Retconning History

In the Age of Aesthetics, when we say that something is “history,” we mean not to honor it (as might have been the case in other times and places) but to dismiss it as obsolete and irrelevant. We collect mementos of the past, but we do not take History seriously as a process, or a force, or a source of meaning. It is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary styles. This is the situation that Jameson decries when he describes our world as “a society bereft of all historicity,” in which the collective past has become nothing more than “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.” We have arrived, as Fukuyama claims, at the End of History. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit has realized itself in the form of an immense archive of digital images. And these images aren’t freely available. Their copyrights most likely belong to Corbis, a “privately held” corporation owned entirely by Bill Gates.

In the Age of Aesthetics, when we say that something is “history,” we mean not to honor it (as might have been the case in other times and places) but to dismiss it as obsolete and irrelevant. We collect mementos of the past, but we do not take History seriously as a process, or a force, or a source of meaning. It is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary styles. This is the situation that Jameson decries when he describes our world as “a society bereft of all historicity,” in which the collective past has become nothing more than “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum.” We have arrived, as Fukuyama claims, at the End of History. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit has realized itself in the form of an immense archive of digital images. And these images aren’t freely available. Their copyrights most likely belong to Corbis, a “privately held” corporation owned entirely by Bill Gates.

Today, we understand history as a vast database of “information.” We haven’t lost the past, so much as we have discarded a particular way of contextualizing and narrating it. As Alexander Galloway puts it, today we process past events through “a specifically informatic mode of cybernetic typing: capture, transcoding, statistical analysis, quantitative profiling (behavioral or biological), keying attributes to specific numeric variables, and so on.” Actually, Galloway is describing “the modeling of history in computer code” in the video game Civilization and its sequels. In the game’s programming, “the diachronic details of lived life are replaced by the synchronic homogeneity of code pure and simple.” But this is not just a feature of computer games. Civilization is noteworthy because it is symptomatic; it replicates the overall way in which, today, we relate to the past. For us, history is a matter of vast, impersonal algorithms unfolding under the constraints of certain initial parameters, and searching the “possibility space” of the human database.

This is more an effect of commodity culture, than it is one of information technology per se. We have replaced the old-style, Hegelian logic of history with the (idealized) logic of the market, celebrated by Hayek as a superhuman, cybernetic information-processing mechanism. The past is available to us as a conglomeration of items among which we can pick and choose, and buy, according to our individual “preferences.” The market mechanism defines our possibilities in the present, and colonizes our hopes and dreams for the future; so it’s scarcely surprising that it remakes the past in its own image as well. It’s not entirely accurate for Galloway to say that the concreteness of “lived life” has been replaced by the abstractions of computer code. For the point is precisely that “lived life” has itself become a matter of immediate cybernetic control, quite concretely and existentially, thanks to the ubiquity of the market in an era of flexible accumulation. As Galloway himself mentions elsewhere, “flexibility allows for… universal standardization (another crucial principle of informatic control). If diverse technical systems are flexible enough to accommodate massive contingency, then the result is a more robust system that can subsume all comers under the larger mantle of continuity and universalism.”

This is precisely how history is recuperated after its end, in the Age of Aesthetics. If we view history in this flattened, reified way, as a collection of images-as-commodities, it is only because we reflexively assume that the past is homogeneous with the present. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say, not that history has ended, nor even that we have lost the sense of historicity, but rather that the past itself — the very object of history — has (retroactively) changed. As an effect of postmodern simulation, Jameson says, “the past is thereby itself modified.” It’s worth looking more closely at this phenomenon. Retcons (short for “retroactive continuity”) are common in comic books, TV series, movie sequels, and fantastic literature: an event in the course of the narrative changes the meaning,the content,or even the ontological status of events occurring previously in the narrative. For instance, when the character of Dawn, Buffy’s sister, is introduced in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all the other characters remember her as having been present during the events recounted in the previous four years of the series,even though she never appeared in any of those episodes.

