Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Friday, September 15, 2017

When Alternate History is Real History: Hillary Clinton's New Yorker Cover That Might Have Been

The New Yorker pulled an interesting stunt today.

It publicized a cover that never made the cut because the event it was meant to commemorate -- Hillary Clinton's election as President of the United States -- never came to pass.

It said the cover would have been published "If Hillary Clinton Had Won."  As such, the cover is portrayed as a work of artistic alternate history.

Strictly speaking, however I don't think it is an example of alternate history. It is an example of a future history that never realized its potential. It is a historical artifact -- the expression of a hope that never panned out.  

The cover was produced -- shall we say -- on "spec."  On the assumption that history would transpire as most Americans (at least democrats) expected it would.

Because it never happened, though, the cover was never published.  It thereby joined all the celebratory t-shirts and baseball hats commemorating championships never won by sports teams (but that were manufactured in advance for the hoped-for champagne spraying festivities in the post-game locker room).

In light of its future orientation, the New Yorker cover reminds us that works of alternate history can only qualify as such if they refer to historical events that attained some kind of closure -- at least in terms of their immediate result.

What If the Cold War Never Ended? Netflix's Upcoming Polish Alternate History

In the wake of the all the controversy surrounding HBO's Confederate (and its Amazon competitor, "Black America"), it's exciting to see Netflix getting involved with a project set in an alternate 1980s Poland where the Solidarity movement was crushed and the cold war never came to an end.

Here's the description from Netflix:

"Warsaw, Poland -- Sept. 13, 2017 - Netflix, the world’s leading entertainment service, continues its investment in European productions with the announcement of its first original series in Polish language. Academy Award-nominee Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik will direct the eight-episode season, which will be shot in various cities and regions in Poland. The show is expected to launch to Netflix members around the world in 2018."

"Following in the great tradition of Cold War spy thrillers, this alternative history series takes place in a world where the Iron Curtain never fell. Now, in 2002, twenty years after a devastating terrorist attack in 1982 that halted the course of Poland’s liberation and the subsequent downfall of the Soviet Union, an idealistic law student and a disgraced police investigator stumble upon a conspiracy that has kept the Iron Curtain standing and Poland living under a repressive police state. After two decades of peace and prosperity, the leaders of the regime enact a secret plan that was made with an unlikely adversary in the 1980s that will radically transform Poland and affect the lives of every citizen in the nation — and the world. What these two men discover has the potential to ignite a popular revolution and those in power will stop at nothing to keep it a secret."

At first glance, this nightmare scenario -- like all nightmare scenarios -- seems primed to justify the reality of the present, specifically the belief of Poles that the way history actually turned out was for the best.  Yet it surely will also be seen as containing a not-so-thinly-veiled, presentist admonition for Poles to make sure that the Soviet domination portrayed in the series is never again repeated courtesy of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Like "The Man in the High Castle's" contemporary function as a warning against resurgent fascism, Amazon's Polish series will warn against resurgent Russian domination.   

The question is whether the series will receive the same kind of criticism from Putin's media lapdogs as HBO's "Confederate" received from American critics.

If so, it will once more confirm alternate history's capacity to foster controversy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

In Defense of HBO's Counterfactual "Confederates"

Building on some of the blog posts that I've written on HBO's controversial alternate history series, Confederate, here is a new set of thoughts about the show that I wrote for The Conversation (published today):

In it, I try to allay the fear of critics that the premise of the South winning the Civil War is inherently apologetic and plead for the show be judged in the free marketplace of ideas.

Here is the LINK, if you'd like to read further.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Adam Rovner Wins Sidewise Award for "What if the Jewish State Had Been Established in East Africa?"

Congratulations to Adam Rovner for winning this year's prestigious Sidewise Award in the category of Short Form Aternate History for his brilliant essay, "What if the Jewish State Had Been Established in East Africa? The Tough Planet Guide to New Judea."

As many of you know, Adam's essay appeared in my recent edited anthology, What Ifs of Jewish History: From Abraham to Zionism. 

