Friday, September 4, 2020

David Graeber RIP

  

This blogger, Kate Crane and Graeber bottom right, August 23rd, 2002.

I remember the first time I met David Graeber, the luminary anarchist anthropologist.. I'd been seeing articles about the World Economic Forum and a "Yale Anthropologist" commenting about it. In between meetings at our convergence space, I asked what he was studying now. "You," he replied. "You," he told me he was studying all the New York anarchists. He was trying to make sense of us, of our milieu, the community gardeners, war resisters, writers, squatters, dumpster divers, and direct action people filling meeting spaces, reclaiming streets, flying to Seattle, the clown blocs and militants.  We talked about Chicago, where we both studied in the mid 1990's, and organizing and social movements and social theory.  His mind dipped and zigged an zagged, with associations popping from here to there. At meetings, he'd type notes with a fury. Those meeting minutes were also his ethnographic field notes. He turned social movement ethnography into a work of art.  Each book pointed to larger questions about what we were doing. When I told him I was thinking about festive revolutions, he said I should study Huizinga's Homo Ludens, as we walked in between meetings during the RNC. And fireworks went off in my head. I started interviewing everyone I knew about how they played and how play fit into our social movements. He complimented my work and encouraged it when others thought it was nuts. Five books later, I'm still thinking about that question. I tried to talk with him for my dissertation. He said he wasn't feeling playful. Yale had fired him. He put himself out there. And sometimes it took a toll. Looking back at that activism after 9/11, I think it took a toll on all of us.  Some retreated.  Not David, but it took its toll. We need to listen to symphonies said Howard Zinn. Politics can make us sour. I loved seeing him smile watching the movie, "Can Dialectics break bricks." Or talking Guy Dubord in our lower east side anarchist reading group. He incited reactions in people, in our communities, in those in power. He said anarchism is about democracy. And not everyone agreed. We all had ideas about the best approach. We all fought about things.  He moved from humble and curious to occasionally confrontational or condescending.  "Good try," he once said as I tried to calm a flame war on one of the listserves. And I got caught up in that probably too much. But he always took my calls and was willing to talk things out, even after lots of emails. And he'd apologize, a rare highly admirable quality. He saw this as a big social movement, connecting dots between movements far and wide.  He was able to bridge that space between the squat and the Charlie Rose show, saying the same things in each place, bringing those conversations to a large audience. The last time I saw him as we walked to Duarte Square during Occupy, chatting all the way. Earlier in the summer, he joined us on the Clearwater, during a Times UP ride. What a loss. When I think of him, I think of a time we fought about empire and war, gabbing for hours, prepping for the World Economic Forum.  We didn't always agree. But he was a thrilling public intellectual, one of a kind. The end of an era.  I’m gad he was there.And now he’s gone.

Wow.


 

Stevphen Shukaitis broke the news:

“I’m devastated by the death of David Graeber. To me he wasn’t just a mentor and comrade who taught me so much about being a politically engaged social scientist (which is more than enough in itself), he was also the friend that when I was depressed would drag me out to dinner and get me talking about it... the friend who when I was sick and new in London would pop around with soup and good cheer. Though we haven’t gotten to see each other much since I moved out of London and have been busy being a parent, I love him with all my heart. I simply don’t have the words that can fully describe knowing that he is suddenly and far too quickly no longer with us. RIP David...”

 

John Tarleton wrote:

“I’ve been feeling the death of David Graeber since I learned of it yesterday. He was brilliant, generous, quirky, had a great passion for ideas and never forgot his working class roots.

David used to come around the NYC Indymedia office in the early 2000s and contributed occasional articles for the Indy. I would periodically see him at protests over the following years and he was always ready engage in a wide-ranging conversation though he would do most of the talking which was fine.

He was very much a product of the anarchist left of early 2000s with its intense skepticism of the state or almost any form of bureaucratic organization. His fervent belief in consensus (or near consensus) based decision reached in general assemblies would seem as strange and mystifying to today's young socialists as the Mayan hieroglyphs he studied as a teen-ager.

