Rewriting the big history books

Temporary decloaking continues apace, in order to acknowledge the existence of David Graeber’s final meisterwerke, which is no less than a history of everything. Alas, it’s only volume one, and he is no longer with us on this plane of existence to expand into the envisaged volumes two and so on. This makes it all the more valuable, in a sense, and there remains the faint hope that his co-writer will assume the mantle.

In short, I’d like Graeber to be right. It might offer us some routes (roots?) out of the post-Enlightenment “progress”-ratcheting one-way road to Hell we are now quite advanced along. And I think the politics of the time (and Graeber’s untimely death) mean this book will be enormously welcomed, in itself probably a net good, whether his theory is true, half-true, or not at all.

Ascent of Man – Peachey Conservation
You Are Here ———————————————————————————————–^

I suspect, though, that the established big histories, as popularised by the likes of Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker and of course Yuval Harari, are far from entirely defunct just yet. Furthermore, the undoubted impact of those existing grand narratives gives them a certain momentum which will hardly be slowed by the late intervention of Graeber.

(Full disclosure: I am complicit in such momentum, which I consider to be a positivist intervention/disruption in the current thanatocentric vector of humanity, as I am working with Sapienship, Yuval Harari’s educational vehicle. From what I can discern, the great insight of Homo Sapiens – that humanity’s tendency to collective fictions brought about an explosion of mass collaboration – does not appear to be challenged by Graeber’s work.)

Does Graeber offer us something new? He appears to be offering us a more complex picture, crucially one that suggests a greater sense of choice and agency for humanity writ both small and large. Is this itself a net good? Probably yes, even if his arguments transpire ultimately not to hold much water. We need hope, goddammit. Choice, even the illusion thereof, is a form of hope.

I’ll know more when I read the book, of course, which is all I want for Christmas (apart from world peace, an end to hunger, climate stability and Irish reunification.) Or let me rephrase – I look forward to reading the book and finding therein some antique answers to current questions with the same degree of utopian optimism that I apply to resolving war, climate change and the intractable identity politics of the island of Ireland.

We exist today in coercive macro-societies afflicted by gross inequality and inhuman scale, which limit human potential and freedom. It will come as little surprise to know that, at times past, Graeber was all over that too – see his work on the perniciousness of debt or his theory about “Bullshit” jobs. If our macro-history was a series of choices rather than some kind of inevitability, the Whiggish ratcheting ever forward towards an often illusory or treacherous progress, then perhaps we still have the chance to choose otherwise. That’s why I hope he’s correct.

Big history always brings us, or at least me, back to a futurist perspective of course. What can we learn from the past to arm us in the face of the existentialist threats currently facing humanity? One of the most evident and positive truths in narratives like Harari’s Homo Sapiens is the miraculous similarities we share as a species, being the ingenious survivors of a series of genetic bottlenecks and previous existential crises.

Perhaps in identifying some roads not taken, or insufficiently taken, Graeber’s last sigh may prove to be a singular intervention we can apply to our own approach to the future. Perhaps. I’ll find out at Christmas, if Santa Claus is good to me.

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