If you haven't yet gotten your copy, do so today! 

Click HERE to purchase

Otherwise, you'll always wonder "what if?"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

After 'Confederate' and Charlottesville: Theses on Counterfactual History

I've been taking a bit of a break from posting on the CHR this summer, as I've been completing my new book on the Fourth Reich and continuing work on my study of the history of counterfactual history.

Unfortunately, however, world events have not taken a break -- especially events in the world of "what if?"

Especially in the U. S., the intensifying public debate about the legacy of the American Civil War unleashed by the HBO series, Confederate, and the growing radicalization of the right-wing, white supremacist movement -- as seen in the horrible events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- has placed counterfactual history once again in the spotlight.  

And not in a good way.  

I am busy collecting critical op-eds about Confederate for a longer essay down the line, but I thought that the genre of counterfactual history deserved something of a defense in the court of public opinion, lest its perennially fraught reputation be further damaged by misunderstandings about its origins and character.

Theses on Counterfactual History

 Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

1. Counterfactual history imagines events that never happened in order to determine how history might have been different.  The imagination is an inherent part of human nature. To imagine how history might have been different is thus an inherently human activity.

2. Counterfactual history is as old as history itself.   It originated in Antiquity, continued through the Middle Ages, and became increasingly pronounced during the modern era. It is a global phenomenon that has been visible not only in western but also non-western culture. 

3. Counterfactual history typically imagines historical events turning out differently in three ways: as better or worse than -- or no different from – how historical events turned out in reality.  Counterfactual history thus takes the form of fantasynightmare, and stasis scenarios.

4. Counterfactual history expresses deep-seated psychological feelings and emotions. The two most important are regret and relief.  When we ask “what if?”, we either express discontent or satisfaction with how history actually turned out.

5. Counterfactual history is inherently presentist.  In commenting on how the past might have been different, counterfactuals reveal how people believe it really was.  Counterfactual history thus provides an important means of analyzing contemporary views of history and memory.

6. Counterfactual history sheds light on the dynamics of historical causality.  We can only really understand what happened in history by examining it in the context of what might have happened.

7. Counterfactual history is essential for drawing moral judgments about the past.  If we want to judge how people in the past behaved, we can only truly evaluate their actions if we know what alternatives were available to them and how they might have acted differently.

8. Counterfactual history is politically ecumenical.  It is neither left nor right.  Imagining “what if” scenarios can be used for any kind of political purposes: liberal or conservative; moderate or extreme; progressive or reactionary.  “What if” questions have been posed in every form of polity: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy.  They have been asked in religious as well as secular societies.  Counterfactuals should not be viewed as possessing any inherent political valence.

9. Counterfactual history is a form of narrative representation that possesses the same claim to legitimacy as any other.  Counterfactual questions have long appeared not only in the form of historiography, but in literature, film, television, theater, and poetry.  When it appears in these diverse genres, counterfactual history is usually called “alternate history.”

10. Counterfactual history has frequently been misinterpreted and sparked controversy.  Because it plays with, and reinvents, the facticity of the past, it has often been viewed with suspicion as “revisionist” or “denialist.”  This is especially true when counterfactual questions have been applied to “unmastered” pasts that remain contested within a given society.

11. Counterfactual history nonetheless should be accepted as a genre of narrative representation that embodies contemporary society’s commitment to the free expression of ideas.   Where ideas about the past are in conflict, where consensus about the past is absent, works of counterfactual history – and the popular reception of those works -- will reflect deeper social and cultural divisions.    

12. Counterfactual history is ultimately one method among others for understanding the past.  It is not merely a supplementary method, however, but an integral method, of historical analysis.  By challenging us to think unconventionally about the past, counterfactual history can prompt us to think more deeply about important historical questions.   

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Another Antagonist Against Alternate History: On Roxane Gay's “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,”

The backlash against HBO’s upcoming alternate history series, Confederate, continues.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Purdue University professor Roxane Gay published a provocative opinion piece, entitled “Black Lives and Slavery Fan Fiction,” which takes the series to task for a variety of alleged flaws, but goes beyond them to critique the broader genre of alternate history in sweeping fashion.

