After Empire: Some Reflections on Fiction and History

Emiliano Battista

(text for the Book Presentation of 'After Empire', at Musuem M, Leuven, March 28, 2013)

I would like to say immediately that what I have prepared for tonight is not a talk in the traditional sense: a carefully worked out argument about one or another aspect of After Empire. Instead of trying to fit all the ideas and suggestions prompted in me by this book and by the video work at its source – an effort that invariably means forsaking those ideas or questions that don’t fit into the structure of the argument – I’ve decided to organize this book presentation into a series of theses, a respectable enough practice in itself, and also one that allows us to highlight as many features of the book as I happened to have noticed. Some of my theses are necessarily more developed than others, but I hope all are thought provoking and coherent enough to open up avenues for a conversation among all of us. That said, I’d be lying if I pretended they are entirely disconnected. At the centre of all my reflections is the question, or I should say the problematic, of ‘history’ and, more specifically, of the relationship between ‘history’ and a work of art. That this should be so is hardly surprising since the theme of ‘history’, as we shall see, is at the heart of After Empire, book and film. My three theses, then, are: 2/15 instead of 9/11; Fiction for the sake of history; and, lastly, History and the politics of art.

Let’s start, then, with the first thesis: 2/15 instead of 9/11

After Empire – the book, not the film – is prefaced twice. The first preface is by the authors, and belongs specifically to the book; that is, it is not in the film. I will read it in full, since it is not long, and since part of the goal of a book presentation is to acquaint you with the book itself, and not just with the discussions it sparks.

After Empire suggests an alternative to the iconic image that collective memory has kept as the quintessential of recent history: the hijacked plane hitting the second tower. For artist Herman Asselberghs and philosopher Dieter Lesage, this alternative to 9/11 would be: February 15, 2003. On that day, 30 million citizens around the planet marched against the unilateral decision by the American government to start a preemptive war against Iraq under the auspices of the ‘war on terror’. It was the greatest peace demonstration since the Vietnam War, registered as the largest protest march ever. The war did happen, but this world day of dissent could very well mark the beginning of an empowering history of the 21st Century: 2/15 instead of 9/11.

Herman and Dieter counterpose two images, both of them historical or documentary, in sum, neither of them fictional: 9/11 and 2/15. And they do so in order to suggest that the latter image, the ‘world day of dissent’ represented by the protests of 15 February, ‘could well mark the beginning of an empowering history of the 21st Century: 2/15 instead of 9/11’. After Empire, as you can see, is a little black book, even the edges of the paper are painted black; Herman tells me that he wanted the white on the spine and back cover to be in the same stronger shade of black used for the title on the front cover, but Dieter didn’t agree. Be that as it may, the reason for this insistence on black is that the idea was for the book to resemble, to call to mind, the black box recorder of airplanes. In other words, the book was to be a storehouse of memory. But the black box suggests a bit more: not only that the book is the last remaining record of an historical event, but also that it is itself a piece of the ‘alternative history’: it is not a narrative after the fact, but a witness. It was there, and thus it was part of the promise of that ‘world day of dissent’, one that, we are told in the text, has already forgotten: ‘This Saturday, history happened. History happened and we forgot about it …’

If this oblivion is, curiously, inscribed into the very memory/history box, it is because the oblivion is what provides the space, the absence, that After Empire can fill. The oblivion, the space made empty by forgetfulness, spells out the political (or a political) dimension of the work: it pits 2/15 against 9/11 out of the conviction in the untapped political potential, the ‘forgotten’ and still unrealized promise, of 2/15. This return to a past event is not undertaken for the sake of archeology and the historical record, but for the sake of History as present.

This brings us to the second preface, which the book shares with the film. It is taken from Louis Althusser: ‘We even share the same history – and that is how it all starts’. Interestingly enough, the passage is taken from one of Althusser’s nicest texts, ‘The “Picolo Teatro”: Bertolazzi and Brecht, Notes for a Materialist Theatre’. Its context is a discussion in which Althusser is trying to explain the difference – all-important for a materialist theatre – between identification and recognition, or self-recognition. We don’t identify with the characters, we recognize ourselves in the characters: we even share the same history, and that is why ‘we were already ourselves in the play itself’. A materialist theatre breaks down the classical opposition, the distance let us say, between the spectator and the characters in the play: all the machinations of the classical theatre had kept us at arm’s length, promoting identification but always closing off recognition. According to Althusser, conversely, we ourselves are ‘already’ in ‘the play itself’. A materialist theatre inscribes the audience in the play; what does After Empire do?

