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Uchronias: Counterfactual Imaginaries in History, Literature, and Language

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Organizer: Erag Ramizi

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The work of Quentin Deluermoz and Pierre Singaravelou, recently translated into English as A Past of Possibilities: A History of What Could Have Been, rethinks the notion of counterfactuals as a way to de-fatalize history, to imagine history’s unfolding beyond conventions of inevitability and teleology. This kind of imaginary has a long-standing and diverse, if scattered, tradition, appearing in Thucydides (his hypotheses about the Peloponnesian Wars), Pascal (“Cleopatra’s nose: if it has been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been different”), Charles Renouvier (who coins the term “urchornia” in the nineteenth century to refer to utopia in history), and many others. For these thinkers, alternate history emerges not just in relation to the contingency of the future but in the possibilities offered by considering a past that could have been.


While the risks of counterfactual thinking, in times familiar with the discourse of “fake news,” may be self-evident, what could be some of the theoretical justifications and practical uses of such an exercise in hypotheticals? What are the sociopolitical ramifications and aesthetic effects of counterfactual imaginary, of thinking uchronically? What would the term “history” mean if we ask the question, what could have history looked like?


Continuing with these questions in mind the conversation initiated by Deluermox and Singaravelou, among others, this panel will seek to examine the temporal dimensions of counterfactual thinking as they emerge in history, literature, and language (or other fields). In history, two of the most common associations of counterfactuals are with historical condescension (“if only they had known better”) and revisionism. But could counterfactuals allow for a more complex engagement with the historical past? In literature, it is the domains of science fiction, time-travel adventures, and utopian texts that most overtly experiment with contrary-to-fact conjectures. Could counterfactuals also have anything to contribute to classical iterations of realism? Language offers multiple ways to express hypothetical scenarios, most commonly with the past conditional (“would have happened”) but also with other grammatical moods or structures (e.g., the past optative in Albanian: “that it may have happened!”) What do such complex linguistic forms reveal about our desire to imagine alternatives in the past?


This seminar invites papers that consider the counterfactual imaginary from a historical, literary, and linguistic perspective. Topics may include, among others:


• utopia and science fiction

• time travel and the grandfather paradox

• speculative realism

• anachronism in its many iterations

• revisionism and historical fabrication

• rewriting and repurposing history

• historical contingency and determinism

• reconstructing memory and misremembering

• irrealis grammatical moods (subjunctive, conditional, optative, presumptive, etc.)

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