From time to time I have mentioned GeoCurrents. Subtitled the people, places and languages shaping current events, it really is a very good blog.
Lead author Martin Lewis has been working on a book on the Indo-European controversy. Having now finished the chapter on the history of the debates, he is putting it on line in a series of posts. The first post begins:
Debates about Indo-European origins and dispersion have played a surprisingly central role in modern intellectual history. At first glance, the ancient source of a group of languages whose very relatedness is invisible to non-specialists would seem to be an obscure issue, of interest only to a few academics. Yet it is difficult to locate a topic of historical debate over the past two centuries that has been more intellectually provocative, ideologically fraught, and politically laden than that of Indo-European origins and expansion. Although the controversies have diminished in the Western public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, they still rage in India, and elsewhere their reverberations persist. As a result, the Indo-European question is anything but trivial or recondite. To understand the significance of the current controversy, it is therefore necessary to examine the historical development of Indo-European studies in detail, paying particular attention to the ideological ramifications of the theories advanced to account for the success of this particular language family.
Reading the first three posts, I will give the links at the end, created a feeling of discomfort.
I am no stranger to the way that intellectual analysis draws from current views and then feeds back into those views. I am also well aware of the importance of myth and of the creation of myth, of the way in which myths come to dominate debate, to even determine what can be said and how. Current Australian Aboriginal studies is a classic example, one in which present needs and views can control and distort discussion to the point that it destroys the pleasure of discovery.
I was also aware of at least some of the things that Lewis covers in his history of the Indo-European controversy and have indeed written on aspects of them, including attitudes to race and the importance of social Darwinism in refining those attitudes. These can be uncomfortable topics in their own right. However, this was not the cause of my discomfort this time. That came from a rather more direct personal connection, the significance of Lewis' analysis to some of the academic disciplines that I have studied or been interested in including history, prehistory and anthropology.
Lewis's central focus in this chapter is on linguistics and the way that linguistic analysis has influenced and been influenced by other debates. His time period extends to the present day. This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking.
Anatomical analysis, the differentiation between peoples based on physical appearance and especially on skeletons, has always been problematic. It continues to be used because in many cases skeletal remains are the only evidence we have, despite the advances in DNA technology. Yet the classifications used actually derive from and in turn influenced the debate that Lewis is talking about. You see my problem?
I haven't formed a final view on Professor Lewis' analysis, although I found it very interesting, including the way that the controversy has apparently affected modern feminist mythology. That was a surprise. For the moment, I leave it to you to browse the posts. They are: