Angma D. Jhala
The article is an attempt at applying the concept of counterfactuality, typically employed with reference to narrative forms, to the analysis of visual culture, particularly to theatre photography. The material for case studies is provided by the works of Polish photographers who redefine the function of this form of photography. Typically, photography is seen by theatre historians as the prime form of theatre documentation, and therefore treated as subservient to the needs of theatre studies as an academic discipline. Contrary to that, the photographic projects analysed in the present paper (particularly those of Ryszard Kornecki and Magda Hueckel), although made in theatre during performances, have been produced and distributed as autonomous art forms which neither represent nor document theatre productions. In the analysis of these projects, I employ Margaret Olin’s concept of “performative index”, which describes the relationship between the image and the viewer as a dynamic creation of meaning. With reference to this theoretical framework, I argue that counterfactuality of theatre photography is a strategy of turning this medium into an autonomous form of art.
In this text, I describe a specific way of addressing the past in video games which are set in historical times but at the same time deliberately undermine the facticity of their virtual worlds. By grounding my argument in analyses of two blockbuster productions—Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft, 2007) and Call of Duty: Black Ops (Activision, 2010)—I introduce and define the notion of “simulational realism”. Both games belong to best-selling franchises and share an interesting set of features: they relate to historical places, events, and figures, establish counter-factual narratives based around conspiracy theories, and—most importantly—display many formal similarities. Like most AAA games, Assassin’s Creed and Black Ops intend to immerse the player in the virtual reality and, for this purpose, they naturalize their interfaces as integral elements of reality. However, in the process of naturalizing simulation, objectivity of the past becomes unthinkable.
In my considerations, I situate this problem in two contexts: 1) of a cultural and epistemic shift in perceiving reality which was influenced by dissemination of digital technologies; 2) Vilém Flusser’s prognosis on the effects of computation on human knowledge. According to Flusser’s theory of communication, history—as a specific kind of human knowledge—emerged out of writing that was always linear and referential. Consequently, the crisis of literary culture resulted in the emergence of new aesthetics and forms of representations which—given their digital origin—dictate new ways of understanding reality. As history is now being substituted by timeless post-history, aesthetic conventions of realism are also transformed and replaced by digital equivalents.
Following Flusser’s theory, I assert that we should reflect on the epistemological consequences of presenting the past as simulation, especially if we consider the belief shared by many players that games like Assassin’s Creed can be great tools for learning history. I find such statements problematic, if we consider that the historical discourse, grounded on fact, is completely incompatible with the aesthetics of sim-realism which evokes no illusion of objective reality.
The process of questioning the authority of academic history—in the form in which it emerged at the turn of the 19th century—began in the 1970s, when Hayden White pointed out the rhetorical dimension of historical discourse. His British colleague Alun Munslow went a step further and argued that the ontological statuses of the past and history are so different that historical discourse cannot by any means be treated as representation of the past. As we have no access to that which happened, both historians and artists can only present the past in accordance with their views and opinions, the available rhetorical conventions, and means of expression.
The article revisits two examples of experimental history which Munslow mentioned in his The Future of History (2010): Robert A. Rosenstone’s Mirror in the Shrine (1988) and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In 1926 (1997). It allows reassessing their literary strategies in the context of a new wave of works written by historians and novelists who go beyond the fictional/factual dichotomy. The article focuses on Polish counterfactual writers of the last two decades, such as Wojciech Orliński, Jacek Dukaj, and Aleksander Głowacki. Their novels corroborate the main argument of the article about a turn which has been taking place in recent experimental historying: the loss of previous interest in formal innovations influenced by modernist avant-garde fiction. Instead, it concentrates on demonstrating the contingency of history to strategically extend the unknowability of the future or the past(s) and, as a result, change historying into speculative thinking.
In this text, I argue that there are numerous affinities between 19th century messianism and testimonies of UFO sightings, both of which I regarded as forms of secular millennialism. The common denominator for the comparison was Max Weber’s concept of “disenchantment of the world” in the wake of the Industrial Revolution which initiated the era of the dominance of rational thinking and technological progress. However, the period’s counterfactual narratives of enchantment did not repudiate technology as the source of all social and political evil—on the contrary, they variously redefined its function, imagining a possibility of a new world order. In this context, I analysed the social projects put forward by Polish Romantics in the first half of the 19th century, with emphasis on the role of technology as an agent of social change. Similarly, the imaginary technology described by UFO contactees often has a redemptive function and is supposed to bring solution to humanity’s most dangerous problems.
This article considers the impact of counterfactual strategies on the most recent Polish theatrical practices dealing with biographies of “historical” figures. The re-occurrence of these past agents on the stage will be viewed in light of the biographical turn in the humanities as well as from the perspective of Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology. Seemingly, both trends share a need to create an alternative space for the expression of a contemporary self which is marked by disunity and disintegration. Subjects of current semi-biographical projects are those whose voices have once been neglected, marginalised, or oppressed because of their gender, social background, or political views. This account examines the ways in which counterfactual strategies enable us to grasp the polyphonic condition of a modern subject and to see, in traces left by different Other(s), touchstones for social and political change. By taking the play Tu Wersalu nie będzie! (No Versailles over here!) by Rabih Mroué as the core case study of the analysis, I aim to demonstrate how counterfactual strategies animate emancipatory potential ascribed to the arrival of the phantom of controversial Polish politician Andrzej Lepper. His death in unknown circumstances becomes a point of divergence in which Lepper’s existence layers into counterfactual scenarios. Counterfactual strategies enable many approaches to view Lepper’s figure without the ethically dubious act of speaking in his name. By unsettling claims of truth, counterfactual strategies unravel how “facts” about Lepper resurfaced in mass media, thereby constructing his stereotyped and over-generalised image. The play has a form of investigation which, by employment of counterfactualism, reenacts the oppression of a mainstream media discourse against the disturbing Other epitomised by Lepper.