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Life Arts    H3'ed 11/17/21

David Graeber and David Wengrow on Big History (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 17, 2021: The late David Graeber (1961-2020) and David Wengrow's new 700-page 2021 book The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a many-directional polemic. Their book is a contribution to the genre of writing known today as Big History.

In part, Graeber and Wengrow's wide-ranging book includes forays into the history of modern Western philosophy (especially Rousseau and Hobbes) and the history of ideas in Western culture (especially the ideas of equality and inequality; and ideas of democracy; and ideas of freedom) as well as their account of Christianity in Western culture (not just the Christian interpretation of the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which they advert to frequently as a vision of innocence, but also the role of French Catholic missionaries in New France in North America - Graeber and Wengrow make use of certain reports by French Jesuit missionaries recorded in the 74 volumes known collectively as Jesuit Relations).

Now, I have written about Big History recently in my OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Account of Big History" (dated November 1, 2021), in which I mention an essay by Graeber and Wengrow adapted from their new book:

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Now, for a book of related interest about the history of ideas and American Indian thought, see Bruce Wilshire's book The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000).

For a book of related interest about indigenous peoples' sense of life in their experiential world, see David Abram's book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996).

But also see the American anthropologist David M. Smith's 1991 essay "World as Event: Aspects of Chipewyan Ontology" reprinted in the anthology Of Ong and Media Ecology, edited by Thomas J. Farrell and Paul A. Soukup (New York: Hampton Press, 2012, pages 117-141). Smith explores Walter J. Ong's description of the world-as-event sense of life with reference to the circumpolar indigenous peoples known as the Chipewayan people in Canada.

For further discussion of Ong's description of the world-as-event sense of life, see my article "Walter Ong and Harold Bloom Can Help Us Understand the Hebrew Bible" in the journal Explorations in Media Ecology, volume 11, numbers 3&4 (2012): pages 255-272.

Now, controversy sells newspapers. So the more controversies the merrier in Graeber and Wengrow's book for non-specialists, eh? In any event, I will reply to one of their controversies by countering it a bit here.

Now, the two authors are Jewish (page 497), and their unconvincing polemical critique of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is a rather pointed way of protecting their own personal Jewish sense of identity from his interpretation about linear time in the Hebrew Bible (pages 497-498). Graeber and Wengrow say, "Being Jewish, the authors of the present book don't particularly appreciate the suggestion that we [i.e., two Jews today, not their long deceased ancient ancestors] are somehow to blame for everything that went wrong in history" (page 497).

Graeber and Wengrow say "we." Evidently, they take Eliade's account of ancient Hebrew linear time personally. Whatever else linear time in the Hebrew Bible may mean, it certainly includes the two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis.

Just to be clear, Eliade does not say that linear time is "to blame for everything that went wrong in human history." So do Graeber and Wengrow deny the existence of linear time in the Hebrew Bible? No, not exactly. Rather, they target Eliade's characterization of traditional peoples (i.e., peoples who had not yet developed a linear sense of time). But if linear time is supposedly "to blame for everything that went wrong in history," then how do Graeber and Wengrow account for the emergence of linear time in history? They don't.

In any event, Eliade's classic account of linear time can be found in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask (New York: Pantheon Books, 1954; orig. French ed., 1949) - which Graeber and Wengrow do not mention.

For a perceptive account of the West under the influence of what Eliade refers to as linear time, see Ian Morris' book Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal about the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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