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Culture as Creative Refusal

David Graeber

Many aspects of culture that we are used to interpreting in essentialist or even tacitly evolutionist terms might better be seen as acts of self-conscious rejection, or as formed through a schizmogenetic process of mutual definition against the values of neighbouring societies. What have been called 'heroic societies', for instance, seem to have formed in conscious rejection of the values of urban civilizations of the Bronze Age. A consideration of the origins and early history of the Malagasy suggests a conscious rejection of the world of the Islamic ecumene of the Indian Ocean, effecting a social order that could justifiably be described as self-consciously anti-heroic.

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On social currencies and human economies

Some notes on the violence of equivalence

David Graeber

In this essay I propose a category of ‘human economies’ to refer to those where the primary focus of economic life is on reconfiguring relations between people, rather than the allocation of commodities. Currencies that used to be labelled ‘primitive money’, but which are primarily used to effect this, would better be called ‘social currencies’. These social currencies are often seen as inadequate substitutes for human beings, not so much ways of discharging debts as of recognising the existence of a debt that cannot be paid. By reconsidering some classic anthropological cases (the Lele, the Tiv) in the light of the slave trade, we might catch a glimpse of the violence required to transform such social currencies into commercial currencies by which debts can be entirely cancelled out.

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The Sword, the Sponge, and the Paradox of Performativity Some Observations on Fate, Luck, Financial Chicanery, and the Limits of Human Knowledge

David Graeber

Terms such as 'fate' and 'luck' are ways of talking about the ambiguities and antinomies of temporal existence that all humans, even social theorists, have to confront in one form or another. Concepts that include mana, śakti, baraka, and orenda might best be considered as grappling with the exact same paradoxes. Nor should we assume that social scientific approaches are necessarily more sophisticated. Current discourse on 'performativity', for instance, seems in certain ways rather crude when compared to the Malagasy concept of hasina (usually translated as 'sacred power'), which takes on the same dilemma—what I call the 'paradox of performativity'—in a far more nuanced way.