When I first mentioned reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s book to others, I erroneously called it The End of Everything. In my defense, swapping “Dawn” for “End” is a short leap given the book’s stated aims. Initially motivated to “seek new answers to questions about the origins of social inequality,” Graeber and Wengrow soon landed on a more important question: “How it was that ‘inequality’ became such an issue to begin with.” Reframing their project meant “[laying] down foundations for a new world history.” To ask better questions, Graeber and Wengrow suggest we cancel myths that not only rely on bad science but also constrain possibilities for imagining collective life differently. We need, in other words, to gut received histories that “1. simply aren’t true; 2. have dire political implications; 3. make the past needlessly dull.” In their no-holds-barred approach, Rousseau is cast in an unflattering light, and so too are Hobbes, Steven Pinker, and Mircea Eliade. Yet the point of the book isn’t to disparage big men who are central to evolutionary biology, social theory, and any number of academic disciplines and fields; it is instead to query the ideas espoused by these figures and why they became influential in the first place. So the dawn of everything is also the end of everything, if by everything we mean history.
The implications of Dawn for the study of religion are vast. We could consider the evidence that Graeber and Wengrow marshal, but I want to think more precisely about Dawn’s form—what it offers for moving scholarship on religion forward.
To be clear: I fall on the Frank Lloyd Wright side of the form/function debate. Wright, once an apprentice of famed architect Louis H. Sullivan, amended his mentor’s notable phrase “form ever follows function” to convey their spiritual unity (“spiritual” is Wright’s word, not mine). “Only when we say or write ‘form and function are one’ is the slogan significant,” Wright explained at the end of a remarkable career and just six years before his death. Lest the analogy to architecture make you cringe, I am not espousing an instrumentalist notion of scholarship. Function, I mean to suggest, is a purpose understood and advanced in any number of ways.
Let’s talk about packaging. Dawn is one of several New York Times bestsellers I’ve read recently that debunks metanarratives by stitching together new and not-so-new subject matter expertise. But not only this. The authors and their books are all doing a similar kind of project, and this is where things get interesting, form-wise. What Graeber and Wengrow call “A New History of Humanity” resembles Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “New Origin Story” and Isabel Wilkerson’s “Origins of Our Discontents,” to name just a few.
In the preface to The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, Hannah-Jones narrates the project’s first iteration, a multimedia special issue hosted by The New York Times Magazine. She notes that “the historical ideas and arguments in the 1619 Project were not new. We based them on the wealth of scholarship that has redefined the field of American history since at least the 1960s.” What is new about the project—the multimedia version and the various forms that would follow—is the convening of scholars and other creatives to bridge what Hannah-Jones, quoting Jelani Cobb, calls a “gap between the academy and the world.” In other words, conclusions reached by historians about the centrality of slavery to our nation’s founding, now a kind of common sense among them, belie how the founding is narrated and taught outside university walls. Visual culture, testimony, and documentary evidence are brought together to in turn bring about the world’s encounter with the academy; what historians know is made accessible to broader publics online and in two books (an edited collection and an illustrated children’s book) written not for other specialists but for Americans who have been taught that enslavement is incidental to this nation’s history. Similarly engaged with scholarly debates on social engineering, Wilkerson in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents names her debt (“indebted” is the word she uses) to “entire bodies of scholarship [anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, philosophy and history] and to those who have contributed to an archive [she] sought to learn from and perhaps build upon.” Wilkerson, like Hannah-Jones and her collaborators, pairs research with journalism, social criticism, and memoir to unhinge logics that have allowed generations of Americans to shirk responsibility for the social hierarchies lived everyday whose origins can be traced back four hundred years.
The appetite for these and similar projects seems especially ripe now, not only among authors willing to write them, but also among editors to acquire them, general readers to buy them, academics to both endorse and debate them, and presses to publish them. The works by Graeber and Wengrow, Hannah-Jones, and Wilkerson offer a purposeful rethinking of categories familiar to scholars of religion—whether “human,” “race,” or “caste”—and not-so-familiar methods for their excavation, though not one of the authors would claim affinity with religious studies as a field. Published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, One World, and Random House, respectively, their projects are underwritten by commercial presses that flip the script on peer review. The big idea gets published first and scrutinized only later, except on this model, in contrast to the university press model, the scrutiny—owing to the press’s reach, the affordability of a book, and the stardom of its author(s)—is likely to come from all angles, not just one’s peers. Public opinion becomes the forum for evaluation. Here, no one can hide behind a single- or double-blind review process.
Debunking is a popular genre that easily predates this century. Graeber and Wengrow follow a path well tread by many predecessors, including feminist scholars who authored significant challenges to deterministic accounts of human evolution—many of the same accounts that Graeber and Wengrow tackle in their book. Bruno Latour, a scholar who has spent an entire career doing precisely the kind of myth busting Dawn enacts and proposes, is noticeably absent from their account. This is surprising given how few scholars have taken social scientists to task on a scale comparable to Latour. He has resolutely, if not singlehandedly, identified biases latent in their investigations and offered up equally generative ideas for moving social theory forward while challenging the anthropocentrism inherent to the task.
