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.