Debt: The First 500 Comments At Crooked Timber

Some years ago, I was talking with a senior scholar that I had known well while I was in graduate school and in my early career. This person’s scholarly work is amazing stuff, a huge presence in African history, and I also am quite fond of this professor personally. But over the course of a couple of phone calls that year, I came to a decision that I really didn’t want to keep up with those sometimes lengthy conversations.

The primary reason was that I’d been feeling a strong desire to get beyond a mode of imagined relations with other scholars and their works that had been a part of the ethos of graduate training (not just at my institution, but at all of them, from what I could see). Even though my main advisor was a sensitive, kind person and my closest friends in my graduate program were wonderful, engaging thinkers, I still found that we got into discussions about scholars and scholarship that felt like a story by Shirley Jackson. We didn’t necessarily start our discussions in that tone but eventually someone, often a professor or graduate student outside of our little affinity group, would take it there. The stakes would ramp up quickly, loyalties would be declared, terms and definitions would be invested with world-shattering significance, footnotes would be scrutinized for evidence of mortal sin, and so on. It was even worse at some other places. I hung around the University of Chicago for a while during my write-up, and you’d think that the custodial staff would have needed to put in overtime to clean off the blood on the floor after some seminars in the anthropology or history departments. (Which might not be irrelevant to what I’m responding to in this posting.)

In my long-standing warning to students about graduate school, this cultural predisposition is one of the things I have in mind. Even when you don’t like it, you can’t escape it, and because you can’t escape it, you get remade by it. It then takes a lot of self-work and discipline to get to a more joyous, open and pluralistic habitus, not the least of which because at least some of the people you work with have accepted that the work of intellectuals should be more like a never-ending session of fraternity hazing. This is why I stopped wanting to talk with my friend: our conversations were substantially about all the many books that this person felt were stupid or incompetent and the many scholars who were weak. After a time, I mostly listened, or half-heartedly protested that I rather liked this book or that person’s work.

I just didn’t want to do that any more, at least not habitually. Yes, sometimes I still offer strong criticisms of published work, both by academics and other writers. Sometimes I say critical things in classes about the work of other scholars. Intellectual life shouldn’t be a pollyanna parade or a group hug. But neither should criticism be a habit, nor should we casually arrive at judgments about the character of other professionals from a critical reading of the work they produce. (One of my other graduate professors taught me that: an awesomely talented historian who was also a jerk.) Ad hominem is more than a logical fallacy, it’s a bad way to live. The emotion I want to feel first as an intellectual is passionate joy: what a world we have, in which there is so much to know and read and say and think.

What I’ve tried to do over time is embody more and more of my main advisor’s approach to critiquing the work of his students and colleagues. He didn’t want to break you on the wheel, convert you to his church, capture you for his tribe: he generally tried to help people make their work better, more acute, in their own terms, to help them find the best versions of their claims, the richest grounds for convening debates.


I offer this as a prologue for my reaction to the ongoing discussion of David Graeber’s book Debt at the weblog Crooked Timber. Some words that come to mind: horrified, distressed, squicked. Yes, ok, the car wreck you can’t look at away from and all that. It really gives me all over again that feeling of grad school as Hobbesean nightmare, of small arguments quickly and casually intensified into thermonuclear exchanges, losing all potentially meaningful disagreements along the way.

Reading back into an exchange that has gotten to this point is about as welcome as Hephaestus trying to mediate between Zeus and Hera. My starting place is simply that I like Graeber’s book a lot, even when I don’t agree with some of his analysis or his conclusions. I want more “big theory” like this in academia, I want scholars to be able to write expansive, loose, multidisciplinary work. Liking and wanting this kind of work obliges scholarly readers to relax in response: stow the disciplinary gatekeeping, be generous, find the most interesting debates that can come from it.

So I read back to Henry Farrell’s original appraisal of Debt at CT, given the intensity of Graeber’s response to it. Then I re-read Chapter Twelve in Debt, the focus of the dispute. Here’s basically how I score the fight:

1. Yes, there’s a difference between Chapter Twelve and the rest of the book. At least some of that is the same kind of difference that you’d find between Marx’s general social theory and his specific reading of specific political events during his lifetime, or between Foucault’s general thought and his ventures into post-68 activism or his engagement with the Iranian Revolution. Graeber’s underlying reconceptualization of debt and his critique of the competing ur-narrative of mainstream economics is stimulating. You can do a lot with it, it’s good to think, as many other CT commenters said. Chapter Twelve you might not like if you don’t like Graeber’s much more specific reading of our own political moment. Or you might legitimately disagree with his analysis of the postwar world-system, in terms that are not mere quibbles about facts.

2. I suppose that you could fault Henry Farrell for not spending more time on what he liked in the book. Or that he makes his disagreement with Chapter Twelve rest too much on footnotes, on questions of evidence. Or that the intensity of phrases like “flat-out wrong” are too much. As I say to my students sometimes, your adjectives can pick a lot of fights that you don’t want or need. The core of the disagreement seems pretty legitimate and interesting , though. Basically, Farrell argues that the postwar system is contradictory, full of unintended or indirect outcomes, factionalized within and between states, and so on. He argues that Graeber does not see it that way. Farrell does imply that this difference in their views is between a complex, evidence-based perspective (his) and a simplified, ideological and evidence-poor perspective (Graeber’s). Within scholarly communities, even a professorial Gandhi is going to find it hard not to rise to that bait. I think you can stage that disagreement in a more generative way, but there’s no getting around that it’s a real disagreement which is both about the substance of scholarship and about our political choices.

2a. Disclosure: I’m much more on what I perceive as Farrell’s side on that big point. I tend to see both the world-system and various contemporary micropolitical situations as complex, emergent, contingent, shot through with unintended outcomes, and so on. I don’t think power always knows what power needs, I don’t think power always gets what power wants, I think that even when power knows what it needs and acts to get what it wants, there’s all sorts of other stuff that gets in the way, much of it not resistance in any sense. But, as I said in a talk I gave recently at Juniata, not universally so. Occasionally there really are conspiracies, occasionally systems of domination are relatively seamless, sometimes empires do act with conscious, aggressive intent in pursuit of instrumental outcomes which really do extend or preserve their capacity for domination. More importantly, there is a complex account of power (empirically complex, theoretically complex) that disagrees with Farrell’s views and my own views, and I would say that Graeber’s work is a good example of that sophisticated account.

3. So: yes, Farrell’s commentary mixes together a genuine disagreement (of the kind that you’d hope was envisioned in Graeber’s hope for “public debate” inspired by the book) with some insinuations about poor craftsmanship and some assertions that Graeber is simplistic or straight-out factually wrong. Evidence and fact play some role in this disagreement, but it’s also very much about questions of perspective, preference, habitus. Stuff that you can kill a pint over if you can keep it friendly, or kill a friendship over if you can’t. So would Graeber be right to feel a bit nettled and annoyed with Farrell coming into his reply to the CT commenters? Yes, sure. Would he be right to voice that annoyance? I guess, but there are ways to do that and ways not to do it. My feeling is that Graeber goes the latter route and then some. He doesn’t even stick to the more modestly ugly tone that the CT commentariat sometimes settles into. I found myself going back and forth from Farrell’s reply to Graeber’s, trying to figure out what was going on. Some explanation comes when we hear that there’s been a series of acrimonious Twitter exchanges. But I mean, jesus, the intensity of Graeber’s reply heads at warp-speed for WTF territory.

4. The CT commentariat makes a valiant attempt to rescue some meaningful disagreement from the wreckage, but it isn’t long before people are being forced to either withdraw from the conversation or to pick sides.

