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.