Consider the Retronomicon

Retronomicon [/ˌɹɛkɹəˈnɑmɪkən/]. Noun.

1. Any nonexistent media artifact that serves as the imagined or imputed retroactive source for a field of meaning or sense (e.g., a genre, a mode of aesthetic production, or a school of thought).

2. Hyperstition. A network site of increased hyperstitional activity or productivity that operates more effectively by not existing.

3. A formal template or secular format derived from the Necronomicon. Example: “Every Necronomicon is an instance of a Retronomicon.”

Morphology of the retcon

“Retcon” is a convenient abbreviation for “retroactive continuity.” The term refers to a literary device that allows the revision of an established narrative in accordance with some new piece of information, usually introduced later. According to Merriam-Webster, the term probably began to enter the popular lexicon in the late 1980s, when it was used both as a noun and a verb on Usenet to aid discussions of events and timelines in the world of comic books.

An earlier example of a retcon appears when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided that Sherlock Holmes didn’t actually die at Reichenbach Falls in 1891 (see “The Final Problem,” 1893). Doyle had killed off his famous character, but later decided that Holmes secretly survived after all. So the character gets reintroduced three years later (see “The Adventure of the Empty House,” 1903), where Doyle “reveals” that Holmes had faked his own death and gone into hiding.

Numerous writers have attempted to elaborate informal morphologies of the retcon.

For example, LiveJournal user lorendiac in 2007 enumerates sixteen types of retcon, ranging from diegetic devices like amnesia, dreams, and time travel to extradiegetic devices like erasure and mere contradiction.

TV Tropes suggests seven variants of the retcon (defined as “[r]eframing past events to serve a current plot need”): (1) Backported Development: “When someone’s characterization in flashbacks is tweaked to more closely resemble their current self.” (2) Cerebus Retcon: “Sometimes a result of Cerebus Syndrome [itself defined as a “Tone Shift towards Dramedy over the course of a comedy series’ run”] that makes a past event more serious as part of a shift to drama.” (3) Revision: “A continuity alteration that doesn’t directly contradict any previous material.” (4) Rewrite: “A retcon that openly overwrites the facts of the previous continuity.” (5) Orwellian Retcon: “The prior events that contradict the new continuity get rewritten.” (6) Cosmic Retcon: “An in-story event alters reality, which causes a retcon.” (7) Remember the New Guy: “A new character is introduced, but is retconned to have been part of the story all along.”

Independent scholar Andrew J. Friedenthal writes: “I define retroactive continuity as a narrative process wherein the creator(s) and/or producer(s) of a fictional narrative/world – often, but not always, the same person or people – deliberately alter the history of that narrative/world such that, going forward, future stories reflect this new history, completely ignoring the old as it had never happened” (7). He proceeds to elaborate three types of retcon: reinterpretation (“changing how an earlier work is seen and interpreted, but in a less-than-definitive way”), reinscription (“concretely and canonically changing [a] work’s meaning going forward”), and revision (“wherein an older work is not only viewed differently, but even altered”).

In short, retconning is a very useful device for reframing and repurposing extant narrative material.

Expanding our understanding of the term beyond popular culture, we can find a number of prefigurations of the retcon throughout the history of Western thought.

For example, consider Nietzsche’s argument that human beings are especially prone to errors in causal reasoning, one of which he calls the “error of imaginary causes.” Nietzsche claims that our causal ascriptions are crafted retroactively in order to secure certainty or clarity about the chain of events leading to some current state of affairs. We do this to curb our fear of the unknown by corralling what we do not know into more comfortable narrative paddocks. He writes:

Beginning with dreams: we experience a certain sensation (following the sound of cannon fire in the distance, for example) and then retrospectively supply a cause for it (which often takes the form of a whole little novel with the dreamer as the protagonist). Meanwhile, the sensation remains in a type of resonance: it waits, as it were, until our causal instinct allows it to come into the foreground – at which point it has stopped being accidental, it is ‘meaningful’. The cannon fire takes place inside a causal nexus, in what seems like a temporal reversal. The later event, the motivation, is experienced first, often with hundreds of details that flash past, followed by the shot… What has happened? The ideas that were created by a certain physical condition were mistaken for the cause of that condition. – In fact, we do the same thing when we are awake.

