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Black Athena Ten Years After III


towards a constructive re-assessment


by Wim van Binsbergen

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this paper's Contents | Part I (sections 1-3) | Part II (sections 4-6)

7. Martin Bernal’s epistemology

7.1. a reality out there

Trigger’s impression that Bernal points to the way ahead rather than to outdated methods of the past, is evidently not shared by most other critics. Thus Manning,[1] who contemptuously calls Trigger a ‘pseudo-realist’ (p. 264), in a full-length exploration of the epistemological context of Black Athena, states:

Black Athena is in many ways set within the pre-processual, empirical, culture-historical framework of traditional archaeology (...), and forms a radical critique of several of the trends in the subsequent (...) ‘new’ or ‘processual’ modes of archaeology. This is both a requirement for the book’s approach (with its concern for ‘origins’) and ironic, as the object-typology-culture-identity approach leads (via its study of specific peoples) inexorably to non-holistic, extreme and often racist or race-centred interpretations.’

For Manning the central dilemma of Black Athena revolves on the issue of realism:

‘If these relativist-orientated, or post-processual, modes of thought became dominant in the discipline, then the debate over Black Athena is not about facts or evidence at all, but should only be a critique of the ideology in which its author is enmeshed along with everyone else. In these paradigms, the value of Black Athena would be political and social; it would probably be seen as another worthwhile attack on the imperialist, late capitalist, male chauvinist, and racist forces against which the Good continue the unending struggle...’.[2]

Although tongue in cheek, Manning does apparently not intend to be dismissive of Black Athena, but merely to define the specific epistemological settings within which Bernal’s project can or cannot make sense. Manning’s escape clause lies in what we can call the relativity of relativism:

‘The acceptance of a realist mode of thought within a wider acceptance of a relativist, or socially constructed, framework both allows for Black Athena, and for a satisfactory discussion of it. Uncritical positivism, or relativism, does not’.[3]

As an assessment of the epistemological options this conclusion is adequate but it scarcely offers a solution; for as Manning has stated at the outset of his argument, against the background of recent advances in the critique of objective knowledge by such philosophers as Rorty and Bernstein,[4]

‘the historian creates [original emphasis] the past, and what Bernal considers to be the objective reality is his [original emphasis] reality (largely set within a paradigm of race)...’[5]

                        But even though he has only led us to realise that the problem behind Black Athena is an insurmountable epistemological contradiction, Manning is correct in claiming that realism is one of the underlying assumptions of Bernal’s project and of his political stance. E.g., speaking on Said Bernal declares that he is aware of the parallels between his and Said’s work, however:

‘his work is literary and allusive, mine historical and pedestrian. More importantly, I do not accept his view that Orientalism — or for that matter ancient history — are almost entirely self referential.’[6]

In other words, for Bernal, there is a past reality i.e. a real past out there, which we can at least partially capture even if we are largely determined by set paradigms and the sociology of knowledge (while for Said, orientalism’s ‘conception in sin’ — European expansion and racialism — could never produce valid knowledge of Asian and Islamic cultures and their history).

                        But here precisely lies, for Jenkyns, the pitfall of Bernal’s approach:

‘A problem with any strongly externalist argument is that you have to release a small band of the elect from original sin: if objectivity is a mirage and almost all scholars are distorters, why should Bernal and the few people who have written in similar terms before him be exceptions?’[7]

It is here that we begin to discern a fundamental contradiction, between realism and politically-inspired idealism, in Bernal’s epistemology. Let us try to explore this point somewhat further.

 

7.2. dogged responses

Bernal’s long series of responses may be interpreted as sign of a scholar’s consistency, sticking to his earlier published arguments since these, far from being gratuitous, opportunistic or market-orientated, were based on solid research in the first place, including conscientious assessment of the available views and interpretations. In Bernal’s case his awareness that outsiders aiming at questioning a discipline’s conventional wisdom are often considered cranks,[8] perhaps also justifies a certain responsive overkill. Yet it is as if he prefers to situate his project somewhat outside the realm where rules of the academic game reign supreme, and where the best thing that can happen to a theory (and its author) is its methodical refutation since this (neo-positivists would say: this alone) produces genuine knowledge, notably knowledge as to what is certainly not the case. What is at stake is not so much detached scholarly debate about the intricacies of Europe’s history of ideas since the eighteenth century, or about the details of East Mediterranean ancient history, archaeology, ethnicity, religion and historical linguistics — but fundamentally different conceptions of epistemology. In addition to the peculiar nature of American academic dynamics, the politicisation of Black issues, and Martin Bernal’s structural peculiarities as an academic actor, this fundamental disagree­ment is responsible for the phenomenal scope and the often unpleasant tone the Black Athena debate has taken on.[9]