Gay begins by acknowledging that other alternate histories on the South winning the Civil War and slavery persisting in the present-day United States, such as Ben Winters’ recent novel, Underground Airlines, may well explore an “interesting premise.” But she then wonders “at what cost?”  At this point in her op-ed, it’s not exactly clear why exploring any literary premise needs to have a cost, at least if literature is regarded as a vehicle of individual expression.

But her concerns soon become clear.

Gay explains that she is “exhausted by slavery narratives,” especially if they reduce the topic to “an intellectual exercise rather than plainly showing it as the grossly oppressive institution it was.”  I fully agree with this fear, IF – and it’s a big IF – the resulting narrative, in fact, falls victim to this peril.  It’s a point worth raising -- though at this point, I find it to be premature.

Where I part ways with Gay is when she expresses the suspicion that the series will go down the wrong narrative path because it is “the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous.”

I’ve only just started watching Game of Thrones and I can confirm that it has few people of color and lots of sexual violence.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to wonder whether Confederate might export these representational strategies to the topic of slavery (if it all, it probably would do so more with regard to the latter than the former).  But I’m not sure why the whiteness of the creators is of any relevance.  If the creators of Game of Thrones were not white, Gay would be just as justifiably concerned about the show’s values being exported to the era of the Civil War.  For this reason, the playing of the race card weakens her argument. 

This is especially true because Gay implies that the allohistorical premise of slavery persisting into the present is inherently suspicious – “slavery fan fiction” she calls it.  What she does not mention in her article that African Americans have tackled precisely the exact premise to be explored by Confederate.  The best example is Kevin Wilmott’s excellent film, C.S.A, which portrays a world where the South won the Civil War and preserved slavery.  Presumably Gay would not object to this particular work of alternate history – at least based on its creator’s identify. 

That there is a double standard here at work is clear.  Gay admits she knows she’s “supposed to say” that “no topic is off limits to someone simply because of who they are,” but she confesses that “it is not at all how I feel.” 

I respect the frankness of her admission.  But I fear she’s overreaching.

As a Holocaust studies scholar who has spent a great deal of time analyzing works of fiction that explore the Nazi genocide of the Jews, I can confirm that similar fears have been expressed in debates about Holocaust representation.  Jewish depictions of the Holocaust – whether by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Cynthia Ozick, Steven Spielberg – may sometimes be subjected to different standards of judgment than depictions by non-Jews.  And maybe they should.  Yet I am unaware of many people declaring that non-Jews have no business tackling the subject.  That is true for the simple reason that non-Jews (Germans, in particular, but all Europeans, as well as the inhabitants of other countries who belonged any of the wartime alliances) performed various roles in the Holocaust -- whether as perpetrators, collaborators, or bystanders. It is a mantra of Holocaust studies that the descendants of these people bear responsibility for wrestling with its legacy.

I would argue that the same should be the case for all Americans (certainly those who are white or, broader still, not of African descent).  Regardless of whether or not our ancestors were personally involved in slavery, as citizens of this country, we all bear responsibility for learning the complex lessons from this shameful historical experience.  

Of course, the attempt to claim custodianship of a particular historical legacy or tradition is part of an ongoing debate about cultural appropriation – one dramatically illustrated by the debate over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till by at the Whitney – and seems to inform Gay’s views about Confederate.  But to my mind, it is important to defend the principle that the topic of slavery is open to all Americans who wish to engage with it.  Being white should obviously not be a disqualifying factor for dealing with the topic of slavery. 

All that being said, I do sympathize with some of Gay’s fears.

I can relate to her exhaustion with the topic of slavery to some degree, inasmuch it resembles the phenomenon of “Holocaust fatigue” in present-day culture.  “What, ANOTHER film about the Holocaust?” is a common lament.  Some viewers resent being bombarded with moralistic works of cinema, while others fear the subject is being exploited as an easy – but increasingly hackneyed – method for Hollywood directors seeking to win an Oscar. 

