Contingency and Civil War History


DR: In Civil War history, the author of a narrative allows for some contingency in a work – it spices the narrative – but otherwise strictly rations the stuff. This creates inconsistency – swaths of inevitability are peppered with small spots of opportunity.

SŽ: History can always be read as a process governed by laws; as a meaningful succession of stages; however, insofar as we are its agents, embedded, caught in the process, the situation appears – at least during turning points “when something is happening” – open, undecidable…

DR: You may as well be a Civil War author if your view of history is going to feature an ocean of process and some islands of agency. If contingency is present, it is present in all things at all times. The question seems to me to be how do we narrate that?

SŽ: It is impossible for us to occupy a neutral position of pure metalanguage from which we could overview all "the possible worlds."

DR: But I think derivatives traders and quants try to do that every day – once you get beyond mere stocks and bonds, you enter a world where the metalanguage of mathematics is operated on through advanced contingency modeling – Monte Carlo systems, so-called Historical systems, even Value at Risk. These models are flawed but their users are immersed in myriad alternative worlds and they find ways to verbally describe those shadowy realities.

: Since what goes on now is the result of radically contingent acts, the only way to define our actual world properly is to include in its definition the negation of the "possible worlds" contained in its position – our lost opportunities are part of what we are …

DR: Of course, and the trader’s end-of-day reflections embrace that negative reality. So why would you to say it is impossible for historians to occupy a neutral position of pure metalanguage from which they could overview all the possible worlds?

SŽ: The point is not that "we will never learn what opportunities we lost," but rather that we will never really know what we have got. Since the position of a neutral observer is not accessible to us, we don’t know which this world is … we cannot ever actually determine the world we live in, we don’t know in which of the "possible worlds" we actually live.

DR: In his dinner reverie, the trader reflects on the world he chose to inhabit, the interplay of events and choices that shaped a world that froze at the closing bell, and he is either celebrating or moping. It seems you have creates a paradox to help yourself, a Leninist, escape the obligations of Leninist historicism – the dialectic, periodism, the other determinisms.

SŽ: This perception of our reality as only one of the possible outcomes of an ‘open’ situation, the notion that other possible outcomes continue to haunt our ‘true’ reality, conferring on it an extreme fragility and contingency, is by no means alien to Marxism. Indeed, the felt urgency of the revolutionary act relies on it.

DR: Then there should be communist "what if" narratives.

: Why is the flourishing genre of "what if?" histories the preserve of conservative historians?

DR: Because narrative history is a culturally conservative form; because contingency is structurally "right wing" – it is about agency, responsibility, decisions, and individuals; and since all historical outcomes represent "the march of progress" as we conceive it, that makes the what-if writer a challenger to the foundations of outcomes that are, as a minimum, linearly progressive.

: The conservative sympathies of the "what if?" volumes become clear as soon as you look at their contents pages. The topics tend to concern how much better history would have been if some revolutionary or 'radical' event had been avoided (if Charles I had won the Civil War; if the English had won the war against the American colonies; if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War; if Germany had won the Great War) or, less often, how much worse history would have been if it had taken a more progressive turn.

DR: Progressive speculation, on the other hand, will tend towards historicism. Less "what if" and more "what for." What would be a counter example?

: Lenin thrown into an OPEN situation. Are we, within our late capitalist closure of the "end of history," still able to experience the shattering impact of such an authentic historical openness?

DR: This "openness" is a literary construct called the "turning point". It does not embrace your "extreme fragility and contingency". It's not historical.

SŽ: There is a much deeper commitment to alternative histories in the radical Marxist view. For a radical Marxist, the actual history that we live is itself the realisation of an alternative history: we have to live in it because, in the past, we failed to seize the moment.

DR: So did Lenin seize a moment, or did Lenin arrive at a point in a cascading stream of contingencies?

: He had understood that the opportunity was provided by a unique combination of circumstances: if the moment wasn’t seized, the chance would be forfeited, perhaps for decades. Lenin was entertaining an alternative scenario: what if we don’t act now? It was precisely his awareness of the catastrophic consequences of not acting that impelled him to act.

DR: This seems to resolve history into unique "turning points" instead of resolving turning points into moments within cascading historical contingency. It points to a literary, not an historical "what if."

: The "what if?" dimension goes to the core of the Marxist revolutionary project.

[Žižek quotes from "Lenin Shot at Finland Station," London Review of Books 18 Aug 2005; "All’s Well That Ends Well?" from For they know not what they do; and from "Repeating Lenin" at lacan.com.]