Friday, May 26, 2006

Power, ignorance and stupidity

Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity - the Malinowski lecture by David Graeber at the LSE last night was stimulating, but left me wondering if it contained both more and less than met the ear.

Graeber is radical in the best senses and connotations of the word. Many of his insights -- on structural stupidity in Medicare, language and brutality in Madagascar and Adam Smith's acuity on how the poor may feel more sympathy for the rich than vica versa -- are tremendously fertile, and he's funny.

A good definition of intelligence, he said, was Piaget's: the ability to co-ordinate multiple perspectives. Bureaucracy tends to the opposite: infantile stupidity.

He said (I think!) that anthropologists may capture two percent of what goes on, in theorising simplify still further, but that this has use because it can produce ways of saying new [and valuable] things. He challenged, of course, the dangers of anthropology reinforcing an unjust status quo (Weber and Foucault -- sequentially the most formative influences on social sciences including anthropology in the US since WW2 -- were, he said, the only two intelligent people in history who believed that bureaucracy works; they contributed therefore to the training of functionaries for empire). The danger has been there since Evans-Pritchard, he said, and continues today.

On the way home, I stopped over to look at some new books, including a "pocket hedgehog" with quotes from Kant and other philosophers. The editors quote Jesus - typically cast as sensitive, intelligent sort of super being: "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me" (Luke 19, v. 27).

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