The Hypothetical: Institutions, Fictions, Environments

Saturday 25th-Sunday 26th June 2016
Venue: Room UG04, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2HW
Contact: John Beck

Saturday 25 June
3.00-3.45 / Coffee and registration
3.45-4.00 / Introductions
4.00-5.30 / Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse (via video link) / Mikhail Epstein
6.00-7.00 / Drinks

Sunday 26 June
11.00-11.30 / Coffee
11.30-1.00 / David Wittenberg / Mark Currie
1.00-2.00 / Lunch
2.00-3.30 / Claudia Aradau / John Richard Sageng
3.30-4.00 / Coffee
4.00-5.30 / Greg Garrard


Elizabeth Ellsworth & Jamie Kruse, Walking in Hypotheticals
Anthropocene events and materialities are producing strange new Earth patterns and cycles. According to William Gail, former head of the American Meteorological Society, our habitat’s emerging biological, geological, and climatological dynamics will need many years, sometimes decades or more, to reveal themselves. And because of this, “our [foundation of Earth Knowledge] will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge…. Our grandchildren could grow up knowing less about the planet than we do today” (William Gail). In other words, our species’ relatively recent ability to consistently anticipate the future, design and plan for it, is rapidly going extinct. From now on, our attempts to respond to events and challenges of the Anthropocene will be made “too soon,” before they have settled into individual or collective understandings. More and more, we humans will be acting in hypotheticals. Our 20-minute video presentation offers images and stories about how we might do this. We will propose a practice of walking in hypotheticals, an ambulatory form of knowing via a joining with things through movement rather than arresting or bracketing off experience. Drawing from contemporary film and art generated in post-Fukushima Japan, we will offer illustrations of how, as an aesthetic energetics, walking in hypotheticals is enabling us (as artists|humans) to be and to last, for the time being.

Mikhail Epstein, Hypothetical Communities and Institutions
This paper deals with a variety of hypothetical communities and institutions and is itself presented in a hypothetical mode. First, I will clarify the difference between hypothetical discourse, on the one hand, and metaphysical and utopian discourses, on the other, and characterize their historical succession. Hypothetical thinking is implicitly permeated by philosophical humor that makes it very different from deadly serious utopianism. I will outline several examples of hypothetical communities, including “Intra–Humanity” and “Organization of United Individuals.” Then I will describe intellectual communities and institutions founded on certain principles of creativity, such as hypothetical departments of creative thinking, as distinct from academic departments of arts and humanities.

David Wittenberg, Revisiting Fictionality: A Suggestion for the Metaphysics of Event and Narrative
Theorists of fictionality frequently employ an axiom along these lines: “fictional particulars are ontologically different from actual persons, events, or places” (Doležel). The axiomatic impression of this statement bleeds into further claims about fictional worlds: “it would obviously be absurd to claim that the fictional Raskolnikov … lived in St. Petersburg”; “it is quite evident that fictional persons cannot meet … real people,” etc. Despite the seeming self-evidence of such assertions, I propose we abandon any ontological distinction between fictional and nonfictional entities, reconsidering the pragmatic means by which fictional worlds are “logically” distinguished at all. I begin with a familiar narrative theorist’s thought experiment: whether or not Emma Bovary has a birthmark on her left shoulder is a question with neither a true nor a false answer — it is “undecidable.” Since Flaubert doesn’t mention birthmarks, the “world” of Madame Bovary is “incomplete” with respect to them. However, claims both for incompleteness (in a fiction) or completeness (in actuality) employ a circular logic, as well as presuming a dualism between events and their narrative traces. Such dualism does not survive basic scrutiny — narratives are events, along with any meta-stories we tell about their ostensible fictionality. More crucially, events –even strictly physical ones — are narratives: the trajectory of a football is the story of the kick, for example. Such an ontological indistinguishability of event from narrative trace leaves us only generic and circumstantial means — in a word, further stories — to differentiate fiction from nonfiction. This point may be trivial in the case of a novel, but more problematic when determinations of fictionality are aesthetically or politically fraught: Jesus, James Frey, the Armenian genocide, the Elders of Zion, WMDs. I briefly suggest an alternative ontology of “event” and “trace” that might more firmly ground a theory of fictionality.

Mark Currie, The kingdom of the as if
This paper explores three kinds of ‘if’ in fiction and the theory of fiction. It begins with hypothetical focalization, a relatively new category in the description of narrative perspective, which designates an alternative viewpoint from which fictional scenarios might have been observed. HF, it argues, draws on two further modes of hypotheticality: the ‘what if’ of alternative histories, and the ‘as if’ of imaginative narration. Between the what if and the as if lie two contradictory understandings of the relevance of epistemic modality to narrative fiction, one concerned with the modality of alternative possibility and the other with the modality of future time reference. The paper pursues this tension, through several moments of HF in contemporary fiction, between what might have been seen and what will have been seen.

Claudia Aradau, Arts of conjecture: of surveillance
One of most recent cases disputing the NSA’s mass surveillance (Wikimedia v NSA) has problematized a distinction that has plagued previous legal cases about surveillance, both pre- and post-Snowden: that between ‘real and immediate’ and ‘conjectural and hypothetical’ injury. Since the Snowden revelations, US courts have continued to dismiss challenges to NSA’s surveillance practices as based on conjecture, presenting ‘speculative chains of possibilities’ rather than ‘objective reasonable likelihood’ (ACLU v Clapper, Wikimedia v NSA). While conjecture, hypothesis and speculation are relegated to realm of non-knowledge, reasonableness, immediacy, and likelihood define what counts as knowledge. Yet, conjecture and hypothesis are not opposed to reasonableness and likelihood, but are all formulations of probabilistic thinking. Since the 17th century, the shift from ‘the traditional philosophical norm of the demonstrably certain toward a more probabilistic view of human knowledge and natural science’ (Shapiro, 1983: 15) has shaped the epistemic practices of law, aesthetics and science. By tracing conjecture to 17th century debates about probabilities, the paper articulates the limits of epistemic resistance to surveillance practices.