Creative theoretical explorations of le futur antérieur (the “future perfect,” a verb construction used to describe an action or event that should or will take place in the future, after another future action or event takes place) also recur throughout twentieth-century French philosophy, especially in Lacan and Derrida.

For Lacan, the future anterior functions as the projection of a future that will determine retroactively its own past – that is to say, the very present from which we always project futures (“What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming” [300]). This is a fancy way of saying that we can view the present not as mere openness to a plenitude of amorphous futures, but as the necessary prelude to some specific future. “What is to be done?” becomes “What did we do?” and anxiety becomes necessity. Consider this in formal terms. At time t0 there is a specific state of affairs X that is open to a possible range of transformations of X from X1 to Xn. At time tn X has transformed into some specific state of affairs X’. Between t0 and tn, X has changed fundamentally. At t0, X is the state of affairs that supported a range of possible transformations (from X1 to Xn). At tn, X is the state of affairs that precedes X’. It is only possibly but not patently this X’ at t0.

For Derrida, the future anterior figures somewhat differently – emphasizing instead the radical exteriority and openness of all futural projection (l’avenir) – although retroactive continuity remains a central concern. Tony Thwaites writes

Grammatically, the ‘will have been’ of the future anterior is not at all a matter of ‘a future determined by what preceded it’: that would be a possible – but certainly not even then a necessary – use of the simple future, the ‘will be.’ The future anterior is a much stranger tense, of a future which has not yet arrived and is itself yet to be determined, but which determines retrospectively, in its turn, the past which will have been for that future. Invoking a past which has itself not yet arrived, or is always in the process of arriving, the future anterior not only describes the empirical delays attendant on any historicity, but also, in its complex textual folding, the very structure of historicity as perpetually renewed wager” (¶12).

Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha

As you’re probably aware, H. P. Lovecraft had a penchant for invoking and referring to books that don’t exist – principally, the dread Necronomicon (which means “an image of the law of the dead”), but also the Book of Azathoth (the black book of Nyarlathotep), the Book of Eibon or Liber Ivonis (invented by Clark Ashton Smith, characterized in Lovecraft’s narratives as “fragmentary,” “frightful,” and “puzzling”), the Dhol Chants (attributed to the abhumans inhabiting the Plateau of Leng in “The Horror in the Museum,” 1932), the Pnakotic Fragments or Manuscripts (“Polaris,” 1918, thereby making this the first entry in Lovecraft’s imaginary library), and the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan (“The Other Gods,” 1921). Almost always, these texts are mentioned in passing, their secrets too dark, obscure, or terrifying to relate.

The exception here is the Necronomicon, to which Lovecraft refers in eighteen of his stories (starting with “The Hound,” 1922). Authorship of the Necronomicon (originally entitled the Kitab al-Azif in Arabic, referring to the sounds of nocturnal insects that evoke the buzzing of demons) is imputed to the “Mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, a resident of Damascus who wrote the book in 730 CE. In 738 CE, Alhazred was devoured publically by an invisible monster. The book disappeared for a time, reappearing sporadically in Greek (translated by Theodorus Philetas of Constantinople) and Latin (translated by Olaus Wormius in 1228 CE). In 1232 CE, Pope Gregory IX himself banned all versions of the book. Later, Queen Elizabeth I’s court magician, John Dee, translated the book into English, although only fragments of his translation remain. Today, various corruptions, editions, and fragments of the Necronomicon survive only in the deepest archives of institutions like the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Widener Library at Harvard University, and the Miskatonic University Library. Although Lovecraft rarely transcribes material from the Necronomicon, one long quote in “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) stands out:

Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They have trod earth’s fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men somtimes know them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man’s truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones where Their seal is engraven, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.