For whatever reason, I find myself thinking back to the night of September 11th. David, Brad Will and myself were at the Indymedia Center when we decided to ride our bikes

down to Lower Manhattan to get as close to the WTC site as we could in order to see what was going on. When we popped out of the narrow downtown streets on the side of the West Side Highway, there was a line of hundreds of ambulances from as far away as Rhode Island. They had come to help but there were no survivors to rescue. There was nothing to say and we pedaled away as quietly as we came.”

 

Benjamin Heim Shepard replied:

“Wow...I remember those days. What a moment. Makes me so sad...soso sad.”

 

L.A. Kauffman followed:

 Me too.”

John's note and Graeber's death seemed to shake up some memories, 

all that activism after 9/11 which was so heartbreaking.   

 This one hits close to home. 



  • Yeah, Reflecting on David has also surfaced memories of some of the other NYC DAN and AWIP folks from that era who believed deeply that transformational change was possible.  

  • If only we had the right answers now, 
  • I reply. 
  • I'm still just thinking about mutual aid
  • Very sorry to hear that David Graeber has passed. We hadn't talked in many years, but I always liked that weirdo. Back in the Direct Action Network era, we used to go to meetings at Charas or the IMC office in NYC and then get drunk and talk about our dramatic/boring love lives (his was dramatic, mine was boring -- no surprises here, I'm sure). Lots of people had a variety of disagreements with him -- political, interpersonal, whatever -- but I remember him as just a sweet, funny, flawed goofball.
    At any rate, all love and solidarity to his family and the people who remained close to him. He was a keeper and it's a real loss at a particularly delicate moment. He should've been around to help us break things down (in more ways than one) for decades to come. RIP, friend.
  • Gordon Asher posted:

