation effort for past humans echoes the former author’s earlier plaidoyer for currently living poor humans, notably in his magnum opus Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). In order to have a big wedding blowout, poor people might have to take out loans against which any rational financial advisor would sternly counsel them. Yet they just keep doing it, going into debt, wearing ruffled blue tuxedoes, and loving one another as much as any human being has ever loved another. That’s culture against credit, so to speak. In the course of a mortal life, a good wedding matters more than good credit; poor people have generally been able to keep this in mind whereas upstanding accountants have forgotten it.

Furthermore, when being interviewed for a tenure track appointment, a derisive fart matters more than sucking up to the panel. Jobless scholars have generally been able to keep this in mind whereas upstanding Professors have forgotten it. 

A wedding is a ritual enactment of mythical, world-structuring motifs, 

like that derisive fart which Scientists refer to as the 'Big Bang'

and to this extent it is a form of heaven on earth,

smell my farts. They are heavenly. 

along with all the other high-ceremonial occasions for music, dance, and heightened speech

not to mention farts of very festive types. 

This is the stuff people live for. 

Man can not go through a single day without releasing a fart.

We know from the discovery of windholes drilled into an avian femur that even before the arrival of AMH’s in Europe, Neanderthals were performing music,

because few can so master their anal sphincter as to, like Pujol, the famous French fartist, who could toot whole symphonies with his rear end 

and thus also, presumably, engaging in forms of ceremonial ecstasy during which the imaginations of all participants must have been fully activated and alive. Such ecstatic joy as a basic mode of existence is of course hardly compatible with the “nasty, poor, brutish, and short” scenario. 

Why not? You and your pals are merrily tooting when suddenly wolves pounce on you and eat you. Sad.

It is also, curiously, an experience that typically is not acknowledged when affluent “thought leaders” and policy makers turn to consider the lives of the living poor.

Very true. Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze should take turns farting at each other. This will bring much joy in the lives of the living poor. 

In this case as in the case of our prehistoric conspecifics, what we are witnessing is dehumanization.

What we are reading is stupid shit. 

The two make a natural pair, as both are symptoms of the general ideological delusion that bourgeois modernity is the only way to go, and anyone who fails to do bourgeois modernity right must be to some degree “poor-in-world”, as Heidegger said of animals, must really not have that much “going on in there”.

There's plenty going on in my intestines which is why I urge you to smell my farts. 

 Graeber spent his life combatting this conceit on all fronts,

nice work if you can get it. By contrast, we consider fire-fighters to be utterly useless.  

 and was lucid enough to understand that it is a unified project. Many who defend the poor against the predations of the rich

by farting or writing stupid shite

 might imagine it’s not exactly a pressing matter to reconstruct what the lives of Paleolithic peoples were really like.

It isn't a pressing matter. Anyway, the guys doing it are as stupid as shit.

 But Graeber and Wengrow’s accomplishment in this book is to show how, in prejudice too, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,

except ontogeny never actually recapitulates shit. Haekel was wrong. 

 or, rather, the way in which the social reproduction of inequality

which is mainly economic. If rich peeps do smart things the way their parents who grew rich did then some may say 'inequality has reproduced' just as when poor drug addicts raise up kids who will be poor drug addicts. 

 with each new generation has something to do with our presumption of progress,

I think we 'presume' that Science and Technology and Business practices will advance so our kids may have to spend more time in higher education- or else may have to apply themselves more intensively at an earlier age- so as to rise to the same level. However, new tech might create non-convexities such that the reverse is the case and wealth can get more evenly distributed across human capital profiles.

 which is to say our presumption of the inequality, the not-quite-humanness, of our ancestors in relation to us. 

Go far enough back in our ancestry and we are looking at non-humans. 

The past is not so much a foreign country,

where things were done differently

 as it is an Indian reservation,

which you can visit quite easily- unlike the middle Ages. 

 where, if it looks from the outside like the inhabitants are not thriving, one has the convenience of imagining that this is because they don’t know what thriving is.

If you are a racist fuck- sure, why not?

But if prehistoric people were like us, as Graeber and Wengrow insist they were, it also follows that they were not like each other, since we are ourselves, among the living, not like one another. 

