I spent a good chunk of the plane flight to and from AAA reading an advance copy of Jared Diamond’s forthcoming book The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Socieites?. (Actually, that’s not true. I got sidetracked by the vivacious Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu which I highly recommend). I plan to blog more about World as I plow through it, but I’m far enough along now that I did want to share some first thoughts. The book’s argument is in its title: Diamond examines the lifeways of traditional/small-scale/prehistoric societies (the terminology, although central to his argument, is messy because the category he’s trying to construct is incoherent. But more on that later) to see what practices and ideas they may offer those of us who are Developed and slightly nostalgic for the good old days. It’s big and ambitious, and the most audacious attempt to do cultural anthropology that Diamond has yet attempted. I basically think of it as the anti-Debt (runner up for comparison, btw, goes to James C. Scott, whose work also is a lot like Diamond’s).
Debt and World share a similar focus: to challenge our ethnocentrism by showing us the world can be — and was — different from what it is now. Both fascinate because this focus is embedded in a much bigger, global story which is really the main attraction of both books: what Graeber and Diamond are really doing is showing us their world view, and how much the world and how narrations of it change when we see it from their point of view. Both are criticized by particularists — people who are angry there aren’t more footnotes, insist that ‘it’s more complicated’ and are opposed, in principle to thinking big (although I must say Diamond has become completely unmoored from evidence in this latest book and has basically decided to skip any detailed accounting of his claims whatsoever). But there the similarities end.
I take Graeber’s book to be an attempt to get people to wise up — to realize that the truth is right there in front of them and not that hard to see if you look at it straight on: that we’ve created a system that is deeply screwed up, cruel, and unfair. Diamond, on the other hand, has a sort of whiggish take on societal evolution and basically thinks it is great that we are where we are, and we shouldn’t want to be anywhere else (you only need to get to page 11 of the book for him to write off anarchism). That said, he does have a romantic nostalgia for the past and the simpler world we have lost — which is why he wants to use it to remind ourselves of how we ought to live. Politically, the books couldn’t be more different.
Diamond has done what anthropology — with the exception of Graeber and Debt – has not: written a big, accessible book which presents our findings to a general audience. He is the new Margaret Mead. The new Margaret Mead, people. Meanwhile, over in our corner of the world we are either not interested in popularization (when is Rabinow going to write ‘anthropology of the contemporary: a light beach read’?) or else are committed to ‘public anthropology for anthropologists': accounts of organ trafficking, war zones, etc. that deal with our issues and are written in ways we consider ‘popular’ and consist largely in trying to convince the public that they ought to care as much about structural violence as we do.
Most of Diamond’s material comes from a small number of examples, and behind each of those examples is a small number of scholars who are expert in those fields who obviously have Diamond’s back. This includes my friend and colleague Polly Wiessner, whose work on — and for — the people of Papua New Guinea is remarkable. I can feel the wagons circling: on one side, the anthropologists who are interested in knowledge and progress and feel burned by anthropology’s turn to ‘postmodernism’ (which for them may mean Geertz), and on the other, most of the people at the AAAs. The most important point about Diamond’s new book for me personally is that it forces anthropologists to think through where they are today and who they are willing to support. A lot of respectable people have been enrolled by Diamond. The dynamic is no longer ‘anthropology versus a dilettante outsider’. rather, we face Jared Diamond as the representative of one faction in anthropology’s internecine struggle. Its one thing to insist that anthropology has a different outlook than a lot of other disciplines, and that that outlook is important and deserving of respect. It is quite another to say that a lot of anthropologists are ready to join the scientific community while others are doing something else that no one can understand and which is important because…. uh…
Debt is important to me because it represents an anthropological tradition which has important things to say about the world which it think are ‘true’, even if they are not ‘science’. It too relies on experts who have nailed down areas of study (Keith Hart, for instance, or, you know, Polanyi) but also moves beyond them to show what synthesis looks like when done from our point of view. This version of anthropology as a rigorous, humanistic and generalizing form of knowledge offers a credible and important counterweight to narrow visions of anthropology which get extremely shirty about what can count as knowledge. However, it is important to note that when well-done and carefully executed, there should be considerable overlap between Debt and World approaches to knowledge. Ultimately, these two approaches should be able to work together to produce complementary accounts of human life which can take their seat at the huge Round Table Of Human Knowledge that is scholarly work. It’s just hard to manage this sort of accord when the ‘Scientists’ always insist on playing King Arthur.