This conversation took place via email between mid-May and mid-June, 2022.
Lisa Sideris: In our discussions of the book, Immanent Frame editor Mona Oraby and I were both intrigued by the theme of play in The Dawn of Everything and the way in which play as a feature of human societies seems mirrored in the structure of the book itself. How intentional was the choice of form to what Dawn became as a collaborative project? In other words, did the form follow from the book’s argument? What are the broader implications for academic writing implied by the book?
David Wengrow: It’s certainly true that David [Graeber] and I had a huge amount of fun writing this book. So much, in fact, that even before we’d agreed on a finished draft of The Dawn of Everything, which was just three weeks before David passed away, we’d already agreed to write at least three sequels. Because really this first book is about trying to ask better questions of human history, without necessarily offering definitive answers. It’s about showing that these other fields of inquiry exist or could exist in the future. The process of writing and thinking together had come to occupy a particular place in both our lives. Somewhere in the book, we discuss the common Indo-European root of the words “friend” and “freedom,” which seems to preserve a recognition that true friendship and true freedom are both found in the process of making commitments to others.
At some point, David and I made a commitment to see this project through together. But then life gets in the way. And university work often gets in the way, as well as all the other projects and commitments that one accumulates. So The Dawn of Everything had to emerge in the spaces in between, over a period of about a decade, with no formal deadlines or schedule and no dedicated source of research funding. Maybe that was for the best. It meant we could work on it when we felt like it and with a tacit understanding that if it ever started feeling too much like other sorts of “work,” we would just stop and do something else for a while. In the end, the opposite happened, and we found the project was growing all sorts of new limbs and getting far too long; it was pretty obvious that in this first piece of writing, we’d get about as far as trying to jettison some very outmoded ways of thinking about human history, inherited largely unthinkingly from previous generations (the “origins of inequality,” “the origins of the state,” and such like). At best, it’s a kind of invitation or prolegomenon to some future history that we hoped to write. We’re pretty clear about that in the book, so I’ve been a bit mystified by readings which treat it as though it were something entirely different: a compendium or survey of world history.
The structure of the book, as you say, is much more playful. It’s led by questions and ideas rather than some megalomaniacal drive to cover or classify everything. And it’s certainly true that the concepts of play and imagination emerge as central to our understanding of human sociality, in particular to our arguments about the nature of politics. I wouldn’t say the book’s form followed from those arguments in any programmatic way, but it certainly arose from a certain style of thinking where you deliberately allow ideas to remain somewhat open ended, so the inherent playfulness and complexity of past human experience can come through, without being immediately trammeled under the wheels of some theoretical juggernaut. Academic writing is obviously a broad church. I don’t personally feel that we compromised on any scholarly standards with this book, but it’s clearly crossing lines and being widely read and talked about, which I guess just goes to show that there doesn’t actually need to be much of a distinction between academic writing and other sorts of writing or at least that those distinctions are largely self-imposed.
LS: What you say about open-endedness, imagination, and the complexity of past human experience is especially interesting to me. I find Dawn inspiring for its questioning mode, its effort to dislodge longstanding, sweeping narratives that have hardened into myths. Somewhere in the book you and David Graeber point out that stories reflect the limits of the storyteller’s imagination; but lack of imagination, as you say, is not itself an argument! I see this in other accounts of humanity’s deep history and in stories of the so-called Anthropocene (which are often one and the same). There I see a tendency to assume that people who came before us were ignorant, benighted, and lacking awareness of their environments—that they were not in possession of consciousness in decision-making, as we moderns supposedly are.
