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In our column “Letters from readers” we publish a text by Any Nobody. Any Nobody was born in the Urals, was involved in civil activism for a while, and then, in order to survive, moved to Finland, where she has been living for the last couple of years. In this article, she presents her vision and answers the question “why read at all?” and offers two reviews of books that have influenced her.

Any Nobody

Why do you need to read at all?

In argument, truth is born. It’s a commonplace, but like most of them, it’s not really accurate. Truth is born in dialogue. It can be a dialogue between theory and practice, fiction and life, or, as in the most relevant case for this article, between two or more people. Throughout its history, humanity has created many forms of indirect communication—music, visual arts—but we will be particularly interested in the text in this article. Text is an echo of some conversations that took place between people or in the author’s head. And accordingly, it carries all the same functions. Therefore, the answer to the question “why do we read?” will be almost identical to the answer to the question “why do we talk?”

We talk for pleasure, the pleasure to be heard and to touch other people’s experiences. The pleasure of finding confirmation or refutation of our own ideas about life. Every person we meet is an opportunity to learn what we have not yet, and maybe never will, be able to experience on our own. And the most interesting option of talking is the possibility to organize and create things together, that would never be possible without language.

Sorry, but I’d like to add a fly into the ointment. Unfortunately, there is a cult of books and people who read them. This belief has its origins in the times when people able to read were a minority, back in the early 20th century most people in the world were illiterate. And in these relatively recent times by the standards of history, literacy was either a sign of belonging to the ruling elite, or indeed a criterion of education. In our time of universal literacy, the ability to read and the number of books written or read are proof of neither. To my deepest regret, the people who write or read books are human beings just like you and me, either with a certain amount of observation or access to information that we do not have. In other words, any conclusions and opinions are relative, not absolute. Reality is fluid, and any acquired knowledge is only a path to other knowledge (otherwise so many books would not exist, and phenomena such as science or philosophy would not have existed for so long).

All of the above applies to texts we may come across. Share, listen, read, write, and enjoy the amazing human ability—speech. And the main thing to remember is that it is not the result that matters (in the search for truth it may be unreachable), but the process.

Review #1: “Dawn of Everything” by David Wengrow and David Graeber.

In this review, I will write about the most ambitious book by David Graeber and David Wengrow, “The Dawn of Everything.” In general, if you see any of Graeber’s books, take them without hesitation; he is one of the worthy modern anarchist (and in general humanitarian) authors. He usually applies an anthropological approach and positioning theory in his books and does it brilliantly. Wengrow, on the other hand, presents mostly archaeological expertise in his book, as far as I understand it. And the combination of these two methodologies creates a fascinating work.

The book presents two main themes: the first is a critique of existing social theories and their origins, and the second is an attempt to build a new theory of history based on the latest archaeological and anthropological discoveries.

The authors begin with the origins of social theory. They correctly observe that most debates about human nature still take place within the framework set by the Enlightenment: the theories of Hobbes and Rousseau. Hobbes has traditionally been gravitated toward by the right, Rousseau by the left. In brief, Hobbes wrote that the “primitive” state of man is a war of all against all and only the State (Leviathan) can interrupt it with violence. The state is seen in this case as the least of evil. Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that we were all nice and good until property came along. Well, when people started to own something, humanity went downhill and generally continues to do so. The book makes the point that this is suspiciously similar to the Original Sin story, as do a lot of modern theories (Harari, for example). As far as archaeology allows us to tell, both theories are far from the truth. First, Stone Age people were much more diverse in their social structures than modern humans, and second, there is no point of no return in human history. The authors illustrate this with a huge amount of data (there are only references for a hundred pages out of 600). I also was fascinated how authors trace the emergence of modern ideas of democracy, rational debate, and human rights to Native Americans and European contact with them.
According to the authors, for most of the history, humanity has been flexible in its social structure, that is, it has drifted from authoritarian to egalitarian forms depending on seasons, needs, traditions, and situations. In other words, humanity did not move in historical development from one form to another but stuck on one of the forms, like a guest, unwilling to leave. Also, again with the help of archaeological, linguistic, and anthropological data, the authors confirm that a significant part of modern “primitive” communities are post-state, i.e., they had experience in building hierarchical “stable” communities but for ecological, social, or political reasons discontinued to do so. What is important to us in this is that we can use the experience and knowledge of post-state communities to build more free and sustainable communities now.

