The Revisions That Make Us Human

Joan Didion famously declared, “We tell ourselves stories in order to survive.” As euphonious as that statement is, it may not reflect either the purpose or the function of story-making. Closer to the truth is the idea propounded in Revising Reality: How Sequels, Remakes, Retcons and Rejects Explain the World — we cannot help but apprehend the world in narrative form, and we are equally incapable of leaving those stories alone. It’s how our perceptual apparatus works. As time passes, the discovery of new facts and changing of attitudes necessitate revision of those stories. 

Chris Gavaler, professor of English and an authority on comics, and Nat Goldberg, professor of philosophy, both at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, previously co-authored Superhero Thought Experiments and Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith. Their new book now covers vast territory in their account of the varieties of revision. They posit four modes: retcons (short for “retroactive continuity”), sequels, remakes, and rejects. All are common in the world of comics, as well as cinematic universes and all manner of pop culture franchises; to keep things entertaining for the long haul, and to enlarge an audience, complexities and surprises must be continually injected into storylines. But the authors’ project here is to show that these techniques are not limited to Star Wars and Marvel blockbuster movies, or the worlds of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Instead they inform the very way we understand history, science, the law, politics, and memory itself. We revise stories because we are human.

The authors take pains to identify which type of revision is operating in a wide variety of examples. Unless you are already a fan of the Star Wars franchise, superhero comics, or even Ghostbusters (and know of its sequels and remakes), their explanation of retconning in those fictional worlds may confound as much as it illuminates. If you think of it on a personal level, however, you get it, because everyone has been retconned — when someone lies about you, they’re retconning your past. If you’ve ever been gaslit, that’s a retcon as well.

The 1619 Project, which offered a constructive new way to conceive of American history, is also a form of retconning. The nation’s birthdate had long been acknowledged as 1776, but Nikole Hannah-Jones made the case for its true origin upon the landing of the first slave ship. (The project itself was subsequently revised, or at least clarified, as was Hannah-Jones’s own career as a journalism professor, also detailed in the book. Revisions often have their own sequels, as Revising Reality demonstrates on multiple occasions.) Few retcons are as messy, or as dubious, as the story underlying the “Make America Great Again” movement. Not even the most unconvincing Star Trek reboot dared a revision so uniquely self-serving 

Galileo’s sequel to the Copernican model of the solar system was retconned by the Catholic Church, which placed him under house arrest for suspected heresy. Four hundred years later the Church retconned its statement, redefining him as one of the “most audacious heroes of research.” And on and on. Among the book’s many examples of real-world revisions, some of which have life-or-death consequences, are wildly divergent interpretations of just five words from the Declaration of Independence (those who are created equal being “all men”) and the Constitution (who are “We the People”?). Then there is the ivermectin debate during the late pandemic, Christianity’s retconning of the Tanakh by rearranging it to prophesize the coming of Jesus, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United that retcons the First Amendment (indeed, “judicial review is defined by retconning”). One of the book’s most valuable commentaries on our incessant revisions to stories one party tells about another regards the eugenics movement in the United States. The authors provide an extensive timeline of shamefully unfamiliar acts favoring eugenics that ranges from the 1890s to the 1930s — when South Carolina became the 31st state to pass a sterilization law. This particular history remains more hidden than some of these other disturbing tales because it was fostered by academics and intellectuals — the same “victors” who get to write the public record, according to the old adage.

As a warning to keep our eyes open, Revising Reality calls on us not to question reality — that which is metaphysically fixed — but rather its epistemology. It got me thinking about where the book begins, with art. Perhaps the critical role that revision often assumes in art making is its foregrounding that the nature of all things encompasses imaginative evolution. The world as we know it is our creative output. In the end, too, our memories, out of which all art arguably arises, cannot help but be continually edited. “Memories are themselves interpretations, or stories, so they only revise themselves.” Helplessly, yet productively, we keep on amending our emendations.

Revising Reality: How Sequels, Remakes, Retcons and Rejects Explain the World by Chris Gavaler and Nat Goldberg (2024) is published by Bloomsbury Academic and is available online and in bookstores.


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