                        It is significant that Martin Bernal speaks so much about the sociology of knowledge and the circulation of paradigms (in other words about the social group dynamics of academic production regardless of academic contents), and relatively little about epistemology and methodology — supposedly the very determinants and criteria of academic contents. What is it that validates an academic statement and renders it true or false? ‘Competitive plausibility’, as Bernal repeatedly claims.[10] But plausibility in the light of what determining criteria? Of what really happened? How would we know?

                        Let us take one example of such plausibility, Bernal’s refusal to give up the Ht Nt-Athena etymology in the face of Egberts’ demonstration, in the present volume,[11] of its untenable nature on the basis of established historical linguistics.

‘I repeat, the phonetic fit, the lack of Indo-European alternatives and the tight semantic connections between Neith and t/hn ‘faience,’ divine eyes, the Thnw people and olive oil and those between Athena as parthénos with grey-blue, terrifying eyes, Libya and olives do not make the etymology certain but merely very plausible [my italics, WvB] , especially since they are mutually reinforcing. The etymologies of both Athena from Ht Nt and parthénos from Pr thn should be seen in the light of the close cultural contacts between speakers of Ancient Egyptian and Greek for more than two millennia.’[12]

In other words, from Martin Bernal’s point of view it is primarily the attractiveness and persuasiveness of the scholar’s discourse, the mutual reinforcement and co-reflexivity of the images which he conjures up, which produce plausibility as the closest possible approximation of truth — whereas such plausibility is not so much produced by the demonstrable fit with empirical generalisations, even laws, such as historical linguistics has formulated; even if it is demonstrated that such fit is absent, the discursive plausibility continues to be upheld unabated!

                        Paradoxically, this example has far greater negative implications for Martin Bernal’s method than for the Black Athena thesis as a whole. He does not seem to realise that explanation is simply a form of generalisation, subsuming a particular phenomenon under more general categories, and illuminating that phenomenon in the light of the relationships demonstrated and agreed to exist between these more general categories. An appeal to the exceptional nature of the explanandum, and to the inapplicability of general rules (on the grounds that the sound laws of historical linguistics do not work between languages belonging to different language families, do not work with proper names, or have been made into fetishes anyway), is the same as refusing to admit that (for lack of evidence, method, and/ or theory) that no explanation can be given as yet. Contrary however to what Bernal seems to fear, such an admission is a sign, not of weakness but of strength in a researcher. The Black Athena thesis certainly does not depend on the identity between the Greek goddess Athena and the Egyptian goddess Neith. It was Bernal, nobody else, who chose to make this identity into a showpiece for the thesis as a whole. He did this presumably because enormous support for the central, and eminently plausible, thesis of ‘Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization’ was going to derive from the scientific status of a firm etymology, upheld by sound laws which are closer to natural science exactitude than anything else[13] in the humanities. To try and cling to the Athena-Ht Nt link on semantic grounds is only logical,[14] considering the extensive and converging cultic, iconographic and documentary evidence. But to doggedly cling to the etymology as such, amounts to an attempt to make unaccountable accident pass for the manifestation of generalised regularity. It raises fundamental questions of epistemology.

                        Indeed, if Gublum can become Byblos and Baghdad Baldock, why should not Ht Nt become Athena?[15] The point however is not the derivation as such, but the fact that such a derivation could pose as systematic, productive and therefore predictable, generalisable and explicatory, the claim in other words of it being an etymology, one that allows us at least this one solid proof for the Black Athena thesis — a unique opportunity of scientifically underpinning so many conjectures which in themselves we know we shall never be able to raise to the status of certainty because of the nature of evidence throughout ancient history. Ht Nt-Athena has now returned to the company of these conjectures. In view of Martin Bernal’s repeated claim that not proof, but merely competitive plausibility is attainable in ancient history, he cannot even complain. But far more important, he has shown, once more, his epistemological and methodological feathers.