Indeed, a standard line of Anthropocene storytelling claims that it is only now, when humans have become conscious of themselves as a planet-shaping force, that we can begin to chart a different course for the future. It’s as if everything that came before—good or bad—was done unconsciously. But now, the story goes, we’ve achieved species maturity and self-awareness. For example, in The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz identify (and critique) a standard, dominant narrative of the Anthropocene which goes as follows: “‘We,’ the human species, unconsciously destroyed nature to the point of hijacking the Earth system into a new geological epoch. In the late twentieth century, a handful of Earth system scientists finally opened our eyes. So now we know; now we are aware of the global consequences of human action.” I think there are good reasons to worry about the implications for human agency of such a story. Its portrait of salvific science favorably contrasts our current state of knowledge with deficient environmental knowledge, intuition, or experience of nonscientists and average citizens, as well as essentially all previous generations of humans. The narrative’s emphasis on a break with the past, of blindness giving way to enlightenment (or innocence to maturity) is a familiar trope of prophetic discourses that aim to win converts to the idea of an “advent,” as Bonneuil and Fressoz say.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether it’s possible to break out of narrative tropes—whether declensionist narratives or stories of ascent or of enlightenment—that “we” have inherited. Can we at best only tweak these myths? And given that some of our most pressing problems are truly global in scale—obviously climate change, the pandemic—do we require a story that emphasizes some essential sameness or universal quality to humans as a whole? Or to ask the question differently, does Dawn suggest an account of human nature?
DW: Well, I’m thinking about how the last part of this question flows from the first, so let me try to back-track a little. As I think you imply, the notion of an Anthropocene Age is part of a stadial model of change, of just the kind that we critique in The Dawn of Everything. The measure of human time and the measurement of Earth time have always been in dialogue and often shared a similar set of underlying models and principles—unsurprisingly, since it’s always humans doing the measuring—for example, the notion of “stratigraphic sequences” entered my field of archaeology from geology. In that sense, the Anthropocene marks the convergence of two models that were already conceptually linked. It could be viewed as the most recent variant on a long-standing habit of characterizing the passage of time as a series of revolutionary transformations in human relationships with the nonhuman world, with long periods in between when supposedly not a great deal happens (the Agricultural Revolution, the Urban Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and so on).
Insofar as stadial models of this kind supply an account of human nature, it tends to be of just the sort that Bonneuil and Fressoz critique: we were once a sort of Procrustean version of ourselves, “innately” cruel or kind, until we reached some point of awakening that made us suddenly capable of thinking rationally and critically about the kind of societies we actually want to live in, by which time the worst damage was already done to ourselves and to the Earth system. It’s big history as a kind of tragi-comedy, or even something of a farce—supposedly silly foragers become shrewd farmers and then finally the doomed but hyper-aware consumers of fossil fuels (satirizing this kind of approach, one of the many frivolous titles for our own book that we discarded was a play on Bruno Latour: We have never been stupid, possibly until now).
Insofar as The Dawn of Everything contains an alternative account of human nature, I think it hinges on what we refer to as the third basic form of freedom; the first being the freedom to move away and relocate and the second being the freedom to disobey arbitrary commands. This third freedom (and now I recall that at some point we also played with the idea of calling the book just that: The Third Freedom) is the freedom to imagine alternative social orders and put those alternatives into effect. We argue that what the deep record of human history, along with the lessons of anthropology, show us is that to be truly Homo sapiens is not to be essentially caring or essentially cruel but rather to exercise that third freedom, to move consciously between different social and moral worlds, and that people have done this time and again throughout history, in myriad ways and under very different sets of material circumstances.
And very often social fluidity doesn’t seem to have required any violent rupture. In fact, we begin with the example of Indigenous societies that turned their social structures and ethical mores on their heads on a seasonal basis, switching routinely between forms of behavior (e.g., the presence or absence of private property or the raising up of paramount chiefs with coercive powers) that, according to conventional social theory, are supposed to belong to entirely separate stages of development, unfolding and accumulating over much longer time periods. We then go on to show how this principle of social fluidity helps us to make sense of otherwise puzzling patterns in the archaeological record, such as those lavish burials of the last Ice Age—which resemble royal or aristocratic tombs—in a period when there is no evidence for monarchy or aristocracy outside the sphere of seasonal rituals. If revolution, as Tolstoy argued, means consciously changing our relation towards power (and therefore also understanding something of the true nature of social power and its moral implications), then such transformations have been neither rare nor exceptional in the larger sweep of human history. Indeed, they may be part of the very stuff that made us human in the first place. We are, first and foremost, political animals.
