James Scott’s work drives me nuts, but there is no doubt about it: his review of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday is one of the best is one of the best that has been written, and deserves a wide audience.
This announcement went out yesterday over social media, but I wanted to blog it here just to make sure as many eyeballs as possible saw it: my review of World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond is now available at The Appendix. The Appendix is an interesting new magazine with a lot of energy behind it, so give a few of their other pieces a try while you are at it.
I had originally planned to live blog my entire reading of Diamond’s book here on SM, but as time went on Diamond’s claims got increasingly vague and difficult to handle — it became too hard to turn them into concrete questions that could be answered and evaluated. At some point I would still like to explain, at length, what does and doesn’t happen in Papua New Guinea when people go to ‘war’. But until that unlikely event, take a look at my review and let me know what you think. I worked pretty hard on it, so hopefully that will show.
Another long review of World Until Yesterday appeared in The Nation this week. This one is written by Stephen Wertheim, a graduate student at Columbia (the review is available on his website). Like Ira Bashkow, Wertheim is also critical of Diamond, most notably for the ethnocentrism of his point of view.
The Times Literary Supplement recently ran a longish review by Ira Bashkow of Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Ira is a very close friend of mine and so I can’t really claim to objective, but I think anyone who reads the review will find that it’s one of the most substantive and anthropological takes on Diamond’s book that has been published.
Most major criticisms of World Until Yesterday have focused on Diamond’s description of ‘traditional societies’ as violent and dangerous. Diamond, Critics clam, over estimates the dangers of living in a traditional society, underestimates the benefits of living in a modern state, and drastically overlooks the evils of colonization, and the way that colonization shaped the people Diamond considers typical of ‘traditional societies’. If you scroll down long enough, Jason Antrosio has a nice society by society breakdown of how Diamond’s examples of traditional violence are actually people whose lives have been fundamentally and tragically shaped by colonialism. Or (in some cases) the ethnographers that Diamond relies on were just nuts. I like Antrosio’s blog entry a lot, but I think his section on Papua New Guinea could use a little elaboration. So that’s what I’ll do here.
Diamond knows the PNG literature a lot better than works written about other areas, mostly because he knows the people who wrote it and about whom it is written. Most of his sources come from authors who are well-respected for their ethnographic chops: Polly Weissner and Akii Tumu, Malinowski, Jane Goodale, and Roy Rappaport. Some of the other anthropologists he cites are considered problematic in some way, but are generally considered to be excellent ethnographers: Mervyn Meggitt had some issues analyzing his data, and Roy Wagner is currently not on the same planet as the rest of us — but despite these issues most Melanesianists recognize that Meggitt and Wagner produced very detailed and reliable ethnography.
And then there are the Berndts.
I just finished my full (~4000 word) review of Diamond’s World Until Yesterday, which will appear over at the shiny new journal The Appendix in, like, April. Writing that and catching up on Diamond coverage around the web (Stephen Corry’s review at the Daily Beast is the most intemperate but the second half is worth reading) means I have hardly no time to blog about Diamond — or anything else — so let me jump right on to chapter 2 (and remember, my notes on World are online as well).
Since the topic has recently attracted some new readers to the site, I wanted to re-post the link to our archive of posts about Jared Diamond’s work. Also of interest are writings on the subject by fellow anthropology blogger, Jason Antrosio. I urge anyone taking part in this discussion to take a moment to look over these archives which include a diverse range of writers and opinions.
UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here. I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.” Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there. Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.
I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument). Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982). Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do). Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.
Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments. If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case. Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work. Nobody said any of this should be easy. If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever). Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me. It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes. The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*
Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books. And I think he’s right. Continue reading
From Like People You See in a Dream: First Contact in Six Papuan Societies (Stanford, 1991), which is partly about the sometimes violent imposition of ‘peace’ on the peoples of New Guinea. Page 27:
The most visible effect of administration influence was pacification; Papuans could no longer use violence for settling scores and gaining political objectives. Less immediately visible were changes in local economic and political relations that followed upon the introduction of steel, labor recruiting, and a growing dependency on the colonial economy. However, Papuans quickly discovered that there were other, expanded opportunities for pursuing their traditional goals (and developing new ones) under the new regime. New sources of wealth became available, travel could be expanded, ceremonial exchange networks extended, and new directions explored for political and trade alliance. In many situations, the government presence even coincided quite satisfactorily with local Papuan desires, giving weakened groups relief from predation of their enemies, making rare trade goods locally plentiful, and putting nearby people at a trading advantage over their more distant neighbors.
My reading of The World Until Yesterday (WUY) is taking me down a Jared Diamond rabbit hole which is turning into a semester-long project. At the end of my last entry on Diamond I wanted to talk more about how his approach to understanding human variation differs from that of actual cultural anthropologists. However, in order to do this I’d actually have to review his other new book Natural Experiments in History, which would drive me off course of my review of WUY. Since these blog postings are going to be collected and appear in an actual published article and the deadline is nigh, I’ll reign in these general discussions of what science is or could be, and continue on to chapter 1 of WUY, entitled “Friends, Enemies, Strangers, and Traders.”
I’ve been struggling to find a way to blog regularly about Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday (WUY, henceforth). After some thinking I’ve decided to do two things. First, I’m publishing my notes on the book as a Google doc for everyone to see so that people can get a sense of the layout and argument of the book. Second, I’ll chose one topic in each chapter that I think is particularly interesting or worthy of your time and attention. Today, I’ll start with the prologue.
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.
Ok, since everyone on here seems to be writing about Jared Diamond, including Jason, I am going to go ahead and jump on the bandwagon too. I can’t resist. What can I say? I’m a complete opportunist.
A true story in which Jared Diamond plays a key role: During my undergrad I had two back-to-back anthropology classes. One was an archaeology/ethnohistory class about the European conquest of the Americas. The second was a course focused on pastoralism that took a cultural ecology/environmental anthropology approach. Both were excellent classes that I remember well to this day. Fantastic classes, actually. One day, Diamond came up in class #1. My prof said: “Don’t waste your time with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s arguments are terrible and full of environmental determinism.” In the next class, on the same day (no joke), my prof in class number two also brought up Guns and said, “It’s a GREAT book you have to read it.” He was emphatic. Considering the strong opinions: I read the book.* Continue reading
In a recent post, Kerim does excellent work tracing the Savage Minds engagement with Jared Diamond, which dates to the establishment of this blog as a scrappy band of Davids taking aim at Goliath.
These days, Diamond gets criticized mostly for not reading or potentially libelous composite misreadings. But I want to dial this back to Diamond’s 1987 article “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” when Diamond obviously takes anthropology from Richard B. Lee–mongongo nuts with no acknowledgment–and also reproduces Lee and Irven DeVore, again with no credit for what almost any professor would call plagiarism.
Did people challenge Diamond for this taking of anthropology in 1987? Could a more forceful response have cautioned Diamond from appropriating anthropology with impunity and “diluting the brand“? Would Jared Diamond have become… JARED DIAMOND?