 

7.3. empiricist realism cum political idealism

Underlying Bernal’s processing of two extremely voluminous, complex and heterogeneous data sets (‘the European intellectual perception of Egypt through the centuries’; ‘the ancient history of the eastern Mediterranean’) I detect the implicit denial of the contradiction between two very different epistemological stances: empiricist realism on the one hand, political idealism on the other:

     Realism: the pattern of reality (including cultural, man-made reality as studied by the humanities and social sciences), is held to have a unique and objective existence independent from human actors, their perceptions and interests; and that pattern is transparent, open to direct human knowledge. In rather typical British intellectual fashion, such realism is even empiricist in the sense that knowledge concerning the pattern of reality (which realism has declared to be unique and knowable in the first place) is supposed to be acquired in a self-evident and matter-of-fact way, through simple inspection of reality illuminated by common sense not to say intuition. In the empiricist’s mind, there is no need to complicate matters or to give ourselves airs by the formulation of explicit and consensual, cumbersome methodologies stipulating complex procedures supposed to determine the conditions under which an image of reality can be accepted to be true by the contemporary community of researchers.

     Political idealism: reality (including the temporal succession of realities which we capture in historiography) is not blind, neutral, a-moral, but ultimately speaks to man’s moral qualities such as we seek to realise through our deliberate, productive, collective action in the world; and the truest statement is the one that most serves such realisation.

 

                        Empiricist realism belittles, even ignores, the immense difficulties attending the formulation of any meaningful, permanent and collectively shared image of reality that is not a mere figment of our imagination. Political idealism on the other hand amounts to a position according to which myth, if inspiring, empowering and mobilising, is the only worthwhile image of reality, and perhaps even the ultimate product of scholarly inquiry. The strained combination of these two orientations produces an epistemology which rejects any rigid, unitary discourse stipulating that ascertainable truth must be anchored — by means of explicit and consensual procedures argued before a scientific forum — outside individual or collective myth. On the contrary, if myth is the ultimate, inevitable and therefore even justifiable product of scholarship, then the pattern of reality can and must be read backwards, projecting the most revealing, most attractive, most politically advisable, most empowering, myth onto the fragmented and endless set of potential data. If methodological procedures are not held to determine truth value, then common sense and intuitive, myth-guided processing of reality may be expected to reveal an underlying pattern of reality which corresponds with, in fact is just another version of, the myth with which the researcher set out in the first place. Research becomes wishful thinking, and may even claim the right to be just that. The social group dynamics of academic production (the ‘sociology of knowledge’, in other words) become all there is to it, for essentially truth as a product of scholarship has been declared an empty shell. It is the specific group with its particularist interests that determines which myth it will pursue, in an endless circulation of essentially arbitrary paradigms, and scholarship is nothing but the pretext of providing a particular myth with scientific trappings — as in the case of the radical, racialist Eurocentrist and Afrocentrist myths supposed to genuinely and permanently empower Whites or Blacks, and of the myth of a primordial matriarchy supposed to do the same for women, etc.[16]

 

7.4. steering away from, and back to, myth

The internally contradictory epistemology as outlined above also helps us to understand why Martin Bernal has such obvious difficulty in detachedly and convincingly handling mythological material from Greece and Egypt.[17] If rather inevitably myth[18] is the ultimate product of scholarship, and if reality’s structure is both transparent and knowable and ultimately mythical at the same time, then it cannot make much difference if in the academic process we start out from the tangible marks of archaeology, the shaky language data of an exotic script, or a canonised myth enshrined in traditional mythology.

                        In fact, my own failure, in my book Tears of Rain,[19] to rigorously sort out myth (the reminiscence of a primal matriarchy) from historical truth regarding the exclusively female kingship in western Zambia in the seventeenth and eighteenth century CE, betrays an epistemology disarmingly similar to the one here imputed to Bernal. But then, the problem at hand was equally similar: reconstructing ideological history for a region and a period for which contemporary documentary sources are virtually absent. And the same similarity attended our shared reliance on Marxist-inspired models of socio-political organisation and of scholarly praxis. It is not the use of myth as a historical source which is dangerous from a methodological point of view, but the failure to apply such sophisticated methodology as has been developed for doing so.[20]

                        By the same token, under Bernal’s epistemology as reconstructed here it would no longer be necessary to distinguish between

     scientific statements (which are capable of, and intended to be, faulted by progressive research employing progressively consensual and improved methodological procedures), and

     pre-scientific statements (such as the pronouncements of ‘the Ancients’ on the historical relations between Egypt and Greece), whose mythical component is admittedly large (e.g. they reflect not so much past facts but current interests).