Retconning becomes a systematic, structuring principle in Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction novel The Lathe of Heaven. The protagonist, George Orr, has the power (or the affliction) of dreaming dreams that become retroactively true, that change the past as well as the future. For instance, George goes to sleep in an overpopulated world; he dreams of a plague; when he wakes up, the world has never been overpopulated, because a plague wiped out most of the population years before. And everyone still alive vividly remembers this plague, remembers the horrors that it caused. Only George himself recalls the old reality,the one that has been retrospectively replaced. But is this not the way that History actually works? It’s a commonplace that history is written by the victors. The past is never secure from the future. As Walter Benjamin puts it, history is always at risk, because “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”

Is it possible that all of world history has been retconned? Such is the premise of John Crowley’s novel AEgypt, and its sequels: “once, the world was not as it has since become. It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.” What changed the world, altering its past as well as its future,was a “disjuncture in time,” a series of catastrophic events in the early seventeenth century: “a storm of difference sweeping all the old world away, a storm composed of the Thirty Years’ War, of tercios, Wallenstein, fire and sword; of Reason, Descartes, Peter Ramus, Bacon, and of Unreason too, the witches on their gibbets aflame.” At the point of this crisis, modern scientific reason and quantitative calculation took the place of the Renaissance faith in magic; reason and calculation established themselves, retroactively, as always having been valid. The result is that today, it unavoidably seems to us that things have always worked the way they do now, and that people in the past “really dwelt in the same world I dwell in.” We cannot imagine things ever having been different. And yet the AEgypt tetralogy narrates an obsessive search for the signs of such a difference, for obscure traces that might have survived the catastrophe.

We may allegorize the “disjuncture in time” dramatized in AEgypt as the rise of capitalism — even though Crowley himself never explicitly puts it this way. For capitalism is, among other things, a vast machine for imposing its own retrospective continuity upon everything it encounters. As it moves from formal to real subsumption, it increasingly recasts everything in its own terms, and according to its own logic. It thereby transforms the contingency of its own emergence into a necessity. Capitalism’s totalizing ambition makes it unique in world history; indeed, it is only under capitalism that we can conceive such a thing as a world or universal history, and thereby such a thing as the end of history. As Deleuze and Guattari argue,”capitalism is the only social machine that is constructed on the basis of decoded flows, substituting for intrinsic codes an axiomatic of abstract quantities in the form of money.” That is to say, capitalism doesn’t just replace one set of qualitative distinctions (one “code”) with another set. Rather, it effaces qualitative distinctions altogether, by translating them into the terms of a universal equivalent (money as a uniform and purely quantitative distinction). For this reason, capitalism is “the limit of all societies, insofar as it brings about the decoding of the flows that the other social formations coded and overcoded.” This is what makes it so difficult, even for Marx himself, to comprehend “pre-capitalist economic formations” in other than capitalistic terms. We inevitably understand these other societies as embodying features of capitalism in utero; or else as engaged in warding off, resisting in advance, the futurity of capitalism’s advent. In this way, the grotesque picture of Homo oeconomicus — of human beings as nothing but rational, self-interested actors, each individual disconnected from all the others — is back-projected into all of history.

14 thoughts on “Retconning History”

  1. I’m currently quite actively involved in constructing a retroactive continuity, one that really only became possible recently as a result of the vast amount of information now available on the internet. My great great grandfather died in the American Civil War. His untimely demise had an enormous impact on the lives of his wife, two sons, a daughter, the man who married the widow, and their two sons, a step-brother and a half-brother to my great great grandfather. The memory of my great great grandfather appears to have been retained and transmitted to subsequent generations up until the Great Depression. As loyal German-Americans, the rise of Hitler appears to have produced forgetfulness in my dad’s family to the extent that he was never told he had a Civil War ancestor until I brought it to his attention quite recently.

