Reflections on 'The Dawn of Everything'

Updated: Dec 8, 2021


The new book by Davids Graeber and Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, has landed with a big splash, sending “the liminal web” of metamodernists, integralists, systems poets, Gebserians, et al. into quite a tizzy. No doubt you’ve noticed.


So, what gives? What does it say? And does it live up to the hype?


A BATTLE OF METANARRATIVES

Before I offer my own review of the work itself, I think it’s important to make some of the context here explicit. To understand the great interest in and intense responses to the work, it’s necessary to know exactly what many feel is “at stake” here. Since, for many, I would argue, it’s nothing less than their very metanarrative, and the myth by which they understand and give meaning to life.


Yikes. No wonder people are so touchy about this one, and so polarized. Worldviews are at stake, not just a theory of ancient history.


Basically, here’s the scoop: We all live with grand narratives to make sense of life. Traditionally, these were mythological religious stories. For millennia in the West, this was the sacred Christian history of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Apocalypse. In Western modernity, this narrative arc got replaced by one of rational “Progress”: evolution from savagery to civilization through increasing rationalism, secularism, and technological advancement. But after the horrific and truly savage disasters of the 20th century, postmodernists voiced skepticism about any such “Progress” arc, and claimed that metanarratives themselves couldn’t be trusted (ironically, asserting a grand narrative of no grand narratives).


Well, with the failures of postmodernism, metanarratives have returned (or, er, they never went away). A very powerful one that many post-postmodernists—whom consensus has dubbed the metamodernists—have coalesced around is a certain integrative “meta-worldview,” a worldview of worldviews actually, which offers a synthesis of traditional religious myth, modern rational progress, and postmodern skepticism/relativism. The engine of this grand narrative is a mechanism of emergent evolution, a complexification through time that leads from simpler, baser beginnings to richer, deeper advancements—including worldviews themselves. This development process is thus conceivable as a progression through sequential stages, each one building off the previous while adding new layers of depth and complexity. This cosmic, “diaphysical” pattern of emergent complexification can be seen operating in all levels of the universe, from matter to mind, in individual beings as well as their collective social structures.


Powerful stuff. But, is it true?


Here’s where The Dawn of Everything (henceforth DoE) could be seen as throwing a wrench into the mix. The book offers a 600 page invective against any sort of developmental narrative which would claim that humans have made any sort of social progress through history, and seeks to offer evidence that would disprove any such narrative. If such a withering critique were convincing, it could undercut a core tenet of the metamodernist metanarrative. And with metanarratives tend to go a person’s sense, meaning, orientation, and purpose in the world.


So, yikes. High stakes then. Big feels for the metamodernists, integralists, and stage theory meta-theorists of all stripes. This book isn’t just proposing a different theory for human origins and (so-called) civilization, but actually attempting (quite explicitly, actually) to undermine the basis of an entire worldview and, in the process, assert a different one in its place.



THE WRONG WAR

But here’s the thing: The metanarrative DoE has in its sights isn’t the metamodern one, but rather the modernist one. This is, quite clearly, (another) post-modern takedown of the modern Progress Myth. And, speaking as a metamodernist, so far as the argument here is “the world created by the modern West is vapid, dull, largely unfree, somewhat insane, and totally unsustainable—especially compared to indigenous society” then I heartily agree!


I spent this Thanksgiving in central Florida—a perfect time and place to be digesting this book. This had once been Timucua land, lush and green, tended by some 35 different chiefdoms across numerous villages. The Timucua grew corn, squash, and beans; played cool ballgames; and fought skirmishes with nearby rivals. They had rich spiritual traditions and ceremonies, and a deep connection to the land.

Then the European colonizers came. They conquered the Timucua, forced the women into harems for the conquerors, compelled them to convert to Christianity, and stole their land’s riches to export back to Europe.

Today, the area is a sea of asphalt. Strip malls stretch endlessly. Everything is barren shopping outlets and garish home developments of reduplicated housing models stacked on top of each other. For mile on mile, there is nothing but concrete highway, fast food franchises, and suburban sprawl.


Happy Thanksgiving, Progress.


Whatever force created such a soulless hellhole should and must be stopped. Period. Worse, to actually consider this “Progress” over pretty much anything the Timucua might have been doing here is a delusion of epic and downright perverse proportions. Any worldview that would claim that is, well, evil, backward, and savage.

Modernism, so conceived, is a bankrupt paradigm. Yes, we can be nuanced, and should be, recognizing that it also brought with it many emancipations, cured many ills and diseases, added many comforts and luxuries, and generally allowed people the opportunity to explore self-actualization as they never could before. For these reasons, metamodernism embraces and takes up the genuine insights of modernism into its worldview. But it also takes up its postmodern critique, which is valid and urgently necessary. For, as we speak, the very suburban wastelands I’ve just described are still spreading, growing, “developing” across the globe. Indeed, is not the meta-crisis itself the cancer created by this modernist metastasis? Is modernism itself not causing the end of the world as we know it, after causing the end of so many others’ worlds? And is it not this challenge that metamodern activists are eagerly responding to?

In short, DoE is actually fighting an old ideological battle: namely, the postmodernist worldview against the modernist one. We’ve seen this one before. It lampoons the earnest naivetes of early anthropologists and savages the ethnographers of “savages.” And in as much as it does this honestly and accurately, it does well. More power to you, Davids.



THE REVIEW

So, what do we say? To the extent that DoE can be seen as a weapon in the arsenal of postmodern critique of modernization’s insanity and the simple nonsense of modern “Progress,” then all the better?

Well,