passages

David Graeber’s Unaccomplishments

David Graeber speaking at Maagdenhuis, Amsterdam, in 2015. Photo: Guido van Nispen.

YOU SHOULD READ HIM, remember him.
He is an important person and thinker.

More than that, he was kind. He did good things for many people and opened many paths. He was helpful and generous. He was there when you needed him. He was brilliant and helped others find their brilliance. He was brimming with ideas and confidence and yet was equally unassuming. He was a comrade and friend. He was a very good anthropologist. He was dedicated to struggles against inequality and for freedom—an unrelenting adversary of capitalism, wage slavery, debt, bureaucracy, racism, and patriarchal, state, and police violence. He believed thinking played a vital part in struggles. He was a proponent of direct action, practicing anarchism and living everyday communism. For a time he didn’t sleep and instead took really long baths. He worked here, was blacklisted there, and was forced to live in exile, but he always managed to have a last laugh. He insisted honor is something bestowed or acquired, whereas dignity was something we are all born with, which can only be stolen from us. He played a role in the occupation of Wall Street. Role-playing and masks were part of the fanfare. He loved masks and pirates: masks because they can break from the tyranny of an imposed identity, pirates because of their horizontalism, self-organization, intercommunalism, and penchant for fabulation—their sense of living on borrowed time and the freedom borne from all of that. He supported the struggles in Rojava and in Chiapas as living attempts to exist beyond coercion and subjugation through social arrangements and relations of our own making.

Coming from a working-class Jewish family, he was also a vocal critic of neofascist and right-wing attempts to brand those critical of Israel as anti-Semitic.
He tried to make the word “intellectual” funny, playful, and meaningful.
He tried to make life funny, playful, and meaningful.
He took all of this very seriously. 

He tried to make anthropology relevant beyond the field of anthropology, believing that despite its colonial and Eurocentric origins, there was something at its heart—something about its engagement with a multiplicity of cultures, ways of living, and weaving of worlds that may offer infinite possibilities for reimagining life for everyone. His most read book was . . .

—and there we are, lured into the labyrinth of a biography which in some way exceeds yet also fixes to a destiny, a life. But what happens when a life is on a path which wants to escape destinies pre-determined? And what if this form of graphy is transindividual and transcommunal, a history of worlds where each of us wishes to say or add to that saying, to say otherwise and thus live-hear-see-feel otherwise, with others. This other graphy could then disseminate from multiple vantage points a person, in their lucid perceptibility and their opaque illegibility, reclaiming the instances when they stop being individual and start becoming a force, an event, a movement. And losing count, this othergraphy asks: If we are each like a book, what remains unwritten and unwritable in our own scripts and postcripts, notes and footnotes, what goes beyond the book of the one and goes toward the book of multiplicities? What if poetry and play could overtake life and the zoe- and bio- of graphy, becoming in turns geo-, paleo-, hagio-, ethno-, disco- . . .?  What was David’s ambition for, if not for something that surpasses the words themselves and our own proper names? As a great emitter of signals, was not David a perfect inhabiting of these figurative and prefigurative actions that exceed our selves? This is why frustration or depression accompanies that aspect of biography which turns life into an obituary, not only by reifying life as the life but also by orienting it as a movement toward death.

If capitalism, for David, is a bad organization of our communism, it is not only because it subdues the geniuses in each of us but also because it diminishes the only thing keeping life livable: the dimension of life which cannot be counted and for which accounts cannot be kept, because it would be absurd. Where what we owe one another does not seek repayment and cannot be closed in an exchange. He would say we could also call this space of relation love.

We were enslaved but we lived as if we were free. Like this, we danced our way to revolutionary becomings together and if we were to have it our way, long after we have all passed, we who are beyond and beside ourselves will still be dancing to revolutionary becomings. The police stood in our way and they will always try to stand in our way, until we abolish them and so too the states, their bureaucracies, so too the capital, so too the debts, so too the wages and salaries and slaveries they offer as status. There will be many words written about the individual David Graeber and that person who biographically, according to that logic, has passed, gone away to meet death, recalled in the obituary. But death did not belong to David nor to life. What belonged to David was something he tried to say, and sometimes tired of saying, in numerous ways: The first act of freedom is an act and if we can keep it up for a lifetime, we may end up freer.

What those of us writing this text are interested to do is to write about what lives on after biography has officially ended. About what exceeded David, even while he was living, and what exceeds each of us, which could be likened to an unwieldy bundle of potencies we are temporary holders or jugglers and caretakers of—forces that accumulate in a body and that we can only ever try to become worthy bearers of. We wrestle to liberate ourselves with and from them, and hopefully help others to do so as well.

What made David David exceeded the achievements and recognitions, the productions and accomplishments—which are often readily channeled into segmentarizing forces hurling us into social arrangements we prefer not to be trapped in. Ones for instance which insist that violence and coercion are the necessary basis of the social existence rather than our imagination and capacity to care for our common worlds. David was always trying to catch, to reimagine, these more immaterial forces which have a direct consequence on our material existence. And this was most evident in the ways that he lived and expressed love for friends, for being together (sometimes despite and in spite of those works he leaves behind). Because he would be no one and those works inexistent without that. If, as an old friend once said, what survives in the event is all that remains unaccomplished in it, David was full of unaccomplishments and potentialities and this is what lives forever. There is no way to narrate these; they must be discovered and inherited through the many unaccomplishments he leaves us as gifts. The task of mourning and celebrating will be to plot out these yet-to-be-realized revolutions in thought and everyday life, which David reformulated in a singular way and struggled with so many of us to lunge toward. And we will go on longing with him, refusing every authority which will stand in our way, laughing in the face of the cultures of death because what we live is eternal.

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