LS: Pursuing the theme a bit further of what sort of animal “we” are and what, if anything, makes humans human: many Anthropocene narratives and other big stories proceed by locating a feature of the human—for example, we are a creature defined by creativity or innovation or a species that can construct new niches, thereby conforming the environment to itself rather than merely fitting in—and then project that proclivity back through the ages to tell a story about how we got where we are and how we might navigate our way out of the worst aspects of our current situation. But in response to these narratives, other scholars have argued that other creatures too shape their worlds in profound and creative and agential ways and have even shaped us to fit their needs. With what some call the “material turn,” or the “turn to objects” and/or “embodiment,” narratives of nonhuman agency have come into vogue in the last decade or so, whether arguments for distributed agency and networks or a return to neo- or quasi-vitalistic perspectives on the agency of matter and the material participation of nonhuman entities in the world around us. Some environmental scholars, as well as certain popular writers, paint a portrait of a world that is much livelier than we might have imagined. Even coal and oil, long viewed as quintessential dead stuff, turn out to be extremely lively substances that both enabled democratic agency and institutions, and are bringing about democracy’s demise. On these accounts, nonhuman creatures and even what we might regard as mere “things”—food, trash, a piece of metal—exhibit a capacity to act as forces or agents with propensities and trajectories of their own, which can enable or impede human agency and goals. By honoring such agency, the hope is that we might halt our destructive patterns.
Along these lines, in Dawn, you and Graeber allude to scholarship that attempts to turn deep histories on their head by examining the domestication of plants or animals from the organisms’ perspective rather than ours. A case in point is Yuval Harari’s retelling of the Agricultural Revolution from the standpoint of wheat, which domesticated us and ultimately made us its handmaidens, by bending humans to its wheaty “will”—coaxing us into creating the conditions it favors—rather than vice versa. Aside from the fact that these stories (many scholars hope) might help us fashion a more expansive vision of politics or environmental ethics, there is—I think—just something deeply enchanting about these tales. And so, I found it fascinating that in this discussion of Harari’s work you and Graeber argue that these stories draw us in because we have heard them a thousand times before! “Once again,” you write, “we’re back in the Garden of Eden. Except now it’s not a wily serpent who tricks humanity into sampling the forbidden fruit of knowledge. It’s the fruit itself (i.e., the cereal grains).” And then, the narrative further implies, in our desire to live the luxurious life of gods, we fell. We became enslaved to agriculture (or industry, or what have you), and now we are miserable. But the actual evidence, you argue, does not support the Faustian bargain theory of humans and plants.
One question I’d like to pursue further, then, is how to think broadly about nonhuman entities in ways that resist the allure of old familiar myths. Can we tell a story of humans without telling the story of the nonhuman realm? Or to put the question in a more forward-looking way: How might our imagining of alternative social orders—the third basic freedom—properly take nonhumans into account? I wonder if the example of Indigenous societies might not also be quite relevant here.
DW: Well, I don’t think Harari came up with the conceit of “wheat domesticating us” rather than “us domesticating wheat”—I recall archaeology teachers of mine almost three decades ago deploying the same idea to get us students thinking about the concept of symbiosis. But he’s certainly popularized it, in a way that seems deeply reminiscent of the Book of Genesis.
