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

A similar process plays out among the Palestinianfeminist activists in Israel described by Elizabeth Faier. eds. Graeber'streatmentsof child development and changing fashions in Europeanmen's dress. I found the introduction of Roy Bhaskar's"criticalrealism"to be illuminating in a consideration of the dynamistic tradition Graeber wishes to champion. and in places wonderfullypoetic.even as it loses any stable referentto empiricalconditions.highlight the factthat Graeberis farmore persuasive in his own idiom. narrative.. engaged. bibliography.So does this collection examine the tendency of anthropologists to frame their analyses spatiallyand temporallyin termsof statesrelativelystable politicalstructuresthat serve as the context.places. many Elre-relateddeaths are attributed to this irrationalimpulse to cling to a sense of realitythat is literallyburning up before one's eyes. 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. the most compelling instance of which is in the dialogue he establishes between what he calls Marxian "cynicism" and Maussian "naivete" that is.To do so requires that we take seriously capacities like creativity:This is one of the most importantobservationsGraeber makes. in particularthe variousways in which people respond to tumultuous (and sometimes catastrophic) political changes. 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. and fathers. abandoned. The temporal boundaries of our studies. along with concepts like "community"and "fieldsite. They do so because the objects enable the very multiplication of perspectives he claims is absent in nonrevolutionarysystems. More than an exploration of individuals' and communities' ambiguous responses to forces of change that will inevitablyaltertheirlives. but his invocation of Piaget in the same context seemed cosmetic. Graeber'swritingis dexterous. and social history. is that it is not always clear for whom he is writing. Durham. they nevertheless exhibit great ambivalence about altering their own behaviors and appearances for fear that they will "dishonor" their husbands. and hopc. whether he is discussing the emergence of wampum as a wealth item among the Iroquoisor the sources of power attendant on Malagasymagicalobjects.In these phenomena. in which he asks. but also in themselves. This pathbreakingcollection of chapters exploressome of the most interesting frontiersof ethnographic analysis. the book also argues that "under circurnstances of extreme instability and doubt. persons. I was reminded of this concept while readingEthnographyin UnstablePlares.index. of our inquiries. however. While in the airport. Apparently. fascinatedby its discussion of the concept of "commitrnent"in the science of human behavior in fire.439 pp. These detoursdo. however. Powerful objects remain powerful because people collapse into them the relations they perceive to have destabilized around them.althoughdistracting.2002. continued to behave as if collegiality and rational decision making would prevent or forestall their destruction (herethe fireanalogybecomes excruciatingly literal). just how mystified are people by their ideologies? His answer seems to be that people are not so much mystified as deficient in perspectives.remembrance.BookReviews* American Ethnologist idiosyncratic forays into psychology. Some of the chapters portray what could be seen as "commitment" to a social realitythat is in fact going up in flames. or predictable propriety"(p.so to speak. the value of anthropology (rather than its inverse) emerges almost of its own accord. NC: Duke University Press. SUSANCOOK BrownUniversif Travelingbetween Rwanda and Cambodia. rather than the contents. 2). CarrollLewindescribes how Jewish Ghetto leaders in Poland and Lithuania. and Kay B. Graeberargues that it is possible both to critiquecapitalistrelations and imagine theiralternatives. Warren.makingit confusingand disorienting to attempt to understand 311 . even when it is obvious that they are in imminent danger. I watched a TVdocumentaryabout fire. brothers. and altered by the reconfigurationof states" (p. Recallthat even fireElghters must battle the impulse to stay in place. whereas the remainder appear to address graduate and professional-level anthropologists. With full knowledge of the violence perpetratedagainstwomen all around them.some of which are more successful than others. Carol Greenhouse. between a denial that action is possible outside of a totalizing system versus a denial that such a system exists.critique. a condition that changes during periods of social and economic upheaval. doing what they are doing. Firefightersbattle this tendency not only in the civilians they are rescuing. when threatenedby fire people exhibit an extraordinaryreluctance to abandon whatever they are doing. Ethnographyin Unstable Places: Everyday Lilresin Contexts of Dramatic Political Change. 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. society itself can become a genre of performance.As Graeberdemonstrates. One complaint. But he moves rather too swiftlyto issues of power and the roles of desire in his concluding chapter on fetishism.witty. 4). do not cause irreparabledamage to the flow of his argument. philosophy. It is a compelling idea. they are unwillingto completely transgressthe forces that oppress and threaten them unwilling to flee the fire."oftenfollowfrom the premise of ie state. Graeber's thesis is strongestwhen it is most ethnographically presented.faced with evidence of impending annihilation by the Nazis. while the flames drawnearer.The firstthree chapters are didactic in tone and seem to be aimed at an under- graduate or nonspecialist audience. Elizabeth Mertz.Althoughthese women are intellectually and philosophically committed to pursuingequal rightsforwomen at the societal level. I had an eight-hour layover in Singapore.