Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A review of 'Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value' by David Graeber

This review is on Amazon here. As always, if my review pings your pong be a dear and pop over there to click the like button.

Given I read the book last December, its taken a long time for this review to appear. The story of why - which will probably be of interest only to me - is below the review. I gave it 5 stars - one more than Debt- the first 5000 years. I'm a sucker for a bit of ethnographic detail - especially the sexy bits. Page 137 the sick old Huron woman dreaming about an orgy in side her longhouse - I liked that. Anyway *serious face*.

A compelling work on the nature of value as creative potential realised through social action

Graeber wanted to title this book 'The False Coin of Our Own Dreams' but at the publisher's request that became the sub-title under the rather more staid and academic 'Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value'.

Graeber's preference is indicative of his hope for an audience beyond anthropologists. It's clearly written (for the most part), not over-long and balances expositions of theory with some personal insight. I'd say he succeeded in making it accessible to the non-specialist. The book proceeds by considering three common approaches to value and then examines how our experience of value is contextualised by scholars (with a focus on post-structuralist work). Then it gives exposition to Graeber's understanding of value as action and gradually explores this understanding by examining how value is experienced and conceptualised in different cultures. Finally he concludes with the idea that value exists in the potential for creative action; 'the ultimate social reality'.  The social aspect is key because ‘structures of relation with others come to be internalized into the fabric of our being', and so the potential for creative power - and hence value - cannot be (significantly) realized, other than through coordination with others.

In reaching such conclusions about the relation of reality to value, the book deals with some arcane material. For example; it details how the Maori's metaphysical concepts of 'mana' and 'tapu' relate to their exchange, politics and society; it considers the how the ancient quarrel between Heraclitus and Parmenides (are things in flux or are they fixed?) echoes through thought and time; and it pays homage to Marc Shell's seminal discussion of the Ring of Gyges and the problems of visibility and invisiblity as they relate to money and value among the Iroquios. You can see why the publisher would have insisted on the more academic title.

However, ultimately I sympathise with Graeber's wish to call it 'The False Coin of Our Own Dreams'. The phrase is inspired by a passage from Mauss and Hubert's 'Mana and Magic' quoted at the start of Graeber's odyssey. Simply put, ‘Our Own Dreams’ are our creative potential, and the ‘False Coin’ is our misattribution of the value of that creative potential onto objects. A version, if you like, of fetishism. But a version that digs deeply into the ontology of value. Philosophical musing from an armchair is all well and good, but what Graeber tries to do is combine this ontology with real world observations from anthropology. He creates a compelling picture of the political, social and economic manifestations of value across time and culture, even if sometimes the link between the ethnography and his ontology of value isn't that easy to pick out..

I very much enjoyed the book. In particular, I found the discussion of the Iroquoian 'Dream Economy' and the Maori's 'mana and tapu' fascinating and thought-provoking. Towards the end, Graeber says that certain objects can act as 'pivots between the imagination and reality' and, maybe for me, this book might be one such object. Although I disagree with Graeber about some quite fundamental issues - the nature of money in particular - reading this book has really made me consider the relation of value to action and pushed me more deeply into the work of philosopher Roy Bhaskar.

I thoroughly recommend it.

So I think I've mentioned before that I decided I had to read this book whilst writing a review(ish) piece on a paper by Tim Johnson called ''Reciprocity as the Foundation of Financial Economics'. I ended up abandoning it. I enjoyed Tim's paper - I'm a fan of his Magic-Money-Maths website - but the paper references behavioural economics, which being a devotee of Dr Freud was never going to sit too well with me. So among other things, my review became a plea for economics to open its mind to psychoanalytical theory. That wasn't very fair on Tim whose focus was on blending Pragmatism with Virtue Ethics as a context to the Fundamental Theory of Asset Pricing. 

Anyway, in his paper Tim mentioned David Graeber. He claims that David's 'you don't have to pay yer debts' idea is trangressive of Virtue Ethics. I don't really see it that way. So I was keen to explore those differences and map them (unsuccessfully) onto Tim's Pragmatism Vs David's Critical Realism. The long and the short of it was that I started writing a lot about what David Graeber says about Value. I was speaking with great authority. Albeit an authority gained from my own sense of self-importance rather than actually reading his book. I thought I best remedy that before finishing the piece. 

So I read the book. Meantime, I lost the impetus to finish the piece. One day, who knows. It was of course, valuable to think about all the stuff Tim bought up. In fact I read the paper twice. Must have been habit forming because I ended up reading Towards and Anthropological Theory of Value twice too. What happened was I read it (in December, as I said), then I started a review. Normal sort of quasi-academic thing that I do. It got longer and more anecdotal. I thought, no problem I'll do a long personal anecdotal idiosyncratic review and stick a short version up on amazon. That's when I re-read it and made a some  notes to make sure I was just making stuff up (well, not too much). But it actually made things worse. I started talking about loads and loads of other stuff. All I wanted to do was explain how I think a Monist conception of Value would really help things along. Turns out it wasn't that easy. (The review above is cobbled together from the early academic version.)

In the end I abandoned all idea of a review and decided that what I was writing was going to be 'On Value'. And that's really where I'm at now. Adrift with no structure ! I do have a couple of good anecdotes though. And a more realistic idea of quite what a task it is to write something meaningful about Value. Respect to the Pirsig ! and to the Graeber !

I'm intending to jump back into money in the immediate future. I'm just starting Nigel Dodd's The Sociology of Money (its got good reviews from Ingham & Frisby - he of the Simmel translation- on the back cover) so I'm excited about reading that. I need to track down some papers by Ingham, Dodd & Lapavistas on the ontology of money and Nigel Dodd's paper on Nietzsche, Money and my very favourite 1950's psychoanalytical theorist Norman O Brown.

I've also got half an eye on the ontology of Value, and the value of Ontology. Thinking about getting What is Value ? An Essay in Philosophical Analysis Hall, Everett W. Or maybe, Valor y existencia / Value and Existence (Paperback) Wilbur Marshall Urban, Ricardo Parellada. Recommendations gratefully accepted.

Oh yeah, and most importantly I desperately need to finally get round to doing some 'Burn Your Money' T-shirts. Please hassle me about that. Action. Doing stuff, rather than just thinking about it. It's important you know.

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