James Wallace Harris, 3/4/22
I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow but I can’t review it as a whole because it features hundreds of interesting ideas and I have no way to assess them all in a small essay. So, I’m going to review some of its ideas in a series of blog posts. Each one will deal with a unique concept that I think is useful.
Overall, the book speculates about societies in prehistory and in three places uses the word “schismogenetic” referring to the term schismogenesis, a word coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson. This is not a common word, but one that I had to look up, and it’s used in various ways in the social sciences that isn’t exactly how Graeber and Wengrow use it.
Graeber and Wengrow use the concept of schismogenetic to identify a human trait that is very worth recognizing — the urge to belong to a group by defining distinctive wanted traits. This explains children and adolescents who like to conform, to subcultures and hobbyists who love sharing a common interest, to ethnic, cultural, and nationalistic groups who fight cultural appropriation to preserve their unique identity, to political groups who want to maintain unity, and so on.
Schismogenesis can be seen as the cause of xenophobia, but it could also be seen as the inverse of xenophobia. Xenophobia rejects others by traits we don’t like or want, and the schismogenetic urge defines our group identity by specific traits we embrace. This is just me speculating and I’m no expert. I want to embrace this concept because I feel it’s very useful. I see examples of it everywhere. If the term became popular it might help us understand ourselves.
Take conservatives and Republicans. It seems in recent decades they are defining themselves more and more exactly. They have generated a schism by clearly defining who they want to be issue by issue. Take mask-wearing. They’re against it. They see mask wearers as a liberal trait. Ditto for vaccinations. If liberals and Democrats had been against masks and vaccinations, the people on the right would have been for them. If the left is for Critical Race Theory, then the right is against it. If the left believes in climate change, then they don’t. And the details don’t matter to most people.
I use this political example not to be political, but I think it’s obvious that the schismogenetic urge is stronger in conservatives. They really enjoy defining themselves and being part of their group, and it seems they fear being seen as not conforming. For example, being called a RINO is a terrible insult. And this has worked out well for conservatives because they are better at organizing and defining themselves than the liberals.
But I believe we all have schismogenetic urges. I saw this photo on Facebook and it reminded me of how back in the 1960s we all wanted to be individual free spirits, but in reality, the hippie counter-culture was very conforming.
Graeber and Wengrow used the concept of schismogenetic to explain why the hundreds of Native American tribes created very distinctive and diverse societies. I think everyone uses the trait to join the groups and subcultures they want to embrace as their identity. I believe this is why the concept of cultural appropriation has developed in recent years — subcultures want to protect their identity, their brand. And that’s cool. I’m not necessarily saying this is a bad trait, but it can lead to schisms divided by hate.
Some of the reviews that are deeply critical of The Dawn of Everything attack it because they consider Graeber and Wengrow of being historical revisionists. And I see this as a schismogenetic trait too. There are those who define themselves by the histories they embrace and they really don’t like the idea that what they’ve learned and accepted is being revised. It challenges their identity.
Science and history are constantly revising their disciplines with new data. The social sciences aren’t as exact as classical physics, so they go through more upheavals. Those upheavals cause new schisms and threaten old ones. Trying to fully grok The Dawn of Everything is difficult. Graeber and Wengrow keep bringing in politics by using studies of prehistory societies. I think this clouds what they are trying to do. At one point they say, “Since this book is mainly about freedom…” but is that true? I thought it was about prehistory. That makes me wonder if the goal of this book is to be schismogenetic.