14 October, 2021 – Karaoke Reading Group #MuseumofCare text by David Graeber, Facilitation by Vassily

This article is a part of the room: Karaoke Reading Group

a karaoke reading group

MuseumofCare continues to experiment with online tools for collaboration.

During the year of the Museum of Care’s reading group, we have tried different formats: from continuous work on a series of texts, when ideas gradually develop and grow – a small group of participants is more fitting for this, to public lectures by guest speakers.

We met every week for most of the year. Certainly, not everyone in the group prepared the same way. Some don’t read the texts (I personally do everything at the last minute). Then the conversation is quickly taken over by more prepared participants, or the dialogue risks turning into a lesson.

The new idea is to read texts proposed by the speakers together. I think it turned out great.

First, there were texts by @davidgraeber that we had not read or even considered reading, as the text about Skidelsky, an excerpt from which Simone read, and the well-known texts, as Mark started at the beginning of the group: funny, but it felt like singing a song.

Savitri and the Church of Stop Shopping were asking if I could choose David’s text to sign. Probably Mark did.

I had a tough day yesterday, and this Reading Group really felt like a party.

Nika, 15 October 2021


1. Pick a text you like. We will start this experiment with texts by David Graeber, but in the future (I promise!) we will expand our range to include other authors.

A good karaoke text is one that you like and one that is not too long – try to stay below 500 words or three minutes. You will be able to say a few words about the text (Why you chose it? Why is it interesting or important to you? Why are you moved by it?), but you don’t have to.

Visit our Library of Care. Most of David’s books and articles are available there in the folder under his name. Finding it difficult to know where to start, have a look at this link for inspo.

You don’t need to be a professional performer to join our karaoke reading group. You can read energetically or in a monotone, declaim in a melodramatic way or with a softly spoken or whispering voice.

2. Submit your entry. You need to sign up in advance so that we can call you up and queue your text. Please send us your (stage) name and text choice as soon as possible so that we can have a catalogue ready before the beginning of the karaoke reading group – although you can change your text up to the last minute (and by last minute I mean an hour before).

Perform a monologue or perform as a group. And if you choose to do so, don’t forget to send us all your names, so we can introduce you properly. 

Suppose you found the perfect text for the karaoke reading group, but it is too long. That’s no problem at all! You can skip words, sentences or even entire paragraphs. If you choose to do so, just let us know so that we can provide the exact text to the audience.

3. Join us. Time and place remain the same. The karaoke reading group will take place on Thursday 14th October at 8pm London time on Zoom.

LINE-UP of 14 October, 2021

The Utopia of Rules (2015: 94-95) ─ read by Mark

Creativity and desire─what we often reduce, in political economy terms, to “production” and “consumption”─are essentially vehicles of the imagination. Structures of inequality and domination─structural violence, if you will─tend to skew the imagination. Structural violence might create situations where laborers are relegated to mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs, and only a small elite is allowed to indulge in imaginative labor, leading to the feeling, on the part of the workers, that they are alienated from their own labor, that their very deeds belong to someone else. It might also create social situations where kings, politicians, celebrities, or CEOs prance about oblivious to almost everything around them while their wives, servants, staff, and handlers spend all their time engaged in the imaginative work of maintaining them in their fantasies. Most situations of inequality I suspect combine elements of both.

The subjective experience of living inside such lopsided structures of imagination─the warping and shattering of imagination that results─is what we are referring to when we talk about “alienation.”

The tradition of Political Economy, within which Marx was writing, tends to see work in modern societies as divided between two spheres: wage labor, for which the paradigm is always factories, and domestic labor─housework, childcare─relegated mainly to women. The first is seen primarily as a matter of creating and maintaining physical objects. The second is probably best seen as a matter of creating and maintaining people and social relations. The distinction is obviously a bit of a caricature: there has never been a society, not even Engels’s Manchester or Victor Hugo’s Paris, where most men were factory workers and most women worked exclusively as housewives. Still, this frames how we think about such issues today. It also points to the root of Marx’s problem. In the sphere of industry, it is generally those on top that relegate to themselves the more imaginative tasks (i.e., they design the products and organize production ), whereas when inequalities emerge in the sphere of social production, it is those on the bottom who end up expected to do the major imaginative work-notably, the bulk of what I’ve called the “labor of interpretation” that keeps life running.

