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Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams by David

Graeber
Review by: Melissa Demian
American Ethnologist, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 2003), pp. 316-317
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3805389 .
Accessed: 07/06/2012 16:39
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So what is it? Atthis point the most interestingpart of Graeber'sinquiry also becomes its most problematic. It is the latter.with relatively little to connect them meaningfullybeyond general. notes.topical commonalities. And "action"for him is not the same as Bourdieu's "practice. Graeber takes as his startingpoint the proposition that globalizationand its academic rendering. which points to his selection of"value"as the themeforthe book:This is. postmodernism. impaled.In an effortto distinguish action as an undertheorizedarea of social life. are his analyticalgrail. 2001. in which participation involves not only the ethnographer's activeinvolvementin a particularcommunity but also the integrationof local partners in the research process.an attempt to find a consistent analyticfor as many connotations of value as possible. and again shoes become an important symbol of change. for example. index.Gold and Gujarinclude sighs. both the ethnographic materials and the theoretical analyses are riveting. why a theory of "value. appear to assertthat the only capacityfor creativity we have lies in our consumption practices. includingthe thorns of the recentlyintroduced mesquite tree and the hot sands of the deforestedlandscape.he does not then resortto vacuous notions of "performativity. there has also been a suppressed but perennially emergent tradition of intersubjectivity and dynamism. however. Some of the collected stories evoke a powerful sense of people's experiences.Althoughin contemporarySawarno one is prohibitedfrom wearing shoes. alongside the dominant Western traditions of possessive individualism and positivism. the authors' tendency to pull multiple stories togetheras beads on a string. despite Graeber'sendeavors to rein in his voracious investigations. as well as punishment by "theshoe"-an oversized and semimyiologized shoe whose sole purpose was punishment were inextricably linked with representationsof dominion and dispossession. Gold and Gujarpresent the realities of postindependence Sawar."even when discussing the drama-obsessed Kwakiutl. NewYork:Palgrave. he makes a number of . So this is no orthodoxworkof economic anthropology but. vii + 337 pp.Moreover." the authors examine the deeply internalized collective memory of punishment by the shoe. Towardan AnthropologicalTheory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams.the detailed stories and incisive analyses offered in this book provide rich evidence of the strengths of ethnographic research. or. Just as the authors elaborate the realities of princely power. the Japanese sandals 3lS and rubberthongs commonly worn by ordinarypeople do not offer adequate protection from nature 's harsh e1ements. To Graeber'scredit.it also poses a significant weakness. cadences. Overall.David Graeber. and side comments in their text as relevantforms of expression. and conceit are perceived by contemporaryvillagersas manifestationsof institutional and individual irresponsibility. they also emphasize the powers of collaborativeresistance and collectivepersistence that enabled Sawarresidentsto lead sociallyrichand physicallyrobustlives. In the chapter entitled "Shoes. laziness."which Graeber finds too economistic (in the formalist sense) to account for why people choose certain actions and transactions over others. MELISSADEMIAN BardCollege Whywritean anthropologicaltheory of value? Or rather. Through their discussion of shoes. the latent capacitr to act and the means by which people make this capacityvisible.American Ethnologist * Volume30 Number2 May2003 Gujardescribe the bounty of the naturalenvironmentwhileemphasizingthe rigid constraints that Sawar people confronted in utilizing the natural resources that surroundedthem. creativity. In contrastwith these memories. magic. Ironically. Gold and Gujaroffer a fascinating discussion of the paralleldecline of natural ecology and moral economy of Sawar. rather. leaves the analysis in some sections of the book unsatisfying. the authors convincingly argue that both the social values inherent in wearing shoes and the interface between people and nature as represented by shoes were controlled and manipulated through the powers of the feudal state during the "time of the kings. He then argues to the contrary that. ethnographic partnershipbetween Gold and Gujar. neverquite-realizedtraditionto which Graeber would like anthropologyto turn in its contemplation of value. and contoursof the interviewsand conversations offer both illustrativeinformation regarding memories and evidence of a truly shared. references. feet become blistered. The contexts. Offeringa nuanced analysis of the symbolic importanceof shoes in demarcating social strata. and cold."as opposed to a theory of desire.in which moral decay.. power.Graeberwants to know. Actions.today's political and social freedoms are apparent both in the visiblydegradednaturalsurroundings and in the depravityof social values that place individualistic acquisitiveness over communal generosity. Where the voices of Sawarresidents are integratedwith insightful analysis. insofar as economic activitiesare revelatoryof certain categories of intent.Eachof the seven chapters in Graeber'sbook could almost stand alone. an anthropological theory of EveIyiing That Matters. The reader catches glimpses of the many levels at which the authors discussed their research. andwith otherresidentsof Sawar. why items of adornment so often become trade media-why something used to draw attention to the visible part of a person's body should also be the most appropriate thing to make manifest a person's invisible intentions.or political action all of which put in an appearancein this expansiveand inspired series of meditations. more precisely. Gold's longterm partnerships with field assistants and her exceptionallyclose collaboration with Gujarin research and writing-exemplify participant-observation at its best. Although the ethnographic emphasis on people's memories is the book's greateststrength."In the concluding chapter. the authors suggest that prohibition from wearing shoes. nonverbalnoises.shoes are important mediating elements in people's relationship with nature: Without shoes. What matters here is the degree to which human beings perceive themselves as possessing the capacity to act on the physical and social world-to apprehend what is valuable.