Still, what sets Dawn (and The 1619 Project and Caste) apart from both the expert knowledge the authors recruit and older specialist monographs on the same or adjacent topics is form. I like Dawn because it messes with academic convention while retaining two of its signal features: citation and argument. Early in the monograph, Graeber and Wengrow clue us into a key finding: that for most of our history, human beings “have moved back and forth fluidly between different social arrangements, assembling and dismantling hierarchies on a regular basis.” Graeber and Wengrow call this dynamism “playing games.” Unusual in Dawn is how argument and form (or form and function) coalesce on a singular venture; they are complementary here in ways both productive and humanizing. The playfulness in Graeber and Wengrow’s venture gets us to see how play was enacted in the past, allowing us to also imagine the real possibility for play in the future. Play and experimentation—these are features of the past as much as the present, even as proponents of linear time would have us believe that we’re more innovative than our ancestors. Playing games is what makes us human. It is the rule, not the exception.
As if to underscore this point, Dawn replicates a decade-long conversation between its authors. We do not know who wrote which sections. Even they don’t remember (as we are told in the book). Wengrow, in his dedication to Graeber, describes their project as “not a patchwork but a true synthesis,” one that “began as a diversion from [their] more ‘serious’ academic duties: an experiment, a game almost, in which an anthropologist and an archaeologist tried to reconstruct the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common in [their] fields, but this time with modern evidence.” Divided into twelve chapters, Dawn riffs on and satirizes the progress narratives common to French missionary reports on Indigenous Americans and evolutionary biology taught in high school classrooms. If one gathered up all the subheadings of Dawn, an abridged version of the argument would come into view. Take just these four subheadings as examples:
IN WHICH WE DISCUSS MARSHALL SAHLINS’S ‘ORIGINAL AFFLUENT SOCIETY’ AND REFLECT ON WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN EVEN VERY INSIGHTFUL PEOPLE WRITE ABOUT PREHISTORY IN THE ABSENCE OF ACTUAL EVIDENCE
IN WHICH WE APPLY MAUSS’S INSIGHT TO THE PACIFIC COAST AND CONSIDER WHY WALTER GOLDSCHMIDT’S DESCRIPTION OF ABORIGINAL CALIFORNIANS AS ‘PROTESTANT FORAGERS’, WHILE IN MANY WAYS ABSURD, STILL HAS SOMETHING TO TELL US
BUT WHY DOES IT ALL MATTER? (A QUICK REPRISE ON THE DANGERS OF TELEOLOGICAL REASONING)
ON THE CASE OF TLAXCALA, AN INDIGENOUS REPUBLIC THAT RESISTED THE ASTEC EMPIRE THEN CAME TO JOIN FORCES WITH SPANISH INVADERS, AND HOW ITS FATEFUL DECISION EMERGED FROM DEMOCRATIC DELIBERATIONS IN AN URBAN PARLIAMENT (AS OPPOSED TO THE DAZZLING EFFECTS OF EUROPEAN TECHNOLOGY ON ‘INDIAN MINDS’)
Intended as the first of at least three volumes, Dawn might be (or has already been) criticized for creating precisely the kind of myth the authors want to subvert. Yet, even as Graeber and Wengrow claim to chart a “completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years,” they stop along the way to note what they do not know, what others cannot know, and they ask questions of the reader. Their “New History of Humanity” is incomplete, as it should be.
My point is this: How we do is as significant as the doing’s content. Undoubtedly there are great books that need to be rewritten, projects that need revising, histories that need to be discovered, and problems that need address. Doing some or all of these things well means thinking seriously and creatively about the form our visions take. And not just on the level of prose. Rarely do we consider form a kind of scholarly work. Academics are more likely to praise deep inquiry (e.g., which archives were visited and the quantity of stuff collected) than how findings are assembled (e.g., whether the presentation of evidence advances the field). This is partly because the options for communicating ideas are often predetermined and few, like a prix fixe menu, depending on one’s career stage and field. And so I’m compelled by projects that curate specialist knowledge to tell big stories; if nothing else, they help us to see what subfields are up to, consider synergies across multiple research communities, and illumine how accumulated knowledge matters to understanding a shared humanity whatever our training.
What I’m saying about big stories chafes at trends in academic publishing. I am reminded of this every time I receive review copies of books from university presses. Today, equitable employment in the academy is nearly an empty well and expectations for research and teaching under these circumstances border on delusion. When publishing is motivated by the promise of tenure or at least the renewal of one’s contract, perhaps little time remains to think about form and function beyond job security, however elusive even that may be. Plus, not everyone is interested in telling a big story. Not all projects lend themselves to this form.
At the same time, book publishing in the humanities and interpretative social sciences, if not also other fields, seems one of few spaces still open for advancing more innovative approaches to authorship and scholarly communication. Taking up the questions of who gets to make knowledge and what knowledge gets made, university presses have recently committed to publication programs that amplify underrepresented authors and initiated series that draw together institutional collaborations to advance inquiry across the arts, humanities, and sciences. These are all promising efforts because they do two things at once: welcome new voices into scholarly debate and encourage these exchanges to take new forms.
In the five years I’ve been an editor, rarely have religion scholars been more enthusiastic about public scholarship than when invited to talk about what two books or even three or four or five have in common. I suspect their enthusiasm stems from the chance to converse with others about ideas we are told get made in isolation. But I also wonder these days how the vibrant post-publication conversations I curate might more substantially change the academic study of religion if authors dared to play at the boundaries of scholarship from the start.