The scholarly term for what I’m talking about is “pseudepigrapha,” which refers to falsely-attributed texts, to texts that operate on the basis of a false ascription. For example, there are numerous dialogs and treatises by ancient authors that purport to have been written by more prestigious authors (e.g., Plato or Paul). Pseudepigrapha range from blatant hoaxes of either ancient or modern origin (e.g., forgeries of Galen and the Essene Gospel of John, respectively) to misattributed texts of deeply uncertain provenance (e.g., the deeply important corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite).

It’s almost commonplace by now for disciples of Lovecraft, ranging from epigones to interlocutors, to further elaborate Lovecraft’s imaginary library (contributing to what Lovecraft termed “the background of evil versimilitude”). During Lovecraft’s own lifetime, Robert Howard contributed Nameless Cults by Friedrich von Junzt (“The Children of the Night,” 1931), while Robert Bloch refers to De Vermis Mysteriis, or Mysteries of the Worm (“The Shambler from the Stars,” 1935), the latter of which gets picked up repeatedly by Lovecraft in later stories (most notably “The Haunter of the Dark,” 1935, intended as a sequel to Bloch’s “Shambler”).

Indeed, central to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos is its library of forbidden and lost texts, all of which transmit variations of those cosmic secrets with which our encounters are so blessedly, maddeningly short. In this regard, the numerous books and short stories that subtend the Mythos constitute portions of the imaginary library they so often invoke. One of the things that makes Lovecraft so fascinating (I’m referring to the field of discursive production we call “Lovecraft” rather than to any particular biographical figure) is his manufacture of the conditions of hyperstitional possibility (“hyperstitions by their very existence as ideas function causally to bring about their own reality” / hyperstition: “a term we have coined for semiotic productions that make themselves real”). In other words, Lovecraft, the man, doesn’t matter. He is only a proof of concept. He proves that a better Tlön is possible

In the context of the Mythos, the purview of its imaginary library sets its coordinates. The Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha are the foundation of the Mythos. This operates in a similar way to Borges’s “The Library of Babel” (1941, translated in 1961). Recall the contours of that library. Borges describes a universe

composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries […] There are five shelves for each of the hexagon’s walls; each shelf contains thirty-five books of uniform format; each book is of four hundred and ten pages; each page, of forty lines, each line, of some eighty letters which are black in color. There are also letters on the spine of each book; these letters do not indicate or prefigure what the pages will say. […] The orthographical symbols are twenty-five in number. […] all the books, no matter how diverse they might be, are made up of the same elements: the space, the period, the comma, the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. […] In the vast Library there are no two identical books. From these two incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is total and that its shelves register all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols (a number which, though extremely vast, is not infinite): Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.

The inhabitants of this universe – the librarians – comb its hexagonal labyrinths in search of sense, rarely finding anything but vast shoals of gibberish (“the formless and chaotic nature of almost all the books”), the statistical likelihood of discovering any meaningful character strings being extremely low. Such an all-pervasive navigation of literal meaninglessness engenders despair and mania among the librarians: “Obviously, no one expects to discover anything,” although legends abound of cults and lunatics (inquisitors, purifiers) destroying heretical nonsense and of strange discoveries (“a hexagon on circuit fifteen ninety-four was made up of the letters MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last” / “books in the Crimson Hexagon: books whose format is smaller than usual, all-powerful, illustrated and magical” / “the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and he is analogous to a god”).

Jonathan Basile, creator of an actual digital Library of Babel, writes:

Though the story’s librarian-narrator believes in the possible triumph of reason, the principle force underlying the library is irrationality. Any expression, even the most elegant or undeniably true, is nonetheless possible without sincerity, or even any intention towards signification. The library makes this hidden power explicit: anything that can be referenced in language or accessible to experience must be separable from itself—a thought, a perception, a word can be made of it. This may undermine our sense of the simple presence of things, but it allows for everything interesting in the world: fantasy, lies, illusions, imagination, and fiction. If it weren’t possible for us to say “Here is a human” when nothing of the sort is present, fiction would be impossible, and we would never have embarked on the strange pursuit that, for some time now, we have called literature. Borges’s story isn’t simply one among others, but the story of all fiction, and with it all reality.

