From ArtReview by Noam Chomsky and Nika Dubrovsky
Nika Dubrovsky speaks to Noam Chomsky about pirate societies, ‘bewildered herds’ and the fragility of the present in the context of the late anthropologist David Graeber’s final book
As questions of decolonisation rub up against the legacy of Enlightenment thinking in the West, anthropologist David Graeber argues in his posthumous book Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (to be published early next year) that Enlightenment ideas themselves are not intrinsically European and were indeed shaped by non-European sources. The work focuses on the proto-democratic ways of pirate societies and particularly the Zana-Malata, an ethnic group formed of descendants of pirates who settled on Madagascar at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and whom Graeber encountered while conducting ethnographic research at the beginning of his academic career.
Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018), Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011) and The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (written with the archaeologist David Wengrow), died in 2020, but in a wide-ranging conversation for ArtReview, his widow, the artist and author Nika Dubrovsky, speaks with Noam Chomsky, an admirer of the anthropologist’s work, about Graeber’s last project, neoliberalism and democracy, Western empiricism and imperialism, free speech, Roe v. Wade in the US, the war in Ukraine and how Germany’s Documenta art exhibition has barely coped with inviting non-Western artists to direct it for the first time.
One of the left’s foremost thinkers, Chomsky has written major works that include Syntactic Structures (1957), Manufacturing Consent (1988) and, most recently, The Precipice: Neoliberalism, the Pandemic and Urgent Need for Radical Change (2021, with C. J. Polychroniou).
Nika Dubrovsky Thank you very much for the interview. It’s a great honour. We wanted to discuss David’s last posthumous book, Pirate Enlightenment, which will be published in January 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In this book, as in his other writings, David talked about the importance of dialogue. He describes how entire cultural traditions emerge from the creation of new stories and how these traditions are then remade and edited.
Noam Chomsky That was very interesting. Both in his essay ‘There Never Was a West’, but also in the book about the extensive contributions of Native American thinkers [The Dawn of Everything, 2021, with David Wengrow], Chinese thinkers and others who, as they point out, as David points out, were recognised as contributors at the time, but then wiped from the tradition. It was regarded as just a literary technique or something. But I think he makes it very clear that it was a substantive contribution.