I can relate to her fear that Confederate may engage in cheap exploitation of the horrors of slavery – her claim that she “shudder[s] to imagine the enslaved black body in…the creative hands [of the Game of Thrones team].   After all, works of Holocaust film and fiction have long been accused of engaging in lurid and kitschy forms of exploitation – whether Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film, The Night Porter, or, more recently, Jonathan Littell’s novel, The Kindly Ones. 

I can also understand Gay’s suspicion that “there are people…who will watch a show like Confederate and see it as inspiration, rather than a cautionary tale.” This is also a common fear expressed about works dealing with the Third Reich – that they endorse, rather than just explore, a given counterfactual premise. Any alternate history portraying the Nazis winning World War II, for instance, might be suspected of celebrating the outcome rather than condemning it.  (This explains why some neo-Nazis bought up Robert Harris’s 1992 novel, Fatherland, thinking it was an endorsement of the premise, which of course it was not).   But the danger that one’s work will be misinterpreted comes with the territory of all creative work, and is hardly a reason for preemptive criticism.  Nietzsche, anyone?

Finally, I don’t agree with Gay’s claim that the best antidote to alternate histories that portray the survival of slavery is to promote works that show a “world where slavery never happened at all.” For one thing, those works already exist.  Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss’s 1994 alternate history novel, The Two Georges, portray the American Revolution failing and the British monarchy abolishing slavery in the 1830s.  Terry Bisson’s alternate history novel, Fire on the Mountain (1988), portrays how John Brown’s successful raid on Harper’s Ferry leads to Black self-emancipation. 

Gay also wonders where the works are that portray a world where “white people are enslaved,” saying “we will still not know what could have been in a world where white people imagine their own oppression.” I am not aware of as many such texts, but Walter Rodney’s book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), includes counterfactuals about Europeans and Africans trading places. 

In citing these examples, I don’t mean to reject Gay’s concerns out of hand. In our lamentable present-day political climate, Gay’s fears are understandable; political contexts always shape the reception of texts – even ones that have not yet been produced.  Yet, I maintain that the reality is not as one-side as she portrays it.

Ultimately, I agree with Gay’s point that a multiplicity of counterfactual narratives on the Civil War and slavery is desirable.  But I part ways with her on the question of who gets to produce them, what they focus on, and how their interpretations should be stage-managed.

Alternate history thrives by liberating rather than shackling the imagination.


Monday, July 24, 2017

"Bitch Better Have My Cotton": A Satirical "Trading Places" Counterfactual

Last Thursday night's Daily Show provided a great example of a satirically-minded "trading places" counterfactual -- one in which the relationship between two groups in real history is switched in alternate history -- with an ironically minded news "story" by Roy Wood Jr.  (Click HERE for the clip).

The story was prompted by HBO's announcement of its upcoming alternate history show, Confederate, which has received a lot of criticism for various perceived shortcomings.

Wood's story displays a conflicted view of counterfactual history.  On the one hand, he implores Hollywood producers to abandon "what if" concepts in future shows, citing the example of The Man in the High Castle, among other series.  But he avails himself of a time honored counterfactual known as a trading places counterfactual to make his point.

There are many examples of such role switching in counterfactual history, for example, the notion that the inhabitants of the New World might have "discovered" and subsequently colonized the Old World of Europe.  But Wood provides a new spin on such a switch by presenting his idea for an alternate television series: Bitch Better Have my Cotton.

In it, the blacks are the slave owners and the whites are the slaves.  (For kicks, the lead actor slated to the play a slave is Matt Damon; the 1970s Blaxploitation imagery further lends the premise a hilarious feel).

I'm not sure that this satirical counterfactual needs its own category, as the trading places element is dominant.  But in contrast to other examples of this type of counterfactual, the comic edge is far more pronounced.

Perhaps if further such examples appear in the future, a category called "satirical counterfactuals" would make sense.