12/17/12 - what makes us human is our capacity to surprise 

In today's selection -- we are human because we have the capacity to surprise, what makes us human is above all our capacity to make history, and the fundamental measure of our human­ity lies in what we cannot know about each other. Though some historians have desired to have their discipline viewed as a science, the essence of society is regularity and predictableness, and at least one definition of history is "the record of those actions which are not simply cyclical, repetitive, or inevitable." Social sciences such as anthropology, on the other hand, are the search for aspects of social life which are predictable and repetitive. It is therefore within the social sciences that individual actors tend to be irrelevant, whereas the heart of history is the individual and the storytelling that accompanies individual lives:

"Why exactly is it, for instance, that history is considered one of the humanities, and not a social science? Obviously there are historical reasons -- there were people who considered themselves historians long before there were ones who considered themselves social scientists. But if it has remained among the humanities, in the company of the study of literature, art, and philosophy and not that of sociology or political science, I suspect it is ultimately because of some sense that science deals with regularities -- if not with 'laws,' then at the very least with things that are to some degree predictable -- and that history tends to focus on the very opposite, on the irregular and the unpredictable, on events that could no more be predicted, before they happened, than the production of a novel or a work of art.

"[One the other hand], one of the main things that made ... anthropology scientific, in the eyes of its practitioners, was the fact that it was concerned primarily with 'norms' or regularities. What this meant in practice was what ethnographers de­scribed, and theorists discussed, was almost exclusively those aspects of social life which were predictable, repetitive: the human life cycle, with its age grades and rites of passage, the domestic cycle, ritual cycles, yearly rounds ... In so far as in­dividuals and unique events appeared in ethnographies written at this time, they would usually take the form of case studies meant to illustrate more gen­eral processes. Here and there, there were efforts to try to find some way of talking about individual projects and intentions, but it was with the un­derlying assumption, one could almost call it faith, that individual actors were ultimately irrelevant, that whatever their immediate intentions, they would somehow end up reproducing the same cyclic structure over and over again. ...

" 'Historical actions,' one might say, 'are actions which could not have been predicted before they happened.' Or, if that is too simple, then: 'actions considered memorable afterwards because they could not have been predicted beforehand.' History, then, is the record of those actions which are not simply cyclical, repetitive, or inevitable.

"I am trying to be in­tentionally provocative -- ignoring almost everything that's already been written on the subject, and proposing an alternative so simple that it might even be con­sidered simplistic. Some readers will no doubt object that the definitions I pro­pose, for "history" [is] so broad that they threaten to make the terms almost meaningless -- leaving no way to distinguish a family quarrel and a revolution or a civil war. Perhaps. But this kind of breadth also has its advan­tages. It makes it possible to think of ... history as something intrin­sic to the nature of social life, even of ordinary, daily interaction; to think of it as something which everyone is always doing, not just the powerful; that engaging in politics or making history does not have to involve preventing anyone else from doing so. ...

"This definition has other implications as well. If it is really true (as S.P. Mohanty suggests) that what makes us human is above all our capacity to make history, and if history consists of actions that could not have been predicted be­forehand, then that would mean that the fundamental measure of our human­ity lies in what we cannot know about each other. To recognize another person as human would then be to recognize the limits of one's possible knowledge of them. Their humanity is inseparable from their capacity to surprise us."


David Graeber


Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar


Indiana University Press


Copyright 2007 by David Rolfe Graeber


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