The Fruits of Collaboration

The Dawn of Everything “began as a diversion from [the authors’] more ‘serious’ academic duties: an experiment, a game almost, in which an anthropologist and archaeologist tried to reconstruct the sort of grand dialogue  about human history that was once quite common in our fields, but this time with modern evidence.” The resulting book was serious indeed–and could have been significantly longer but for the author’s determination to keep it manageable–but the text retains an almost playful, experimental, conversational, collaborative spirit.

Chapters are broken into manageable chunks with lighthearted headings such as, “In Which We Discuss Marshall Sahlin’s ‘Original Affluent Society’ and Reflect on What Can Happen When Even Very Insightful People Write About Pre-History in the Absence of Actual Evidence.”

The authors’ wide-ranging, deep-diving, playful collaboration leads to some eye-opening observations.

On the educational path to administrative power, then and now:

Does the kind of esoteric knowledge founded at Chavin [de Huantar, Peru], often founded in hallucinogenic experience, really have anything in common with accounting methods of the later Inca? It seems highly unlikely–until, that is, that even in much more recent times, qualifications to enter bureaucracies are typically based on some form of knowledge that has virtually nothing to do with actual administration. It’s only important because it’s obscure. Hence in tenth century China or eighteenth-century Germany, aspiring civil servants had to pass exams on proficiency in literary classics, written in archaic, even dead languages, just as today they will have to pass exams on rational choice theory or the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. The arts of administration are really only learned later on and through more tradition al means: by practice, apprenticeship or formal mentoring. [474]

On the symbolic basis for administrative power, then and now:

…the secret agent has become the mythic symbol of the modern state. James Bond, with his license to kill, combines charisma, secrecy and the power to use unaccountable violence, underpinned by a great bureaucratic machine. [366]

On the relationship of random violence and sovereign power, then and now:

Sovereignty always represents itself as a symbolic break with the moral order; this is why kings so often commit some kind of outrage to establish themselves, massacring their brothers, marrying their sisters, desecrating the bones of their ancestors or, in gunning down random passers-by. [Are they referencing Trump’s notorious campaign boast?] Yet the very act establishes the king as potential lawmaker and high tribunal, in much the same way that ‘High Gods’ are so often represented as both throwing random bolts of lightning, and standing in judgment over the moral acts of human beings. [395]

The authors’ use of frequent parentheticals contributes to the conversational tone of the text, allows them to qualify assertions, and provides opportunities for humorous asides.

On the excavations at Shimao, China: “Here we sense a much livelier political scene than was ever imagined in the annals of later courtly tradition. Some of it had a grisly aspect, including the decapitation of captured foes, and the burial of some thousands of ancestral jade axes and sceptres in cracks between great stone blocks of the city wall, not to be found or seen again until the prying eyes of archaeologists uncovered them over four millennia later. The likely intention of all this was to disrupt, demoralize and delegitimize rival lineages (‘all in all you’re just another jade in the wall’). [325]

On the rise and decline of Teotihuacan, 300-1200 CE:

Over this longer span of time, what was the legacy of Teotihuacan and its grand urban experiment? Should we view the whole episode as a passing deviation, a blip (albeit an extremely large blip) on the road that led from Olmec hierarchy to Toltec aristocracy and eventually Aztec imperialism? Or might the egalitarian aspects of Teotihuacan have a distinct legacy of their own? Few have really considered the latter possibility, especially since early Spanish accounts of the Mexican highlands provide some extraordinarily suggestive material…. [345]

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