Thursday, 9 June 2011

Champagne Crash

My first blogging post - throw the champagne bottle at my screen, my keyboard, and hope it hits this website before the computer dies.

So what, besides announcing my presence, is this post going to be about?
Well, first off, hello to anyone who might be out there and interested in reading this.

I've been reading a book on the Celts lately, and on the front it says that it should become the "standard text book" for anyone who's interested in Celtic history.  Now, I realize what the reviewer meant - it is much more well written than most of the Celtic history books I've read (for some reason they're mostly quite dismal - just a list of what was found at what site in Co. Donegal etc etc).  Unfortunately, it suffers from trying to place itself in an...argumentative position.

I realize that most academia is just one giant argument with an awful lot of ego stroking/destroying - but it's not so often that it's made so damn explicit for a reader in an actual book (ie, not an academic journal).

And as a history student I've been told, over and over again that you must must must pay attention to your sources - look at them critically, see, if you can, what the bias is, compare it to other possible evidence.  And this is exactly why this book becomes vulnerable through its need to prove something.  Specifically, it's taking Julius Caesar's words as fact - and his observations about the (allegedly) Celtic peoples.  There is no reason to totally disbelieve all of what he wrote, but J.C. must be treated with extreme caution.  I find often that Celtic students and professors spend far too much time focused on what the words of the source might mean for their studies alone rather than examining the author of said source.  And let's face it, a lot of the sources for Celtic peoples are Roman (or Greek), aristocratic authors.

Julius Caesar.  One of the biggest self-promoters ever.  Wrote in third person. ("He's great."  "Who?"  "You."  "Oh, him.")  Had an extreme need to present himself in a good light, as someone doing truly extraordinary things, and, most significantly, against extraordinary odds.

So why should we believe everything he said about the Celts? Starting with the number of people migrating around the time of the Gallic War, for instance (and one of the reasons he started the whole thing in the first place - which makes it doubly suspect).   The author of this book uses Caesar's numbers to contradict previous academic statements about the population numbers.  As if to throw it back in their faces and say, "Aha! So there!" 
And then sticks out his tongue, probably.

What I find the most disturbing about this is that J.C.'s writing is treated as plain fact.  Fine, use it as a source - it is a valuable source, though, if I may say so, more for how Romans saw themselves, or needed to see themselves, what was going on politically at the time in Italy etc etc, than anything over in Gaul.  But don't tell me that because J.C. said it, it must be true. 
I'd like to see just some, even a tiny one, hint that there could be some bias, some possible doubt - even saying that J.C. stated this, not 100% sure it's true, but the information could be somewhere between what these people think, and what J.C. said...because of these various possible biases.

Room for doubt.  Because we can't know everything that went on then - we only have half, and realistically not even half of half, the picture of most things that happened around that time, and after that has been drummed into my brain every year since I was 18, I cannot sit still and read this book and nod my head.  Every time the author started a sentence off with, "And after all, Caesar mentioned in his Gallic War..." I twitched.

Location, location, location?  Try source, source, source!

Examine your sources, people - and don't be afraid to admit possible doubt; to be honest, at least to me, that just indicates a closer examination of the information at hand, rather than some weakness on the part of the argument. Also, a good degree of humility rather than overbearing ego (which, when it disturbs the pages of history books - and it's not the ancient ego under examination - is frankly rather boring, not to mention irritating). 

In which case, students, examine that book/source carefully for signs of modern bias and revisionism.

I must now get back to my other writing - I may write more on this again later, if I can bring myself to look at that book again, possibly backed up with quotes! Essay habits die hard.

Be prepared for academic ranting, dream analysis, and emotions and motives being raked over the coals.  I'll try to mix it up and not stay in the land of academia too many posts at a time.

Now back to the Tree and a new name for our villain.  More to come...

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