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The Fabrication of Ancient Greece - An Interview with Martin Bernal - by Walter Cohen 8/9

/ wonder if you d be willing to clarify the status of some of your more striking local claims. Vm thinking, for example, of the arguments for the connections between Romanticism and racism that you ve already mentioned or between volcanic eruptions and historical turning points. These relationships do not seem wrong, or even tenuous, so much as sketchily argued. How much weight are they meant to bear?

You are quite right that much of my work on these "turning points" is very sketchy and that some passages, such as those on the inadequacies and dangers of the concept of an "Axial Age" and on the possible impact of the eruptions of Thera and Iceland on China, have nothing to do with my main theses. They should be seen as examples of my self-indulgence and, in the latter case, a desire to touch base with my old subject, China. However, the redating of the Thera eruption and its impact on the Mediterranean has been important to the development of my ideas and plays a significant role in my general scheme. From the point of view of the sociology of
knowledge, it is significant both because it has punctured the "certainties" of the Bronze Age archaeologists and because it confirms the value of evidence from "scientific" sources such as radiocarbon and dendrochronology, even in areas that were thought to have fixed chronologies. The redating of the eruption from circa 1500 to 1628 B.C. also means that what is now called Akrotiri, which was buried by it, and the sensational and extremely cosmopolitan frescoes found there should be seen as belonging not to the period of the Egyptian New Kingdom, when contacts between the Near East and the Aegean are generally conceded, but to the Second Intermediate or Hyksos period, which the Greek tradition indicates as the period of settlement from Phoenicia and Egypt and which I believe to be the era when Greek language and culture were formed.

On the other hand, sometimes your arguments are apparently meant to carry less weight than your critics suggest. You suggested earlier that a crucial area of current debate was the question of colonization—presumably a reference to the possible Hyksos movements into Greece. Skeptical readers apparently feel that rejection of this proposal seriously undermines your central argument. But it seems to me that colonization is not what the rest of your argument hangs on; rather, colonization hangs on the rest of your argument. Is that right?

Well, certainly I don't depend on colonization for the basic hypothesis. In the Egyptian New Kingdom period, especially the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries B.C., the contacts were so close that the conquest stories aren't really necessary to explain the massive impact of Egyptian and Semitic cultures on Greece. On the other hand, I don't think colonization hangs on the rest of it. On the basis of mythological and archaeological evidence, the argument for colonization has been made by people who don't believe that it had any lasting effect on Greek culture. The claim can be made that, just as the Hyksos had no long-term influence on Egypt, they had no long-term influence on Greece.

In addition to offering a substantively revisionist historical account, you challenge a number of the procedures of Classical scholarship. Two in particular stand out for me. First, you reject the tendency in archaeology to date events late because no earlier material artifacts have so far been found. And second, you reject an exclusive emphasis on the linguistic tree model of historical philology, which vertically traces the origins of various languages back to a common ancestor, in favor of attention to horizontal borrowing among Ian-guages as well. Yet these deviations remain compatible with quite traditional assumptions about argument and evidence, assumptions—whether linguistic, historiographical, epistemologica^ or ontological—that have been under siege for the last generation. To what extent would you see yourself as methodologically traditional or radical? What intellectual norms do you or do you not see yourself breaking with? To put it another way: especially in light of your earlier suggestion that you are just trying to bring Classics up to speed, do you think your procedures would seem innovative if they were employed in other humanistic disciplines?

I must confess that the form of my arguments is shocking only to the exceptionally positivist disciplines of Classics and ancient history. In most other disciplines, it is quite normal to concede that science and scholarship can be affected by externalist forces and to have some sense of metahistory. Minimalism, the tendency to underestimate rather than estimate, and to be lenient
toward errors of omission while savagely punishing those of commission, is amore general phenomenon, and more—though not total—equality here would be a desirable innovation. In general, however, I think the criticisms of my work as methodologically traditional have been justified. This is probably a major reason why classicists and archaeologists have been able to argue with my work and not with that of deconstructionists.

We might investigate this issue by considering some differences between volumes one and two of Black Athena. Some people argue that what is great about volume one is that you don't argue truth or falsity; you argue bias. There you carry out a devastating critique of a discursive formation—lefs call it Classical scholarship in the age of high European colonialism. The force of that critique does not depend simply on the (in)accuracy of the various propositions about Classical antiquity which you review, but on the demonstration of racist bias. Your approach might therefore seem akin to recent demystifying textual strategies that either are agnostic on the question of truth or that ultimately challenge truth claims as a form of Western bias. But in volume two, the demonstrations of bias are obviously in the service of truth claims. Is that an inconsistency between the two volumes, or does the first make truth claims about scholarship and the second about historical evidence?

That's what I'm trying to do. A number of deconstructionists have said, "Wonderful! You've deconstructed Classics. But why then go on? It's old-fashioned, the nineteenth-century way, to set up your own scheme, which will be as false as any other." I'm trying to make sense of both cases; but many people prefer me to make it only about the scholarship. You can say something about nineteenth-century historians; you can't say anything about as distant a period as the Aegean Bronze Age.

That doesn't seem like a valid philosophical distinction.

Well, people who are on to the old-fashioned nature of the project have something, in that I'm making truth claims in both instances. It's somehow like Bacon, when he says that truth is more likely to come from error than from confusion. One should set up schemes to work from. It would be irresponsible to just be completely negative and simply say this doesn't work, rather than suggesting something that would work slightly better, which is what I have tried to do.

But in the introduction to volume one, you argue that if you are right, "it will be necessary not only to rethink the fundamental bases of Western Civilization but also to recognize the penetration of racism and 'continental chauvinism' into all our historiography, or philosophy of writing history." You've suggested how the historical narrative might be rethought. But what about the very notions of Europe, of Western Civilization, or of historiography? How would these look? Clearly, your revisionist stance on such matters suggests an overlap with the theoretical positions from which you've just been differentiating yourself.

With the exception of of I have been criticized for every word in my title, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. I am particularly ashamed of the last two. I should never have left Classical unmarked; and Civilization implied both Eurocentrism and progressivism—the implication that Afroasiatic "cultures" had only the teleological function of leading to European civilization. I particularly disapprove of this aspect of both the title and the book itself, as they can be interpreted in the sense that "all roads lead to Europe." This reinforces the physiological image of Europe as the "brain" of the world, the continent that controls and coordinates the others and the one through which all the others communicate. There is a great reluctance to admit substantial cultural contacts among continents if those contacts do not pass through Europe. However badly or loosely defined in reality, there is no doubt that "Europe" is an important subjective entity or imagined community and that the "Western Civilization" associated with it and its offshoots on other continents is, whether we like it or not, the hegemonic culture in the world today. In this situation, I think an appreciation of Europe's repeated and massive cultural "borrowings"—to use the very misleading Romantic term—from other continents is especially important, both to lessen European arrogance and to attack myths of purity. What I am trying to do is to destroy the image of Europe as sui generis and autochthonous. This, I hope, mitigates the disadvantages of its undoubted Eurocentrism. I do not see myself as very radical in the realm of historical narrative. I think I gained some insights into historical narrative in the process of constructing Black Athena specifically by using the extraordinarily large amount of scraps or "noise" excluded from the old story to fabricate a new narrative.

However, the structure of the revised Ancient model is very similar to that of the Aryan one, with time as the predominant organizing principle, and space and theme poor seconds.

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