Tim Pendry's Reviews > Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions

Invented Knowledge by Ronald H. Fritze
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This is a solid, if occasionally unnecessarily polemical, account of what Professor Ronald Fritze, clearly an heir to the liberal Enlightenment, considers to be unacceptable versions of history and of those constructed versions of science and religion that have no basis in the reality in which certainly he and probably most of the rest of us lives. Fritze believes in 'facts' and that the world views of minds should conform to those 'facts' as far as possible.

The book deals successively with that old warhorse, the existence of Atlantis and then with the mythic modern narratives of the discovery and settlement of America. From there, Fritze looks at the use of pseudo-history to sustain extremist models of American politics - first Christian Identity and then the Nation of Islam.

He moves on to the pseudo-science and the pseudo-archaeology of a number of well-known characters in modern popular culture: Velikovsky, Von Daniken, Hapgood and Hancock. He closes with an evisceration of Martin Bernal's 'Black Athena' hypothesis where he finally lets himself down with an onslaught on post-modernism that loses the book a star. Frankly, the rest of us actually want a solid argument based on (ironically) the facts and not yet another air strike in the Culture Wars.

Nevertheless, this book has its virtues - not least the amount of background detail on extremist political movements and some very good material on how writers respond to the market. The notes at the book are a mine of useful references.

What this book teaches most (to the extent that one heartily wishes that Fritze had spent more time on the mechanics of meme-marketing and less on bursts of prissy outrage) is how academics weaken before the blandishments of cynical publishers and how, once a theme proves profitable, a sort of conspiracy of need and pleasure develops between the writer (rarely a member of the formal academic establishment) and a public hungry for sensation. This is brokered by the real villain of the piece, the publisher keen to sell books. It is all rather grubby with the public being by far the least villainous in the author-publisher-public nexus.

The section within the book in which he forensically unravels the marketing operation behind the nonsensical '1421' thesis of Gavin Menzies (which postulates global voyaging by the late-medieval Chinese empire) is well judged. The writer and the public are not the villains here, the publishers are - although if you consider this sort of pseudo-history as a form of popular fiction then maybe we should all loosen up and just enjoy it.

We are aware of a version of the Necronomicon being published as non-fiction (for sales purposes) when its authors were determined on its fictional status. In the same way, the publishers of '1421' must have been fully aware of the thesis' dodgy status as peer-reviewed history and should have had the decency and honesty to publish it as a hypothesis that was questionable at best and openly as pseudo-history at worst. The point is that the publishing industry, like the media in general, marketing and politics, have institutionalised fiction as fact with the effect that we no longer believe what does pass for fact any more.

Fritze is rightfully outraged by this culture of lies though it is the business side and not the writers who are really at fault here because it should know better. He fails to see that it is culturally systemic and cannot, as the good liberal often does, be laid at the door of a few individuals who push things to the limit. The writers that he castigates are merely the eccentric extreme of a culture that supplies disinformation and misinformation right from its very heart - churches, states, political parties and businesses (although it has to be said that modern business is by far the most ethical of this miserable quadrumvirate of purveyors of absurdity).

So why does this book slightly irritate? On three grounds - it patronises the public's love of sensation, it takes such a rigid position on the question of 'what is truth' that it loses the argument and it makes little attempt to understand the mechanics of these phenomena.

In particular, Fritxe, in his outrage, fails to question why disempowered people choose to lose themselves in fantasy, how it functions as a political tool and why the 'truth' as Enlightenment liberals understand it means bugger all when you are in a vulnerable dead-end job at the mercy of forces that you do not control.

His po-faced rectitude is that of intellectuals for intellectuals and this cuts little ice - especially as the academic world comes out of this story none too well. The story of how academics attempted to censor Velikovsky through some pretty foul means is an object lesson in why we should be wary of any Establishment's claims to truth.

If the public want this material and the market is willing to supply it, then the real question (unanswered by Fritze and by all the liberal tomes expressing shock and horror at irrationalism) is WHY they want it. The implicit suggestion is that the mob is stupid and ignorant and needs to be brought into the light, but the truth is that a choice of the irrational, of pseudo-history, of extremist narratives, of conspiracy and of fantasy is a very rational choice where ordinary people are not given full information.

What information they do receive is filtered, laundered, censored and manipulated by an editorial and intellectual class whose first duty is to the order created by those who pay them.

If information flows are nothing but top-down narratives in which reason has become a tool for control and only 'the best and the brightest' of the disempowered (and less and less of these since the introduction of neo-liberal economics) are let into the kraal through their mastery of these tolls, then the mass of those left behind have not merely a right to their irrationalism. They almost have a duty to considerthe fantastic as an act of resistance and insurgency to a system that has forgotten them, that uses and abuses them and then expects them to be grateful for the exploitation.

There is one other complaint. Martin Bernal's thesis of the Egyptian origins of Greek civilisation does not stand up in its radical version to reasonable peer scrutiny and it has become ridiculously politicised by some dim-witted or manipulative identity politicians but the attack here is excessive and almost, at times, silly.

Without going into the ins and outs of Fritze's argument, he is far too dismissive of Bernal's assessment (which I oversimplify) that the 'silences' in history are as important as the noise left behind by the victors. The whole notion of fact in history is not problematic because there are no facts - of course there are facts - but because not all the facts are there. They have been pre-selected.

This parallels the problem with facts in political or social life. I have written on this issue in relation to political analysis and 'conspiracy' in Lobster 50. Bernal is right to consider possibility as reasonable alongside probability where the probability has been skewed by the way that facts have been left in the record and the way that past interpretations have accumulated a sort of group-think that has permitted 'given' ways of seeing the past that may be a little more unstable than academics like Fritze think. History, in short, is not and cannot be science or be subject to pure reason.

That's enough - in case this review becomes a counter-polemic. The book is one for the library and is useful but it is, ultimately, a disappointment.
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05/06 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Chris Though I haven't quite completed this (just got round to reading two middle chapters) I heartily agree with your assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this study. Particularly, your three main criticisms (patronises the public's love of sensation, takes such a rigid position on the question of 'what is truth' that it loses the argument and it makes little attempt to understand the mechanics of these phenomena) largely coincides with my feelings: in concentrating on who, what, when and where he has largely lost sight of how and, even more crucially, why?

message 2: by Tim (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tim Pendry Thanks for that, Chris. Later, I tried to engage, if indirectly, with conspiracy theory as mode of resistance in my review of a survey of a different popular phenomenon, magical grimoires - http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/61...

The similarity is perhaps that lack of data allows people to construct or be sucked into fantastical accounts of reality that, in fact, serve a very real purpose in managing that reality. One of the last powers left to the dispossessed is an imaginative analogical resistance to the rationalising managerialism of their rulers.

De Jouvenal is very good (in 'On Power') on how rationalism was a tool of Power under modernising dynasts. Power accommodates intellectuals against both aristocratic independence and peasant and worker freedoms, such as they were ... it is part of the process of 'modernisation' and magic and conspiracy and fantastical tale-telling seem to grow with a sense of powerlessness in the face of it.

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