Sunday, December 09, 2012

retcons

"Retcon" or retroactive continuity is the attempt to modify the previously established "facts" of fiction. Perhaps the best-known case is the unplanned return of a dead popular character by portraying an unlikely scenario of survival or death-by-subterfuge. In the all-too-common case of several writers who create works containing statements that are in stark conflict, the retcon is the tricky solution that explains how every work can be "right". Of course, a retcon could also be necessary for the works of a single writer who changed their thinking over a long period of time, so their earlier works contain general statements that don't match up with later works. The most impressive and least confusing retcons achieve a specific goal through as few modifications as possible.

On the other hand, the inevitable complexity of an innovative retcon can be exasperating to those who aren't deeply absorbed in the details. "Who cares about little inconsistencies?" they may ask. "Everyone already knows that none of it is real." And their response almost answers itself. The inconsistencies are toxic because good fiction is experienced like an alternate reality, and no reality can be filled with inconsistencies. Human brains fixate naturally on inconsistencies for survival; inconsistencies could be signs of danger. Thus inconsistencies draw attention away from the meaningful aspects of the fiction.

More importantly, a form of "retcon" appears in intellectual schemes for explaining this reality, too. As we discover, observe, and learn, we must revise prior interpretations, sometimes in disturbing directions. Unlike in fiction, these retcons change the analysis of facts rather than the facts. (Except when we prove that past "facts" were obtained via incorrect methods such as idiotic statistical assumptions or flawed procedures.) Retcons of human thoughts about reality are milestones on the path to greater accuracy of understanding.

Hence it's worthwhile to evaluate human thoughts accordingly. We should start to question the accuracy of the scheme itself...

  • if it consumes a virtually unlimited supply of complicated retcons in order to stay relevant 
  • if it's packed with unhelpful extraneous items that require retcons in order to not be problematic 
  • if it's sufficiently bizarre that retcons are indispensable to bring it into harmony with the rest of human knowledge
  • if it's stretched thin not strengthened by retcons, leading to retcons of retcons of retcons
It's easy to guess what I'm hinting toward. Which intellectual schemes have the preceding characteristics...and thereby display a notable kinship with retcon-dependent works of fiction?

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