Indulging Counterfactuals Part 2

I closed my last post by arguing that thinking critically about the counterfactuals we employ can help us better understand our presuppositions about history. I suggested that the game Europa Universalis implies that Europe was particularly necessary to the unfolding of history as we know it, in a way that forecloses imagining history without it. In this post, I wanted to open by discussing a work of counterfactual history that takes a perspective that is very much the opposite.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt imagines a world in which the Black Death annihilates the population of Europe around the turn of the fifteenth century, leaving almost no survivors. The major geopolitical players turn out, over time, to be China, an alliance of Islamic states, the Travancori (Indian) League, and a league of Native American peoples. Of course, much of what makes reading the book fun is seeing how this alternate history unfolds and the ways in which it is similar and different to history as we know it. (I won’t give anything away.)

Despite this really fun macro-level counterfactual, the core of this book is a series of character studies. The real strength of the novel is Robinson’s ability to convince the reader that each of these characters matters, even though what we would judge as their contributions to history vary widely. In other words, despite inventing a world that by itself would grab the attention of many readers, Robinson also takes on the task – quite familiar to real-world historians – of drawing attention to stories that could easily go unnoticed and explaining their significance to the larger picture. Of course, Robinson’s methods are different from those of historians, but I think there is a consonance in terms of the thought process The Years of Rice and Salt (not to mention its characters) displays.

A history professor of mine once told our class that all of his research had been implicitly comparative. I was a bit scandalized when I first heard this: our training as historians tells us to take each case on its own merits, which is all the more important in the case of a commonly orientalized place like China, i.e. the sort of place about which people – even scholars – tend to make cheap, generalized, racialized, and very wrong assumptions because they are comparing it to their (also often fictitious) understanding of the “West” as “normal” in some sense. While I’m not sure I would go so far as to make this statement my own, I have come to realize the wisdom in it.

For one thing, comparative impulses are unavoidable, whether we acknowledge them or not. Maybe it is better, then, to acknowledge them and self-critically assess the kinds of comparisons we are inclined to make. Similarly, whether professional historians like to admit it or not, I think that counterfactual thinking is unavoidable. What we talk about far more frequently is contingency. However, contingency – the idea that things could have happened differently and happened the way they did because of specific, alterable reasons – itself presupposes at least the possibility of counterfactual thinking. Any claim for contingency not backed by some degree of imaginative (counterfactual) speculation rings hollow.

Acknowledging our comparative impulses is also sensible, I think, because sometimes they arise from the most natural and fundamental of humanistic inquiries: wanting to know how different we really are from other people. Of course, this can be a perilous line of inquiry, and too many people throughout history have answered this question by asserting a fundamental difference between themselves and others, a cognitive process that has made some of the worst atrocities in human history seem morally plausible to those who committed them. However, humanistic and historical inquiry cannot shy away from these questions, because the only antidote to discourses of difference is a commitment to a thoughtful and empathetic consideration of the things that humans share in common. (This is something that I think The Years of Rice and Salt facilitates at both a moral and intellectual level.) Counterfactual thinking obviously will not help us understand real people, but again, engaging in it helps us assess what we find to be the traits in others that cannot be imagined differently. It forces us to consider what motivations we deem plausible even under vastly different historical conditions.

Maybe it’s a curse that as a time-crunched PhD student I have both the tools and the motivation to minutely analyze how I spend time outside of work. And maybe you want no part of that. (Although if that were true, you probably wouldn’t still be reading.) For me, though, this isn’t a post where I bemoan my life as a grad student and complain about my brain being a prisoner to academic thinking. Actually, I rather like being able to bring academic analysis to bear on different forms of leisure. So don’t throw a pity party for me because I won’t be there – unless you bring a good book or computer game. Then, I guess, I might show up.

2 thoughts on “Indulging Counterfactuals Part 2

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