One thing Borges captures in the story is the relationship characterizing the difficulty and violence of constructing of sense out of nonsense. The Library of Babel is an inhuman void of gibberish constantly traversed by its human occupants, endeavoring to perform the impossible task of mapping out its contents. Small points of regularity or sense (“Oh time thy pyramids”) sometimes emerge, at least purportedly – but always in enigmatic fragments, lost variations (every possible book has a penumbra of 31,488,000 alternatives). The whispers of such texts drive forward the frantic search for some underlying rationality, some schema of reduction. Consider the mad implications of W. V. O. Quine’s wry observation that

There is an easier and cheaper way of cutting down [the library than “purifying” it]. Some of us first learned from Samuel Finley Breese Morse what others of more mathematical bent knew before this time: that a font of two characters, dot and dash, can do all the work of our font of eighty. […] If we retain the old format and page count for our volumes, this move reduces the size of the library’s collection to the 500,000th power of two. It is still a big number. Written out it would fill a hundred pages in standard digits, or two volumes in dots and dashes. The volumes are skimpier in thought content than before, taken one by one, because our new Morse is more than six times as long-winded as our old eighty-character font of type; but there is no loss in content over all, since for each cliff-hanging volume there is still every conceivable sequel on some shelf or other. This last reflection – that a diminution in the coverage of each single volume does not affect the cosmic completeness of the collection – points the way to the ultimate economy: a cutback in the size of the volumes. Instead of admitting 500,000 occurrences of characters to each volume, we might settle for say seventeen. We have no longer to do with volumes, but with two-inch strips of text, and no call for half-calf bindings. In our two-character code the number of strips is 217, or 131,072. The totality of truth is now reduced to a manageable compass. Getting a substantial account of anything will require extensive concatenation of out two-inch strips, and re-use of strips here and there. But we have everything to work with. The ultimate absurdity is now staring us in the face: a universal library of two volumes, one containing a single dot and the other a dash. Persistent repetition and alternation of the two is sufficient, we well know, for spelling out any and every truth. The miracle of the finite but universal library is a mere inflation of the miracle of binary notation: everything worth saying, and everything else as well, can be said with two characters.

For Borges, then, a plenitude – whereas, for Quine, there’s the introjection of that plenitude into every twofold regularity. Binary stars encode all possible volumes in the Library of Babel. Like the legends of sense that haunt the Library of Babel, the Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha function like stars in a constellation. Like stars, these texts may exist only as reports of a distant flame. However, drawing lines of connection, influence, and transmission between them enables the construction and identification of dark, new constellations. As we know, constellations serve two purposes. They impose fundamentally arbitrary patterns of meaning upon disparate, inhuman entities who care nothing for human concerns, and they allow humans to navigate through unknown spaces.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many variations of the Necronomicon have come to be written? Since its first documented appearance in 1922, fans were writing to Lovecraft to inquire about the text. Records of its existence were placed by unknown individuals in various catalogs and registers throughout the world. The first appearance of a Necronomicon was in 1973, published by Owlswick Press and purported to have been discovered by L. Sprague De Camp while on holiday in Baghdad after its looting from a crypt in Duria, a small city in northern Iraq. Later, the text was revealed to be but page after page of “repeated Arabesque calligraphy.” But what else would you expect? Perhaps now we know where Borges’s book of “the fundamental law of the Library” got its “classical Arabian inflections,” its “notions of combinative analysis, illustrated with examples of variations with unlimited repetition.” After this point, the text begins to breed, functioning as a vector of memetic proliferation. The plague spreads. The Hay edition (1978) and the Simon Necronomicon (1980) both appear in short order, as well as many other lesser or rarer editions.