Footnote: No doubt all this makes it easier to see the two as fundamentally different sorts of activity, making it hard for us to recognize interpretive labor─for example, or most of what we usually think of as women’s work-as labor at all. To my mind it would probably be better to recognize it as the primary form of labor. Insofar as a clear distinction can be made here, it’s the care, energy, and labor directed at human beings that should be considered fundamental.

‘Against Economics’ (2020) ─ read by Simona

Economic theory as it exists increasingly resembles a shed full of broken tools. This is not to say there are no useful insights here, but fundamentally the existing discipline is designed to solve another century’s problems. The problem of how to determine the optimal distribution of work and resources to create high levels of economic growth is simply not the same problem we are now facing: i.e., how to deal with increasing technological productivity, decreasing real demand for labor, and the effective management of care work, without also destroying the Earth. This demands a different science. The “microfoundations” of current economics are precisely what is standing in the way of this. Any new, viable science will either have to draw on the accumulated knowledge of feminism, behavioral economics, psychology, and even anthropology to come up with theories based on how people actually behave, or once again embrace the notion of emergent levels of complexity—or, most likely, both.

Intellectually, this won’t be easy. Politically, it will be even more difficult. Breaking through neoclassical economics’ lock on major institutions, and its near-theological hold over the media—not to mention all the subtle ways it has come to define our conceptions of human motivations and the horizons of human possibility—is a daunting prospect. Presumably, some kind of shock would be required. What might it take? Another 2008-style collapse? Some radical political shift in a major world government? A global youth rebellion? However it will come about, books like this—and quite possibly this book—will play a crucial part.

‘On Social Currencies and Human Economies’ (2012: 411, 412 & 425-426) ─ read by Max

What distinguishes human economies is merely that they recognise that the chief business of any social system – or, indeed, of any system of the production and distribution of material goods – is the creation and mutual fashioning of human beings. Indeed, one could well argue that it’s only the emergence of commercial currencies that made it possible to imagine an ‘economy’ in the sense we are used to using it today at all – that is, an autonomous domain of human activity primarily concerned with creating and allocating material possessions, and not primarily about the creation of people and social relations – let alone, see how people behave within that domain as a model for human aims and aspirations more generally. Historically, the endless repetition of the ‘myth of barter’ has played a key role in making it possible to imagine that such an autonomous sphere of activity exists, and, of course, of creating the institutional arrangements that could make it possible. […]

If the Tiv, then, were haunted by the vision of an insidious secret organisation that lured unsuspecting victims into debt traps, whereby they themselves became the enforcers of debts to be paid with the bodies of their children, and ultimately, themselves – one reason was because this was, literally, happening to people who lived no more than a few hundred miles away. Nor is the use of the phrase ‘flesh debt’ especially inappropriate. Slave-traders might not have been reducing their victims to meat, but they were certainly reducing them to nothing more than bodies.

What was remarkable that all this was done, the bodies extracted, through the very mechanisms of the human economy, premised on the principle that human lives are the ultimate values, to which nothing could possibly compare. Instead, all the same institutions – fees for initiations, means of calculating guilt and compensation, social currencies, debt pawnship – were turned into their opposite; the machinery was, as it were, thrown into reverse; and, as the Tiv also perceived, the very gears and mechanisms designed for the creation of human beings collapsed on itself, and became the means for their destruction.

As the above examples reveal, the change could only be effected by violence – in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, what is almost certainly the greatest and most catastrophic outbreaks of commercial violence in the history of the world. Yet at the same time, I think the very intensity of the catastrophe can help lay bare some of the mechanisms by which human economies could have, in many other times and places in human history, overcome the conceptual barriers between social currencies, as tokens of a debt that cannot be paid, and commercial currencies, as means of cancelling debts in their entirety. One thing is clear: the change was effected by violence. Above all, it was only violence that could rip a human being entirely from the web of unique human relations that thereby made her a unique individual, a daughter, sister,wife, lover, friend, so as to make her the exact equivalent of anyone else. But of course, this violence was already present even when lives could only be equivalent to other lives.

