AMS : ATX sat down with Dr. Andrew Friendenthal, 2014 graduate of UT’s American Studies doctoral program, to discuss his new book, Retcon Games: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America, out this year from the University Press of Mississippi. It’s a time-bendy sort of conversation. Please enjoy!
Can you tell us a little bit about your book Retcon Games, and how you came to the project?
Retcon Games came out of my dissertation, actually. The dissertation was a much broader study that examined the ways in which superhero comics can be used to look at changing views of the past over time. As my committee rightly pointed out, though, the ultimate “so what?” of that study was more of a statement than an argument. For Retcon Games, I took the two strongest chapters from the dissertation, which both focused on the idea of retroactive continuity, and figured out how to extract their hidden argument.
That argument, boiled down, is that decades (and, in some cases, centuries) of retroactive continuity in popular media have paved the way for a new mode of understanding history that allows for more malleable interpretations of the past.
Retroactive continuity, or retconning, is a storytelling tool used in long-term narratives wherein creators deliberately alter the story and/or characters’ history in order to create new story opportunities in the present/future. I argue that being familiar with this trope makes audiences more receptive to the concept, expressed most eloquently by Hayden White, that history is not a purely factual “chronicle” of events, but rather a “narrative” constructed out of those events by whomever is ordering them.
When I wrote the book, I had an optimistic view of all this. I felt that the growth of Wikipedia, and the increasing acceptance of it as a legitimate source of information when used properly and constantly interrogated, meant that our society was becoming more adept at understanding that history, fact, and narrative are all constructions. Then, of course, came the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and I now see that there’s also a much more pessimistic side to explore.
What projects or people have inspired your work?
I was particularly inspired in this text by several scholars of Media Studies, a field that is as multidisciplinary as American Studies (and which crosses over with AMS quite frequently). In particular, Retcon Games was heavily influenced by the work of Henry Jenkins, by Michael Saler’s As If, and by Mark J.P. Wolf’s Imaginary Worlds. I was understandably quite excited when I found out that Dr. Wolf was gracious enough to write a cover blurb for the book!
How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?
One of my intentions with this book was to bring together American Studies and Media Studies, by analyzing the history, usage, and impact of a particular media trope in order to have a broader discussion about the ways in which the historiographic questions discussed within American Studies are represented by popular texts in everyday life. Now that the connection between media and politics is more vital to unpack than ever, I hope that the book can be the starting point of a lot of useful conversations about constructed history and interpretations of truth.
How is this work you’re doing now, as a scholar, teacher or both, informed by the work you did as an American Studies student at UT?
This work entirely arose from my dissertation, the advice that my dissertation committee gave me, and the conversations and suggestions I received from my peers in the department along the way. Looking back on my time as an American Studies student, I can see the arc of how I moved further and further into the realm of Media Studies, to the point that today I define myself as a Media Studies scholar as much as I consider myself an American Studies scholar.
Do you have any advice for students in our department about how to get the most out of their experience at UT?
Don’t let the department be your life. Austin is an amazing city in which to be young, so spend your time exploring, making friends, and cultivating interests outside of academia. My work has been extremely informed by so many things I’ve seen and done outside of the academic world, and my career opportunities after graduating have come as much from outside connections and skills as they have from my graduate training. Grad school is tough, and it’s undeniably a tough job market out there right now, so if you don’t enjoy your life at UT while you’re going through it, you’re going to look back with regret.
What projects are you excited to work on in the future?
The next project I want to start on is a book about “immersive entertainment,” a subject that’s been a part of my work since my Masters thesis about Walt Disney World. I want to look at sites like the Disney theme parks, Las Vegas hotels, civil war reenactments, LARPing, and other ways that people try to immerse themselves in an alternate reality, in order to discuss the values and dangers of escapism that those immersive opportunities often embody.
I also write about theater for the Austin American-Statesman and the upcoming Time Out Austin, which harkens back to my pre-UT theater background, and I have a day job in marketing, so it might be awhile yet before that book sees print. Nevertheless, I’m sure it will be percolating in the back of my head until I finally can’t help but get it out.