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Re-Examining Illig's Rhetoric

Section Index

  1. Recapitulation
  2. The Illusion of Detail
  3. A Great Conspiracy?
  4. Deconstruction - What Deconstruction?
  5. What Still Remains

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1. Recapitulation

I have to admit, in my previous essay on the topic of Illig[1] I tried to walk the narrow path of neutrality, trying to assess both positions, for and against, in a sort of equally balanced way, trying to combine the best of both approaches, the traditional historical one, and the path entered by Illig. I still believe that something can be drawn from Illig's work, even if it be inspiration. Illig is a great troublemaker, he is great in that he can stir up some discussions which indeed should be taking place - because they point to a vacuum in traditional historiography.

And yet, there's still some doubt, not just about the validity of the thesis itself, but rather about the method he is applying. What he is doing is to apply pressure. He is constantly collecting new ammunition for his fight against traditional historiography, and ceases not to fire it against whoever is listening. But what exactly is he doing? Is he presenting anything new? Is he making new points? What he has presented thus far, is nothing but indications that something might be wrong. No proof. Nothing that would really hold in the light of a critical examination, for that, his work is far too superficial, his method applied too hastily, his yearning for results too impatient. It is understandable, of course, that he wants to press for answers. But academic/scientific research needs one thing most: time.

Research doesn't work the way Illig assumes it to happen. Historiography cannot just take all of his material and accept it blindly, everything has to be dealt with in due seriosity, in due and painful adherence to detail, to true detail, not the wanna-be-facts Illig is digging out.

And there is yet another thing. Illig has always been complaining that he is not being taken seriously, that the academic community is constantly bashing and defaming him. That may have been true, but look who's talking. Illig has become aggressive, he desperately wants to become a player in the scientific and academic communities; but that you don't get when you start insulting people, for no concrete reason.

One example. In a recent essay by Illig[2] he accuses one of his critics, Franz Krojer[3], of only wanting to defame him, refusing to even listen to Krojer's arguments because Krojer would be more interested in the defamation of Illig than using astronomic facts to analyze Illig's findings. Krojer's web site is called "defamatory" - yet the only defamation taking place here is commited by Illig himself. Krojer's writing is devoid of all the emotional rubbish poured out by Illig, it is a solid approach to use scientific findings to test Illig's theses, and Krojer seems to succeed in disproving Illig. This is not defamation but science. Anybody interested in the truth would be interested in such a kind of argument.

Illig has come to think in the categories of "for" and "against" - not for and against his theses, but for and against himself. Any criticizing his theses seems to constitute a defamation of Illig. Is that academical? Is that the way to present one's work, is that the way to undertake research?

Furthermore, if Illig were certain of his findings, his method solid and his academic agenda sincere, why should he want to resort to that kind of rather aggressive argumentation? Anyone publishing their thoughts and ideas will get some criticism. I myself have received positive as well as negative feedback throughout my short career as a writer and academic. Both are equally valuable. Some criticism may seem harsh and even personal, but those voices discredit themselves by the way they talk, and I don't bother. I take whatever constructive value is contained, and deal with it, but why should I take critical voices personal? Am I not - as an academic - interested in the truth? Is truth not a higher cause than my own, personal pride? Of course I don't like reading something negative about my work, especially when I don't deem it justified. But I would never want to react in such a violent way. That's just not productive, it is not civilized, it is not professional, it is not going anywhere. Why insult people? What would my pride be useful for? Deal with it. In a civilized way.

Illig thus shows incertainty, and his responses come off as arrogant and insulting. He thus destroys any kind of positive influence his work could otherwise exert, he seems unwilling to cooperate with people that don't buy his theories. But that's what's going on in scholarship and science: You rarely work with people who share your opinions and theories. That's the strength. That's where the system starts working: Academic dialog can only be productive when it takes place between or beyond differences of opinion. Truth is found through a process of civilized confrontation. Illig has time and again demonstrated that he is not interested in civil discussions of his theses, he behaves like a caged animal. The cage, however, he has built entirely by himself.

