Sunday, June 21, 2009

AtF: Why are We Starting Here?

I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is that we’ve finally pushed beyond Cooper’s atrocious understanding of philosophy. The bad news is that we’re now in to Cooper’s atrocious understanding of history. He starts, well, with a bit of pedantry.
History has never been so popular. The man in the street has never been so well informed about his past as he is today. And yet it is a sad and unhappy fact that for all that has been said, written and broadcast about the early and more recent history of mankind, there remains a very large body of historical evidence that is mostly passed over in silence by today's scholars.
Yes. History is massively popular. That’s why there were so many history groupies in college. I couldn’t get from History 491 to my dorm without being offered various sex acts by members of the womens’ volleyball team and sorority girls. And not just the legacy girls, either, the hot ones from the good sororities. It’s also time for me to admit the real reason I started my blog: the women. I can’t count the number of nekkid pictures I’ve gotten from internet hotties ever since I started this blog.* Meanwhile, I will agree with Cooper on principle here. There is a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t get discussed much. What I have in mind is tiny scraps of information that are sitting in archives like jigsaw puzzles with no box art. No one has bothered to assemble all the scraps of information we have in drawers all over the world because there’s just too damn much stuff out there. I’ll bet that’s not what Cooper is talking about, though. Let’s find out.
And because it is passed over by today's scholars, it never reaches today's general public. I say that this is sad because it is not as if this vast fund of knowledge is hard to get at. On the contrary, every fact that you are about to read is available to anyone who takes the trouble to look. And each fact can be obtained cheaply enough. It does not lie in obscure libraries about which no one has heard or to which none can gain access. Nor is it written in languages or scripts that cannot be deciphered. Indeed, scholars have been aware of the existence of this vast body of information for many years. So why is it passed over in such silence?
Uh oh. He’s stumbled across the Vast Historian ConspiracyTM. Historians have been busy translating all the information in the history of the world and putting in out in vast databases just so they could cover all that knowledge up and distract everyone with arguments over whether Alexander the Great thought he was divine in his lifetime or that was an invention by his followers. We do this, of course, because we know that one of these days the Etruscans are going to stop pretending they’ve been dead for 2500 years or so and attack Central Italy. And when that happens we’ll have a monopoly on all knowledge of bronze-age military tactics and be able to sell it to the highest bidder. Bwah ha ha! Hopefully there’s an alternate explanation. Otherwise I’ll be called before the Board of Historians and forced to explain how I’ve been reading this damn book for, like, three months and haven’t gotten around to reporting in on the danger.
Why is it, for example, that no modern book on the early history of Britain goes back beyond the year 55 BC, the year when Julius Caesar made his first attempt to invade these islands? We may read in such books of this culture or that people, this stone age [sic] or that method of farming. But we will read of no particular individual or of any particular event before the year 55 BC. This has the unfortunate effect of causing us to believe that this is because there exists no written history for those pre-Roman times, and that when they landed in Britain the Romans encountered only a bunch of illiterate savages who had no recorded history of their own.
Oh. Good. I’m beginning to form an alternate hypothesis: this guy’s fucking nuts. We don’t have a written history of pre-Roman Britain because – are you ready? – no such history exists. There really wasn’t that much writing in pre-Roman Britain. If you want to know about the British Isles before Julius Caesar, you don’t need a historian, you need an archaeologist or possibly an anthropologist. You need to look at physical artifacts that were dug out of the earth or buildings and walls that were excavated. Historians don’t do that. We became historians because we want to sit in libraries and debate who, exactly, was responsible for the destruction of the Sassanid Empire (My theory: Ben Affleck. He can ruin ANYTHING). We don’t go out digging. It’s hot and dusty and floppy sun hats ruin our hair.** Either way, we don’t know that much about pre-Roman Britain. What we do know isn’t based on reading records, though. In the ancient world writing materials were hard to come by. They were often recycled by scraping off the old writing and simply writing over the top. The old writing often survives just enough to be useful for historians and we get a lot of what we know from these palimpsests, as the records are known. Think of the world, then, as a giant palimpsest. Cultures are constantly conquered, destroyed, or driven out of their homes and new cultures build over the top of the old. But even if the old is covered over, it’s never completely obliterated. It is by studying the remains of ever-older cultures that we understand the history of Britain. So we know that a population moved to the islands we now call Britain sometime before the last ice age, but were then cut off from the mainland when the English Channel filled in as the world warmed. These people built Stonehenge and the other ancient sites indicated by standing stones and whatnot. We tend to think of them as druids and have mistakenly called them Celts. The Celts, in fact, only beat Julius Caesar to the shores of England by about a century. They were a Germanic people who were busy spreading outward from the area of modern-day Germany and who would have taken over Europe were it not for the Romans. As it was, the Celts were the only people who were able to set the Romans back on their heels and maintain their independence. The loose group of tribes was, ironically enough, driven to unify by the Roman encroachment and managed to win one of the greatest battles in history, destroying three Roman legions in the process. However, this tiny bit of history tends to cause trouble, as the idea of the ancient British Isles as “Celtic” is certainly widespread and the actual Celts are often referred to as Germanic. Moreover, there is enough intermingling of cultures that there’s a good chance the British (certainly the Irish) and the Celtic peoples were fairly closely connected for long periods of time. So on many levels it’s similar to referring to Native Americans as “Indians:” a misnomer that’s been so long and systematically applied that it contains an axiomatic meaning. Of course in this case it’s made far more complicated by the fact that the “Indians” in the case of Britain weren’t exactly isolated from "India." Of course, since the Romans the British Isles have been colonized by the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and probably a bunch of others that I’m forgetting. Each group etched its own story on top of the pre-Roman culture of Britain. Each subsequent story has also made it harder and harder to read the words written on that parchment the first time. So we don’t know all that much about pre-Roman Britain. Oh, we do know enough that we don’t call them savages. Or, at least, we don’t think of them as being any more savage than anyone else from that time period. Illiterate, yes. Uncultured, not so much. Either way, Cooper seems to think we have a long written record of the British Isles. In fact, he contends that:
These records still survive, and we shall be considering them in some detail. We shall also be examining many other ancient records that various peoples have left behind them and we shall note with interest the story that is told by each one of these documents. Far more can be known about the early recorded history of mankind than is generally allowed, and what is revealed by this history is a story that is very different indeed from the one that we are used to hearing. But where to begin?
Where to begin indeed? I’ll be everyone playing the home edition already guessed what the answer to that question is.
We must begin our investigations with one of the oldest historical documents in the world. This document comprises the tenth and eleventh chapters of the book of Genesis and is known to scholars as The Table of Nations.
Yup. It’s like my favorite history prof always told me: “Geds,” he said, because I insisted on being referred to by my internet moniker in college, “If you’re trying to figure out something that hasn’t been written down, the best possible thing you can do is go find a book of dubious historical veracity that was written thousands of miles away by a completely different culture and make shit up.” That advice served me well and explains how I got an A on my paper entitled “The Decline of Mayan Civilization: What the Bhagavad Gita Tells Us About Ancient Mesoamerican Society.” Cooper anticipates that his readers might have a problem with his jump in logic. He just doesn’t seem to understand where that problem might possibly arise (hint: the entire idea is a good place to start). It’s kind of sad, actually. I don’t really have to try when he offers brilliant ideas like this:
However, when I use the word 'document', it must be understood that this in no way subscribes to the erroneous view propagated by Julius Wellhausen and his colleagues in the 19th century regarding the much-vaunted but still fashionable*** 'documentary hypothesis' of biblical criticism.
I think he’s trying to throw out a red herring. I mean, this block-quote is the sentence that directly follows my previous block quote. I know quite a bit about the Documentary Hypothesis, having taken a course on the Bible that used it at a critical time in my faith-ending epoch. I like the Documentary Hypothesis. That said, I hadn’t even had time to formulate a thought about the Documentary Hypothesis when I read the word “document” in the previous sentence. In fact, the transition is so fast I'm thinking of suing him for whiplash. He could have simply avoided bringing it up and I don’t think anyone would have noticed. Either way, between this and the next sentence, I think he actually manages to damage his own position.
That hypothesis was designed to be destructive of any impression that the Genesis record in particular was a reliable source of historical information, whereas the objective of our present study lies in entirely the opposite direction.
Or, at the very least, any would-be scholar who actually knows anything about anything of a remotely historical nature will read that and think, “Hmm, maybe I should look in to this ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ thing.” Of course, that’s more than I expect out of the probable intended audience of After the Flood, but if he’s looking to score a few points with or against actual historians, he’s just screwed up. Especially since the Documentary Hypothesis was designed to explain why the Torah appeared to be stitched together from a half-dozen sources and was supposed to take the recording of history out of the hands of god and Moses and put it where it belonged. I’m pretty sure that the questions of the veracity of the Genesis account were simply a bonus. Either way, we’ll table this for now. Next week we’ll apparently look at this Table of Nations or something. Either way, it’s about to get stupid. -Er. Stupider. --------------------------- *None of these things happened. See this post. **Everything from the fourth sentence on in this paragraph is probably wrong. Except for the part about Ben Affleck ruining things. Hell, he played a minor role in ruining one of my relationships. Also, historians generally don’t have good hair to begin with. I don’t know why that is, though. I assume there’s a course in grad school. ***I can’t decide if Cooper doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “vaunted,” “fashionable,” or “but” in this sentence. Sure looks redundant to me.


