Centering a major punchline of their story on Indigenous refusals, David Graeber and David Wengrow develop a compelling account of alternative ways of being human. The Dawn of Everything is a story focused on the past but with a deep and stated concern for the future. In the service of rethinking histories and possible paths forward, they espouse a three-pronged framework for understanding freedom: (1) the freedom to move or relocate; (2) the freedom to disobey; and (3) the freedom to imagine and enact alternative forms of social life. They walk readers through numerous examples of how such freedoms have been expressed and constrained in various historical moments to illustrate that we are not condemned to be forever stuck in the patterns of governance—and tragic social thought—that we have inherited. Many humans have lived otherwise and we should learn from them. This requires new sensibilities for how we read history and write histories, foregrounding the shreds and patches of cultures configured and lived outside the frame of our dominant just-so narratives.
I learned a great deal from the many examples that Graeber and Wengrow marshalled, some familiar, others not. I was keenly attentive to their sustained narrative about how Native peoples in the Americas have a long history of enacting, debating, and refusing a tremendous diversity of social and political forms. I find it entirely plausible that a diversity of Native American groups across a vast swath of history experimented regularly with various ways to self-organize. To cite but two examples, the authors’ insights about the ways seasonality and clans suggest modalities of power sharing and care networks map well onto contexts I am familiar with. Likewise, their reflections on the category of the sacred, ritual knowledge, and property were instructive, often in unexpected ways. For example, while I know a fair bit about Northwest Coast forms of hierarchy and possession, I hadn’t thought to juxtapose these realities with ones that are considerably different just down the coast. Neighbors, it turns out, are good to think—if one knows where to look.
Refusal is a key concept for the authors, naming the dynamic gesture that operationalizes much of what they envision as freedom. It is the mode through which people counter-distinguish themselves, a point I will return to below. Refusal is shorthand for saying, “We’ve seen this before and we don’t want it; and not only don’t we want it but we reject the very basis of the thinking and politics that frames horizons of possibility in this particular way.” This attention to refusal as a political act and as a mode of exerting freedom resonates profoundly with much current scholarship in Native and Indigenous studies and with ground-level actions and the debates that animate them, including those in protest encampments in First Nation, Native American, and Hawaiian contexts.
I had hoped that at some point the authors would turn from the historical past of their protagonist Kandiaronk to his descendants in the present, who are very much engaged in the ongoing project of imagining and living otherwise. Graeber and Wengrow do acknowledge a number of contemporary Indigenous scholars and lean on some explicitly. But this is largely to set the stage for their historical arguments. In fairness, their book is not about the present. Even so, the tip of their spear, as Hawaiians might say, thrusts their insights forward, challenging us to reimagine and act beyond the constraints of inherited frames. Just because Adam ate an apple and Adam Smith counted one less apple (to riff on Marshall Sahlins), we shouldn’t thereby be condemned to reproduce a world where human appetites must be managed by state power, with scarcity as our animating economic-cum-cosmological anxiety. The point, they say, is to learn to think and behave different now.
In the service of illustrating such lessons about radical social thought and action, the authors might have gestured to what is happening in Native communities in intensely generative ways, whether through protective actions at Oak Flat and on Mauna Kea or through non-state entities such as NDN Collective. In terms of scholarly engagement, refusal as a political and ethnographic strategy has been foregrounded by Audra Simpson, among others. Her magnificent book Mohawk Interruptus develops a theory and practice of refusal in ways that give flesh to the bones of Graeber and Wengrow’s arguments, indeed from Iroquois ground. Naming this missed opportunity is meant in part to be a compliment, insofar as it flags the broader relevance of the book. These real-time contexts provide a space for engaging the three freedoms named by Graeber and Wengrow and the meanings of freedom and sovereignty for non-state actors. For example, many Native people currently insist on their freedom to not move. They disobey and imagine alternative social and political forms precisely as a means to stay put in relationship to the land. This deserves attention, namely for the ways it bespeaks alternative sovereignties that are not about legitimating the use of force but about re-engineering a distinctly Western category (sovereignty) for acting responsibly toward the land and ancestors.
Shifting attention disciplinarily to religious studies, here I briefly explore a core concept for Graeber and Wengrow: schismogenesis. It is central to the book and its overall argument about contrastive identity formations and freedom born of refusal. They draw upon Marcel Mauss and Gregory Bateson in making this point, emphasizing both cultural borrowing and rejection. This is such a productive framework and one that deserves further elaboration, including by way of acknowledging other predecessors who have made the point. I would certainly add Fredrik Barth to the list. As a scholar of religion, I’d insist that J.Z. Smith be part of the conversation.
For the better part of fifty years, this topic—identity formation across and through difference and refusal—was Smith’s principal preoccupation, coming to its most robust expression in his 2004 collection of essays, Relating Religion, which includes “What a Difference a Difference Makes” and “Differential Equations: On Constructing the Other.” The latter not incidentally looks to “New World” culture-contact experiences for its comparative frame. In these essays Smith develops his concept of the Near-Other, a schismogenesis-oriented theory focused sharply on some of Graeber and Wengrow’s favorite themes, such as sacrifice and culinary rules. Added to this, Smith also wrote extensively about property and the sacred, seasonality and its turns, and other themes of direct relevance to the book in question. On a related note, the authors center ritual as a preferred category and celebrate it as a special domain in which the important human labor of sifting and sorting alternative ways of being can be experimented with, including in playful ways. Again, bringing Smith and others into the conversation would have been illuminating, for this line of thinking has animated a fair bit of work in religious studies for the past several decades, as seen most clearly in Sam Gill’s scholarship on play, dance, and gesture, which builds explicitly on Smith’s scaffolding.
Of course I appreciate that one book—no matter how big—can’t do everything. So as with my comments about Indigenous studies, so too with religious studies: it is a credit to the book that The Dawn of Everything surfaces resonances in so many domains. It is certainly our collective loss that scholars in religious studies and Indigenous studies don’t have the benefit of the additional volumes envisioned by Graeber and Wengrow. They were and are so provocative in the best sense, pushing us to disobey and occupy different worlds, shedding neighborly light on problems one takes to be domestic, disciplinarily speaking.