Dr Seán Enda Power Launches Uchronia

December 1, 2014

Sinead McDonalds ‘Uchronia’ in our First Floor Gallery was launched by Dr Seán Enda Power, Lecturer and Irish Research Council Fellow on Metaphysics (2010-2012) on Thursday 27 November 2014. Seán has very kindly given us his speech for our Blog.

Sinead McDonald, Emer McGowan & Dr Seán Enda Power


Most people who hear the word ‘utopia’ will think of it as meaning the best possible world. It is a place where everything is perfect and things are as they should be. However, the word means, literally, ‘no place’--a place which is nowhere. It is not on any map; you can’t get there from here (and you can’t here from there).

‘Uchronia’ could also mean the best possible moment, a time when everything is perfect and things are as they should be—however, again, it literally means ‘no time’. A uchronic time is a time which is no-when. It is not in the history of our world. It is not in the past, present, or future.


Stated baldly, the statement that uchronia is no-when is incoherent. A time which is no-when is no time at all. What could that mean? One way to make it coherent is to say this: uchronic times are times but they are times which do not stand in a temporal relation to real time. They are not in the present moment; they are not in the past; they are not in the future. With a utopian country, you cannot get there from here. Similarly, with a uchronic scene, no one now can get there: it is not happening, did not happen, will not happen.


Many (but not all) of Sinead McDonald’s ‘self’-portraits are uchronic portraits. This could mean they are portraits of the best possible times. It’s clear from the titles, however, that these are not the best times. Instead, they are portraits of her in situations which will never happen. However, the titles of the pieces indicate, although they do not happen, these situations stand in an intimate relation to times in her life that have happened. They are portraits of how things would have been if things were slightly different in the past (e.g., “Self Portrait - If I hadn’t met my now ex husband”).


Shift one thing and these would not be uchronic portraits but real portraits. Being so intimate, one might wonder if these should be called uchronic: surely, at least in imagination, you could get there from here?

This brings us to one portrait amongst the others: “Self Portrait - Working on the time machine”.

We all want to change something in our past. Some of these are things - for example, earthquakes - we couldn’t have avoided. But others seem tied to our decisions and choices. One of the most difficult things in life is to separate these two. But once we do, if we can, who would not want to go back and change things--make the other decision, bring about the other outcome?

Recent research by the Pew Institute of the American public asked them what futuristic invention would they most like. 9% of respondents said they would like a time machine.

According to the show This American Life, what a lot of people said they would then do is this: go back and kill Hitler before he rose to power. (Lots of people regret the second world war, I guess).

The belief that, if you could travel in time, you could also change the past is obviously very common. For many, it is the most interesting aspect of it. We see that in lots of time travel stories; Back to the Future, Looper, Primer (although, not Bill & Ted). But there is a problem with changing the past: it leads to a paradox often called The Grandfather Paradox.


The Grandfather Paradox is this (taken from its description by the philosopher David Lewis in the 1970s): Tom hates his grandfather. He has a time machine and is a crack shot. He travels back in time to before his grandfather met his grandmother and shoots him dead. As a result, his grandfather never meets Tom’s grandmother. So Tom is never born. So Tom never gets to hate his Grandfather, get a time machine or become a crack shot. So, Tom doesn’t travel back in time and kill his grandfather. So, his grandfather meets his grandmother and Tom is born. So Tom is born, hates his grandfather, gets a time machine becomes a crack shot, goes back and kills his grandfather. So Tom is never born …


The paradox is not that Tom can kill his grandfather. It is that in doing so he also ensures his grandfather lives (by Tom ceasing to be born). The contradiction is that Tom both kills and doesn’t kill his grandfather, is born and isn’t born, travels in time and doesn’t travel in time.


However, McDonald’s portraits aren’t of her killing her grandfather (I don’t know McDonald’s feelings about that). Killing Hitler doesn’t obviously stop my grandfather meeting my grandmother. Similarly, the kinds of regrets I have are not obviously things which prevent my own existence. So couldn’t we go back and change the past if we had time machines? If she wanted to, couldn’t McDonald make these imagined portraits real? However, one thing prevents you going back and changing the past. Unlike Tom’s patricidal hatred, it is something intimately tied to going back and changing the past. The desire to change the past creates as much of a paradox as Tom’s killing his grandfather.


What I could call the Desire Paradox is this:

You want to change something you regret. You have a time machine and know how to change it (just don’t ask her out; just don’t cross that street at that time). You travel back in time to before you did the event. You do the other thing than what you originally did. As a result, you never did the thing you regret. All seems now right with the world. So you never regret the thing you did. So you never want to change the past. You don’t get in a time machine. So, you don’t travel back in time and change things. So, the thing you regret occurs after all. So you regret it, want to change it, get in a time machine, know how to change it, go back, change it. So it doesn’t occur; you don’t regret it; you don’t want to change it …

Our desires to change the past themselves prevent their satisfaction. (These paradoxes don’t prevent time travel itself. They just prevent changing the past. We might however still go to the past without changing it. So, perhaps, we might just go there to see times which we want to see, and haven’t seen in a while.)

McDonald’s portraits are uchronic because they really are of times which she can’t get to. The same applies to any similar portraits we have of ourselves. No matter how much we might want to change the past, because we want it, we cannot do it.


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