Ancient Science (with apolopy to Sid Chatterjee)

ermadog at ermadog at
Sun Dec 9 16:30:40 MST 2001

In consideration of Sid Chatterjee's outraged sensibilities, I am
discontinuing my use of the term "ethnoscience" and replacing it with
"ancient science". I see that another phrase of mine might be misconstrued
- "getting googley-eyed over other people's culture". Once again, I turn
to a Third World activist to speak for me in this matter. The following is
from a Znet coomentary posted last summer.

Magical Realism in the Fabulous World of the Indian Economy.
By Vijay Prashad

Magical Realism is an Indian habitus discovered accidentally by Latin
American fiction. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, may his recent illness be as
painless as possible, wrote in a style that evokes for me the social
relations of the Indian subcontinent. No wonder, then, that his technique
is so freely, and profitably, used (most mimetically) by Salman Rushdie
and (only partly) by Arundhati Roy.

Consider two small examples. For almost eight decades, a fire has raged
under several square miles of Jharkhand (formerly southern Bihar). This
fire, in Jharia, began in an unsafe colliery run by British capital and it
has burned, uncontrolled to this day. Over the past three decades the
Indian government has relocated about 2500 families (and even considered
the wholesale transfer of Jharia town). But 13,500 families remain on the
hot surface, with callused feet to carry them each day over the insatiable
inferno. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Nuapada, Orissa, in the
early 1980s, agencies committed to 'development' castrated the local, and
very resilient, Khariar bull. Cows in the district, according to
journalist P.  Sainath, were impregnated with imported Jersey semen. Two
years later, after expending millions of rupees, the several cows only
produced eight calves of poor health. The diary farmers in this drought
prone district suffered the presence now of worthless cows and the rumor
of a fabulous, but now extinct, bull. Magical realism on the backs of the
working-class and peasantry.

Foreign tourists to India often are amused by the sheer density of
experiences, as they overload with sensory data. We Indians in the US take
on a bemused tone when confronted with the enthusiasm of the liberal
tourist. India seems to do things in excess: too many spices, too many
colors, too much noise. Magical realist fiction thrives on this vision of
an overripe India. I suspect that after you've brushed off the orientalist
(and sometimes racist) overtones of this reaction there is a germ of truth
to it.  South Asian cultures are decidedly non-puritanical when it comes
to public space and there is a sense of revelry in the north Indian
marketplaces with which I am familiar. If the subcontinent has a tendency
to excess, our local fascistic movement is not to let us down on this
score. The Hindu Right is flamboyant in its cultural outrageousness and
almost camp-like in its subservience to the logic of capital. No author of
magical realist fiction would dream of opening a Ministry for
Disinvestment. Only in IndiaI

And who is the Minister of State for Disinvestment? Arun Shourie, the arch
conservative journalist and author who toes the line of cruel cultural
nationalism. Why is this brutal writer seconded to the primary task of
neoliberalism -- to cut down the welfare state? Because, like Nixon in
China, only he can do it on behalf of transnational capital and the big
Indian bourgeoisie.

Full article at Znet.

My intention is to get at the "prehistoric bunk", as Engels calls it,
embedded in traditional wisdom. You can see from my earlier exchange with
Hunter Grey that I am equally capable of critiquing Western traditional
wisdom. I am not an academic, I don't have all the right words, and my
formulations are likely to be clumsy from time to time. You were not my

It is necessary in this discussion to be able to distinguish between
science and "other ways of knwing", because ancient technology is often
brought forward to prove that ancient wisdom somehow "works". The most
typical "proof" is the vast herbal lore. I have shown in my post on Levins
that neither herbology nor modern medicine is a science.

Greg Schofield and Les Schaffer agree with me that the roots of science
can be found in the older tradtions. If we can find rudimentary science in
historical periods prior to the rise of the bourgeoisie, then it is
definitely possible to talk of science in general apart from bourgeois

Here is what George Roux has to say in _Ancient Iraq_, 1964:

"Our knowledge of Mesopotamian methematics is derived from two categories
of texts: lists of numbers arranged in various ways (increasing and
decreasing series, multiplication and division tables, etc.) and problems.
Surprisingly, the majority of thses problems are exercises for advanced
students (or even possibly intellectual recreations) and not, as one would
expect in a so-called "primitive" or "archaic" society, problems relating
to architecture, land-surveying, irrigation and other matters of practical
interest. .... It would also appear from some tablets that the Babylonians
were familiar with functions and that their calculations occasionally
involved serial, exponential and logarithmic relations. The thought in
abstractions; they liked numbers for their own sake, almost forgetting
their practical uses. For this reason, their geometry was much less
advanced than their algebra."

He concludes this section with:

"Admirable as it was, Mesopotamian astronomy lacked what we would call
synthesis. Contrary to the Greek astronomers, who lived at the same time
as the latest and best of them, the Babylonian astronomers never tried to
assemble the numerous data they collected into coherent cosmic theories,
such as the heliocentric system of Aristarchus of Samos or the geocentric
system of Hipparchus. the reason for this probably was their total
submission to the gods, which made them accept the world as it was and not
as it could be imagined. Besides, their mind worked differently. To quote
a specialist: "The Greeks were philosphers as well as geometers, the
Chaldaean were emiricists and sophisticated calculators." "

The fact is that when people in modern, Western society dig around in
ancient wisdom, they usually end up with reactinary or conservative

As for the compassionate Buddha, there was a posting last spring
discussing the question of whether or not Marxism is ethical. It made the
point that all general morality ends up serving the bourgeois. I plan to
discuss this further in the new morality thread.

Joan Cameron

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