5. I’ve said that I want to keep my views about people separate from my views about scholarship, and to be welcoming and generous in my views of the latter within my intellectual practice. So to stick to that: Debt is a great book, a great project, and you should read it. It’s a generative book that makes you think about things you’ve known for a long time in new ways, and is suggestive of research projects a-plenty for a rising generation of scholars. But Graeber hasn’t done himself any favors on the personal side of things: it’s really hard to unthink this exchange and the visceral feelings it creates in me.

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13 Responses to Debt: The First 500 Comments At Crooked Timber

  1. Western Dave says:

    [standing ovation]
    I felt like I had to take a shower after reading Graebner’s response. And Farrell’s didn’t strike me at the time as being improper.

  2. Richard says:

    I didn’t read past the first 25 comments, in part because the thread was already irritating, in a typically that’s-why-I-don’t-ever-read-crooked-timber sort of way, so I can’t say anything about how Graeber responded to Farrell’s first reply.

    “I tend to see both the world-system and various contemporary micropolitical situations as complex, emergent, contingent, shot through with unintended outcomes, and so on. I don’t think power always knows what power needs, I don’t think power always gets what power wants, I think that even when power knows what it needs and acts to get what it wants, there’s all sorts of other stuff that gets in the way, much of it not resistance in any sense.”

    There’s nothing in Debt to suggest otherwise. The rest of your paragraph suggests that you agree, so I’ll quote that too:

    “there is a complex account of power (empirically complex, theoretically complex) that disagrees with Farrell’s views and my own views, and I would say that Graeber’s work is a good example of that sophisticated account.”

    The problem is Farrell’s original review refused to grant this of Graeber’s account. Graeber was exactly correct in calling Farrell’s review an exercise in “delegitimization”. So for my money Farrell had what was coming to him. (And though I’ve not read the more intense comments you’re taking issue with, I have seen Graeber lay into people online. Sometimes it alarms me, but that’s only because I’ve been conditioned to be alarmed by conflict and to accept that intellectual disputes should be tame and decorous. Graeber recognizes that they are anything but. Farrell set out to dismiss him, he fired back. Good for him.)

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    So yeah, I think Graeber’s account is “complex” in that good old sense of “good intellectual quality” throughout. But I do think that something of the implication of the first part of the book is not necessarily paid off in the second half or so. E.g., even from Graeber’s own account, you could begin to ask, “If debt is as common and recurrent a logic of political economies as it is in this account, and not in a strictly cumulative way, maybe the way debt functions in the contemporary world-system is as much a deep, almost unconscious cultural substructure as it is an instrumentally-sought, consciously self-interested consequences of US hegemony secured through military power”. This is what John Holbo was getting at in his comments on the book at CT, I think. This point doesn’t necessarily contradict Graeber, in fact, it comes out of much of his analysis, particularly in the way he introduces the whole book in Chapter 1.

    I hear what you’re saying on the conditioning to “tame and decorous” but having started my life as an intellectual in a much fiercer and more confrontational spirit, I’ve really come to hate that kind of laying into people, no holds barred. I think sometimes left intellectuals justify it on the grounds that you can’t be a timid little flower when the world is burning, or that civility is unilateral disarmament in the face of persistent incivility from the right, etc. But usually the sharpest, most wounding fights are between two fractions on the left, not across political boundaries. And I honestly wonder: if this is about making a better world, when will we get around to modeling that? Generosity is at least one kind of anti-debt strategy, at least when it’s not about pseudo-feudal management of reciprocity. But ok, at least if one is going to pay back a perceived attack in kind, some sort of proportionality is in order. Graeber’s reply to Farrell and his other critics is to my eyes astonishingly disproportionate, so much so that it makes me feel like I missed something far more consequential than a little tweeting war.

  4. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Well I have not read Graeber’s book nor am I an anarchist or even an anthropologist. But, on a purely personal level I am much more favorable to Graeber than Farrell who strikes me as a Platonic ideal of the arrogant liberal academic. This is based solely on his CT posts. Maybe he is completely different in person. Graeber despite being able to brawl on the internet is not by nature a jerk on the internet. Years ago back in the 1990s I used to see Graeber post on alt.anarchy on usenet and once he sent me a rather nice e-mail. I can not ever imagine getting a polite e-mail from Farrell.