ExPatMatt said...

Things aren't just about to get stupid(er), they're about to get fucking crazy too....

Keep going man, I'm enjoying this!


bluefrog said...

You're right about Ben Affleck; the rest of the paragraph, not so much. That last sentence is definitely why archaeologists get into lab work, though.

I admire your mental fortitude, dealing with this dreck. My walls would have cracks in the plaster and the book would be in shreds on the floor.

Geds said...

Y'know, looking at it again, I'm pretty sure that I had intended that paragraph to be an explanation of the multidisciplinary facets of history, with the study of written history going hand-in-hand with archaeology and anthropology. Then I got distracted with jokes about socially awkward, lazy historians and kinda took a left turn in to Nowhereville (pop: me). This is the problem that comes when I get the general idea of what I want to say while running errands, then only remember about half of it by the time I return home.

I still stand by my claim that there was basically zero written history in the British Isles before the Romans, though...

Perhaps After the Flood is a brain liquefying device even more insidiously effective than Hulu. At this point I wouldn't be surprised...

ExPatMatt said...

Hey Geds, have you seen this site;

Some pretty interesting stuff there...

Sniffnoy said...

I'm betting on "vaunted".

El Borak said...

Just wait until you get into his maltreatment of Nennius' dating scheme, his incorrect counting of the dates in the Septuagint, his blaming of the slaughter of the Bangor monks on a bishop long dead, and his complete ignorance of the fact that the Irish were relying on Eusebius (and said so).

The hits will keep on coming.