A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic ‘Exile’ (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

April 15, 2013

A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic 'Exile' 1

Pete Marovich for The Chronicle. David Graeber, an anthropologist who studies and participates in the radical left, finds fans of his work inside academe and out. Here he speaks with audience members during a talk at a public library in Washington, D.C.

By Christopher Shea

Who’s afraid of David Graeber? Not the dozens of D.C.-area residents who showed up on a recent night at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library to hear the anthropologist and radical activist talk about his new book, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement(Spiegel & Grau). Aimed at the mainstream, the book discusses Mr. Graeber’s involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement and the idea that principles drawn from anarchist theory—a wholesale rejection of current electoral politics, for starters, in favor of groups operating on the basis of consensus—offer an alternative to our present polity, which he calls “organized bribery” (or “mafia capitalism”).

On this warm spring evening the rumpled scholar was interviewed by a friendly and more conventionally telegenic writer, Thomas Frank. Graying lefties and young liberals and radicals in the crowd alike seemed impressed. Even the token skeptical economist in the audience framed her question respectfully, and C-Span broadcast live.

Mr. Graeber is a star in the left-academic world. Indeed, it’s possible that, given his activism and his writings, he is the most influential anthropologist in the world. He played a part in establishing the nonhierarchical “organization” of the Occupy movement, in its early days in Manhattan, and his 500-plus-page Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) struck scholars for its verve and sweep. It made the case that lending and borrowing evolved out of humane, communitarian impulses in premodern societies—out of a free-floating interest in the common weal—and only later became institutionalized actions spawning moral guilt and legal punishment.

The book ranged from discussions of ancient Sumerian economics to analyses of how Nambikwara tribesmen in Brazil settle their affairs to the international monetary system. “An argument of Debt’s scope hasn’t been made by a professional anthropologist for the best part of a century, certainly not one with as much contemporary relevance,” wrote the British anthropologist Keith Hart, of Goldsmiths College, University of London, in a review on his Web site last year. The book won a prize for best book in anthropology from the Society for Cultural Anthropology in 2012 and according to his agent has sold nearly 100,000 copies in English alone.

But strikingly, Mr. Graeber, 52, has been unable to get an academic job in the United States. In an incident that drew national attention, Yale University, in 2005, told him it would not renew his contract (which would have promoted him from assistant professor to “term associate” professor). After a fight, he won a reprieve—but only for two years. He never came up for tenure.

Foreign universities immediately sent out feelers, he says. From 2008 through this spring, Mr. Graeber was a lecturer and then a reader at Goldsmiths College and, just last month, he accepted a professorship at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

But no American universities approached him, he says, and nearly 20 job applications in this country (or Canada) have borne no fruit. The applications came in two waves: directly after the Yale brouhaha and a couple of years later, when he concluded he wanted to return to the States for reasons that were partly personal (a long-distance romantic relationship, the death of his mother and older brother).

His academic “exile,” as he calls it, has not gone unnoticed. “It is possible to view the fact that Graeber has not secured a permanent academic position in the United States after his controversial departure from Yale University as evidence of U.S. anthropology’s intolerance of political outspokenness,” writes Jeff Maskovsky, an associate professor of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, in the March issue of American Anthropologist.

That charge might seem paradoxical, given anthropology’s reputation as a leftist redoubt, but some of Mr. Graeber’s champions see that leftism as shallower than it might first appear. Anthropology “is radical in the abstract,” says Laura Nader, a professor in the field at the University of California at Berkeley. “You can quote Foucault and Gramsci, but if you tell it like it is,” it’s a different story, she says.

Mr. Graeber “talks about possibilities, and God, if there’s anything we need now it’s possibilities,” she says. “We are in tunnels. We are turned in. We are more ethnocentric than ever. We’ve turned the United States into a military zone. And into this move-to-the-right country comes David Graeber.”

When he applied to Berkeley in the early 2000s and the department failed to hire him, “we really missed the boat,” she says.

Jonathan Marks, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who had no direct experience with any Graeber job search, agrees: “Whoever had a chance to hire him and didn’t missed out on having the author of one of the most important books in recent memory on their faculty,” he wrote in an e-mail.

 ‘Incredibly Conformist’

Mr. Graeber was at first reluctant to talk about his failed job searches, for fear of coming across as bitter and souring future chances, but he decided to open up after the LSE job became official. As he recalled, the places to which he applied twice were the City University of New York Graduate Center, the New School, Cornell University, and the University of Chicago. The others were Hunter College, Emory, Duke, Columbia, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins—as well as the University of Toronto. He heard indirectly of colleagues at other universities trying to secure him a position, to no avail.

Responding to anthropologists’ frequent claim that they embrace activist scholarship, he echoes Ms. Nader: “They don’t mean it”—at least when it comes truly radical activism.

“If I were to generalize,” Mr. Graeber says, “I would say that what we see is a university system which mitigates against creativity and any form of daring. It’s incredibly conformist and it represents itself as the opposite, and I think this kind of conformism is a result of the bureaucratization of the university.”

He and his allies also suspect that false information emanating from his public fight with Yale, garnered secondhand, has hurt him.

When Yale announced it was not renewing his contract, students and some professors rallied behind him, and he gave interviews suggesting that the decision was politically motivated. (The story made The New York Times.) He had spent part of a sabbatical working with the Global Justice Movement, which has mounted protests against such groups as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not take much part in the heated Yale debate over graduate-student unionization. He was, he likes to say, “a scholar in New Haven and an activist in New York.”

