Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Objects and Graeber’s Debt
I’ve been reading my way through David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I’m beginning to think it’s a major book, one important outside its ostensible subject matter, which, I assume, is something like the history of economics. I’m thinking, for example, that he has discussions which would interest the object-oriented ontologists, though ontology is not at all his subject. But money is, as is debt, and the mystery is whence this stuff? this money, which levels everthing, a leveling that starts long before the dreaded capitalism. He talks of slaves as being people existing without (essential) relations with other people; it’s the lack of relations that renders them somehow less than fully human. And he talks of how institutions such as bride-price and wergild set up equivalences between humans and mere physical stuff.
It’s one thing to take all this at face value, but accepting received summarization of the historical record. But Graeber wants to know how and why these usages came about?
It’s a long book, with lots of stories and examples, from various cultural traditions (Vedic, Islamic, Greco-Roman, Celtic, Norse). While it’s relatively free of technical terminology, it has its own density. It’s to be savored.
Here’s a passage, not chosen at random at all, but simply the passage that prompted me to write this note (p. 198):
In Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power of that person over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems. First of all, it’s not clear what it would mean for a human to have a “ relation” with an inanimate object. Human beings can have relations with one another. But what would it mean to have a “ relation” with a thing? And if one did, what would it mean to give that relation legal standing? A simple illustration will suffice: imagine a man trapped on a desert island. He might develop extremely personal relationships with, say, the palm trees growing on that island . If he’s there too long, he might well end up giving them all names and spending half his time having imaginary conversations with them. Still, does he own them ? The question is meaningless. There’s no need to worry about property rights if noone else is there.
I suppose it al boils down to social networks of mutual recognition. Mutual recognition of subjectivity (slaves are our) and of ownership (here you do expect the slave to recognize his own status a something owned, but that is secondary to the mutual recognition between those in power that you do have a right to own slaves, and specifically this one). It is the mutual recognition of property and obligations that makes money, and debt, possible, but that rests on previous protocols for reciprocal recognition and for the making of social identities.
Yes, mutual recognition. Now, just how one engineers that across a large group, I’m not sure we can do more than talk around that one.