  5. I can not ever imagine getting a polite e-mail from Farrell.

    Maybe all you needed to do was to ask me nicely 😉

  6. Brad DeLong says:

    The question that I would like answered is: how much of a shadow should the train wreck that is chapter 12 and Graeber’s attempted substance-free ideological police action against what seemed to me sharp-but-fair criticism by Farrell cast back on the rest of the book? With economists and historians, we can check that they have their facts right when we wonder about their credibility. With anthropologists who report their own findings and the findings of other anthropologists that they trust, not so much.

    How much of the rest of the book is on the caliber of, say, Graeber’s reliance on Richard Wolff as an observer of Silicon Valley?

    That is, I think, the question I would most like answered here.


    Brad DeLong

  7. alex says:

    The bad-mouthing of other academics is also endemic in mathematics and computer science. I worked for a long time in a department with a very big name researcher, and never once did I hear him speak admiringly of any one person’s work, or even their character. One needs a great deal of intestinal fortitude to resist joining such disparagament.

  8. Western Dave says:

    Mostly historical anthropologists use archival data (think Marshall Sahlins writing about Cook), so more similar to historians than to economists. One can use someone else’s field notes pretty effectively as a primary source. I assume you threw in the line about facts and economists as humor? Personally, I’d trust most anthropologists over most economists any day. Obviously ymmv.

  9. Brad DeLong says:

    Graeber: “Federal Reserve… is technically not part of the government at all, but a peculiar sort of public-private hybrid, a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the United States president, with Congressional approval, but which otherwise operates without public oversight…”

    Of the twelve votes on the Federal Open Market Committee, it is not one single vote but rather seven–a majority–that are cast by officers of the United States government: the seven Governors of the Federal Reserve, all appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. And the Governors play a substantial role in the appointment of the five other voting and the seven non-voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee–the Presidents of the Reserve Banks–as well. And the Federal Reserve operates under a great deal of oversight from Congress, which can amend or repeal the Federal Reserve Act as it pleases.

    These things you can learn from a ten-minute visit to the Federal Reserve’s webpage. Graeber did not bother.

    That you trust Graeber without verifying says quite a lot, I think…

  10. Doug says:

    This nugget from Debt was quoted on Unfogged: “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”

    An author who manages to get so much so spectacularly wrong in one sentence is not one I am going to trust to get anything right. As the Unfogged writer noted, “But there are some things that make me wonder whether any fact in the book I don’t know for certain to be true can be trusted.”

  11. Mark G says:

    Doug: Unless you think that Graeber is not just overly-aggressive in his responses or sloppy with one or two factual claims but actually an out-and-out liar, you should at least consider his claim that the bit about Apple was an error caused during the production stages of the book. One that he tried to correct. That’s in the first or second paragraph of his response at CT.

    Otherwise I mostly share Burke’s assessment of the affair.

  12. Doug says:

    Hm, fair enough, Mark, though there is some contrast between that account and Business Week’s here. On the other hand, if I read a paragraph that used, say, “the role of French (mostly Tory) and German pilots in the creation of air units during the Boer War” as an illustration, I think it’d have a pretty crushing effect on a book’s credibility. (The Unfogged commentariat has fun with similar examples within the first 50 comments.)

    Besides, what’s the standard line in authors’ acknowledgements? “Any remaining errors are the writer’s fault alone,” or something very much along those lines. The copy editors aren’t getting the byline or the royalties; I think Graeber needs to be a big boy and accept responsibility.

  13. n/a says:

    We all can’t just be objective observers. Sometimes sides need to be taken. Last I checked, tuition/year at Swarthmore was in the mid $50,000s.

    How can I relate to everything or find an objective distance when I don’t even have time to go to school or anything else outside of min. wage slavery.

    People in the streets are pissed; and will continue to be…

    -indie scholar

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