Faculty Activities: Jeffrey Kirkwood at New York University

This Saturday, October 27, Jeffrey West Kirkwood will participate in the symposium The Quality of Quantity: The German Critical Tradition in the Age of Datafication at New York University. His paper is titled “An Alternative History of Facts: From Ernst Mach to Kellyanne Conway”:

During a January 22, 2017 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kellyanne Conway, senior advisor to President Donald Trump, introduced a phrase that would gain almost instant notoriety: “alternative facts.” Conway was responding to the heavy criticisms of White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer’s claims that the crowd in attendance for Trump’s inauguration “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” On the one hand, Chuck Todd claimed that for Spicer aerial photographs “tell the story,” implying that they documented a reality that was self-evident. On the other, Spicer and Conway also contended that satellite and overhead images were rigged by mass media outlets to indicate a lackluster turnout when compared to previous inaugurations. The images were thus seen simultaneously as proof per se of what they depicted and likewise treated as highly manipulable instruments of deception whose truth was tied to protocols of fact production.

What the dust-up recalls is an overlooked artifact of earlier discourses about the possibilities for multiple, legitimate, counterfactual states tied to mechanical image-making technologies. Namely, it calls to mind the matter of what are called “counterfactuals.” As the paper contends, counterfactuals, and specifically counterfactual thought experiments, were a centerpiece of epistemologies rooted in optical technologies that reached their apex at the beginning of the twentieth century. From Galileo to Ernst Mach (who coined the term “thought experiment”), optical technologies did not merely provide positive evidence for real states, but also introduced methods for dealing with states that did not or could not exist.


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