Of particular curiosity is the number of Necronomicons produced by practicing occultists. The Hay edition, for example, largely was written by Colin Wilson’s friend Robert Turner, leader of a group of British magicians called The Order of the Cubic Stone, and an apparent expert on the writings of John Dee (he had translated and published an extensive edition of Dee’s De Heptarchia Mystica from 1983-1986). Kenneth Grant, a prominent English ceremonial magician most widely known for his position as Aleister Crowley’s secretary and heir apparent, attempted to synthesize the Mythos with his own left-hand interpretation of the Kabbalah. According to Grant, Lovecraft functioned as an unconscious avenue for the revelation of metaphysical knowledge. Therefore, Grant argued, studying Lovecraft constitutes part of a credible occult practice. Needless to say, many of Grant’s ideas were translated into the Simon Necronomicon (probably authored by a pop historian of the occult named Peter Levenda, although Levenda denies this), and most self-identified occultists engaging with the Necronomicon since the 1980s have borne the stamp of Grant and “Simon” (e.g., Michael Bertiaux, Phil Hines, Asenath Mason, Donald Tyson, John L. Steadman, and others).

All of these lesser Necronomicons – from Lovecraft’s own citations to the post-Crowleyan, countercultural occultisms of the late 1970s to the relentlessly self-promoting hucksterism of the present (“Custom Lovecraftian Gnostic Magick Ritual: Only $799!!!”) – also function like single stars in the constellation we should still call the Necronomicon – a virtual Necronomicon, a Necronomicon-in-itself whose affected antiquity and extensive marketing campaign perhaps could only have been forged by an American as damaged as Lovecraft. This unholy text necessarily exists by implication, the central point of reference for some autonomous process of shadowy self-production, bootstrapping itself out of the void. This Necronomicon is still waiting for its full interpolation into existence; it lies both dead and dreaming just beyond the horizon of time, beckoning to every dark inquirer from the future anterior. This is equally true for all of the Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha, which altogether provide us with a secular format or a formal template for hyperstitional productivity.

The Retronomicon

Imagine media artifacts that do not exist, but which serve as the origin or source for idiosyncratic fields of meaning and sense that have yet to be perceived. They are crafted in the futures of the pasts they create. They change the contours of the past, turning lines of straightforward causal ascription into multiple lines of flight through the intervention of the retcon. These artifacts might be dark or magical texts. They might be cursed yellow plays, or forgotten films, ensnaring fallen angels or Lady Midday – even desire or memory itself. An entire lost archive of source material, trapped outside of time, like some misplaced Alexandria. These artifacts could be lurking anywhere, just outside the peripheral vision of the real. Like predators prowling the virtual, waiting patiently for the right moment to strike. To actualize abruptly, to decloak – nodes in a network that suddenly begins to produce new citations and situations, new ways of speaking and worldmaking, new modes of affect and new forms of life. Turn to the vulgar archives for a surprising taste of what they enable us to do. It’s like how Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981) imagines his Necronomicon: the book itself is alive!

This imagined artifact functions as an engine for the production of worlds precisely because it does not exist, does not yet exist, cannot exist (just as every written Necronomicon always will be a lesser Necronomicon). It embodies the necessarily voidal mode that enables the generation of categories and concepts, thereby producing spiraling and unfamiliar Uqbars through the frantic manipulation of Quine’s binary (0/1). With Borges, call this Library of Babel an embodiment of the real. We, cultists and librarians, seek to actualize worlds within the real by reporting legible character strings from out of the indifferent jumble, by searching for our Crimson Hexagon. Accordingly, we can see how the Necronomicon – indeed, the full constellation of Lovecraftian pseudepigrapha – serves as a formal template for hyperstitional productivity. Recall that hyperstition refers to the self-actualization of fictions, to the production of impactful ontological change or novelty in the form of performances that make themselves actual through their very articulation. There is a forced movement from the virtual into the actual, that is to say, from one mode of operativity to another. Hyperstition also “purposefully obfuscates its domain of reference by burying it in the past.”  We see this clearly in the Necronomicon variations.

In other words, I’m suggesting that the case of the Necronomicon serves as a case study, a proof of concept, a use case. Hyperstitional productivity manifests in sites of speculative proliferation, in the viral transmission of self-extracting memetic material that contributes to the incessant production of further variations (self-replication with differences). Every artifact that does this ultimately retcons itself; it produces its own past and thereby changes the trajectory of a world. Call every such artifact a Retronomicon.