Which gets me thinking about how our familiar, Judeo-Christian origin stories are essentially parables about the dangers of play and experimentation: not just the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit, but also the Tower of Babel. These are stories about what happens when mere mortals (and especially women) try to create or discover something new—to exercise our third basic freedom, if you like—which is narrated as an act of hubris, to be punished by the one true Creator, leading to a fall from some original state of perfection. It’s a cautionary tale, designed to keep us in our places. Not all creation stories share this quality. As Sonya Atalay pointed out to me recently, Haudenosaunee creation myths, for example, not only celebrate women but also the act of creating itself, which is not narrated as a fall from grace but as an ongoing process of making, improving, and taking care of the world.
I think a better example than Harari of what you call “neo-vitalism” is the recent book by Amitav Ghosh The Nutmeg’s Curse, which draws on the work of Indigenous scholars. I was recently involved in a public discussion with Amitav about this. We considered how far it’s possible to equate vitalism with values of environmental conservation. An earlier book of mine (What Makes Civilization) argued that in Eurasia and North Africa a catastrophic depletion of the environment—through deforestation and massive mineral extraction—was set in motion by the vitalist cosmologies of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Pursuing forms of value thrown up by these cosmologies became incorrigible, creating an endless demand both to expand geographically—encompassing the known world—and turning those societies into huge engines of accumulation, stockpiling exotic materials needed to realize those forms of value in the center (ancient texts often express this in terms of feeding, housing, or clothing ancestors and divinities). This also stimulated the growth of elaborate forms of hierarchy, stratification, and bureaucracy, all in the service of what we might call vitalist cults. In Eurasia, I feel, we can chart a course from that Bronze Age world to the vastly extended supply chains and cumbersome infrastructure of dams and pipelines that we have today; of course, the cosmologies changed many times, but the underlying institutional structures remained resolutely elitist and extractive.
The Dawn of Everything, on the other hand, has been occasionally criticized not only for being both too humanist (or human-centric) but also for being insufficiently materialist, which suggests we may have struck something like the right balance. In fact, we do discuss how in some Indigenous societies human interactions with the nonhuman world are conceptualized as forms of caretaking—treating nonhuman others as relatives rather than things, as unique beings and personas rather than specimens or types in some standardized scale of values. We also note how it’s a peculiar feature of European concepts of property that living things come to be treated as inert matter and the obligation to care is reduced to the minimum, in favor of a concept of ownership that is ultimately grounded in domination: possession is defined as the right to dispose of land, people, and things as one wishes, including turning them into commodities or destroying them outright. This appears to trace back, at least partly, to the institution of the patriarchal household and the rights of dominium exercised by household heads over their dependents, including slaves treated for legal purposes as “things.”
But again, we also note cases (such as the Aztec Triple Alliance) where similarly extreme forms of social inequality and exploitation, indeed whole empires, were founded on vitalist principles. The anthropologist Eric Wolf famously compared the Aztec Empire with the Third Reich in his book Envisioning Power, and the Nazis were certainly vitalists of a particular (eco-fascist) sort, which is also very much in evidence today. In Dawn we also draw on the work of Fernando Santos-Granero, especially his book Vital Enemies, where he defines a particular subset of Amerindian populations as “capturing societies,” organized for raiding and slaving, not so much for the extraction of labor, but as part of what he calls a political economy of life or vitality. Taking note of such examples, I guess we end up at a position which is quite close theoretically to that of Murray Bookchin and the social ecology movement (we named our chapter on the spread of farming after Bookchin’s work, The Ecology of Freedom).
The basic point is that our attitudes towards the nonhuman world and our attitudes towards one another are intertwined in ways that are sometimes disarmingly transparent but in others may be fiendishly difficult to comprehend. In the field of anthropology, I think Philippe Descola (in works like Beyond Nature and Culture) has gone about as far as anyone in trying to provide a unified method or scheme for doing this. But to try and answer your final question more directly, I think what this implies in terms of environmental activism is that it’s not enough to change our conceptual orientation from extractive to vitalist. History suggests that unless led by other transformations in the direction of participatory democracy, racial justice, and gender equality, the consequences of such an ideological shift may be at best trivial, at worst quite disastrous.