Alan Kirker


August 31st, 2022 by

“A schism is a division between people, usually belonging to an organization, movement, or religious denomination” (Wikipedia, retrieved August 2022).

A central theme arising from the Indigenous critique of Western culture during the time of North American colonization was their assessment of European notions of hierarchy, ownership, and property. Indigenous Wendat statesman Kondiaronk argued:

I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living… In the light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver?” (2021, p. 54).

Ruling classes are those which have organized society so they can extract the most of accumulated surpluses, displayed in apparent societal transitions from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. David Graeber and David Wengrow, in their thought-provoking book “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” (2021), share new evidence that points to such trajectories as being anything but historically linear, and that there were instead cyclical transitions and fluid movement between both modes of society:

They shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again, allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of the year then dismantling them – all, it would seem, on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable” (2021, p. 111).

Hovering in and out of farming is something our species has done successfully for a significant part of its past, according to Graeber and Wengrow. An “ecology of freedom” may have involved alluvial soils that when flooded became temporary agricultural habitats, and wherein science was not one of ordering and classification, but of coaxing and bending the forces of nature to increase the potential for a favourable outcome. This “schismogenesis” was amplified not only in a moving into and out of farming, but in certain clear cases, between “upland” and “lowland” people, exemplified in the cultures that emerged from the Middle East Fertile Crescent. “The more that uplanders came to organize their artistic and ceremonial lives around the theme of predatory male violence, the more lowlanders tended to organize theirs around female knowledge and symbolism – and vice versa” (2021, p. 245).

Schismogenesis underscored sociologist Émile Durkheim’s noting of the Polynesian term “Tabu”, whose rough translation of “not to be touched” had particular religious overtones, and highlighted a “profound similarity between the notion of private property and the notion of the sacred” which more generally rippled through the stratification of societies, the subordination of women, and the sacrifice of basic freedoms (2021, p. 159, 432). What does this reveal about current interpretations of hierarchy, property, and the sacred? In his essay titled “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Between Men” (1754), Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau suggests:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying, This is mine, and found peoples simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes… you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody” (1754, p. 245).

Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021) The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. Toronto, Canada: Signal – McClelland & Stewart – Penguin Random House Canada

Rousseau, J. J. (1754), Discourse on the Origin of Inequality among Men; The Social Contract and Discourses, in Everyman’s Library (1913), (pp. 177 – 246). New York, United States: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., excerpted and reprinted in Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (1946), (pp. 242 – 256). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.).


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