Thesis two: Fiction for the sake of history

As I was just saying, in a materialist theatre, it would seem that history is the horizon against which the fiction unfolds. The shared history that underpins and enables recognition is important here in a way that it is not in, say, Shakespeare’s history plays. Knowledge of history is not what is at stake, but rather the way the play can close the gap between our experience of it as fiction and as our shared history. It begins with a fictive situation – Brecht’s Mother Courage and Bertolazzi’s El Nost Milan – that requires history, recognition, to function, to produce effects. After Empire represents, at first sight, a strictly inverse scenario, for the starting point is not fictive, but historical: 9/11 and 2/15. And what I thought was fascinating about this project is that, in order to present itself as a black box, as an ‘alternative history’, it mobilizes a wide variety of fictional devices or tropes that essentially serve to fictionalize history, instead of historicizing fiction. Herman and Dieter don’t do this in order to turn history into the pretty lie or beautiful story that nourishes the collective imaginary and underlies power. They do so in order to be able to make art with it, and thus their project raises the question: how can this work of fiction or art offer ‘history’, an ‘alternative history’?

We know what After Empire is about: the protests of 15 February. But it is not a documentary in any possible sense of the term: it doesn’t try to find people who participated in the protest to talk to them, to ask them to reflect on their experience and put it into perspective years after the event itself; it doesn’t look at what newspapers reported about it in different countries, or what intellectuals of various political inclinations think and thought about it; it doesn’t try – as is typical of history – to set the record straight by parsing into possibly contested claims, as for example: how many people actually participated? how many of those were there out of real conviction, and how many were there, as the narrator puts it, ‘for want of something else’. Indeed, this black box doesn’t even let us see the images of that day with any clarity. With the exception of four pages and a few disks of confetti at the end of the book, all the images are blacked-out; a good many are also hazy and out of focus. Some pages are pitch black with nothing but glares of white. There are enough indications to situate 15 February and the protests against the Iraq war, but it is impossible to say for sure that all the images are indeed from the events of that day. They are often too dark or generic to allow certainty regarding what, if anything, they ‘document’. The text itself, incidentally, puts us on our guard here: speaking of 9/11 and of images of celebrations across the Muslin world, the narrator says: ‘Either those images are fake, or they were shot prior to the event, on some other occasion’. On no occasion do Herman and Dieter try to protect the images they use from this suspicion. Indeed, the device of blacking out the images seems deliberately designed to deny the supposed clarity, not of these journalistic images, but of journalistic images in general: instead of illuminating the events, After Empire blacks them out.

The voice is no help here, because it shares nothing with the journalistic voice that lines the images, commenting on them and drawing our attention to what we should see and what we should understand from the images paraded before our eyes. Nowhere – that I could determine, at least – does the voice in the film seem to be speaking about the image that it momentarily shares the screen with. And the book simply presents the images and the text as two parallel tracks that may be connected, but need not be: 9/11 is discussed often, but shown so obliquely that I had to be told it was there; ditto for a number of other episodes. The book’s sole attempt to link text and images doesn’t link them so much as it interjects the words into the images: the succession of images is punctuated by white pages that contain a word or words from the text. Connecting them is complicated, though, since some of the words are not fully visible, and most occur too often: ‘this’, ‘after’, etc.

As for the text itself, it is a science fiction tale that reminds me of Philip K. Dick, Terminator, Star Trek and La Jetée. As with science fiction in general, the world created is at once estranged (to use the term coined by Russian Constructivist critics) and familiar, since all the events and characters have been placed in a fictional time and space: ‘the Year Three of the New Time’. The events and characters themselves have been transformed, and we don’t hear anything about the US, or Europe or Arabs, but about: the Federation (the US), the Confederacy (Europe), Empire (the joining of the two in the imperial war against terror?), the Multitudes (the protesters), the Desert (Iraq), the King of the Desert (guess), the Territories and Territorialists (Palestine), the Zone and Zoniacs (Israel and Zionists), the Movement, etc. This is one screwy black box!