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004: 46-47) ─ read by Tom

What I am proposing, essentially, is that we engage in a kind of thought experiment. What if, as a recent title put it, “we have never been modern”? What if there never was any fundamental break, and therefore, we are not living in a fundamentally different moral,

social, or political universe than the Piaroa or Tiv or rural Malagasy?

There are a million different ways to define “modernity.” According to some it mainly has to do with science and technology, for others it’s a matter of individualism; others, capitalism, or bureaucratic rationality, or alienation, or an ideal of freedom of one sort or another. However they define it, almost everyone agrees that at somewhere in the sixteenth, or seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries, a Great Transformation occurred, that it occurred in Western Europe and its settler colonies, and that because of it, we became “modern.” And that once we did, we became a fundamentally different sort of creature than anything that had come before.

But what if we kicked this whole apparatus away? What if we blew up the wall? What if we accepted that the people who Columbus or Vasco da Gama “discovered” on their expeditions were just us? Or certainly, just as much “us” as Columbus and Vasco da Gama ever were?

I’m not arguing that nothing important has changed over the last five hundred years, any more than I’m arguing that cultural differences are unimportant. In one sense everyone, every community, every individual for that matter, lives in their own unique universe. By “blowing up walls,” I mean most of all, blowing up the arrogant, unreflecting assumptions which tell us we have nothing in common with 98% of people who ever lived, so we don’t really have to think about them. Since, after all, if you assume the fundamental break, the only theoretical question you can ask is some variation on “what makes us so special?” Once we get rid of those assumptions, decide to at least entertain the notion we aren’t quite so special as we might like to think, we can also begin to think about what really has changed and what hasn’t.

‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’ (2012) ─ read by Mary 

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

‘Culture as Creative Refusal’ (2013: 1-2) ─ read by Nika & Tom

‘What I would like to do in this essay is to talk about cultural comparison as an active force in history. That is, I want to address the degree to which cultures are not just conceptions of what the world is like, not just ways of being and acting in the world, but active political projects which often operate by the explicit rejection of other ones. The idea of cultural comparison is familiar enough. This is, after all, what anthropologists largely do. Most of us acknowledge that even the most careful, descriptive ethnography is ultimately the product of an endless stream of explicit, or not-so-explicit, back and forth comparisons between the observer’s more familiar social surroundings and those observed.

As Marilyn Strathern has pointed out (1990), this is equally true of anthropological theory. It is not just that we hone our own common-sense understandings of kinship, exchange, or politics with those that prevail in some particular village or urban neighbourhood in Melanesia, Polynesia, or Africa – we also create the imaginary spaces of ‘Melanesia’, ‘Polynesia’, or ‘Africa’ themselves by showing how what seem to be commonplace understandings in each area could be seen as inversions or negations of commonplace understandings in the other. African kinship systems centre on descent; Melanesian on alliance. Zande magic centres on objects; Trobriand magic on verbal performance. It is from these comparisons that we develop our theories of what kinship or magic could be said to be.

Such comparisons, however, are rarely, if ever, carried out directly: ‘kinship’, like ‘magic’, is neither a Melanesian nor an African term. We have to use our own conceptual language as a medium for conversations between them. This seems to be an unfortunate necessity considering the way global intellectual life is currently set up. One would really prefer, Strathern notes, to allow Melanesians, Polynesians, and Africans to carry out the conversation directly; but for the time being, the anthropologist is forced instead to play a very difficult three-sided game.

Obviously, on a local level, such conversations do happen all the time. No culture exists in isolation; self-definition is always necessarily a process of comparison. Inevitably, most of this sort of everyday comparison has tended to happen on the local level; the units have tended to be much smaller than ‘Polynesia’ or ‘Africa’. But I think there is reason to believe that it is rarely limited to that, and that large-scale projects of mutual self-definition have played a far more important role in human history than either anthropologists or historians have usually imagined. That is, many of the cultural forms we still, at least tacitly, treat as primordial, could equally well be seen, in their origins and to a large degree in their maintenance, as self-conscious political projects.’

Many thanks to all the performers!