However, by any other epistemology these two types of statement cannot be simply juxtaposed in terms of contrasting Models, an Ancient Model as against an Aryan Model. While Bernal successfully and properly faults the Aryan Model (and such faulting is what it was intended for and capable of, although its authors did not realise that), he fails to appreciate that it exists at a different epistemological plane from the Ancient Model, which is not a scientific model and cannot, and should not, be faulted, or even ‘Revised’ (by allowing for Northern, Indo-European migration into ancient Greece, in addition to cultural indebtedness to Egypt and the Levant).

                        The continuity with my own fairly recent work will, I hope, make it clear that this attempt to reconstruct and make explicit Martin Bernal’s epistemology is meant neither as a caricature, nor as an attack – although it may well be misread to be both. Nor is this epistemology peculiar to us: there are signs that it is becoming a somewhat accepted mode of academic production. Some might wish to call it post-modern. Underlying it is a far more disconcerting claim, which goes to the heart of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences today.

                        Persuasively produced in words which also have an extra-scientific, common-sense meaning, scholarship invariably yields statements which have the outside appearance both of myth and of truth. We cannot see from the outside, at first glance, which applies. Statements of research findings, as products of scholarship, therefore remain merely ‘potential myths/ potential truths’, unless they are accounted for by elaborate descriptions of the procedures defining the data set, its collection and selection, the transformations it has undergone, the theories guiding its interpretation, etc. The decision whether a statement is admissible as scientific, in other words has a low myth content and a high truth content, is neither individual nor idiosyncratic, but depends on the examination of the statement and the accompanying procedures by a collectivity of scholars, the forum. Such decisions are invariably meant to be provisional. For the growth of science consists in the continuous recycling of past truths and faulting them for being myths. To the extent that disciplines are established and professionalised, they are routinised structures for the reduction of mythical elements in their members’ scholarly statements. So much for the outsider going it alone. To the extent to which disciplines undergo paradigmatic shifts (i.e. become aware of their own paradigms as have hitherto informed their analysis on the unconscious plane), earlier science and paradigms are revealed to be mythical, and new science is stipulated by new procedures.

                        This recycling of older truths in order to show them to be myths is of course what Martin Bernal himself has done when deconstructing the Eurocentrist myth underlying the classicist science of the last few centuries. However, when he is tempted to turn around and produce — as if that were his true calling, and the brilliant Black Athena I merely a stepping stone, Prolegomena once more — the ‘correct’ image of intercultural exchanges in the eastern Mediterranean in the third and second millennium BCE, his own Marxist-inspired ‘sociology of knowledge’ takes revenge. The fundamental and lasting insight that pure knowledge uncontaminated by class interests is illusory — in other words, that all knowledge is to a considerable extent, and inevitably, mythical — makes him reject all methodological rigour and all insistence on procedure as merely an illusory devise meant to ban the essentially mythical i.e. arbitrary nature of academic knowledge from conscious­ness.

                        There is enough here that I recognise from my own work to feed the hope that I may be forgiven for spilling the beans.[21] We have to admit that Bernal’s stance as reconstructed here at least implies a certain humility, in implicitly (but never explicitly) admitting to the mythical nature of his or her knowledge just like anybody else’s. Or, as Jan Vansina, today’s leading historian of Africa, conceded in a critical discussion of Luc de Heusch’s personal version of the confusion of myth and scholarship:

‘All history as reconstruction of the past is of course mythical. Myths are held to be ‘‘true’’.’ [22]

 

7.5. a way out?

Yet, while such an epistemology may be respectable, in keeping with modern times, and perhaps even the only epistemology free from untenable assumptions about our capability of rising above our own limitations, it poses immense difficulties. We have already seen how its mythical orientation tends to be implied, eclipsed from consciousness by the rather crude realism which Manning identified as the necessary epistemological abode of the Black Athena project. Bernal’s very notion of ‘competitive plausibility’ implies that at the level of the researcher’s consciousness, he insists that some representations of the past are truer and less mythical than others, and therefore to be preferred. However, I have no doubt that it is not the overt, realistic dimension alone, but its interplay with the implied mythical dimension, and hence the (partly subconscious, deeply emotive, libidinous) gratification produced by mythical fulfilment, which — for reasons Freud[23] has helped us to understand — constitutes the true drive behind Bernal’s, my own and anybody else’s quest for knowledge, academic or otherwise.