Why now am I so pugnacious myself, you could ask, attacking Illig for what he does? Because he pretends to be something he isn't - he pretends to be interested in cooperating with the academic establishment, but he isn't - he pretends to be interested in the truth, even if it be different from his findings, but he isn't, at least not if you judge the way he "deals" with criticism. He attacks the wrong people, makes false accusations, doesn't respond to valid criticism, reveals time and again that his love for detail goes only so far. He is no Erich von Däniken, but he is coming closer and closer. In that, he is discrediting not only himself, he is discrediting the issue even: The issue not being his invented time, but, far more importantly, the future of historiography itself.

October 17th, 2001

2. The Illusion of Detail

History is about the sources, it is about actually diving into the material, about rooting the grand theories on a solid factual basis. The adherence to detail is thus not just a nice addition, it is a definite requirement. You have to go down to the sources, down into the material - texts cannot just be read as translations, you need the original; also, the sources have to be checked for their background. Archeology and natural sciences are not just nice additions, they provide the material sources, the connection to the real world, so to say.

Illig is right when he desperately favors such a cross-branch approach, not caring about conventions that would only protect traditional borders between the fields. But he is also wrong, terribly wrong in the way he actually uses, or rather, mis-uses this premise.

An academic approach has to be aware of its own doing, it has to be checked for possible fallacies and traps. Illig falls into the trap of too much detail. He drowns in it. He has made a shocking discovery, a discovery which every student of history will have to make at one point or another: There are no solid facts. There are no unbiased records. There is no finality to research, especially not the farther you go back in history. Historiography did not exist back then, what is called historiography is never neutral, it is always a mixture between fact and fiction, and even a collection of pure facts can become fiction when the facts are collected incompletely.

Illig wants to find closure. He can't. There is no closure. Research is infinite, it can only reach an impasse, a working agreement, a working hypothesis. There will always be new facts, more details[4]. And furthermore, those details will belong to different fields of research, combining academical and natural sciences. No single person could possibly cover all those areas without risking a certain superficiality. Scope and thoroughness are related in a reciprocal kind of proportion: The larger the scope, the more you have to abandon truly detailed research, and vice versa.

That, in turn, re-justifies the existence of specialists, the differentiation of the sciences into various fields. Specialists are necessary, the only problem with that process comes when this division of the fields isn't any more perceived as an artificially constructed working agreement, but as a natural and irrefutable fact. The borders between the fields have to be fluent, but that doesn't deny the fields to exist. There needs to be a carefully balanced ratio between hierarchy and anarchy; either one of the two taken alone will bring chaos and hinder research from succeeding, but the two brought together and finding a useful, a pragmatic compromise, that will be the only way for research to come to grips with "reality".

"Facts" have to be rooted in a greater understanding of theory, in a greater understanding of what they mean in the context of their time. "Facts" should not be a religious icon, something to be researched for their own sake, neither should they be looked for just to support one specific view. "Facts" can be viewed two- or plentifold. They themselves are mostly neutral, what they "mean" for the greater sake is always open for a more personal view. Taking some "facts" out of context could lead to seriously damaging the research goal: You suddenly get to see what you've always wanted to see. Everything is bended the way you want to see it. The facts we see are the facts we've made.

What Illig finds can be remarkable, sometimes. Or it might seem remarkable. That's because he only shows us one side. He not even truly collects facts thoroughly enough to shed light on a specific pheonomenon, with the possible exception of what he did on the Palatine Chapel. But every other fact he gathers is taken so much out of context that he only creates a shallow tapestry of loose facts.

Taken out of context and forced into union with the help of a new thread, taken together under the aspect of an assumed forgery, some facts may actually support any thesis, especially when they can be revealed as being less solid than it is commonly believed. "Facts", especially those of an old age, can be easily derided, both because of the temporal distance a modern observer would have, and also due to different opinions about scientific seriousness at earlier times. In antiquity and the middle ages, there was either little or none concepts of "facts" comparable to that of our own. That makes the issue of forgery quite a complicated term. Historical narratives, also, can be said to have been more about the narrative itself than about historical truth.

The previous point taken for its own could very well be working for Illig: If something wasn't actually considered false but just a stretched and more colorful version of reality, why then should it not have been possible to bend the facts a little here, a little there? Also, it not necessarily would need such amounts of work to commit such an act: As chronological systems were so varied and of so different a quality, it wouldn't even have needed that great amount of criminal energy to create a false image of history.