This does not follow at all. Nor is it the case that if ancient people were like us then some had a Netflix account.

The authors are particularly sensitive to the past existence of “anomalous” individuals, both those who have some special social distinction in view of physical abnormalities such as albinism or blindness, and those who are simply characterologically quirky in a way that marks them out for a special social role as a shaman, a prophet, a seer — as someone who is permanently in touch with a parallel reality that the average run of people is able to access only through ritual, if at all.

This is foolish. People compete for 'special social roles'. An albino kid you grew up with is just as much a regular bloke as anybody else. You may say to him, 'hey, why not set up as a shaman? The clans across the river might think you are magic coz know' 

'My ginormous dick?' the albino replies. 'I can feel your eyes on it every time I whip it out for a slash.' 

'Albino penis envy 'shrooms are a real thing.' you reply. 'Apparently they are the potent of psychedelics. Seriously dude, you could be the brand ambassador for the stuff. That's the only reason I was looking at your dick. I'm not gay at all.'

Contrary to the common idea that such people were typically eliminated through euthanasia or otherwise neglected until they perished, the archeological record clearly shows that they were often accorded special treatment.

coz of albino penis envy. Also their ability to emit derisive farts.

 Many of the earliest evidence we have of ritual burial yields up skeletons of people who had evident deformities. This is likely not because skeletal deformities were common, 

that is likely because inbreeding would have been more common back then

and postmortem taphonomic deformation can also be ruled out. The simplest explanation is that these people were buried because they were revered,

but people who were even more revered may have been cremated.

 an explanation that at the same time does away with the idea that the earliest burials are at once evidence of the earliest emergence of social inequality. While the skeletons are often found adorned with riches and what might be interpreted as “royal” accoutrements such as antler crowns or sceptres carved from mammoth ivory, we know plainly that the deformities of those who have been buried are not hereditary, and thus that their special status in society could not have been traduced down to them across the generations through noble lineage.

We know nothing of the sort. The sample size is too small. This isn't even 'junk social science'. It is a just so story. 

What would it have been like to have been anomalous in prehistory? You would probably still enjoy stories and music (though there were also no doubt some reserved and awkward people who shied away from communal activities), but you would be exempted from typical adult responsibilities, and expected mostly just to “do your thing”. Graeber and Wengrow vividly imagine a prehistoric epileptic who passes his days “hanging upside down while arranging and rearranging snail shells”, the patterns of whose arrangements are attended to by his loved ones and neighbors, who keep him well fed and shower him with affection. They might have thought the snail-shell patterns literally held cryptic messages passed down through the epileptic man from another plane of reality; they might just have thought that the man is better off when he’s left to do what makes him comfortable, and if we are sensitive to his comfort, to what he’s muttering, under what circumstances, we might be better able to take the measure of our own well-being. The truth is probably somewhere in between, just as it always is when we are trying to determine whether some unfamiliar conduct is an instance of practical rationality or rather of natural magic.

Or is some stupid shit anthropologists have pulled out of their arse. Let them hang upside down rearranging snail shells by all means. What else are they good for?

Graeber and Wengrow’s return to grand anthropological theory in the vein of Boas and Mauss parallels a similar return in the work of Philippe Descola.

Meanwhile Jared Diamond or Yuval Harari have gotten rich.

 Like the French proponent of the “ontological turn”, they are notably at ease with the methodology of recovering Indigenous voices from European sources.

Or just making shite up.

 One must of course read historical sources, written by Europeans implicated in their individual ways in the centuries-long process of conquest and domination, with considerable caution.

Why read that shite unless you get paid a little money to do so? What is the point of advertising the fact that you are employed in the epistemic equivalent of grading farts and awarding credentials for diarrhea?

 But to suppose that these sources trap the reader as well in the same colonial “gaze” as the author, is to give up too easily and retreat into skepticism.

Fuck is wrong with skepticism? Why buy into stupid shite? Equality does not obtain if one bunch of guys who are all equally poor are being killed and their territory is being taken over by another bunch of good who may previously have been equally poor and weak. It is foolish to speak of a decline in equality or freedom if what we are talking about is one bunch of guys getting killed or otherwise displaced by another bunch of guys. 

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