Reading: David Graeber — Debt: The First 5000 Years

This is one I haven’t been able to pretend I wouldn’t eventually get hold of, having been greatly discussed on quite a few blogs I read. From anthropology to science-fiction, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years has been peculiarly unavoidable in a way that’s usually not seen outside book launches in specific fields that gets everyone in that field excited, and elsewhere no one’s heard of it.

Crooked Timber even devoted a substantial online seminar to it, in addition to the many posts and vast comment threads, and Charles Stross said he rewrote much of his upcoming Neptune’s Brood because of it. This in addition to seeing it mentioned across feminist blogs, language blogs, and even astrophysics blogs.

Graeber is an anthropologist, who incidentally (according to Wikipedia) is an anarchist (yay!) and was involved in the beginnings of the Occupy movement. Three good reasons alone to consider reading him, even if I hadn’t seen a blog onslaught of him in the past several months.

I’d planned to grab a copy for the train back from Brussels, but was thwarted by Belgium’s national day holiday, and had been pretending St. George’s didn’t exist out of a combination of 30º days and a large pile of books waiting for me (Books! Buy all the books!), so yesterday I finally split open the red cover.

This isn’t a review; I feel compelled to say this often when I write about what I read. The original idea was just to document what I read with no remarks, and then it became a few sentences on how I came to be reading whatever, before I started it. Now it’s often part-way in before I write a contorted mess of that into a crypto-non-review/unreview; I can’t not write on what I’ve read because I can’t unread it.

So. It’s very easy to read. Which is good because I have now three exceedingly dense anthropological works on China I’m suffering under at the rate of single pages per day, and wouldn’t want to add more anguish. There are a lot of endnotes, which are worth reading, even though they inevitably break the flow of the argument. 1/5th of the way in, perhaps the most concise thing I can say is that it’s made me reevaluate my entire political outlook as completely too narrow (which in light of the 1% having been found to have stashed $21 trillion in tax havens is probably self-evident for all of us).

I could probably stop there, but I do have some criticisms thus far. The generalist nature of the work given the scope of the subject — 5000 years and most civilisations getting at least a mention — means there is some oversimplification of either arguments or the examples cited. While this is understandable, and necessary if the book is to remain readable, I sometimes have the sense that this oversimplification misses some crucial points. I notice this sometimes when the discussion turns China-ward, particularly in combination with the next criticism.

There are some assumptions in the language Graeber uses (which perhaps reflect the habits of the intended audience), which for me imply a slightly more serious problem: There is something of a lack of women.

Possibly this will change in the remaining 4/5ths, however, both the example Graeber continually refers to (Henry and Joshua), and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ in the universal sense (cf. ‘mankind’), is oddly old-fashioned. When the appearance of women tends towards as chattel objects for exchange (marriage, alliance etc), and seemingly without agency or subjecthood, I wonder perhaps if something has been missed.

Certainly my recent reading, Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, Rosemary Joyce, all working somewhat in anthropology, shows unequivocally that any argument which fails to consider women (explicitly, not merely as an aside) is at best only part of the story, more than likely to have missed something crucial, and should be treated as potentially misleading at best if not outright suspect.

Joyce herself shows that it is the inherent bias in researchers which results in the apparent lack of evidence for women and their contribution, rather than any real absence, and Mann also, specifically in the heretofore ostensibly male-dominated and -centred world of Qing Dynasty.

There is a tendency to think, “Oh well, it’s a big topic, debt, and he can’t cover everything,” which is obviously true. However, to say that advancing a discourse which is significantly absent of women is missing something fundamental is also obviously true.

Hopefully this is something of an artifact of the first fifth of Graber’s argument, and not a general theme, as I would hope a book like this does more than merely stir some conversation, because if we — collective we, all of humanity — don’t do something, it’s plain we’re fucked.

Reading: Gail Hershatter — The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past

This is the book I was so intimidated by I went off and read Charles Stross and Harry Potter for a couple of weeks. I heard of Gail Hershatter in 2008 (if I was paying attention), but it was an interview in The China Beat that made me put this book at the top of my next-to-buy reading list.

It’s been sitting there for quite a few weeks, now, as it reminded me of Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, which I’d never finished, so began once again and was utterly taken. So for the next two weeks in Brussels I needed something I wouldn’t finish in a night (Harry Potter) requiring me to buy something new.

The cover of The Gender of Memory is a thing of beauty in itself, and then to open it … 488 pages set in a very small typeface, of which perhaps a fifth are notes, appendices, bibliography.

I’ve begun reading it perhaps three times now, only getting to the second page before being distracted for a day or two, necessitating a restart. Not to say it’s turgid, on the contrary, it’s so dense and fascinating I’d rather go back and make sure I recall some details than adopt she blasé reading habit.

As for why I am reading this, I have decided to make a specific shift in my China, Asia and Central Asian reading, to concentrate as much as possible on the often missing 50% of the human population: women. I notice this especially when reading on Afghanistan, which has been one of the regions I’ve concentrated on the last ten years or so, where voices of women in the historical narrative, in the contemporary political and cultural situation, in both academic and more generalist texts are substantially, if not wholly absent.

Much the same can be said for all of Central Asian and Chinese scholarship, as well as much contemporary european writing. Or perhaps another way to phrase it is, that if a writer neglects to consciously include the situation of and for women in a particular context, under the supposition that his writing by default is inclusive, he is sorely mistaken and has managed to exclude half the population whose experiences do not necessarily accord to the default, male narrative. Additionally, one chapter devoted to the subject of women out of a whole book does not make things right.

So this book, along with Susan Mann’s form part of a new direction in reading for me on my favourite subjects. Which is not to say I’ll only be reading a book if it meets these unfortunately stringent criteria. There are several Southern China works sneaking up on me which are unlikely to entirely or even partly satisfy this. Nonetheless, Gail Hershatter’s work from the few pages I’ve read so far is likely to be among the best reads I have this year.

“Reading: … ” Book of the Year (Non-Fiction): Jonathan Safran Foer – Eating Animals

reading: jonathan safran foer – eating animals


beautiful and mysterious luoping

The vast monsoon-saturated billboard, the only unbleached colour in two days of hard-sleeper train from Kunming to Guangzhou said, “Welcome to beautiful and Mysterious Luoping”. Behind, and congealing the heavy mist of two endless raining weeks were a wreckage of factories, a contortion of rusted, oxidised or oil-slicked intestinal metals, sky-gouging brick chimneys, cumulus billowings and ventings of steam, sharp hot-orange volcanic flares burning off gaseous leftovers, and orchre gashes in the enclosing hills where the town ate its land.

Luoping is cradled in the limestone strata of the Yunnan-Guangxi-Guizhou that becomes at its western isthmus the vertiginous accordion folds of Yulong Xueshan, and far east in Guangdong slips quietly into spindly towers amidst rice fields; this contiguous geology also supports recognisably similar aqriculture in the terraced fields, rice paddies, and water buffalo. As an eruption of smallpox pustules, towns like Luoping are avaricious plunderers, divesting the land under their influence in a single swipe before remaining only to rot; the antithesis of cycles of farming dating back millennia.

From Lijiang in the east each night, the sky pulsed ever-nearer with the impending monsoon. Returning from Daju was a special, irregular event as the entire town tended to the fields before the rains arrived. In Guangdong it had been raining for most of a month, and Fujian was partly flooded. By the time I arrived in Kunming, so too had the wet season. From there through to Guangzhou the land was under a desaturating mist, the fields shining with fresh rain, the horizon obliterated, and not uncommonly rivers overrunning their flood plains.