During the dispute over his Yale position, he said, he’d been accused of not doing service work (though he did all he was asked, he said), of being late for classes, and of being ill prepared to teach. Yancey Orr, a graduate student in religion at the time who took courses from Mr. Graeber and is now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, says that charge is absurd: “He was easily the most helpful seminar leader you could ask for.”

Being denied tenure at Yale is hardly unusual, but not getting rehired at Mr. Graeber’s stage is. Some professors Mr. Orr has talked to at institutions that failed to hire Mr. Graeber were under the impression that he went nuclear over a tenure denial, but the situation was more complex, more unorthodox, says Mr. Orr.

The chairs of the departments to which Mr. Graeber applied who could be reached all cited confidentiality in declining to talk about the decisions—or, typically, even to confirm he’d applied. But several denied that politics would affect such decisions. “I can say without hesitation,” wrote James Ferguson, the chair of anthropology at Stanford, in an e-mail, “that I personally would not regard Graeber’s political orientation as in any way disqualifying, nor would I expect such views to be held by my colleagues.”

“As is known throughout the world,” wrote Janet Roitman, chair of anthropology at the New School, “the New School prides itself for its longstanding tradition of radical politics; David would not have been the first hire or tenured faculty member to pursue ‘radical’ political positions or to engage in activism.”

Some anthropologists, including Alex Golub, a contributor to the popular blog Savage Minds and an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, suggested that a general dearth of jobs in the field would be enough to explain Mr. Graeber’s run of bad luck—especially because the book that brought him fame, Debt, had not been published at the time of the searches. (Though he’d published four others by 2009, as well as a much-read pamphlet, “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” with Prickly Paradigm.) But Mr. Graeber scoffs at that: “Gee, I applied for 17. Somebody got those jobs.” Moreover, Britain is not brimming with anthropology jobs, either, yet he’s had little problem there.

“I believe it’s possible that his politics have helped him in some cases and hurt him in others,” says Mr. Maskovksy, of CUNY, who in his American Anthropologist essay raised the issue of what Mr. Graeber’s academic exile to England meant for the profession . “He has a huge following among graduate students because of his protest work and because he links his protest work to the kind of anthropology he wants to do. But there’s a huge gap between generating that kind of interest and respect, on the one hand, and job-hiring decisions. I don’t know what makes people hire and what makes them not.”

On Collegiality

One charge that has dogged Mr. Graeber is that he is “difficult,” an attribute that’s obviously hard to gauge. Ms. Nader says she urged him to soften his rough edges—to send thank-you cards, even, when protocol suggested it. (Mr. Graeber does not recall that counseling session on manners and says he always sends thank-you notes.) But she finds it deplorable that scholars would value superficial clubbability over originality of thought; she decries the “‘harmony ideology’ that has hit the academy.” She also thinks the fact that he “writes in English,” eschewing jargon, hasn’t helped him.

There is some evidence of Mr. Graeber’s contentiousness. During an online seminar about Debt on the blog Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, said Mr. Graeber had—for example—provided insufficient evidence that in the first Gulf War the United States had attacked Iraq partly because Iraq had stopped using dollars as its reserve currency and turned to the euro. In Mr. Graeber’s response, he accused Mr. Farrell of “consummate dishonesty” and said he had failed to engage with the argument and instead sought to show its maker was a “lunatic.” Mr. Farrell responded that he was “very unhappy” with Mr. Graeber’s charges and tone.

From February to April 1, J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, baited Mr. Graeber by setting up an automated Twitter stream that sarcastically recounted dozens of alleged (or actual) errors of fact in Debt. For example: “Learned that 12 Regional Fed Banks not private banks like Citi or Goldman Sachs? Stay away until you do! #Graebererrors.” Mr. Graeber responded aggressively. At one point he wrote, on Twitter, referring to Mr. DeLong’s work in the Clinton Treasury Department on the North American Free Trade Agreement: “I bet the poor guy had a rough time at 14. Tried to compensate by gaining power, then look—destroyed Mexico’s economy.”

Mr. Graeber calls some of Mr. DeLong’s postings “libelous”—a virtual campaign of harassment. “He has been on a crusade to hurt me in every way,” he says, growing angry.

“Yet these guys are considered mainstream and I’m the crazy guy who can’t get a job.” He adds, “I don’t even write negative book reviews.”

Mr. Graeber, who says he gets along just fine with his colleagues in London—and, indeed, with most of his former colleagues at Yale—has his own take on what scholars mean by “collegiality”: “What collegiality means in practice is: ‘He knows how to operate appropriately within an extremely hierarchical environment.’ You never see anyone accused of lack of collegiality for abusing their inferiors. It means ‘not playing the game in what we say is the proper way.'”

In his American Anthropologist essay, CUNY’s Mr. Maskovsky said that the many graduate students who took part in Occupy Wall Street might view Mr. Graeber’s difficulty finding a job as a cautionary tale. Would their advisers see their activism as, at the least, a distraction from their research?

Manissa Maharawal is one such student, at CUNY, a participant in Occupy now studying the activist projects that emerged from it. She says she has received nothing but support from her advisers and doesn’t understand the politics of academic hiring, but finds the Graeber situation perplexing—in a bad way. “His work is really good, he’s well reviewed, he’s become pretty famous in the last year,” she says. “I’m not sure what’s going on. You can have all the boxes you’re supposed to check checked and still not get a job. It’s scary, for sure.”

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