[Marxism] A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic 'Exile' - Faculty - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Apr 15 15:22:33 MDT 2013

Sorry, that was behind a paywall. Here you go:

A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic 'Exile'

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 

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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