2002.439 pp. however. Elizabeth Mertz.A similar process plays out among the Palestinianfeminist activists in Israel described by Elizabeth Faier.althoughdistracting. do not cause irreparabledamage to the flow of his argument. but also in themselves. brothers. the value of anthropology (rather than its inverse) emerges almost of its own accord. Apparently. rather than the contents. along with concepts like "community"and "fieldsite. in particularthe variousways in which people respond to tumultuous (and sometimes catastrophic) political changes. Carol Greenhouse. abandoned.faced with evidence of impending annihilation by the Nazis. I was reminded of this concept while readingEthnographyin UnstablePlares. This pathbreakingcollection of chapters exploressome of the most interesting frontiersof ethnographic analysis. Durham. whether he is discussing the emergence of wampum as a wealth item among the Iroquoisor the sources of power attendant on Malagasymagicalobjects. one only wishes he had paid closer attention to the Melanesian material touched on earlierin his book and considered that some peoples extractthe relationsthey desire from objects regardless of whether or not they are undergoingan epochal shift."oftenfollowfrom the premise of ie state. This quotation from Carol Greenhouse's introduction hints at another of the volume's main themes: the challenge to conventional ethnographicinquiry of studying "the zones (literally and figuratively)where people are entangled.even as it loses any stable referentto empiricalconditions. Graeber'swritingis dexterous. continued to behave as if collegiality and rational decision making would prevent or forestall their destruction (herethe fireanalogybecomes excruciatingly literal). But he moves rather too swiftlyto issues of power and the roles of desire in his concluding chapter on fetishism. These detoursdo. and fathers. SUSANCOOK BrownUniversif Travelingbetween Rwanda and Cambodia. Graeberargues that it is possible both to critiquecapitalistrelations and imagine theiralternatives. They do so because the objects enable the very multiplication of perspectives he claims is absent in nonrevolutionarysystems. Ethnographyin Unstable Places: Everyday Lilresin Contexts of Dramatic Political Change. narrative. and hopc. they are unwillingto completely transgressthe forces that oppress and threaten them unwilling to flee the fire. 2).index. doing what they are doing. Warren. or predictable propriety"(p. the book also argues that "under circurnstances of extreme instability and doubt. many Elre-relateddeaths are attributed to this irrationalimpulse to cling to a sense of realitythat is literallyburning up before one's eyes. and Kay B.some of which are more successful than others. One complaint. More than an exploration of individuals' and communities' ambiguous responses to forces of change that will inevitablyaltertheirlives. NC: Duke University Press.highlight the factthat Graeberis farmore persuasive in his own idiom. of our inquiries. Firefightersbattle this tendency not only in the civilians they are rescuing. while the flames drawnearer.As Graeberdemonstrates. is that it is not always clear for whom he is writing. even when it is obvious that they are in imminent danger.In these phenomena. With full knowledge of the violence perpetratedagainstwomen all around them. the most compelling instance of which is in the dialogue he establishes between what he calls Marxian "cynicism" and Maussian "naivete" that is. While in the airport. between a denial that action is possible outside of a totalizing system versus a denial that such a system exists.remembrance. It is a compelling idea. philosophy. it is and alwayshas been anthropologists who have insisted that the objects we hold up as most valuable ultimately point to the relations we deem most indispensable to our efficacy in the world.places. society itself can become a genre of performance. eds.. however. Graeber'streatmentsof child development and changing fashions in Europeanmen's dress. The temporal boundaries of our studies. whereas the remainder appear to address graduate and professional-level anthropologists. bibliography. fascinatedby its discussion of the concept of "commitrnent"in the science of human behavior in fire. a condition that changes during periods of social and economic upheaval. I watched a TVdocumentaryabout fire. Graeber's thesis is strongestwhen it is most ethnographically presented.So does this collection examine the tendency of anthropologists to frame their analyses spatiallyand temporallyin termsof statesrelativelystable politicalstructuresthat serve as the context. CarrollLewindescribes how Jewish Ghetto leaders in Poland and Lithuania. in which he asks. just how mystified are people by their ideologies? His answer seems to be that people are not so much mystified as deficient in perspectives. and social history.Althoughthese women are intellectually and philosophically committed to pursuingequal rightsforwomen at the societal level.The firstthree chapters are didactic in tone and seem to be aimed at an under- graduate or nonspecialist audience.BookReviews* American Ethnologist idiosyncratic forays into psychology.To do so requires that we take seriously capacities like creativity:This is one of the most importantobservationsGraeber makes.critique.makingit confusingand disorienting to attempt to understand 311 . I found the introduction of Roy Bhaskar's"criticalrealism"to be illuminating in a consideration of the dynamistic tradition Graeber wishes to champion.witty. Recallthat even fireElghters must battle the impulse to stay in place. persons. 4). they nevertheless exhibit great ambivalence about altering their own behaviors and appearances for fear that they will "dishonor" their husbands. but his invocation of Piaget in the same context seemed cosmetic. engaged. when threatenedby fire people exhibit an extraordinaryreluctance to abandon whatever they are doing. Some of the chapters portray what could be seen as "commitment" to a social realitythat is in fact going up in flames. and in places wonderfullypoetic. and altered by the reconfigurationof states" (p. Powerful objects remain powerful because people collapse into them the relations they perceive to have destabilized around them.so to speak. I had an eight-hour layover in Singapore.