One crossover between the Graeberian and Latourian projects?

This text assumes you are familiar David Graeber’s book on Debt, and Latour’s work on Moderns, but may not be necessary.

Main point

When I look at the book ‘Debt: the first 5000 years’ by David Graeber, one way of interpreting it is as a disruption to the idea of modernity as described by Bruno Latour. It is an example of a narrative of practice, and thus a disruption to the narrative of the ever progressing modernist front. If I understand Latour, then part of what Graeber’s book does, is point out that we haven’t progressively moved toward a purer more objective form of doing economics (money), and thus fulfilled the modernist narrative. We haven’t lived through the myth of ever more effective forms of exchange from barter to credit etc… and there is no ‘freemarket’ where Nature is objective arbiter through natural selection of the fittest.

There are three main aspects covered in Graeber’s book that can be understood from a Latourian perspective as outlining human history, without suffering from the delusion of modernity… In positive Latourian language there has been (i) massive integrations between different economic modes, (ii) people simultaneously entertaining multiple economic definitions and practices, (iii) people experimenting as part of the sociotechnical process with non-humans as economic artefacts. These points are demonstrated in Graeber’s book, and in the Latourian sense they have been presented in, could be considered as anthropology of the modern’s from the perspective of practice.  In contrast to these three points are three from the Modernist narrative that Graber has overcome in his book: (i) continuous reference to Capitalism, Capitalism, Capitalism, as the economic aspect of the modernist front (ii) humans are all essentially competitive selfish capitalists, because they are arbitrated by Nature, (iii) there is an economic system: an economy, and therefore economic forces.

Additional thoughts

So we are not actually progressing towards ever more effective exchange. Again in the light of the two works being cited here we can see that where the modernist front is being torn down by its own failure in economics, other possible aspects of the modernist front appear e.g. those who shout for the return of the gold standard support the modernist front, by specifying Gold as the pure objective form of value. Or austerity promoters who support a modernist front, by specifying the obligation to pay off ones debts as the inherently natural obligation.

However there is a lack in Graeber’s book, if we are to use a Latourian perspective, of showing economic variety, and the integration -or multi-existence- of the different types currently. This is not a problem as another project ‘the Human Economy’ (Hart et al) takes up this task.

It seems in some sense that what constitutes our economic value is the narrative that explains the origin and evolution of our economics. I could further correlate economic value with the capacity of the economic narrative to ontologically consume its participant. A population of participants where their ‘being’ is split between practice and belief. In this multi-ontology, the modernist front is internalised as belief, whilst our practice is varied. This varied practice has some aspects agreeing with the truth conditions of the modernist front, but also many other. Many others that now go through regular contradictions with the modernist front in day to day life. Conclusively this makes it very difficult to ontologically recognise the actor-networks we exist as a part of.

Returning to the point that economic value is correlated to the economic narrative of the modernist front: myths about money being the supremely effective way to conduct exchange; that ‘society’ couldn’t exist without it; that we have to pay off debts; that gold has inherent value; that we are simply competitive and selfish etc… Could the popularity of Graeber’s book be seen as inevitable as its readers’ value for the modernist narrative starts to transfer to Graeber’s narrative as it supports its claims to be the more accurate narrative, and thus may possess a higher multi-ontological capacity for economic practice. Obviously this transfer is not fully realised as the economic aspect of the modernist front is not separate from its other aspects, and the reweaving of the past to affect the present ontology is complicated.

Nonetheless with regards to Graeber’s book, it does not find meaning in the social relationships between humans as some sort of social construction of cultural meaning, made of symbols or otherwise. Meaning is the very historical contingencies, physical activity, and sociotechnical practices he outlines in his book. It is not abstract from them.

Consequently Anthropology is about understanding the mundane more accurately, if only because that is where most of life is and therefore a reality. In the ‘Debt’ book in particular, Graeber has taken on a public understanding of life and what is meaningful to it (which contrary to the perspective of the modernist front, is the past and its history) and communicated from that indigenous perspective thereby indirectly drawing out what is salient and meaningful, and that is the value in history, myth-busting etc…

I know there is alot more to both peoples work, and a lot more to Graebers book, but these are some preliminary thoughts in an effort to really understand more than just information. Therefore any comments, criticisms are most welcome, though I know this may seem a little niche for some.

Complementary information

It maybe helpful as a summary to have looked at these first (lectures, papers etc…)

Tangentally this brings to mind some lesser quality questions from a previous post by myself:

  • How important are the agency exerting qualities of an item being exchanged?
  • How important is it for an exchange form to be decentralised from both sides of the market-state coin?
  • How important is it for an exchange form to generate its own value (perhaps in the sense of a human economy) aside from the value of proprietary currency?


The header image is borrowed from Armin Linke with gratitude. I think the picture shows tulips grown in Holland coming on conveyor belts into airport where people pictured bid in an auction for them, and then they are diverted onto the correct conveyor belt to the correct aeroplane to the buyers choice of destination. Source