The Book of Things That Never Happened

August 2, 2009 § 1 Comment


Virtual History – Alternatives and Counterfactuals (Ferguson, Niall, ed.)

In any portrait of the future, chance always forms a blind spot which the mind’s eye can never fathom.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Alternative History, Hollywood style: CSA (Courtesy: IMDB)

I had never previously read Niall Ferguson, and have only recently discovered the quaintly conservative hue of his politics, thanks to fellow-blogger Ravi Narayan , who referred me to a review of his more famous book, Collosus, where he apparently justifies the idea of an American World Empire on the grounds of its benefits to the subject nations.

 My objective in this post is to talk about an entirely different and earlier book, and one merely edited by him. The subject of Virtual History is another of Ferguson’s pet themes: counterfactual history. Each chapter deals with a ‘what if’ question: how different would the course of history have been (and how different, by extention, the world around us TODAY would be) if a pivotal event in the past had had a different outcome from the one it actually did.

Since hypothetical questions of this nature could easily degenerate into parlour games that require little punditry, Ferguson takes pains to try and establish it as an academic pursuit. In the book’s preamble, therefore, he launches into an animated discussion on the nature of history, and at some level, that of our very perception of reality. In the process, he describes the history of the study of history – from belief in divine predestination to that in Laplacian determinism, to the post-modernist view of reality as a relativistic, uncertain, complex and probabilistic construct. Students of history will find Ferguson’s introductory primer on historiography intellectually rewarding and informative.

Unfortunately, after such a tantalizing appetizer, the actual essays (including one by Ferguson himself) were a bit of a let down, in several ways.

First, the branch-off nodes identified as topics were too Anglo-Saxon or Euro-centric for my liking. As the editor, Ferguson should have attempted to find authors willing and able to tackle topics pertaining to the rest of the world. That he didn’t may be construed either as scholastic laziness, as an un-academic commercial decision to pander to the interests of a specific (Western) reading audience, or even as an elitist and deliberate selection of what is ‘important history’ and what isn’t.

Second, I found many of the conclusions drawn questionable. If historians of fact themselves run a severe risk of allowing their contemporary political prejudices to colour their description of the past, how much more careful must alternative historians be to ensure that they remain strictly objective? I did not think they tried hard enough, particularly Diane Kunz, who makes it amply clear that she dislikes the entire Kennedy clan, and so finds it difficult to convince the reader of her impartiality as a judge of how things would have panned out differently in Vietnam if JFK had survived the assassination attempt.

The only piece that seemed well-argued and balanced to me was JCD Clark‘s piece on British America (what if there had been no American Revolution) – but how much of this is because its conclusions resonate with my own political leanings? I cannot answer, but surely this is a fatal flaw of the genre itself.

Finally, I believe that historical outcomes are the complex product of the interplay of several probabilistic factors – economic, social and political. They are therefore likely to exhibit a certain degree of convergence in the long term. On average, random singular events may create some momentary turbulence, but over a period of time and a large population, the effect is not likely to be drastically different than if the singularity had not happened. Authors of individual pieces would have done well to focus some of their attention on what would have remained the SAME in the long term despite the difference in short-term outcome – I believe this is the more intellectually interesting question of the two.

The essays are rounded off with Ferguson’s epilogue, which attempts a dizzying fictitious account of our history as an alternative to an alternative history based on a sequence of several counterfactual outcomes – the same ones that have been tackled in each preceding chapter. By writing about a universe where every one of them has had a different outcome from the one it actually had, either Ferguson believes in all possible outcomes being equi-probabilistic accidents, or he believes outcomes like the end of the Cold War and King Charles I’s 17th century war against Parliament are correlated in some bizarre fashion. Neither of these rings true. Hmmm.

Clever, I agree, but is it science?

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