[Marxism] Profile on David Graeber

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 30 04:27:22 MST 2005

NY Times, December 28, 2005
When Scholarship and Politics Collided at Yale

David Graeber pulled a green object shaped like a Champagne cork out of his 

"Do you know what this is?" he asked recently. "It's a plastic bullet." The 
bullet, he said, was fired by the police in Quebec City during a protest 
against globalization in 2001, grazing his head.

Battles with the police are a fact of life for Dr. Graeber, an associate 
professor of anthropology at Yale and a self-proclaimed anarchist. It was 
his battle with Yale that surprised him.

The university notified him in the spring of 2005 that it would not renew 
his contract next year. Yale gave no reason, and officials said they could 
not discuss the dismissal because personnel matters were confidential.

But to Dr. Graeber the reason was obvious: his politics. He appealed, and 
supporters around the world wrote letters on his behalf, some calling him 
one of the most brilliant anthropologists of his generation.

This month, Yale, which says that personal political beliefs "are not a 
consideration" in appointments, amended its decision; it offered Dr. 
Graeber a paid sabbatical if he would drop his appeal. He accepted.

"So many academics lead such frightened lives," he said. "The whole system 
sometimes seems designed to encourage paranoia and timidity. I wasn't 
willing to live like that."

A Yale spokesman and three of Dr. Graeber's colleagues declined to comment 
about Dr. Graeber, repeating that personnel matters were confidential.

Dr. Graeber said that criticism of his behavior - like coming late to class 
and turning in reports late - did not surface until his politics became 

"They couldn't criticize my research or my teaching, so they talked about 
my community work," he said.

In theory, Dr. Graeber agrees that an anarchist professor might have 
problems in establishment institutions. In a online article, "Fragments of 
an Anarchist Anthropology" (www.prickly-paradigm.com), he declared, "Being 
an openly anarchist professor would mean challenging the way universities 
are run."

But Dr. Graeber, 44, a slender man with tousled hair and a chipped front 
tooth, says: "I'm not really an anarchist as a professor. I'm a very 
conventional professor really. I do much more lecturing, for example, than 
sitting around doing free egalitarian discussion."

Known in anthropological circles for his work on value theory - how 
societies determine what is important - and anarchism, he said he had tried 
to compartmentalize the two sides of his life: "I figured I'd be a scholar 
in New Haven and an activist in New York."

Over barbecued beef wrapped in grape leaves and jumbo shrimp on chipped 
ice, he described his path from a teenager who translated hieroglyphic 
passages that had never before been translated to a scholar whose books and 
articles are used in college classrooms around the world and an anarchist 
who is a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Dr. Graeber said his comfort with anarchism stemmed, in part, from his 
family - his father fought in the Spanish Civil War and his mother was a 
garment worker. "Anarchy wasn't dinner table conversation," he said, "but 
it was on the horizon."

And as an anthropologist, he said, he realized that "throughout most of 
human history, people got by without centralized governments."

In Madagascar, where he worked on his doctoral thesis, he lived in an area 
where "state authority had effectively disappeared," he said.

He began his anthropology studies at Purchase College of the State 
University of New York.

Judith Friedlander, an anthropologist who taught him there and is now at 
Hunter College, said he was "hands down, the most brilliant student I ever 

At the University of Chicago, he won a Fulbright fellowship and completed a 
Ph.D. thesis on magic, slavery and politics in Madagascar. Two years later, 
in 1998, he joined Yale as an assistant professor, even though junior 
professors there were not on a tenure track.

"I figured it was the best temporary job you could possibly have," he said. 
"For 10 years, you don't have too big a teaching load. It had lots of 
prestige. And the pay was O.K."

He added, "I'm up to about $63,000."

He was by many accounts a prolific writer and popular teacher. Although he 
sometimes came late, his classes were crowded.

Joseph Hill, a Yale graduate student in anthropology who supports Dr. 
Graeber, described his classes as "highly interesting and provocative."

He added: "They are all over the map, which makes it hard for some students 
to follow. But students who like to see how diverse little facts and grand 
theories come together actually find his lectures very well put together 
and easy to follow."

Dr. Graeber's first three years went well, and he was given a second 
three-year contract. By then, he had become captivated by direct political 
action. He said he found the large protests against globalization in 
Seattle and Washington "transformative - 30,000 people and no leadership. 
People coming to a consensus without anyone running the show. You wouldn't 
think it could happen, but it does. And it's compelling."

He joined groups like the Direct Action Network, and his political activity 
became more visible. He was an organizer and spokesman for the protest 
against the World Economic Forum in New York in 2001. And he was one of 
several hundred people arrested during a protest against the International 
Monetary Fund in Washington in 2002.

When he returned from a sabbatical for his second three years, he said, 
some colleagues would not talk to him. Three years later, he was given two 
years instead of a standard four-year contract and told to contribute more 
and be more careful about things like arriving at class on time. "I was 
told I was unreliable," he said.

He said that after that critical review, he directed a colloquium series, 
took part in more meetings, taught more and was more careful about 
promptness. But he also had disagreements with senior colleagues, including 
defending a student active in the graduate student unionization movement.

Yale decided in the spring not to give him two more years, prompting 
outcries. More than 4,500 people signed petitions in his support. Maurice 
Bloch, a noted anthropologist at the London School of Economics, who says 
Dr. Graeber is "the best anthropological theorist of his generation," 
called on Yale to rescind the dismissal.

"I know nothing about the circumstances which have led you to your 
decision," he said, "but I cannot believe that a university such as yours 
cannot cope with erratic behavior or that it can afford to lose so 
extraordinarily talented a colleague."

But some of his colleagues say it was not really about Dr. Graeber's 
politics. Linda-Anne Rebhun, an associate professor in anthropology at Yale 
who recently failed to win tenure, said the problem was "the Yale system" 
that has forced many junior faculty to leave.

"It says something about Dr. Graeber's sense of politics," she added, "that 
he seems to take this as an individual, personal thing rather than taking a 
more anthropological view of the nature of the system that affects all 
junior scholars at Yale."

Mr. Hill said that while politics may not have been the overt cause for Dr. 
Graeber's dismissal, his anarchistic manner was undoubtedly a factor.

"I don't think senior faculty sat behind closed doors and actually adduced 
the fact that he's an anarchist in making the case against him: 'All in 
favor of the anarchist say aye,' " Mr. Hill said. "But it seems to me that 
he was fired at least in part for being who he is, a large part of which is 
his egalitarian philosophy and practice of life, his contempt for authority."

Others said they were not surprised that Yale did not want to keep him. "I 
actually think places like Yale are not for people like David Graeber," 
said Stanley Aronowitz, a left-leaning professor at the Graduate Center of 
the City University of New York. "He's a public intellectual. He speaks 
out. He participates. He's not someone who simply does good scholarship; 
he's an activist and a controversial person."

Dr. Graeber said he planned to use his paid sabbatical year for research, 
writing, activism and a job search. He said that he had already had some 
nibbles and that he was leaving Yale with his "integrity intact." He says 
with some satisfaction that while his department did not renew his 
contract, "I'm better known than most of them."

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