As important as the characters and the events is the tone of the narrative, the particular narrative device Herman and Dieter choose in order to write their text, namely, the flashback – therein lies a key, perhaps unconscious, influence from La Jetée. The first thing we can say about the flashback is that it is personal and subjective. As such, it puts the voice, like the images themselves, at a remove from the journalistic/documentary voice: it signals a different relationship to history, to the events. But the flashback offers a number of important possibilities besides: the first, very much exploited in After Empire, is temporal simultaneity, what Rancière describes as the lengthening and shortening of historical time through narrative time. The example he gives is the opening line to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: ‘The story starts in the present at Chelmo’. The flashback also allows, consequently, for the return to the beginning and the replaying of the same story differently: every flashback must return to its starting point before concluding, and this return always has the eerie feeling of a conflation of past and present time: think here of La Jetée, where the return to the beginning is a return to the present that is, simultaneously, a return to the past, the narrative past. Whatever else we might say about this, it is a nice way of capturing, through artistic or narrative means, the political or historical potential or promise of 2/15: it can still be replayed, the subversive powers of its multitudes can still shake the political elite in Washington and Brussels. The flashback, and that is what I wanted to indicate with Shoah, makes the past present, allows us to talk about the past as if it is present: the story starts in the present at Chelmo.

Last, and most importantly, the flashback involves a personal involvement in the events. This means that, through the flashback and the other, related, devices just described, Herman and Dieter are able to insert a character, and with it this book, into the Events, into the protests. The narrative begins: ‘I am back in the capital for the first time since the events’, meaning: she is back in Brussels for the first time since 9/11, and she sees, out of the window of her hotel room as well as on the TV screen and on her computer, a march, the protests of 15 February. After watching for a while, she turns off the TV, closes the laptop screen she walks out onto the street: ‘I take my handbag, my cell phone, my electronic key card. I slip this book into the back pocket of my jeans’. There is a story here, one that has to do with the phenomenon of literature and protest, but that’s for another day. So she goes out; she is at first disoriented by the swarming sea of humanity before her; she deploys a couple of subterfuges before she actually joining the march. The text reads: ‘To be one more time where history is happening. It is happening and I am there and it is really happening and I’m still there. This Saturday, history happened … and we forgot about it’. The present – it is happening, I am there – is already suffused by its future memory as past: ‘we forgot about it’. We return to this at the end: ‘As I want to leave my room, this book slips from my back pocket and falls on the plush carpet floor. I pick it, put it in my handbag. A black brick’. So the black box is also a black brick, a weapon in the hurl at a rally.

Thesis three: History and the politics of art

When talking about Althusser, we saw that the notion of a materialist theatre was bound up with the process through which history could be inscribed into the setting of the theatre, through which history could become part and parcel of the theatrical experience: ‘we even share the same history’. The role of the fictional devices I outlined above satisfy a different requirement: they allow Herman and Dieter to insert a fictional character, and with it the book After Empire, into the actual – historical – events of 15 February 2003. Although almost exact opposites, the two gestures are two sides of the same coin, the same view of the politics of art. The insistence on history is nothing new in the world of contemporary art, or indeed of modern art, for the simple reason that it is in and through the relationship to history that many artists – authors, filmmakers, whatever – understand the politics of their medium, its capacity for direct political intervention. The idea of this continuum between historical events and upheavals and the processes of art is no doubt part of what fuels the interest in working using historical documents and events. The artist, however, is not a historian or journalist; his or her task is not just to be there, to record the events or to be, as was once thought, ‘the conscience of their world’. He or she imagines instead an active role, a real involvement in the events and in the transformations of the world. That is why the narrator joins the march, why the book becomes a black brick. That is why the journalistic voice is not suitable to the politics of art. The paradox, though, as Rancière has taught us, is that we cannot dissociate the historical (or political) power of art from its fictional powers.


This text was read on Thursday March 28, 2013 at the occasion of
Blijven Kijken / Ce qui nous regarde / Dropouts
at M Museum Leuven, 14 02 13 – 12 05 13.
A group show curated by Pieter Van Bogaert,
including Herman Asselberghs’ 2010 video
piece After Empire and Herman Asselberghs'
and Dieter Lesage's book with the same title.