Volume 11, Issue 1
Fall 2009

David Graeber. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

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Anthropologist David Graeber seeks in this ethnography of politics, history, and culture to uncover the roots and political significance of an old conflict that divides the social, economic, ritual and political life in Befato, a small town of between 300 and 500 people in Madagascar. At the time of his arrival in Befato in 1990, many of its inhabitants were not on speaking terms with each other. Social life and local politics were structured along cleavages produced by old ancestral rivalries and family histories which impelled descendants to act with a “hidden source of bitterness and resentment” (p. 367). This conflict stands central to the problematique Graeber wants to address in this ethnography: how is it that Befato became divided between two sections, each considering themselves to be the descendants of two quarreling ancestors? What is the significance of the fact that one of these two ancestors was a noble (andriana) whose descendants today are impoverished farmers, while the other was a former slave (mainty) whose descendants are relatively well off? And how is it that Befato people believe that the mixing of these two ancestors’ bodies or their contemporary descendants can only lead to catastrophe? What exactly transpired in 1987 at a communal ordeal that was supposed to have re-established community solidarity but is now remembered by Befato people as proof that such solidarity is in fact not possible?

In answering these questions, Graeber leads us in an engaging manner through a succession of rich narratives obtained through taped interviews, superbly analysed ethnographic encounters, and sharp arguments based on a thorough knowledge of the ethnographical record and historical archives, including state records. Graeber is interested in political action and what could be constituted as ‘the political’ and ‘politics.’ Given the lack of something resembling a formal political sphere in Malagasy life, a fact remarked upon and theorized by earlier anthropologists, Graeber develops a range of arguments concerning political action based on his exploration of the political aspects of conversations and narratives and what he calls ‘relations of command’ – all in the quest of understanding the cleavages and conflicts in contemporary Befato.

Unsurprisingly, the cleavage between former nobles and former slaves turns out to be of central importance. Graeber argues that Malagasy have come to see all power relations or “relations of command” as “refractions of slavery” (p. 43). Graeber uses this starting point to investigate “relations of command” and power and authority in the context of the history of the state, local bureaucrats and social class, attitudes toward schooling, the practice of spirit mediums, types of political personae and the violence implicated in the memories of the ancestors. While he concurs with the ethnographic record positing the nonexistence of formal political spheres in Malagasy culture, he finds politics everywhere, expressed particularly in the context of narratives. For example, ancestral power is manifested to living people through “little narratives of transgression and retribution” (p. 60). Narratives not only direct him to the relationship between political action and magical action but also to the ways in which stories are ways of establishing authority through knowledge. In addition to his insightful definition of politics, his Belafo material leads him to discuss two other important concepts, that of “‘negative authority” and “anti-heroic history.”

In trying to present an ethnography that is both honest and not written and structured exclusively for “the market.” Graeber does well to treat the ordinary (and extraordinary) people of Befato as “historical characters” (p. 31) and as historians in their own right. In this respect, his acknowledgment of the influence of character development in Russian novels is illuminating, and the list of names and descriptions of the characters who feature in his book, which is included at the end, is pretty useful. Graeber is not only interested in politics, but also the politics of research and writing. His reflections on this topic, especially those expressed in the epilogue, are of immense insight, originality and lacking in obfuscation. Other methodological comments—such as how, through his style of his research he became a “medium for spreading” stories (p. 309) and how Befato people “argued through him” by reporting narratives back and forth (P. 310)—adds to the multidimensional value of this ethnography. Not only is the result an ethnography that embodies the sentiment of fieldwork as a “dialogic process,” but its approach to politics reads, if not in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘magical realism,’ like an account of the political realism of magic. This is a must-read for historians and anthropologists of Madagascar while those interested in the anthropology of politics and power should read this ethnographic account together with Graeber’s collection of more ‘theoretical’ essays titled Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire (AK Press, 2007).

Detlev Krige
Rhodes University