Avengers assemble

Catfight! (Academic) catfight! Hmm, it doesn’t sound as sexy with the parenthetical qualification.

Yesterday I discussed David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. In the new issue of American Anthropologist, David Graeber gets totally served in Rod Aya’s review of the pamphlet. Choice excerpts:

[Graeber] deems stateless societies anarchist if they are nonviolent – an Orinoco society where murder is “unheard of” is anarchist, an Amazon society where men gang rape women who “transgress proper gender roles” is not (pp. 27, 23) – and he expects that state societies split up into autonomous communities would be nonviolent as well . . .

The only violence Graeber considers is “symbolic” or “spectral” violence, meaning witchcraft . . . The “most peaceful societies” are “egalitarian societies” whose “imaginative constructions of the cosmos” are “haunted” by specters of perennial war” (pp. 25-26). Forget obvious counterexamples like E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s egalitarian, ultraviolent Nuer and hierarchical Azande where witchcraft occurs among equals. Forget the condescending reference to “imaginative constructions.” And forget that the theory is textbook functionalism . . .

Anarchist anthropology is realism itself compared with anarchist ideology, whose keyword is “counterpower,” meaning (for stateless societies) consensus through palaver and leveling through witchcraft, and (for state societies) “democratci self-organization” in “free enclaves” through “exodus,” not “seizing power” (pp. 60, 83) . . . Anarchist ideology predicts that millions will gladly forgo protection and income, and that the chief institution marked for abolition will perform an economic miracle. Cargo cult religion is sober by comparison (Aya 2006:591).

First, like I said before, Graeber’s work is just scattered fragments, it doesn’t pretend to theoretical coherence. Second, I think his proposals, while they can be criticized for being naive, should still be applauded for their boldness and optimism in contrast to the careerist quietism and unconstructive criticism inherent to much of academia. I’m reminded of David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (2000), where, as the text on the back says, “Harvey dares to sketch a very personal vision in an appendix, one that leaves no doubt to his own geography of hope.” The main body of Spaces of Hope describes the injustices of globalizing capital; the appendix outlines what a truly just world might look like.

Marget Thatcher may have proclaimed, “There is no alternative” to neoliberalism; however, Harvey quotes the philosopher Ernst Bloch, who warns that there is “a very clear interest that has prevented the world from changing into the possible” (in Harvey 2000:258). Utopianism may be criticized not just for its naivete, but for the totalitarian excesses waged in its name (i.e., Marxism and liberal democracy), but when the alternative is to meekly accept the world’s ills, what is the alternative to this? The present is not the past, and today’s utopia’s are not yesterday’s, and believing that utopianism will inevitably lead to disaster is itself disastrous.


Aya, Rod (2006). “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology: Review by Rod Aya”, American Anthropologist, 108(3): 590-591.

Graeber, David (2004). Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Harvey, David (2000). Spaces of Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press.

6 Replies to “Avengers assemble”

  1. It is also the case that Rod Aya’s representation of the book is factually false from beginning to end. It’s so flagrant that you can’t put it down to sheer idiocy, the man is simply lying. For example: the book states absolutely clearly that I am not trying to “prove” that anarchism is viable. I say there’s no way to know one way or another whether a free society is possible, so I think it better to assume it is. So Aya’s entire premise is completely wrong and no one who actually read the book could believe otherwise. Likewise he says I present an “anarchist program” – apparently taking the words from a sentence (the beginning of the last chapter) which in fact begins

    There is of course no single anarchist program—nor could there really be—but it might be helpful to end by giving the reader some idea about current
    directions of thought and organizing (p. 77).

