Ret-Con Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America
“Retroactive Continuity In The Age of Alternative Facts”
by Andrew J. Friedenthal
I opened my book Retcon Game: RetroactiveContinuity and the Hyperlinking of America with a quote from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984: “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” I used this line as a way to begin discussing the narrative technique of retroactive continuity, or retconning, which I defined as “the revisiting of past stories, told in previous installments of a long-form narrative, and adding a new piece of information to that older story, literally rewriting the past.”
In context, I was contrasting the Orwell quote, with its nefarious implications of fascist “doublethink” working to control the minds of a subdued, pacified populace, with what I saw as a storytelling tool with the potential to speak to a new way of understanding history and information in the digital era. Indeed, the ultimate thesis for the entire book was, “I posit that retconning, on the whole, has a positive impact on society, fostering a sense of history itself as a constructed narrative and thus engendering an acceptance of how historical narratives can and should be recast to allow for a broader field of stories to be told in the present.”
That thesis was written in something of a different world, prior to the ascendance of new terms, such as “fake news” and “alternative facts,” that call into question some of the basic ways in which we view news, facts, information, history, and perhaps even reality itself.
All of this, as you might suspect, has made me question the optimistic nature of my thesis. Was I blinded by my own educated, liberal, elitist bubble of savvy pop culture junkies? Had I underestimated the ability of the American public to differentiate conflicting interpretations of events from blatant lies? Was my interpretation of “historical revisionism”—the practice of unearthing unheard historical narratives in order to compliment and interrogate more “traditional” stories of exceptionalism—hopelessly naïve?
I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I still believe that by appreciating and understanding complex, nuanced media, of the kinds that utilize retroactive continuity, we become more open to seeing the same nuance and complexity in the world around us. However, what my own elitist bubble blinded me to was the fact that popular culture itself isn’t enough to engender this kind of understanding. Rather, it must be complimented by, and placed in conversation with, formal education geared towards instilling students with higher order thinking skills.
The creators of our popular media need to recognize the difference that they are able to make, and work to instill their audiences with an appreciation of nuance, complexity, and flexible narratives, even if subconsciously. Simultaneously, our systems of education (both higher and primary) need to do a better job presenting history as a narrative constructed out of a body of events and facts, and especially of teaching students how to interpret the media they consume daily.
In Retcon Games, I invoke Hayden White’s differentiation between the “chronicle” of all historical events and the “narrative” of interpretation created by historians to relate those events. Today, I think there is more value than ever to understanding this difference. All historians, and all journalists, interpret a chronicle into a narrative, and it is worthwhile to question those narratives as they are presented by even our must trusted of sources. However, what “fake news” and “alternative facts” attempt to do is rewrite the chronicle, to retcon reality à la 1984.
This, to me, is what differentiates historical revisionism from “alternative facts.” Revisionism, as practiced by historians, rewrites long-standing cultural myths by expanding the focus of history to give voice to the voiceless, while “alternative facts” seek to limit that focus in order to provide a biased point of view that silences dissent.
That is not to say that revisionism must always be positive; Holocaust denial is, after all, a form of historical revisionism. However, even at its most extreme, negative form, revisionism is about reshaping historical narratives, in the way that retconnimg is about reshaping fictional narratives. Alternative facts, on the other hand, are about reshaping the chronicle of facts, ignoring basic truths of history, science, and reality in order to provide a one-sided perspective.
Ultimately, I don’t think that retconning alone can save us from a complete breakdown of a consensus reality, but it can certainly add to the conversation about how that consensus is constantly formed, reformed, and refined. In concert with a quality liberal arts education in the humanities, I still do believe that an understanding of retconning can help us make sure that 2017 doesn’t become 1984.