The poetic history of David Graeber

Justin E. H. Smith in The New Statesman:

Was there really a colony known as “Libertalia”, founded by Enlightened pirates on the north-east coast of Madagascar in the early 18th century?

In 2021’s The Dawn of Everything, co-written with the British archaeologist David Wengrow, as well as in his new posthumously published book Pirate Enlightenment, out 26 January, the late David Graeber has claimed as his signature method a bold hermeneutic charity towards unreliable sources. These include early-modern travel reports, memoirs written from vague and embellished recollections, and even overtly fictional adventure tales.

Graeber is not alone among historical anthropologists in this relative openness. The French anthropological theorist Philippe Descola has warned against dismissing such sources as Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Activity in Brazil (1557) in our effort to reconstruct Amazonian cultural practices in the early contact period. Recourse to such historical materials is simply faute de mieux, for want of something better: we may appeal to the material-cultural traces of non-textual societies, such as are found in much of Amazonia and Madagascar in the early-modern era, and we may speak with living representatives of these societies as vessels and transmitters of oral history. But both of these methods are bound to mislead – not because of dishonesty, but because of the inherent tendency of cultural information to corrupt over time.

More here.