                        It is here that the problem lies. One can very well understand why the state, or an economic elite, is prepared to invest lavishly in scholarship precisely if this were a mere regurgitation of myth; and the current routinisation of scholarly production under state supervision and patronage, at a scale totally inconceivable only half a century ago, strongly suggests that the main purpose of our scholarship is in fact to produce state-supportive myth — supportive, not necessarily in contents, but at least because such scholarship keeps alive the illusions of freedom, choice, meaningfulness, rationality, planning, on which the relationship between the modern democratic state and its citizens is constructed to depend. But as scholars ourselves, the idea that myth might be all what our work as intellectual producers amounts to, is often unbearable. What sustains our intellectual efforts and enables us to keep up with the frustrations of an institutional career (or even, for an increasing number of us, the lack of such a career) is a belief in the liberating and validating powers of academic knowledge — through the production and enactment, not of arbitrary myth but of valid, reliable models of reality, of truth.

                        Nor is such a belief totally unfounded, since we know from practical experience that some varieties of human knowledge are not merely mythical, arbitrary and self-referential, but amount to eminently practical truths, allowing us to have an impact on reality through which we manifestly produce and reproduce ourselves and our life world. Whether we base such an insight on the Marxist thesis of the primacy of work, production, praxis, in shaping both the world, our society, and our categories of thought and logic; on the philosophy of pragmatism; on the widespread (though not universally) Christian view as to the redemptive nature of good works; on a Taoist or Zen Buddhist reliance on concrete­ness over theory; or on the practical wisdom of primary producers wherever in the world — an appeal to common sense (Bernal’s main stock-in-trade as far as methodology is concerned) is not ipso facto to be dismissed. But for precisely the many reasons that make empiricist realism an unpopular epistemological option, such an appeal is simply not enough for the production of good science — of scientific truth, which is not only true (again, how would we know?), but which can also be seen and accepted to be true by the community of scholars — even if for what in a next generation will turn out to have been the wrong reasons.

                        Can we at all produce non-mythical knowledge in scholarship, and distinguish it from the spurious recirculation of myth? Or does the exclusively verbal and disembodied nature of academic production preclude such grounding? If there were an obvious answer to this central question the problem would not arise. The best we can do is to propose, critique and progressively agree on methodological procedures which have to be argued out in the collectivity of scholarship, thus deliberately designing a practice which — in emulation of the practices that support us materially — may keep myth at bay.

                        But this forces us to think deeply about what the aim of our production of knowledge is. If the fateful cycle of today’s scientific truth shown to be tomorrow’s myth cannot be broken, — if the moment of truth is so very short, then perhaps, after all, the only value of the ephemeral knowledge we produce is that, like myth, it inspires and empowers us for that short moment. Bernal’s epistemology, precisely in its idealist contradictions, may be more realistic than we would be inclined to give him credit for.

 

 

8. Towards a re-assessment — and beyond

All this leads on to a re-assessment of the Black Athena project.

                        Volume I was an eminently successful explosion of the Eurocentric myth of the autonomous origin of Greek civilisation — a liberating act of deconstruction of previous scholars’ myths worthy of the greatest respect (and, incidentally, one in which specifically Bernal’s skill as a trained historian employing an implicit but time-honoured methodology produced an argument largely[24] away from myth).

                        Volume II, lacking such methodology and venturing into a domain where the production, recirculation and reproduction of myth was only too tempting, has not yet produced the science it set out to produce. The great debate it has generated is essentially a struggle to formulate the conditions and the procedures under which Bernal’s claims (or the alternative statements that can supersede them) can be allowed to be true; under which their myth content can be kept low. Even if meant to be destructive and dismissive, even the most critical reactions therefore are inherently constructive, and Bernal’s responses (often more precise, clear, subtle and palatable than his original published statements), bring out once more the fact that scientific truth is the product of a social process.

                        What is needed is that his sheer unbearable, self-imposed burden is now shared with others, working under an epistemology more readily recognised as suitable to tell myth from truth, but within the spirit of his vision of interculturality and multicentredness as the central challenge of our age, and of his standards of interdisciplinary breadth and scholarly imagination.

                        For even after subtracting the rhetorical, heroic and mythical dimensions of Black Athena, the net result remains astoundingly impressive. Of course, one can hardly suppress a chuckle when Martin Bernal himself declares:

‘It is now simply too late to crush the ideas I have been proposing. They have become an established academic discourse.’[25]

And even more telling, when he himself quotes[26] an anonymous reviewer as saying that

‘Bernal has the alarming habit of being right for the wrong reasons.’[27]

Yet I tend to agree, provided one acknowledges that the wrong reasons at best lead to not-yet-truth; and provided that one defines ‘being right’ at a sufficiently abstract, high level of generality (‘right in calling attention to the ideological, including Eurocentric, context of scholarly production’; ‘right in insisting on an intricate, multicentred pattern of intercontinental interaction in contributing towards classical Greek civilisation’) so as to accommodate the many corrections on major and minor points which the Black Athena debate over the past ten years has adduced, and which it would be absurd to ignore or deny, whatever the political agendas of these critics or their editors.

                        If Martin Bernal produces truth inextricably mixed with myth; if his epistemology (or perhaps, as I argued above, if the nature of historical knowledge production, to which we are all subjected) is conducive to this; if he has not adopted more widely acceptable methodologies for mythical and etymological analysis; if his reconstruction of the modern history of ideas may be too schematic and partly wrong; if he shows himself more adept at the tracing of the trajectories of isolated cultural and religious items than at the understanding of the complexity of localising cultural and religious transformations; if his lack of detailed knowledge of African cultures means that the Black Athena debate so far has said much less about Africa’s place in global cultural history than should be said and could be said; if there are a hundred other things more or less wrong with Black Athena, — then these are merely so many items for a research agenda that ought to keep as many of us as possible occupied well into the twenty-first century CE.

                        We owe Martin Bernal a great deal. First on the level of concrete, specific contributions to the study of the ancient eastern Mediterranean. On this point the testimony especially of what was meant as a dismissive critique, Black Athena revisited, is eloquent. If we made a list of all the positive points of specific scholarship which the twenty contributors — deliberately selected by the editors of that collection for their negative assessment— concede to Martin Bernal, the sum total would be enough to mark any specialist career in this field as eminently prominent and creative — as if that fat critical tome were in essence a Festschrift written for Bernal’s 59th birthday. But his principal significance lies elsewhere. He has cleared the path by exposing the role of classics in constructing the myth of Eurocentrism and white superiority. He has thus reminded us that the global processes of intercultural exchange today and tomorrow require responsible and politically sophisticated disciplinary and epistemological reflection — an insight unaffected by his own ambiguous relation to myth. He has set a standard, not so much of methodological rigour and theoretical consistency but at least of visionary inter­disciplinary scope and depth, of language skill and bibliographical exhaustiveness, of inspired imagination in the formulation of exciting, testable hypotheses, and perhaps most important, of cosmopolitan, global anti-Eurocentrism.

                        In mid-life and without the required specialist academic training in classical and Ancient Near Eastern languages, archaeology, and ancient history, Martin Bernal has set himself a truly Herculean task. A fundamental dilemma has attended the Black Athena project from the beginning: its scope is far too comprehensive for one person, its political, ideological and moral implications are far too complex than that one person could possibly be trusted to thresh them all out. Whatever error has crept in is more than compensated by his scope of vision, which made him realise that, inside as well as outside scholarship, creating a viable and acceptable alternative to Eurocentrism is the most important intellectual challenge of our time.

                        One obvious strategy for reducing the state of alarm which Black Athena has brought about among specialists on Ancient Greece and the Ancient Near East, has been to try and refute the details of its scholarship, and to subsequently, smugly, withdraw from the debate. The other way out, and one which I — an outsider myself to the study of at least the ancient, eastern Mediterranean, but an insider in the identity issues raised by Black Athena — passionately advocate, is to continue in the spirit of Martin Bernal’s project, with vastly increased personal, disciplinary, financial and temporal resources, and see where this will lead us. Vocal participation of scholars from Egypt, from Africa in general, from the Near East, and the critical involvement of African American researchers be they Afrocentrists or not, must counteract such Eurocentrism as may yet sneak in.

                        The research programme initiated by Black Athena continues to be viable, exciting, and of global significance, but it has far outgrown the capabilities of a single person, even if that person is Martin Bernal. The greatest reward that could be bestowed upon him is that others, with specialist knowledge of the many relevant specific domains of scholarship involved, and representing a more diverse range of seasoned epistemological and political options, join forces with him. With all its critical overtones, to work towards such a constructive outcome has been the only aim of this collection.

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this paper's Contents | Part I (sections 1-3) | Part II (sections 4-6)


[1]Manning, S.W., 1990, "Frames of reference for the past: Some thoughts on Bernal, truth, and reality’, Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, 3, 2: 255-74.

[2]Manning, p. 260.

[3]Ibid. p. 269.

[4]Cf. Rorty, R., 1979, Philosophy and the mirror of nature, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Rorty, R., 1982, Consequences of pragmatism, Princeton: Princeton University Press; Bernstein, R.J., 1983, Beyond objectivism and relativism: Science, hermeneutics, and praxis, Oxford: Blackwell.

[5]ibid. p. 256f.

[6]Bernal, M., in press , ‘Response to John Baines’.

[7]Jenkyns, o.c., p. 413.

[8]Cf. Black Athena I, p. 6.

[9]Cf. the assessment by Preston Blier, as quoted in a footnote above.

[10]Black Athena I, p. 8f; Black Athena II, passim (see that book’s index).

[11]Egberts, ‘Consonants in collision’.

[12]Bernal, ’Response to Arno Egberts’; cf. the relevant passage in: Bernal, ‘Responses to Black Athena: General and linguistic issues’.

[13]Except statistics, which despite the obvious utility of e.g. cluster analysis for archaeological, anthropometric and intercultural analysis, never enters Bernal’s horizon. This may well be because his main model of scientific method was J.D. Bernal, who as a prominent physicist working in the field of crystallography, must have shared physicists’ general abhorrence of statistical indeterminacy as against the fixed beauty of physical law. This is what made quantum mechanics (as essentially statistical) such a difficult breakthrough. Statistics was primarily designed in order to cope with the distributional messiness typical for the lesser sciences, such as biology, psychology and anthropology. Provided one can agree on numerical indicators for the types of systematic variations and correspondences within the corpus of signs within early alphabets, cluster analysis would be the ideal tool to explore such relationships between alphabetic series as make up the bulk of the argument in: Bernal, Cadmean letters. The irony is that these relationships would then be visualised as dendrograms — representing not in the least genetic nor necessarily dyadic relationships as in the tree models which Bernal (o.c., p. 1f) abhors excessively, but merely degrees of statistical nearness between any number of items, waiting to be explained.

[14]Even Arno Egberts’ point as to the posthumous virility of Osiris, whose Pr T/hn or ‘House of Glitter’ temple therefore could not have been the etymon of Greek Athena’s Maiden Chamber (Parthenon), seems to have an obvious answer. If female Athena in her capacity of parthenos derived from male Osiris, her feminine role in sexuality and reproduction would have to be impeded to the extent to which Osiris’ masculinity was accentuated; and this is what happened. As Bernal rightly points out on the authority of specialists of Greek religion, belligerent Athena was a virgin not in the sense that she was inchoately, dormantly feminine, but in the sense that she was implicitly masculine. Neither Greek nor Bernallian inventiveness needs to be invoked on this point. It is the composite nature of the goddess, combining ‘warfare, wisdom and weaving’ among her specialisms, which poses a difficulty — but one only too familiar in the domain of comparative religion, and therefore apparently unrelated to the question of Egyptian-Greek connections.

[15]As far as Gublum/a-Byblos is concerned there is a clear-cut answer: because in this case there is appeal to a systematic sound shift gw-b, ‘the breakdown of labiovelars’, which took place in the second millennium BCE and explains a whole range of attested linguistic phenomena (cf. Albright, W.F., 1950, ‘Some Oriental glosses on the Homeric problem’, American Journal of Archaeology, 54: 160-76; p. 165; also: Bernal, Cadmean letters, p. 30). By contrast, with regard to the proposed etymology /Ht Nt-Athena, Egberts and others have argued that the systematic tools at our disposal do not warrant the proposal systematically, even force us to reject it.

[16]Cf. Bamberger, J., 1974, ‘The myth of matriarchy: Why men rule in primitive societies’, In: Woman, culture, and society, edited by M. Z. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere, pp. 263-80, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press; Wagner-Hasel, B., ed., 1992, Matriarchatstheorien der Altertumswissenschaft, Darmstadt: Wissenschaft­liche Buch­gesell­schaft; inevitably, the principal Afrocentrist Diop played with a combination of the Afrocentrist and the matriarchal myths, cf. Diop, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Patriarchy and Matriarchy in Classical Antiquity.

[17]Hall, ‘When is a myth not a myth; cf. Bernal, M., 1992, ‘Response to Edith Hall,’ Arethusa, 25: 203-14.

