Notes on Well, Actually

Well, Actually, we’ve come to think of corrections a little differently. 

This issue is an extension of and answer to our Fall 2023 issue, Definitive Guide. Definitive Guide was an attempt at comprehensiveness and mastery, but even as it ventured into the world it held close to its heroic little magazine body a secret fatal flaw. Well, Actually reveals not one but several of the definitive guide’s Achilles’ heels—if we’re being quite honest, we’ve been surprised to learn that guides have so many ankles. A revision can draw attention to the way the definitive guide historicizes its own time and encodes its contradictions, marking the significance of its errors rather than erasing them from the record. Whereas the emphasis in Definitive Guide is on the impossibility of that project, the emphasis in this issue is on the very possible (and almost inevitable) process of revision.

“Well, actually” is the argumentative phrase at the beginning of a correction. It conjures up visions of pedants seizing on small technicalities instead of seeing the larger picture: aggressive, annoying, and dismissive. It’s the opening gambit of reply guys and mansplainers everywhere—we dread hearing it, even as we know that correction is a normal part of discourse that we should embrace more heartily. We all want to be a little less wrong! What are the circumstances under which we might “actually” desire a correction, and from whom do we want it? What do corrections do?

When we issued the open call for Well, Actually, we framed the proposition-correction process as a sharp call and response between two people. With what we’ve learned from the authors in this issue, we have also come to consider cumulative revisions that unfold gently over time. Revision is a re-envisioning of standards and worldviews that responds to a changing world—no one can, or should, expect their version of the world to stand indefinitely. Understood that way, a healthy discourse of revision is a prophylactic against narcissism.

We do not want to cling too tightly to our frameworks, a rigid stance that would reveal less about our structure’s inviolability than about our inability to envision a new one. But while we have an inherent discomfort with prescriptivism, pure descriptivism is not the answer either—we need frameworks for living, even if just to conserve our decision-making energy for the parts where it really matters. 

The solution to bad hierarchies and ill-used positions of authority is not, then, a fully flat plane where all our systems lie broken and jumbled on the ground. There’s an appealing (and sometimes politically efficacious) kind of negative radicality from which we issue calls to burn it all down; this issue, however, has some optimism about building things. These authors explore revision as the (often unsung) recuperating work that comes after the firestorm of correction, rehabilitating the world and helping us to better live in it. Artist Aaron T Stephan has made the blueprints to accompany their plans. He has interpreted their writing as the half-realized, constantly revised monuments they are, allowing that, nonetheless, they light our way.

Kai Lalley Bradbury close-reads the European Commission’s English Style Guide as an uneasy source of authority on language whose firm stance often crumbles into an absurdist sense of humor. The Guide is an authority that knows it’s fallible and sometimes arbitrary. As is common in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges like “In Exactitude in Science” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the style guide’s confident prescriptivism is immediately undone by its own divisions and ambivalences. Betrayed by its confused self-referentiality, it keeps “starting over, short-circuiting, and occasionally circling the drain.”

Krusha Dande uses the benefit of hindsight to examine the visions of the future produced in the early days of science fiction. These projected models, the fever dreams of a collaborative and competitive community of sf readers and writers, have a lot to say about what we want from a modern society. The course of history constantly requires sf writers to update their failed visions, leaving tomorrows in the dust—but the one future they may fail to imagine is the persistence of our present.  

In her palinode–a poetic form of retraction–Donika Kelly contemplates the hybridity of memory and correction’s possibilities and foreclosures. The metaphor that does the heavy lifting in this poem is the centaur: half horse, half human, a creature of bodily hungers demanding satisfaction and slant longings for wisdom. Kelly gives us a picture of the centaur in full gallop, running breakneck through a life that often puts our hungers and our grasping at understanding and accuracy in tension. 

Meanwhile, Grace Lavery makes sure to record the feelings of different kinds of facts in a piece inspired by Kafka’s short story, “Eleven Sons.” This chronicle of eleven species of fact, complete with their blindspots, crotchets, and quiddities, takes us through the psychogeographical territory of our relationship to the factual, which is often a form of desire. Lavery’s narrator shows us that there is no fact that can be divorced from the emotions with which we receive it–or fail to receive it. 

L Vinebaum sees whitework, a style of embroidery and quilting popular through the 19th century, as a material history shot through with white supremacy. Vinebaum looks closely at the practices of contemporary artist Sonja Dahl, who understands whitework both as a set of textile techniques and the necessary work of reckoning with whiteness, in order to address whitework’s embedded ideologies of racism and colonialism. Looking at historical whitework and white supremacist quilts (made in support of the Confederacy and the KKK), Vinebaum hails a new interpellation: whitework, for Dahl and Vinebaum, is a correction to the record of white women’s textile history and an anti-racist quilter’s call to action.

Finally, in an issue full of earnest efforts to embrace revision, Emily Knapp reminds us that sometimes the eye-roll elicited by an aggressive “well, actually” is entirely deserved. Knapp’s “Reply Guy Bingo ” invites us to play along as we encounter three reply guys—the Cookie Manster, the Gaslighter, and the Tone Police—in the wild. Gamify the tedious reply guy interactions in your own life and treat yourself to a resultant zap of sweet, sweet dopamine.