    You get the idea: it’s the equivalent of citing a sentence after removing the word “not” from it, and Aya does this sort of thing consistently.
    He then goes on to patch together a series of ironic provocations, quotes from Kropotkin, and even jokes to claim I was laying out some five-point plan to solve all world problems that no one in their right mind would ever propose (etc etc).
    Basically, the whole review i’s just a smear. The fact that the editor (Benjamin Blount) allowed this to run in a major journal is utterly disgraceful. I wrote to him and asked whether it was normal to present flagrant lies in academic journals (let alone politically-motivated ones meant to damage the careers of junior professors whose tenure, etc, often does hang on such authoritative reviews in major journals – I mean, mine didn’t, but it’s hardly like Aya knew that.) Blount claimed to agree with me that it was outrageously false and then denied all responsibility claiming it was left over from a previous editor. However his only practical reaction to my complaint was to allow me a 500-word reply to which Aya would get equal and final response, in which I was not allowed to say he had lied or in fact anything that might be taken to reflect negatively on him personally.

    The entire affair is disgraceful for all concerned and I have been seriously contemplating whether it would be possible to lodge a complaint against the editor – since he is after all the one ultimately responsible for allowing such fabrications to appear, and he has been so systematically sleazy in denying any responsibility for anything he says, does, or publishes, that I really want to see if there’s something that can be done about it. But probably there isn’t.

  2. Oh wow, this is cool. Googling yourself, were you? Tsk, tsk (not that I don’t indulge in that either).

    I had no idea of the backstory behind this affair. How very sordid. I know academia is different from the image of rational inquiry and discourse that it tries to project, but I still get disappointed when I hear these kinds of stories.

    Anyway, I admire how you’re trying to make anthropology more relevant in everyday life. I appreciate the irony that you, an anarchist, were in support of unionization, but I like the pragmatism behind this. Revolution in the future, maybe, but reform in the present, and perhaps enough reforms can produce a revolution of their own.

    But good luck at the AAAs! I assume you’re the one connecting from the San Jose Marriott. I look forward to hearing from the people who went about what the conference was like. The posts from the conference bloggers will probably trickle in over the next few weeks.

  3. Yeah. It’s funny: I just finished writing an essay for Harpers. They fact-checked every detail. Academic venues never do that. You can write pretty much anything. I pointed this out to the editor, when he said that Aya had “merely” misrepresented me but I seemed to want to make personal attacks on him (i.e., by saying he’d done so) and that was much worse. If so, logically, my proper response should be to claim that Aya is in his work a proponent of child molestation, Nazism, and eating babies – since that’s a “mere” misrepresentation, and then if he claimed I was maliciously lying about him, he’d be the one who was told to chill out. The whole system is ridiculous.

    I have no idea who this Aya fellow is. He’s does not seem to be an anthropologist. From what I’ve seen he seems to be some sort of extreme positivist rational-choice theorist of revolution who likes to aggressively attack anyone who disagrees with him, which is almost everyone since his position is considered extremely marginal. I suppose I should be flattered this is the best way such a person can get some attention to himself. But the lying bugged me.

    Ah well, on the bright side, the Japanese version of the book is selling well (I was interviewed by all three major dailies and two youth mags while there), French and Italian versions are already out, and now we’re talking Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, and Korean. So why am I complaining?

  4. Living well is supposedly the best revenge. Personally, I’ve always thought that any form of revenge that doesn’t involve flaming bags of dog doo can’t be that great, but perhaps there is some wisdom in that saying.

  5. Yes. I realized this after what happened at Yale. Occasionally one is tempted to take revenge. But then I would think – for instance, about the woman who appointed herself my nemesis there, Helen Siu, who is always obsessed with trying to destroy someone or other – why bother? I mean, what could I possibly do to Helen Siu that would be worse than actually having to _be_ Helen Siu? If I turn into someone like that, who wins? Not me, anyway. I win if I just go off and write good books and enjoy myself.

    As for Rod Aya, I also tell myself: who the hell has ever heard of Rod Aya? Has this guy even written a book (that anybody read)? He’s just attacking me (and also Sahlins, who he trashes in the same volume) to get his name in the paper, probably because he’s so depressed that no one notices him for what he’s actually supposed to do. So come to think of it, why bother replying to him? Better to just ignore him.

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