Great Diagrams in Anthropology: Graeber does Lévi-Strauss


From David Graeber’s 2006 Malinowski Lecture at LSE, about the structural violence reproduced in and through modern bureacracies:

Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have, significantly, over the last fifty years or so become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture… [which] throws an odd wrinkle in Weber’s dire prophecies about the iron cage: as it turns out, faceless bureaucracies do seem inclined to throw up charismatic heroes of a sort, in the form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, spies, and police officers — all, significantly, figures whose job is to operate precisely where the bureaucratic structures for ordering information encounter, and appeal to, genuine physical violence.

The lecture is a poignant and sarcastically funny take on the suffering created by bureaucratic stupidity.  I was thinking of Graeber’s emphasis on governmental imbecility a few weeks ago when I ran across Bob Somerby invoking anthropology to query the stupid.  Lamenting the highly scripted and remarkably ignorant reporting that passes for political journalism in the United States, especially journalism about Democrats, Somberby asked: “…it raises the anthropological question: Are we Americans smart enough to conduct the most basic journalism?”

If Graeber points us toward the structural violence of the social simplification + force that modern states represent, Somerby has been assiduously tracking the simplifying or obscuring ‘scripts’ that mass media + celebrity journalism reproduce. As Somberby has lately been suggesting, such stupid and simplistic scripts (e.g., most of the ‘conventional wisdom’ concerning Gore) have had hideously violent sequelae in places such as Guantanamo Bay and Baghdad.

2 thoughts on “Great Diagrams in Anthropology: Graeber does Lévi-Strauss

  1. you’re absolutely right. another article, somehow a popular continuation of the arguments in his lse lecture was published in harper’s some weeks ago. seems as if some sleepy kid stayed up all night, typewrote it and put it on the web. the article is called “army of altruists”

  2. I have to read the whole piece still (busy busy busy, that’s me!) but this caught my attention:

    as it turns out, faceless bureaucracies do seem inclined to throw up charismatic heroes of a sort, in the form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, spies, and police officers

    I’m not sure this at all follows. Real “faceless bureaucracies” are not turning out *real* charismatic heroes here; the “mythic” police officers, detectives, and spies he mentions have very different functions in society than the *actual* police officers, detectives, and spies, who exist at the violent intersection between state and citizen. For one thing, actual officers of the state actually enforce the actual law, while mythic charismatic heroes do not — their function (like their existence) is, in a word, mythical. If anything, mythical charismatic police officers like “Dirty Harry” fulfill precisely the role that real bureaucrats *do not*; they address the failure of actual bureaucracies to do what bureaucratic legitimacy is allegedly based on: the production of security. Unlike the *actual* agents of the law, who are “never around when you need them”, Phillip Marlowe is “always on he case”; unlike *actual* police officers, who shoot a man 41 times for reaching for his wallet, Elliot Ness goes after real bad guys; unlike actual private detectives, who poke intrusive surveillance technologies at our most intimate lives, Sherlock Holmes could solve a case in his drawing room; unlike the actual spies listening to our phone calls and reading our email, James Bond only bothers to go to work when the fate of the world is at stake.

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