    David Graeber and his wonderful mind have left us way too soon (at only 59); someone responsible for some really deeply thought-provoking, insightful, potentially paradigm questioning/shifting work (e.g. his book Debt: The first 5,000 years) – both as to his writing and talks, and his activist practice.
    A mini-bio of David Graeber, written by David himself:
    "I was born and raised in New York, the child of Kenneth Graeber, a plate stripper (offset photolithography), originally from Kansas, who had fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, and Ruth (Rubinstein) Graeber, born in Poland, a garment worker and home-maker who had been the female lead in the 1930s Labor Stage musical, Pins & Needles.
    Brought up in the Penn South Coops in Chelsea, I attended local public schools, PS 11, and IS 70, was discovered by some Maya archaeologists because of an odd hobby I had developed of translating Maya hieroglyphics, received a scholarship to attend a fancy boarding school for three years (Phillips Academy at Andover), before returning to state school, at SUNY Purchase, where I graduated with a BA in Anthropology in 1984.
    From there I went on to University of Chicago. I lived in Chicago for over a decade, apart from two years (between 1989 and 1991) during which I was doing anthropological fieldwork in highland Madagascar, received a PhD in 1996, and then held a series of academic jobs. These included some graduate teaching at Chicago, though admittedly not much, a year at Haverford, a year of unemployment including a visiting scholar status and one course at NYU, and a junior faculty position at Yale. In 2004, the Yale department voted not to continue my contract, before I could begin the process of coming up for tenure. This was a very unusual procedure where new rules had to be invented for my case (i.e., no student or outside reviews were allowed.) Yale gave no reason for its decision other than dissatisfaction with my scholarship but some felt it might not have been entirely irrelevant that I was by this time quite active in the Global Justice Movement and other anarchist-inspired projects.
    After Yale I found myself unemployable in my own country, but for some mysterious reason, being avidly shopped pretty much everywhere else. I ended up at Goldsmiths, University of London, from 2007-2013, working with inspiring colleagues and wonderful students, and now, as a full professor, at the London School of Economics, where I am surrounded by some of the best and most interesting people one could hope to be around. After living for some years in several countries at once, I’ve finally settled full-time in London.
    I told a magazine once that I’ve been an anarchist since I was 16, so I guess that must be true, but I only really became active in any meaningful way after the beginning 2000, when I threw myself into the Alter-Globalization movement and it might be said that all my work since has been exploring the relation between anthropology as an intellectual pursuit, and practical attempts to create a free society, free, at least, of capitalism, patriarchy, and coercive state bureaucracies. As a result I sometimes feel I’ve had to pursue two full-time careers of research and writing, one peer-reviewed, the other not, since in my activist-oriented work I am interested in trying to ask the sort of question those actively engaged in trying to change the world find useful or important, rather than those of funders and those influenced by same. Still, the two strains intertwine and influence one another in endless, and, I hope, creative and mutually reinforcing ways.
    The first book I wrote was Lost People, an ethnography of Betafo (Arivonimamo), a community in Madagascar divided between descendants of nobles and slaves, and I still think it’s my best, because it’s really co-written by all the characters (characters in every sense of the term) who inhabit it. It’s an attempt at a truly dialogic ethnography but as a result it’s a bit long so it took forever to publish it - it was effectively written in 1997 but only appeared ten years later (2007).
    The first to be published was Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001), in part my homage to one of my most inspiring teachers at Chicago, Terry Turner. Later, when another inspiring former mentor, Marshall Sahlins, put out a pamphlet series and asked me to contribute a volume, I wrote a tiny little book called “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” which has doomed me ever since to be referred to as “the anarchist anthropologist” (despite the fact that the book largely argues that anarchist anthropology doesn’t and probably couldn’t really exist. Please don’t do that. You don’t call people “the social democrat anthropologist” do you?) I also wrote a vast ethnography of Direct Action (called “Direct Action: an Ethnography”) which hardly anyone ever reads, a collection of largely academic essays called “Possibilities," an edited volume called "Constituent Imagination” with Stevphen Shukaitis, a book of political essays called “Revolutions in Reverse”, and a book on debt called “Debt: the First 5000 Years” which virtually everyone seems to have read. This was followed by the Democracy Project (which I actually wanted to call “As If We Were Already Free”), the "Utopia of Rules" (which I wanted to call “Three Essays on Bureaucracy”), “On Kings” (a collection co-written with Marshall Sahlins), and “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”. I am currently working with the archaeologist David Wengrow on a whole series of works completely re-imagining the whole question of “the origins of social inequality,” starting with the way the question is framed to begin with. After that, who knows?
    I’ve continued to be actively engaged in social movements of one sort or another, insofar as I actually can, living in exile with a full-time job. I was involved in the initial meetings that helped set up Occupy Wall Street, for instance, and have been working with the Kurdish Freedom Movement in various capacities as well.

    Oh, and since this is a matter of some historical contention: no, I didn’t personally come up with the slogan “We are the 99%.” I did first suggest that we call ourselves the 99%. Then two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist added the “we” and later a food-not-bombs veteran put the “are” between them. And they say you can’t create something worthwhile by committee! I’d include their names but considering the way Police Intelligence has been coming after early OWS organisers, maybe it would be better not to."


    It is with the saddest regret that we announce the death of our husband and friend David Graeber, on September 2nd 2020. David was on holiday in Venice with his wife Nika and a group of close friends. The immediate cause of death is internal bleeding. He was pronounced dead between 11pm and 12 am. We are waiting for results of the autopsy in order to establish the intermediate and underlying cause of death. David had passed in the main hospital in Venice, Ospedale Civile di Venezia. In remembrance of David, we will hold a memorial service later this month.
    Nika Dubrovsky, Katia Margolis, Andrej Grubacic
    For more information, please email agrubacic@ciis.edu, katia.margolis@gmail.com or dubrovsky@gmail.com

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