- The Angel of Alternate History and Apocalyptic Hope
Two days after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, REBECCA SOLNIT decided to give away free downloads of the updated edition of her book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, after physical copies had sold out. Originally published in 2004, the year GEORGE W. BUSH was re-elected with the campaign slogan "A Safer World and a More Hopeful America," Hope in the Dark proposes a striking figure to counter the destructive preemptions of the Bush years: the activist and equally preemptive "Angel of Alternate History." SOLNIT construes this angel as a companion to WALTER BENJAMIN'S Angelus Novus, to her a figure for the passive witness of ongoing historical wreckage: "BENJAMIN'S angel tells us history is what happens," she writes, "but the Angel of Alternate History tells us that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn't happen as well as what does. Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding."1 PAUL KLEE'S Angelus Novus, the 1920 painting that BENJAMIN was trying to sell in 1939 to fund an escape to the U.S. from Nazi-occupied Paris, provoked BENJAMIN'S famous treatment, just before his suicide, of an angel of history staring retrospectively down the winds of progress that propel [End Page 547] it backward into the future.2 BENJAMIN'S beautiful figure evokes, depending on whom you ask, either "messianic restoration of all things at the end of times," "the immanently historical, topically political redemption of the unsettled claims of the past," or a political "brooding" that serves to "obstruct the view of history and offer aesthetic utopias as surrogates for politics."3 These three readings—of apocalyptic salvation, grounded reparation, or melancholic optimism—gloss over an alternative and a possibility in both angels and the historical time they traverse.
Both Benjamin's Angelus Novus and Solnit's version of the angel face backward. Whether they seek out the "revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past," as in Benjamin's case, or take optimistic stock of all that never came to pass, their angels move along a unilinear historical timeline. Today, as apocalypticism jostles with our despair of better futures, as well as "unsettled claims of the past," the increasingly urgent risks we collectively face demand an angel of alternate history who also looks forward—as well as to other possible pasts, futures, and timelines.4 To Benjamin's and Solnit's angels, I thus propose to add other powers and abilities. To address the complex demands of competing priorities and the spectrum of catastrophes, this composite angel scans the variety of trajectories already running through "the" present, assessing and speculating about possibilities that might be ignited if friction and resistance were to be placed elsewhere, or distributed differently across other lines of history. This alternative version of the angel of alternate history would not just hope to "activate the emergency brake" on the status quo, nor simply to disrupt the catastrophic advance of "homogeneous, empty time" and disturb the "complacent optimism" that Benjamin saw in the anti-fascist Left of the late 1930s.5 In addition, it would also point to cases where trajectories in the margins and the historical line considered to be the main one already intersect or demand further bending. This angel of alternate history would work on these histories, sometimes to produce contradiction, sometimes to find optimal sites of struggle, and sometimes to determine reparative outcomes, calculated by the [End Page 548] same counterfactual thinking in the genre of alternate history. Finally, this angel might speak of a differential concept and tactics of time, according to which we might slow or accelerate certain timelines in relation to other timelines, or rethink the timescales on which we are operating. In the face of bad times, we require more than the typical time-machinic fantasy of simple undoing. We need an angel of heterochrony.
In the work of philosopher Michel Serres, the movement of angels stands for the volatility of transmission and the irregular fluctuations of travel across timespaces that are not isotopic and isochronic but...