I gave the opening keynote yesterday at the Sorbonne's L'Esthétiques de l'absence/Aesthetics of Absence conference, organised Bastien Goursaud, Elsa Lorphelin, and Déborah Prudhon with the support of the VALE research group. The title of the paper was 'What Happens When Nothing Happens: Thoughts in Theatre, History & Absence'.
The theme of the day was 'absence' and I decided to look at in terms of historical absence - specifically how to take account for absence in history, by which I mean Things Not Happening. It's an important question for me, I think, because of the Naturalism project. In particular, Naturalism seems to me such a monumental and obvious idea in theatre, it can sometimes seem hard to imagine that it wasn't inevitable - or that it inevitably turned out the way it did. I have been trying to think about its contingency (that it was the product of decisions and encounters which might have been otherwise) and its specificity (that its forms and practices derived from and had specific significance in relation to its original context in a way less apparent to us now).
Both of these ideas - contingency and specificity - might seem to tend towards historical counterfactualism. If Naturalism was contingent, it seems to follow that it could have been different. And if it was historically specific, it seems to follow that if the historical context were different it too would have been different.
But, I argued in the paper, we should proceed with caution. Counterfactual history is philosophically and politically dubious. Philosophically, because it drives a coach-and-horses through the eternally intractable debate about free will and determinism. In a strictly determinist universe, counterfactuals are impossible because the way things are is the only way things can be. They seem to assume either indeterminacy (and some counterfactualists like to mention some findings in quantum science that proves it is possible) or free will as something that is uniquely self-causing. The problem here is that indeterminacy doesn't get you what you want - counterfactuals are stripped of their interest if historical causation is random; the counterfactualists typically want to believe that better decisions could have been made with predictable and better consequences. And free will is also not maybe the panacea the counterfactualists want because what is a free will? Is it completely free of prior causation? If so, it would start to seem like random indeterminacy. In fact, surely, the only free will worth having is the freedom to act on good reasons (rational self control). So I do x not just on complete arbitrary whim but because I have judged that x is the best thing to do given my knowledge and understanding, my projects, attitudes, aims, and so on. But hold on, because that starts to look like determinism: given my knowledge and understanding, my projects, attitudes, and aims (let's call all of that y), I could only have done x - to the point where it seems hard to distinguish between saying (a) I did x because of y and (b) y caused x. Once you get to the latter, the free will seems to be kicked off the pitch and once again counterfactuals are impossible.
(There is always compatibilism; the idea that you can have your determinist cake and freely eat it too, but I tend to agree with Kant that this is a 'wretched subterfuge' comprising mostly sophistry.)
Politically, there is an additional, though less important, concern, which is that most British counterfactual history enthusiasts over the last thirty years have tended to be right-wing ideologues: Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, Jeremy Black and so on. They make this ideological commitment very clear in their awful books which fulminate against the influence of Marxist in history (they construe Marx to be a very very strict determinist, which is a selective reading, to say the least). They nail counterfactualism's colours to the conservative mast because they say at its heart is, as Jeremy Black puts it, 'individualism and free will' (Other Pasts, Different Presents, Alternative Futures, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2015, p. 9). However, as we've seen, it's not at all clear that free will does give you counterfactual history, unless you posit human beings as purely arbitrary and capricious beings, entirely divorced from history, which is a pretty absurd fantasy, even for neoliberal cheerleaders like Niall Ferguson.
So, the paper talks about the problems of setting out the kind of contingency and strong historical readings that I want to do and ends by trying to talk about one particular absence: a handling of homosexuality in Naturalist theatre (a topic I've talked about before). I try to show that there are ways of talking about absence which does not rely on counterfactuals but also doesn't secretly turn in into presence (as a deconstructive queer reading might do).
There was a good conversation afterwards. One issue that came up genuinely puzzled me: what the difference is between counterfactual fiction and counterfactual history. The puzzle, for me, is that I have no problem with counterfactual fiction but I find counterfactual history rather suspect - and yet I'm not sure what the deep down distinction is. I am a bit of an Aristotelian in thinking that one can genuinely learn important things from art and literature, so it's not the 'cognitive' value of the two. I don't think I believe that history writing is pure impersonal fact and fiction writing pure personal imagination; the line is certainly blurred. I did like, however, the questioner's suggestion that counterfactual history is kind of like historiographical fan fiction...
Anyway, I was very honoured to be asked to speak at this event and pleased with how it went down.