Yet still, something doesn't feel right with the thesis. I don't even want to appear especially scientific or academical about that, neither will I cite any new facts. I'll just work with the material at hand, with the material Illig has given us, with the material he is quoting or mis-quoting. What I am going to do is to take a closer look at his presumptions and conclusions, to see if they aren't a bit premature, or even entirely off-base.

October 24th, 2001

3. A Great Conspiracy?

There are lots of unknowns in the various histories traded over from generation to generation. Sometimes, these unknowns are elevated to depicting "dark ages", times throughout history that we have very little, if any, knowledge of, and a knowledge often fragmented, inconclusive, based more upon assumptions and presumed tell-tales than upon solid facts.

Actually, facts are hard to come by the farther you go back in time. Historiography hasn't always been a serious scholarly undertaking guided by strict scientific parameters. Often, historiography just consisted of archiving anything at all, mostly information related to the current government and its foreign relations; including also religious dogma, which has often been a reflection of the society it was set in. Antique "historians" like Thukydides, Herodotus, Sallustius and Livius have rarely, if ever, bowed to the degree of scrutiny which is expected in today's research. Stories, myths, tell-tales, symbolic numbers, lots of exaggeration, as well as political preferences, and of course, the present situation - all those elements have had a strong influence on such writers. The intention for writing their works has probably often been a very different one from that of today. History isn't just written down to record it neutrally, it is written in order to solidify a certain point of view, to support or antagonize the present state of the political entity. So it comes, for instance, that the alleged misdeeds of emperors like Nero and Tiberius have been popularized by their fiercest enemies, that the Persian king Kyros is painted in a rather heroic light by a Perso-phile (or less polemic) author like Xenophone, while otherwise the Persians were constructed as the most devious enemy. Homer, somehow still till today, has been considered as describing actual events, and the history of Rome has usually been cleansed of its Etruscan origins for reasons of patriotism[5].

To counter those unfortunate trends (which, naturally, have not entirely died out yet), history needs hard facts: second or third opinions, unpolitical writings, pieces of literature, preferrably political satire and personal accounts, graffitti, incidental scraps of notes, as well as much archaeological evidence as possible. One single find for an era that otherwise lacks sufficient material could re-define the entire history of mankind. So-called dark ages are first and for all in the "dark" because they lack such kind of material to an extremely uncomforting degree. There can be lots of reasons for it: The material could either have been destroyed or lost (as is the case of most papyrii), forgotten (if cultures are either destroyed or assimilated by other cultures) or modified beyond recognition (by contributing more to mythology than history). Cities can be swallowed by floods or volcanoes, scorched by enemies, buried under new cities. Languages that have died out are often accompanied by a culture which has been forgotten, or whose memory has been destroyed, sometimes even deliberately (like in the Etruscan example again, or with the Hittites). Long periods of draught or climatic change, combined with cut off trade due to political decline, as well as destruction through war, can have led to drops in population. And sometimes, archaeologists may just not have dug deep enough. In general, the lack of evidence does not mean a lack of occurrence at all: The overall paucity of comprehensive data doesn't allow for a general dismissal of the time period in question. Such an act, the negation of inconclusive data, should be a very complex and heavily disputed one, it should not take place easily.

What about the data available? There's no such thing like a complete lack of data from a period like that questioned by Illig. What he does is an attempted relocation of the data at hand, pushing it either further into the past or the future, or declaring it to be a doublet of another event. Charlemagne thus becomes both an exaggerated Karl Martell and a vision for Otto III. That's a bit too easy, it must seem. The forgeries which have been so common throughout the Middle Ages also constitute a standing invitation to dismiss the subject of the forgery itself - yet forgeries, normally, are not conceived in order to invent something which does not exist, but rather, based upon some core of truth or believability, to conceal a different truth, to reinterpret some unwanted facts, or even to document something in a written form which has for most of its history only had an oral counterpart. Forgeries without some factual basis would not have been succesful. But as most forgeries weren't realized as such, as they were indeed accepted as fact, not fiction, they rather stand for some kind of accepted truth than for a virtual web of lies. As strange as this may sound, forgeries can be quite a material proof for the existence of a certain phenomenon rather than for its non-existence.