    Unaware that he had a Civil War ancestor, he could not very well have been expected to visit his great grandfather’s grave, yet strangely enough, he essentially did without realizing that he had. His first job out of graduate school was with the Veteran’s Administration in Topeka, Kansas. Before he could begin work for the federal government he had to attend an orientation in St. Louis. His mother died the week he was hired by the federal government, so he attended the orientation on his way home from his mother’s funeral in Wisconsin. The orientation was held at the Veteran’s Administration hospital at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis which is situated on the grounds of the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, where my great great grandfather is buried. When I discussed this with him a few days ago I asked him if the orientation included any advice on dealing with repressed unconscious memories.

  2. That is one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in while.

    Isn’t part of retconning based on the ongoing need to reformulate the past to justify the present? You mention the commonplace history is written by the victors. Part of each epoch (oops, a historical term) is to create a new justification, not just in content, but in form. The form is what deceives us, or constrains our thinking. Once a model is in place, you can push any data through it; it doesn’t really matter what the output is – if the model functions as designed.

    So while there may be this repetitive “ruling class must control ideology” commonplace, and since much of the population “knows” that the man is out to get them, it’s not just the content that has to change, but a different mode of thinking – to re-establish some control.

    The idea of retroactively changing the past is compelling – unlike a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, we have instead a disruptive story – the past alters, what we thought was solid is loose, what was profane is now accepted discourse, etc. It seems as if the format of radical criticism has been subsumed into a new format so that it looks and smells like critique but is actually profoundly reactionary.

    To conservatives, critical theory in the 70s was retroactive continuity – since then they have learned to use those tools and turn them back on us.

  3. For some reason I just feel like saying hegel and his ilk are just futurists masquerading as historians. The most absurd moment for me reading hegel and marx were their claims on the future (and by extension the present). The very premise of an end of history, has always felt like folly. Perhaps this attitude of mine comes from the mediation of Marxism in this society. At any rate, your analysis and premise of retroactive continuity is intriguing. But what can be made of the interface between competing histories? And what is the mechanism through which this unfolds upon the future? In other words how is an alternative future possible, if at all? If history is simply the retroactive continuity of the victors and our society is merely the placement within that orbit where does this leave us? I have been kind of wondering about this question in relation to empire. For example a lot people are eager to herald the decline of American Empire (of course as a moment quickly following its current ascension). And this certainly seems to follow when analyzed from the vantage of my recollections of a retroactive continuity that was the Roman Empire. But on the other hand the Romans did not have Nuclear weapons, high technology, and instantaneous communication systems and global networks. I recognize that the past existence is different from the present existence, but also understand that present existence lays a claim on future potentialities in substantively different ways from which the past lays claim on the present. If this were not the case change would not be possible, correct?

    You note that “The market mechanism defines our possibilities in the present, and colonizes our hopes and dreams for the future.” Is it correct to assume that your analysis of capitalism kind positions it as an ever present permanent condition by virtue of the fact of its ability to generate retroactive continuities and simultaneously colonize visions and dreams of future potentialities? Kind of bleak, but i have nothing to refute this analysis.

  4. Capitalism doesnt so much re-write history, but renders meaningless the specific distinctions of history…or maybe the very notion of history. Or, history becomes simply a fiction for consumption — and is irreleveant for anything or anyone in the *present*.

    Thats the point of the Delueze/Guattari quote I think. History is ONLY what we write about it (under capitalism). Its not a material history. Invade Iraq and help destroy the libraries — destory the national and cultural identity — and help erase history. No material signs of history, no history.