[18]I.e. myth posing as scholarly truth, whose mythical nature can only be demonstrated by scholarly reassessment, usually in a future generation. Of course the entire thrust and passion of Martin Bernal’s scholarship (and anyone else’s) hinges on scholarly myth not revealing its mythical nature to the author’s consciousness. If it does, and thus becomes clearly detectable as myth, serious problems of consciousness arise, e.g., in Bernal’s case (Black Athena II, p. 41 and passim) when his own analysis of the Hyksos evidence left him, as he saw it, no alternative but to appeal (albeit not for Greece but for the Levant) to the ‘Aryanist’ image of a militant barbarous invasion from the north — however distasteful such an image was to him, since it seemed to mean reverting to a mode of historical explanation whose eradication had been the very purpose of Black Athena.

[19]Van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1992, Tears of Rain: Ethnicity and history in central western Zambia, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International.

[20]Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1985, ‘The historical interpretation of myth in the context of popular Islam’ in: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Schoffeleers, J.M., 1985, Theoretical explorations in African religion, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul, pp. 189-224; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1987, ‘Likota lya Bankoya: Memory, myth and history’, in: Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, 27, 3-4: 359-392, numéro spécial sur Modes populaires d’histoire en Afrique, sous la direction de B. Jewsiewicki & C. Moniot; Vansina, J., 1985, Oral tradition as history, London/ Nairobi: Currey/ Heinemann Kenya. The problem is understandably central to the study of African precolonial history, and has received much attention since the heyday of this sub-discipline in the 1960-70s. This did not lead to consensus. While scholars like Vansina, Schoffeleers, and myself are convinced of the usefulness of myth as evidence (however little, and however difficult to handle) for history, others argue that it is impossible, by whatever method, to thresh truth out of myth. Cf. Feierman, S., 1993, ‘African histories and the dissolution of world history’, in: Bates et al., Africa and the disciplines, pp. 167-212, p. 182f; Gilsenan, M., 1972, ‘Myth and the history of African religion’, in: Ranger, T.O. & I. Kimambo, eds., 1972, The historical study of African religion, London: Heinemann, pp. 50-69; Henige, D., 1982, Oral historiography, London/ New York/ Lagos: Longman; Ki-Zerbo, G., 1981, ed., UNESCO General History of Africa, I: Methodology and prehistory, Heinemann/ California University Press/ UNESCO; Schoffeleers, J.M., 1985, ‘Oral history and the retrieval of the distant past: On the use of legendary chronicles as sources of historical information’, in: van Binsbergen & Schoffeleers, Theoretical explorations, pp. 164-188; Vansina, J., 1986, ‘Knowledge and perceptions of the African past’, in: Jewsiewiecki, B., & Newbury, D., 1986, eds., African historio­graphies: What history for which Africa?, Beverly Hills: Sage.

[21]In the 1970s and 1980s much of my work explored the potential of neo-Marxism for anthropology, specifically in the field of religious and ethnic studies. Cf. my Religious change in Zambia: and Tears of Rain, as well as: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1984, ‘Kann die Ethnologie zur Theorie des Klassenkampfes in der Peripherie werden?’, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, 9, 4: 138-48; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & P.L. Geschiere, 1985, eds., Old modes of production and capitalist encroachment, London/ Boston: Kegan Paul International. I am not identifying Martin Bernal as a Marxist let alone denouncing him for being one; I simply detect somewhat loose but unmistakable, and valuable, Marxist strands and dilemmas in his position — like in my own.

[22]Vansina, J., 1983, ‘Is elegance proof? Structuralism and African history’, History in Africa, 10: 307-348; cf. my discussion in: Tears of Rain, pp. 239f, and: de Heusch, L., 1982, Rois nés d’un coeur de vache: Mythes et rites bantous, Paris: Gallimard.

[23]Freud, S., Jenseits des Lustprinzips, in: Gesammelte Werke, XIII, 1, Frankfurt a/M.: Fischer, 1968-1977; Freud, S., New Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis, in: The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, XXII, London: Hogarth/ Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-1974. Cf. Brown, N.O., 1970, Life against death: The psychoanalytical meaning of history, London: Sphere Books, first published 1959, pp. 208f.

[24]Though far from entirely, cf. the criticism by Blok (this volume); Palter, ‘Eighteenth century’; Jenkyns, o.c.; Norton, o.c.

[25]Black Athena II, p. xxii.

[26]Bernal, ‘Reponse to Josine Blok’.

[27]Antiquity, 12/1991: 981.

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