Two other significant ideas mentioned in the book are the analysis of power and freedom. The authors write about three forms of power. Sovereignty, i.e., the exclusive right to violence and control of resources in a certain territory. Power over information (bureaucracy, law, religion, academia), in other words, power over the ways of interpreting reality. And, the last one is competitive politics (medieval knights, political leaders, pop-stars), i.e., organizing competitions among elites for the right to control or influence the distribution of resources. It is noted in the book that all three types together, except for modern Western democracies, are rare. More often we see a combination of two of them. Nevertheless, modern states are perceived as a certain standard and lead their genealogy from societies like Ancient Egypt, with which they have little in common. Also, according to the authors, there are three basic kinds of freedom: freedom of movement, or freedom to withdraw from relationships and obligations that do not suit you, freedom to disobey orders (if you do not find them reasonable), and freedom to create social relations with other people as you want).

On a happy note about freedom, I’d like to end. I really like the end of the book, so I’d like to end the review with a loose retelling of it. Given what we have written, one can be sad because things could be so much better now, but one can also be happy because things could still be much better.

Review #2: “Talking in the Sand or How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World” by Tyson Yankaporta.

I stumbled upon this book quite by accident after reading, during another period of procrastination, an excerpt from it. My first reaction was delight. Finally, something new, not the sassing of boring problems from the perspective of no less boring traditions. Before us is a rare book, which is an attempt to comprehend Western civilization (to which the whole world involuntarily belongs now) from the point of view of a representative of the culture, so completely not absorbed by it. The author, immediately stipulates that he himself sits on two chairs, from time to time being at the university, and in the aboriginal communities. If you want, of course, you can fit this book into a number of anthropological works by Eduardo Kohn and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, where the above-mentioned authors try to apply the thinking of indigenous peoples to the analysis of the issues of Western civilization. But there is an important difference, that Kohn and Viveiros de Castro are representatives of Western civilization trying to understand indigenous thinking through their established cultural (Western) prisms, which inevitably leads to distortions, while Yankaporta is a representative of the culture he is writing about.
It’s funny that this review echoes the first one because in this book we are presented with a sample of post-state peoples thinking. The book even mentions Australian memories of the nation-building experience that led to the disaster and influenced the way of life and thinking of the Indigenous peoples who inhabit Australia.

The book is written like a campfire conversation: constantly moving from topic to topic and from style to style. The author writes about physics, jumping to economics, about gender, jumping to medicine. Below I will summarize the ideas that stuck with me the most: narcissism, kinship networks, and ways of thinking.
Narcissism is, according to the Australians, a form of personal organization in which its bearer seeks in other people not opportunities for growth and enrichment of their inner world, but empty forms that need to be filled. Narcissus shouts the most and draws attention to themselves in an attempt to gain power. It violates all the rules of human communication, while still managing to use them against you. The only way to deal with a narcissist is through community because they seek to divide, turn people against each other, and isolate them. Because it’s always easier to destroy people one by one. The author sees modern society as a pandemic of narcissism in which narcissistic traits are glorified and praised.
The book claims that our society is on the verge of a climatic apocalypse, but further, we are assured that there is nothing terrible in this because humanity and its individual civilizations have already experienced numerous apocalypses: the fall of the Roman Empire, the Mongol conquests, the fall of the Soviet Union, the list goes on for a long time. At the same time, the peoples who survived such events develop post-apocalyptic traumatic syndrome, which can be transmitted even to the next generation (its symptoms are similar to the usual PTSD). As a means for a smoother transition, Yankaporta proposes to create kinship networks (or mutual help, if you like) based on pair relations of people entering into other pair relations (I am talking about friendship and support, not polyamory (which he also writes about, by the way)). These kinship networks, as he calls them, should be flexible and adaptive, serving for the transfer of knowledge and resources, without their accumulation in one point. Also, such networks can enter into relationships with other networks to enrich each other materially and spiritually.

The author describes 5 ways of thinking that are inherent to human beings: in the first one, learning is related to other people, places, and relationships between them; in the second one, learning and thinking happen through stories; in the third one, metaphors (images, music, words) are used to represent reality; in the fourth one, special states of consciousness are used to get intuitive breakthroughs; and finally, in the fifth one, systemic thinking or the search for patterns to understand complex processes.

The last thing I would like to point out is Yankaporta’s praise of oral culture. Oral culture is decentralized and adaptive. It does not allow for the continuation of authority without proving its worth. And has a better ability to preserve important events than written culture. Some Australian legends date back tens of thousands of years, and many Roman and Greek documents have been lost because of over-reliance on the written word.

This is what caught my eye in the book, what you will like can only be understood by reading it.