    Impose western history (of the middle east) and colonize the minds of middle easterners. Now, of course, this doesnt quite work. None of this erasure really works. But if one can shrink the ego…shrink consciousness so that people are endlessly distracted and narcotized….then you have the same results. In Iraq, though, for example….you have a non-western people less conditioned by the market…and so the erasure isnt taking.

    i dont know where Im going with this…..but the amnesia exhibited by western societies seems part of the fabric of domination that has increased over the last two hundred years. Certainly mass media has created facsimile experiences that people embrace. Items of history are to be chosen like toothbrushes from a wall of four hundred different toothbrushes. Exercising choice……freedom. Of course thats no choice at all. But one builds a personal history based on such choices.

    i wonder if its just money….as universal equivalent? Money itself is more and more virtual. It has to be more….a complex of things that erase distinctions. Post modern capitalism (or whatever) seems inclined more and more to meaningless activity — actions that change nothing because those actions are unreal. Ed Said’s last interview he spoke about his sense of “unreality” all around him.

    Good post.

  5. Just remember – Hegel and Marx did not write about the end of history – just about the end of a certain phase of history.

  6. hi Steve,

    I like this a lot, retconning is a great metaphor here. This also touches on things we’ve discussed and disagreed on (or agreed we differ in emphasis on) before, re: continuity and discontinuity. I’m pretty scattered as I need to think about this more, just a few things for now off the cuff.

    I don’t know if it’s helpful but I found a related Schmitt quote from his essay “Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticalizations”, perhaps analogous to the Age of Aesthetics as the aestheticization of politics (or replacement of politicalization with aestheticization?), he says “That all historical knowledge is present knowledge, that such knowledge obtains its light and intensity from the present and in the most profound sense only serves the present, because all spirit is only present spirit, has been said by many since Hegel, best of all by Benedetto Croce.”

    Also, just as we don’t want to think in terms of homogenous past up to the present, there’s not a homogeneous present, right? Contending presents with contending red threads of pasts and would be futures, I think that’s what we’ve got. I feel funny citing something I co-wrote, but some friends and I tried to think through stuff related to this a bit in a piece online here, written as a pamphlet for the anti- G8 mobilization in Scotland:

    “We can think of the present as being defined by a tension between alternate futures. And big events are the moment when there’s a snap or a rush forward due to a change in that tension. ‘A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours.’” And alternate pasts, of course. The whole piece is here –

    I think the Dawn plotline could be extended as a metaphor here, becoming aware of a type of retconning but finding it still valuable. Or is that not retconning? Is a dialectical image not a type of retcon? Or maybe it’s a co-presence instead, without any linearity. I’m not sure. (For instance, a red thread posited in a piece written for the Genoa protests a while back, here – ).

    The whole “You mean Ben is Glory?” forgetting thing is also something of a metaphor for the slipperyness of the commodity as transcendental structure. (My wife and I just finished that season of the show so it’s fresh in mind.)

    Take care,

  7. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera considers history through the eyes of Nietzsche. Does everything or does not everthing, eternally reoccur, is it light or is it heavy? Kundera leaves the question open. He actively explores it throughout book.

    Being, he decides, is unbearably light, but is Being tantamount with time, is being in time, or is time in being? If we knew the answers to these questions, then we would be able to better decipher whether the changes in history retroactively is an appearance or reality.

  8. What in the hell is…

    That’s very clever, I like that! Your webjig thing.

    But when you have finished with Conan the Barbarian, it might occur to you that base stations haven’t been built on mars yet for the replay of pre history. The “Tabula rasa” has been and gone, it’s in some Library gathering dust hopefully.

    Practically, you are ignoring the fact that the Law in any case, isn’t going to miraculously disappear in waves of anti Jurisprudence. Popular or otherwise.

    The point being that “case by case”, the State becomes more “intimate”. Since it’s here for the duration, it may as well be good for something other than itself.

    Isn’t Deleuze also challengng the foolhardy? The haphazard approach?


  9. What in the hell…

    I mean violence is what humans engage, animals do some other thing. How do you suppose you destroy violence without the same old waging war for peace scenario?
    What is meant by Jurisprudence is more like the common sense in not puting two negative electric charges in the wrong place before the wishes of the client, who just wants the lights turned on so they can entertain, are acted upon.
    Human Rights are like the wishes of the client; ie. Governments. The lights are turned on so let’s entertain this empty barrel.


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