Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Retconning? Or Revision?

In a series of thought-provoking posts, Steven Shaviro has been putting up "fragments, excerpts, and outtakes" from a book that he is writing called Age of Aesthetics. In the most recent, "Retconning History," Shaviro takes on the implications of history as "a vast database of 'information'." He argues that we now tend to understand history as an algorithmic search through a constraint space, much like the computer game Civilization. Furthermore, this is not due to information technology as much as to commodity culture. "The market mechanism defines our possibilities in the present, and colonizes our hopes and dreams for the future," he writes, "so it’s scarcely surprising that it remakes the past in its own image as well."

Shaviro goes on to argue that the past, the object of history, is retroactively changed in the present, a process that he likens to the retcons that are familiar from some forms of literature. As examples, he gives Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Lathe of Heaven, where the protagonist's dreams change the past for other characters in the story (although he remembers the earlier reality) and season 5 of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when a new character is suddenly introduced as if she had been there all along. "But is this not the way that History actually works?" he asks. "It’s a commonplace that history is written by the victors. The past is never secure from the future." Shaviro's wider point is that "capitalism is, among other things, a vast machine for imposing its own retrospective continuity upon everything it encounters." We imagine that it is possible to write history in all-encompassing terms, and project rational, economic man back to the origin of the species.

It's a pretty bleak picture. The idea of retconning, however, suggests a way out of the matrix. Like irony, retconning only works if the reader/interpreter is able to maintain a kind of double vision. Something is ironic if we are simultaneously aware of its expected reading and our deflection from that reading. Something has been retconned if we are simultaneously aware of the past that previously was, and the past we are now presented with. Readers of The Lathe of Heaven, or viewers of Buffy, understand that the past of the story has been changed precisely because they remember how it used to be. If they didn't remember, it would be as if the change had never occurred.

Historians, too, are constantly revising their interpretation of the past. (Here I would disagree with Shaviro by saying that it is not the past that is retroactively changed, but history. The past is gone, inaccessible, whereas history is what we make of it.) That constant revision is understood to be revisionist precisely because we remember what earlier interpretations were. Unlike Civilization, each new interpretation becomes part of the archive, and changes the rules of the game.

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