A review of David Graeber’s “The Auto-Ethnography That Can Never Be and the Activist’s Ethnography That Might Be”

Graeber, David. (2005). “Chapter 12: The Auto-Ethnography That Can Never Be and the Activist’s Ethnography That Might Be” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (189-202). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Graeber’s piece is a meditation on some of the dilemmas he has encountered as a self-styled anarchist anthropologist. He compares and contrasts the tensions that anarchist principles have with being an academic to open up the field for discussing alternative possibilities of conducting anarchist academic work. Graeber points out that anarchism and academia do not go hand-in-hand and that much of “ordinary intellectual practice…resembles just the sort of sectarian modes of debate anarchists are trying to avoid” (2005: 191). Anarchism, he says, has recently gone through a sort of renaissance with its principles of autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, direct-democracy, and mutual aid being adopted as the basis for the organization of social movements all over the world. Academics, however, have been mostly dismissive of the potentialities that anarchism offers as a politics of emancipation.

Part of the reason for this stems from an institutional difference historically between Marxism and anarchism: academic Marxism has been widely popular while anarchism has been pursued by less than a handful of academic anarchists. There has been a rich literary history of Marxist writers –including Karl himself –who have produced academic texts over the last century and a half investigating almost every conceivable permutation of Marxist philosophy while historical anarchism has had little review. Besides several 19th century thinkers (Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin) who wrote on anarchism more in the sense of it being a moral faith or sense, it “was never really invented by anyone” (2005: 192).

Graeber points out that, one the one hand, anarchism tends to be an ethical discourse that emerges “from some kind of organizational principle or form of practice” (2005: 193). Academics, on the other hand, tend to be involved in producing texts based on theoretical or analytical discourse. Anarchism is performed; it is the embodiment of an ethics in practice. It is a program of action that has a means to an end that demands that “one must embody the society that one wishes to create” (2005: 194).

This sort of horizontally managed, autonomous, self-regulated, direct-action philosophy, however, has not been entirely conducive with  the feudal university environment “full of deans and provosts  and people wearing funny robes” (2005: 194) fighting intellectual battles in arcane languages hidden away in their lecture halls and libraries. Graeber contends that adhering to ab anarchist attitude as an academic could be strategically suicidal. He urges those interested in pursuing anarchist studies to look to the rich history of vanguardism and its alternative possibilities for inspiration.

Vanguardism is the typical label accorded to “those who believe that the role of the intellectuals is to come up with the correct theoretical analysis of the world situation, so as to be able to lead the masses on a truly revolutionary path” (2005: 196). Social theory, vanguardism, and the avant garde share a common historical origin in the works of Comte and Saint-Simon. Each proposed new ‘religions’ in the wake of the French Revolution to provide modern, industrial society “the ideological cohesion and social integration” (2005: 196) that had faded since feudalism. In Saint-Simon’s New Christianity, artists were placed in the roles of the priesthood (the avant garde) and would provide the creative “visions that scientists and industrialists would put into effect” (2005: 197) eventually leading to the dissolution of the state and its coercive mechanisms. Comte’s New Catholicism, on the other hand, proposed “the regulation and control of almost all aspects of human life according to [the] scientific principles” (2005: 197) of his newly founded sociology with the sociologists as his priestly managers of public affairs.

Anarchist sympathies within the artistic communities of the nineteenth and twentieth century’s were quite popular, especially with the Saint-Simonians actively recruiting artists for various socioeconomic and political endeavors. Bohemianism –a marginalized and impoverished voluntary lifestyle of like-minded individuals engaged in artistic, musical, or literary pursuits –was the most significant development that emerged out of the prevailing cultural conditions during this period. Graeber argues that vanguardism was co-opted by radical newspapers and points the finger directly to Marx as manipulating the original anarchist ethos to better suit the focus of his revolutionary designs: the proletariat (2005: 198). As a result the roles of artists or self-styled artisans were relegated to minor importance, if any, with little to offer. The political manifestation of vanguardism in a party dedicated to the organization and deployment of an intellectual project on behalf of the oppressed with the intention of designing a violent revolution was never fully realized. This had a strong influence on the artistic avant garde most likely, Graeber contends, stemming from a shared sense of alienation they experienced in the face of elitist social, political, and economic formations. In fact, he says that:

even in times and places when there is next to no other constituency for revolutionary change, the one place one is most likely to find it is among artists, authors, and musicians, even more than among professional intellectuals (2005:198).

 For these reasons it is no surprise that revolutionary coalitions tend to “consist of an alliance between a society’s least alienated and its most oppressed” (2005: 198) and points to indigenous and anti-globalization movements as prime examples.

 On a final note Graeber turns back to the role of ethnography and posits that times of great ethnographic curiosity tend to arise during periods of heightened revolutionary protest and social change. If the ideal nature of ethnography is to tease out “hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logic that underlies certain types of social action” then it appears that this could be a potential role for the “radical, non-vanguardist intellectual” (2005: 199). The aim of such a project would be to identify the actors who are developing alternative modes of social, economic, and political actions in situ and try to ascertain the larger implications of their activities to effect change. Ultimately, this can only be achieved through an auto-ethnographic approach which has its own set of concerns and dilemmas, which this collection of works has most certainly covered. Graeber makes it clear, however, that he is not looking to provide a model so much as provide the grammar to further discuss and explore alternative possibilities.

 Of all the pieces that this book has had to offer, Graeber’s chapter resonated the most with my own work in deviant subcultures such as the graffiti and street art. Graeber also stands alongside other academics such as Jeff Ferrell, Mark Hamm, and Stephen Lyng in their unconventional approaches to conducting research from the perspective of those labeled as criminal or deviant. I find myself approaching an anarchistic mode in my constant pursuit of a horizontally oriented, open-ended, experiential, rhyzomatic, and autonomous methodology. My work is action oriented and involves a good deal of ‘doing’ in the field, documentation, photography, and collaborative fieldwork endeavors, or ‘missions.’ I too feel the pressure to conform to the standards of research and academic work, though I would have to disagree that taking an anarchist position is academic suicide. Suicidal, perhaps, but one some level it must depend on the capacity for a researcher to sell the approach to the right buyer –that is, argue and justify it, even if it means by hybridizing it to whatever institutional standards stand in the way. In this sense, perhaps auto-ethnographies involving anarchist or alternative methodologies can have their day, even in an academy that seemingly dismisses them –change after all, begins from within.


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