The scenario suggested by Illig, though, does not seem entirely implausible. He sees the origin of the forgery in Byzantine culture. The (Germano-)Roman Emperor, having strong links to Constantinople still through family ties, orders a complete redoing of the written material, based upon a new form of writing. Old texts have to be transformed to the new style, so why not take the chance to incorporate some new "facts", conceiling some embarassing truths from the past. All of that may seem strange or odd, but in the entirety of the plot not completely dismissable. This way, you can add detail upon detail and create the illusion of a solid tapestry of facts.

I believe I need to step out of the picture for a minute. I have to admit that at first, I did let Illig convince me into believing the basic assumptions of his. Maybe I was just fascinated by the idea, blinded by his array of facts and factoids. Additionally, I was getting appalled by the way lots of the criticism was uttered. Yet that's the core problem: Like a magician, Illig's books maintain a level of believability by erecting distractions which then guide the audience away from the actual conflict. His distractions are the illusion of detail, the jumping around between various areas, the fragmentation of ideas which are never fully executed (with the exception of the Palatine Chapel in book one) and the level of authority created by his writing style. The illusion consists of the impression that the grand picture is known, and he illustrates it by the evidence he has gathered. Yet the grand picture is not known, it's just a loose hypothesis presented as hard fact at the end of the first book, then taken for granted. After that, he starts looking for additional proof. But that's not how it works.

Method is not everything, granted. Yet when you've set out to discover something entirely new, method is the only friend you've got. Method determines whether you're just stumbling around in the dark, accidentally hitting evidence; or whether what you find is genuine material. How do you prove a hypothesis? First of all, the hypothesis has to be vague enough to be altered within the course of research. A hypothesis has to be supported by hard evidence, and the evidence you continue to look for after having established the hypothesis should be sort of independent. Facts found with a certain agenda in mind are often a very tricky thing: If you go around looking for something very concrete, you may very well find it.

So now what you have is a pretty neat hypothesis that is set out to defy everything you've ever known about a certain problem. The hypothesis may actually be fueled by some concrete oddities and actual mistakes that have crept into an immense body of research amassed over centuries, which is not so difficult as accumulation of knowledge always also means an accumulation of errors, misunderstandings, lies and deceptions; willful or not. So there's a hypothesis turning into a general theory, in itself creating more and more gravity, attracting more and more tidbits and factoids as well as actual facts and errors, which the theory seems to explain utterly conveniently. Now you're actually determined of the justness of the cause, and you start to look out deliberately for things that make it all fit. When in that stage, no evidence in favor of the theory can be too small, no evidence against it can seem solid. The smallest thing appears more believable than the bigger chunks of knowledge, just because the more established facts are all belonging to the very discourse you intend to thrash. The smaller, the freakier, the more remote, the better: Because those lesser known bits and pieces are less likely to have been tampered with by the grand brotherhood of the establishment. Suddenly, it's all a big conspiracy handed down from generation to generation, attracting willful servants within today's politics and academia still.


December 20th, 2002

4. Deconstruction - What Deconstruction?

When you attack the academic establishment you may not be entirely wrong. Lots of the things said and written are still just following the paths treaded on over generations. Not everything is critical, not everything is original, but not everything is supposed to be. There are some stubborn insistances in every field, some authors who have long been disproven by their respective fields of work remain cherished icons in other fields. Freud, for instance, survives in literary criticism while psychology has moved away from him to a high degree. Einstein still retains the aura of absolute genius while in his lifetime he remained the most ferocious adversary of quantum physics, one of the cornerstones of today's scientific research. The cult of the genius, of myths and symbols, still thrives, generating new followers time and again. It's difficult to dethrone established myths and heroes, because it's an action generally unwanted and often politically incorrect.

Academia need to be depoliticized and political at the same time. That may sound paradoxical, and it sure is difficult to achieve a certain distance between objective research, genuine interest in day-to-day politics, and the policies of the respective subject of research. Objectivity, in the end, can probably never be achieved to a fully satisfying degree, but you can still try to approach it as much as possible.

