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.
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.
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.