This paper argues that where appropriations or invocations of the past have contributed to projects of social and political change, they have usually done so with little or no recourse to the historical past. Instead, activists and campaigners have used various forms of vernacular past-talk to unsettle those temporary fixings of ‘common sense’ that limit thinking about current political and social problems. The example of such past-talk discussed here is the work of the art-activist collective REPOhistory, which sought between 1989 and 2000 to disrupt the symbolic patterning of New York’s official and homogenized public memory culture by making visible (‘repossessing’) overlooked and repressed episodes from the city’s past. In effect, they challenged the ways in which history’s dominance of past-talk within the public sphere was constituted by exclusions of subjects on grounds of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. REPOhistory fused politically-engaged art practices with Walter Benjamin’s belief in the redemptive potential of dialectical encounters between past and present. To assess the value of their art-as-activism projects (“artivism”), this article will situate REPOhistory’s practices within a frame of ideas provided by Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe. In a series of street sign installations that mixed visual art, urban activism, social history, and radical pedagogy, REPOhistory exemplified why the past is too important to be trusted to professional historians.
The article explores how a number of artists have employed the counter/actual as a form of past-talk in a conscious intervention into socio-political and ethical issues arising from the Israeli occupation of Palestine. I argue that such uses of the counter/actual more effectively foreground the injustices arising from the occupation while not only problematising the process of representation but also deconstructing the ways in which histories are intimately intertwined with relations of power and practises of legitimisation; they do not simply reproduce “the (f)actual” but work to repossess the past from the dominance of hegemonic interests.
The article is devoted to the analysis of chosen examples of counterfactual narratives which diverge from the typical alternative accounts of history written in the “what if” mode. It focuses on counterfactual representations of space flight and moon landing as crucial historical events of the 20th century. The point of departure for the text is provided by the New Historicist understanding of historical fact and historical event, with particular attention paid to Hayden White’s concept of metahistory. However, to identify the possible functions of the new counterfactuals, I go beyond the binary of past and present which lies at the core of White’s concept. To this end, I employ Jacques Derrida’s concept of artifactuality, which describes the process of the production of facts about current events. I apply this concept to analyse two examples of counterfactual films about space flight: the comedy Moonwalkers (dir. Alain Bardou-Jacquet, 2015) and a mockumentary First on the Moon (dir. Aleksey Fedorchenko, 2005). In these examples, I identify strategies of deconstruction of fact-making which Derrida recommended in his essay. In the concluding part, I introduce the third example of counterfactual narrative, which not so much deconstructs factuality but, rather, counteracts the process of cultural oblivion. In Hidden Figures (2016), Margo Lee Shetterly reconstructed the role that African-American women played in the space race, introducing them into the official historical narrative. In this case, I also compare the book with its cinematic rendition to argue that counterfactuals introduce a new model of thinking of collective relationship with the past.
In recent science-fiction literature, we can witness a proliferation of new counterfactual narratives which take the 17th century as their point of departure. Unlike steampunk narratives, however, their aim is not to criticise the socio-political effects caused by contemporary technological development. Such authors as Neal Stephenson or Ian Tregillis, among others, are interested in revisiting the model of development in Western societies, routing around the logic of progress. Moreover, they demonstrate that modernity is but an effect of manifold contingent and indeterminate encounters of humans and nonhumans and their distinct temporalities. Even the slightest modification of their ways of being could have changed Western societies and cultures. Thus, they necessitate a rather non-anthropocentric model of counterfactuality which is not tantamount to the traditional alternative histories which depart from official narratives of the past.
By drawing on contemporary multispecies ethnography, I put forward a new understanding of counter-factuality which aims to reveal multiple entangled human and nonhuman stories already embedded in the seemingly unified history of the West. In this context, the concept of “polyphonic assemblage” (Lowenhaupt-Tsing) is employed to conceptualize the contingent and open-ended encounters of human and nonhuman historical actors which cut across different discourses and practices. I analyse Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle to show the entangled stories of humans and nonhumans in 17th century sciences, hardly present in traditional historiographies. In particular, Stephenson’s depiction of quicksilver and coffeehouse as nonhuman historical actors is scrutinized to show their vital role in the production of knowledge at the dawn of modernity.
In the article, Rabih Mroué’s performance-lecture So Little Time (2017) is discussed as an example of counterfactual mobilization for the purposes of political critique in contemporary art and theatre. I scrutinize Mroué’s references to the modern history of Lebanon and—drawing upon a cultural analysis of this performance—discuss the artist’s rendering of the instrumentalization of Lebanese collective memory by competing factions in the country’s political scene. Drawing upon existing readings of Rabih Mroué’s oeuvre offered by Charles Esche and Shela Sheikh, I posit that the artist reveals the arbitrary quality of the representations of the past through defamiliarization (ostranenie), and that his method bears an affinity to Jacques Derrida’s notions of deconstruction and decolonization.
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.
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.
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 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.