Can you be truly objective for yourself? Each researcher has a responsibility to be as objective as possible, but in any case, there still remain individual histories, preferences, knowledges. What's objective to one may appear utterly subjective and contrived to another. So how do you deal with that?

There's a reason for certain academic forms. Academic research takes place at universities, in think tanks, journals and at conferences, as much as it takes place at the individual desk of each researcher. The academy is a community, and it is global, at least in theory. It's a community of various interests and backgrounds, it's a system composed of scholars and students and lays alike, drawing ideas from its diversity, as much as getting much needed critical and/or correcting feedback. Peer pressure can be limiting, it can, at its worst, prevent original solutions from being heard. But at its best, it can serve as an indispensable corrective for the subjectivities contained within each body of research. When Plato established the original Academy, it was conceived both as a teaching institution and a think tank. Various voices contribute and inspire themselves in order to further academic research, and working together to achieve some kind of objectivity through variety and difference made visible.

There's a certain appeal contained inside the image of the lone crusader attacking the solid and fortified bastions and ivory towers of the establishment, a kind of Robin Hood or Spartacus appeal attracting images of pitiful martyrdom and sufferance for fighting the good fight. What works in literature and art, however, is a sort of problematic image for research. As the saying goes, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. The lonesome approach may in fact be the true ivory tower, as you set yourself in deliberate opposition to critical voices. There's no corrective any more, and criticism is understood as an inimical action, dialog becomes impossible.

Deconstruction, or whatever you want to call it, can only take place in dialog and constant exchange. The lone scholar is an impossible construction, only making sense in very remote and singular cases. Theories and hypotheses can be developed on one's own, but then it's imperative to discuss them in the academy without any, or with as little as possible, reservations about the incoming criticism. Critical feedback is a precious gift, it can be a good-willed intervention that should be accepted with grace. You still retain the choice of incorporating it into your work, but you should always listen and be open for suggestions - thereby, you serve not only the purposes of the academy but also your own. The end of communication is the end of research.

December 20th, 2002

5. What Still Remains

What remains? Communication is a two-fold thing. It concerns not only the lone challenger of the establishment but also the establishment itself. Yet there are limits regarding the dialog. In the Illig case, there is no dialog. At first it seemed that no one inside the community wanted to talk with him, but now it's becoming more and more apparent that he doesn't want to talk either. His hypothesis is not for discussion, it's not something to be negotiated or modified or even questioned in its entirety.

Does the academy have a responsibility to listen to external voices? For sure it does. But that necessitates the incorporation of such voices into the academy, in one form or another. Both sides need to compromise. Yet you cannot compromise or talk productively with a lonesome crusader. That, by the way, would take away his appeal for the lay audience. Illig, it seems, knows very well that his place outside the "establishment" is a very convenient and profitable one. His posture generates a certain hype generally alien to the academy. Why quit the game, why end the 15 minutes of fame just for the sake of research and objectivity?

Could there be factual and substantial benefit for academic research coming out of Illig's theses? Possibly. Yet the way the discussion goes, or rather, went, makes it seem more realistic that the more constructive research will come out of the academy rather from outside of it. There has been a chance, there may be actual sense in questioning some foundations of our history, but not like this. There's no or little constructivity in Illig's approach any more, and the hype is fading away. Maybe once an English translation hits a more global audience, the battlefield may once again be opened, who knows. But in any case, there appears to be little productive outcome from that. The rabbit has left the hat, and it doesn't look that special any more, the show is over.

December 20th, 2002


[2] Heribert Illig. "Erfundenes Mittelalter - furchtbare oder fruchtbare These?" Skeptiker 14, 2001. 70-75.
[4] This could also be illustrated by fractal theory: When you try to measure a fractal structure, you will find that there are always more sub-structures, that the more you go into detail, the more new details you will get - an endless procedure. A measurement of such a phenomenon can only reach something like a draw, a limen.
[5] John Man. Alpha Beta. How Our Alphabet Shaped the Western World. London: Headline Books, 2000. 237-263

For a bibliography, please check the Selected Bibliography page.

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