John Richard Sageng, The Hypothetical and the Virtual
The virtual objects we interact with in online environments and computer games blur the distinction between the hypothetical and the actual. In this presentation I will examine the prospects of a Vaihingian fictionalism about virtual objects. This type of fictionalism can be defined as the view that the referential attitudes we adopt towards virtual objects merely are expedient ways of facilitating practical aims when we interact with the computer system. Such attitudes do not aim to correspond to situations involving virtual objects. Rather, they constitute cognitive inclinations to treat the interfaces as if they govern objects with range of characteristic properties and effects. Vaihingian fictionalism about the virtual offers a promising approach to some of the contexts that virtual objects enter into, especially to the use of simulations to gain knowledge of hypothetical scenarios. I argue, however, that central aspects of goal attainment in online environments and computer games cannot plausibly be said to involve attitudes that treat these objects “as if” they have a set of characteristic properties and consequences. These aspects are moreover inextricably included in the referential apparatus of normal beliefs and intentions by way of inferences. As an alternative to this fictionalist view I will work out a semantic account for virtual objects which allows that we can have normal truth-directed attitudes towards them. I propose that the virtual objects are graphical objects which have lost their original representational properties due to their role in action. These graphical objects are genuine additions to our lifeworlds and they arise from the need to support new action types that emerge in computer-generated environments. Computer games in particular present settings for the hypothetical which are interestingly different from fictional make-believe. Rather than just simulating settings for actions, they are designed to create real action types which will be instantiated in the course of play.

Greg Garrard, The Hypothetical Anthropocene
The IPCC’s Assessment Report 4 states that the change in global mean temperature resulting from a doubling of CO2 over preindustrial levels is “likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C.” Seldom, if ever, has a scientific hypothesis had such immense significance. For environmentalists, the future of human civilization, as well as the prospects for innumerable ‘Earth Others’, is at stake; for sceptics, the IPCC projection is the ‘alarmist’ outcome of a politicized process that abandons scientific objectivity. The designation of the current epoch as ‘the Anthropocene’ by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen depends primarily on the global geophysical changes the IPCC projects. Increasing numbers of literary works, too, demand to be read as realizations, exaggerations, or denials of this central hypothesis. So what does it mean for the cultural place of science to be living in a hypothetical age?


Elizabeth Ellsworth is Professor of Media Studies at The New School in New York. She is author of Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (Routledge, 2004) and Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy and the Power of Address (Teachers College Press, 1997), and co-editor, with Jamie Kruse, of Making the Geologic Now: Responses to Material Conditions of Contemporary Life (Punctum Books, 2012).

Jamie Kruse is an artist, designer, and part-time faculty at Parsons, The New School, New York. In 2005 she co-founded smudge studio, with Elizabeth Ellsworth, based in Brooklyn, NY. Kruse has exhibited and presented her work nationally and internationally. In the spring of 2014 she was a guest researcher for Future North (AHO Oslo). She is the author of the Friends of the Pleistocene blog.

Mikhail Epstein is S. C. Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University. He has authored 31 books published in English and Russian and 17 books translated into German, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, Slovenian, Lithuanian and Korean. His latest projects are devoted to the development of new approaches in the humanities and their impact on humanity’s future.

David Wittenberg teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative (Fordham University Press, 2013) and Philosophy, Revision, Critique: Rereading Practices in Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Emerson (Stanford University Press, 2001). His current research project is a book about the meaning of very large objects, tentatively entitled Big Culture: Toward an Aesthetics of Magnitude.

Mark Currie is Professor of Contemporary Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. His research is primarily concerned with time and narrative, and specifically with the relationship between philosophical and fictional approaches to temporality. Mark’s publications include About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time (Edinburgh University Press, 2007) and The Unexpected: Narrative Temporality and the Philosophy of Surprise (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

Claudia Aradau is Reader in International Politics in the Department of War Studies and a member of the Research Centre in International Relations at Kings College London. Her current research is focused on security practices in relation to catastrophic futures and big data. She is co-author, with Rens Van Munster, of Politics of Catastrophe: Genealogies of the Unknown (Routledge, 2011) and is Associate Editor of Security Dialogue and a member of the editorial collective of Radical Philosophy.

John R. Sageng is a research affiliate at the University of Oslo, Norway. He has written about knowledge and interpretation, the ontological status of objects in virtual environments, and about action in game worlds. He initiated the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference Series and is the main editor of an anthology on the subject (Springer, 2013). He is also editor-in-chief of the newly started Journal of the Philosophy of Games.

Greg Garrard is Sustainability Professor in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia. He is a National Teaching Fellow of the British Higher Education Academy and a founding member and former Chair of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (UK & Ireland). He is the author of Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2nd edn 2011) as well as numerous essays on eco-pedagogy, animal studies and environmental criticism. He is editor of Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies (Palgrave 2011) and The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism (OUP 2014) and is co-editor of Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism.