Monday, November 12, 2007

The Unreliability of History

It is a truism to state that most of human history has not been written down--and that which has been has ordinarily been falsified, exaggerated, distorted and simplified for a variety of non historical purposes. Michel Foucault demonstrated how history up until the Enlightenment was basically monarchical, seeing everything in simple linear terms; the monarch was the ruling power and historians wrote with the intention of glorifying him. After the Enlightenment, Foucault suggests, our more modern concern with underlying trends appeared. However, according to Foucault, this was with the intention of empowering the aristocracy who had been sidelined by the church and the King. The aim of exposing this hidden history was to show the way in which, since the Frankish conquest, the Gaulish aristocrats had entered into the church, acquired knowledge of Latin and Roman law and become advisers to the King. This had led to the decline of the traditional French aristocracy and the point of this new history was to call upon the First Estate to reclaim its birthright.

Today we have leftist history, rightist history, the history of the conquered and of the conquerors. We have Marxist history, bourgeois history and revisionist history. There is also the history of origins. According to this, everything has its starting point in a clear and well defined moment. For example there is the moment when spoken language first appeared and the moment when the first language was set down in written form. Most historians believe that Sumerian cuneiform was the first written language, but new discoveries in the Balkans cast serious doubt on this. The Vinca culture was Europe's biggest prehistoric civilization and 4000 years before the CE it had achieved high levels of sophistication in various areas including metalwork, pottery and urban planning. It seems the women were even highly fashion conscious and wore something akin to the modern mini skirt! Most interesting of all, a kind of proto-language appears on more than 1000 artifacts discovered (an example of which can be seen in the picture above). Was this a fully developed written language in every day use around 2000 years before the written script in Sumeria? (which bears no similarity to the Vinca script). Experts are in disagreement about this: some say, the Vinca script is no more than a primitive symbolic script, others are more ready to argue for the script's status as a language. In any case, it is certain that the vested interests of academia do not change long cherished ideas easily, so if the Vinca script should prove to be an early language, the proponents of this idea will have their work cut out to prove it.

Finally, the essential point is not whether the Vinca script predates the Sumerian one. Rather, it is to ask ourselves how many of the arbitrary points in time that we learn in history really represents "an origin". The human mind likes to think in easily manageable time periods and events. Long millennia, when change happened imperceptibly isn't exciting or sexy enough for the historical taste. However, it is likely enough that this is the way that things really happened.


Blogger John Wallen said...

I put up this link as an example of the kind of simplistic history of origins that I criticized in the original article.

5:48 AM  
Anonymous Foucauldean said...

Foucault rocks!

6:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't this search for origins more of a psychological malaise than anything
else? this is how children conceive of things, that everything must come from
somewhere, and if we trace that sequence back there will be a First Cause. I
doubt if that is humanly avoidable.

10:52 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

I would say the fact that we can conceive of another way of thinking about history, whatever the difficulty, suggests that there is hope for the future.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Wallen,

I found your article "The Unreliability of History" very educative.

Would you mind if I publish your article in the news section of our website?

Best regards
Nenad Djurdjevic
alias Hyperborean

Co-Admin and Moderator at:

1:45 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

You are absolutely free to do so Nenad. Do let me know when it appears.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, I will give you advise when ready!


3:38 AM  
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2:45 PM  
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