Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Objects and Graeber's Debt

I've been reading my way through David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I'm beginning to think it's a major book, one important outside its ostensible subject matter, which, I assume, is something like the history of economics. I'm thinking, for example, that he has discussions which would interest the object-oriented ontologists, though ontology is not at all his subject. But money is, as is debt, and the mystery is whence this stuff? this money, which levels everthing, a leveling that starts long before the dreaded capitalism. He talks of slaves as being people existing without (essential) relations with other people; it's the lack of relations that renders them somehow less than fully human. And he talks of how institutions such as bride-price and wergild set up equivalences between humans and mere physical stuff.

It's one thing to take all this at face value, but accepting received summarization of the historical record. But Graeber wants to know how and why these usages came about?

It's a long book, with lots of stories and examples, from various cultural traditions (Vedic, Islamic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Norse). While it's relatively free of technical terminology, it has its own density. It's to be savored.

Here's a passage, not chosen at random at all, but simply the passage that prompted me to write this note (p. 198):
In Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power of that person over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems. First of all, it's not clear what it would mean for a human to have a " relation" with an inanimate object. Human beings can have relations with one another. But what would it mean to have a " relation" with a thing? And if one did, what would it mean to give that relation legal standing? A simple illustration will suffice: imagine a man trapped on a desert island. He might develop extremely personal relationships with, say, the palm trees growing on that island. If he's there too long, he might well end up giving them all names and spending half his time having imaginary conversations with them. Still, does he own them? The question is meaningless. There's no need to worry about property rights if noone else is there.

1 comment:

  1. The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes (Kitāb Gharāʾib al-funūn wa-mulaḥ al-ʿuyūn). Cite it in full as it has a very direct relationship I think.

    Its seems to use this very subject to entertain make memorable and deal with its cultural anxiety regarding the ordering of things, with firm views on status and gender underpinning it's perspective on the manner in which intimate relationships between objects and people should be measured.

    No escape from culture norms even when you are washed up on the shore of a mysterious island.

    “On the Wāq-Wāq Island, which is an island bordering on Sofalah, one of the Islands of the Zanj, there is a tree bearing fruits that look like women suspended by their hair as if by green cords. They have breasts, female sexual organs, and curvaceous bodies, and they scream ‘wāq wāq’. When one of them is cut off the tree, it falls down dead and does not talk any more. Their insides and outsides, their faces and their limbs, are entirely made of something resembling the down of a feather. ي
    When a person advances further into the island, he finds a tree with more attractive fruits with plumper posteriors, bosoms, genitalia, and faces, which scream louder than the ones described above. If this fruit is cut off, it survives for a day or part of a day before it stops talking and screaming. The person who cuts down this second type of fruit may sometimes have sexual intercourse with it and derive pleasure from it.”

    Need to read Graeber’s book!