A Theory of “Here”

Criticism / Lee Konstantinou

:: A Theory of Here ::

About halfway through Here, the exper­i­men­tal car­toon­ist Richard McGuire opens a window—well, a panel—onto the year 10,175. This far-future scene is lay­ered atop a larg­er image that takes place in 1775, some­where on the east coast of what will become the Unit­ed States, show­ing a cryp­tic con­ver­sa­tion about the pend­ing Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. By now, we’ve learned how to read Here. McGuire’s book—it would be a mis­take to call it, as many have done, a graph­ic nov­el—scram­bles the nor­mal log­ic of comics nar­ra­tive. Instead of cre­at­ing jux­ta­posed sequences of pan­els that togeth­er tell a uni­fied sto­ry, Here’s pages show the same loca­tion in space at dif­fer­ent times. The book fea­tures a sequence of lush­ly col­ored dou­ble-page spreads, each one set in a dif­fer­ent year (indi­cat­ed with a tag in the upper-left cor­ner of the page). Small­er pan­els often hov­er over the main dou­ble-page frame, depict­ing the same loca­tion either before or after the dom­i­nant year. Most­ly, we observe the cor­ner of a non­de­script room, see­ing how it stays the same or changes across the years, observ­ing its var­i­ous human inhab­i­tants at dif­fer­ent ages and in dif­fer­ent states of health. These pan­els have, by the mid­point of the book, large­ly focused on the past and the present; McGuire has ren­dered times before the house was con­struct­ed, has dra­ma­tized encoun­ters between the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion and new­ly arrived set­tler-colonists, and has even let us see the year 1,009 BCE. We have also already peeked into the house’s future, observ­ing humans who inhab­it the year 2016 (res­i­dents of this dis­tant future seem very much like us), as well as peo­ple using holo­graph­ic inter­faces in the year 2050. So the atten­tive read­er has prob­a­bly already antic­i­pat­ed that McGuire will show us the ulti­mate fate of the house—perhaps let­ting us see far beyond. And he does. But what we see of the year 10,175 is far stranger than we might have expect­ed.

Fig 1-2 Theory of Here

Fig­ure 1: McGuire’s far-future mar­su­pi­al

This unas­sum­ing pan­el, about the size of a play­ing card, opens onto an ani­mal, a mar­su­pi­al of some sort, maybe the lovechild of a large pos­sum and a small kan­ga­roo, stand­ing on an emp­ty field. It’s not any ani­mal that exists today, and not an ani­mal we would expect to see in the Amer­i­can north­east. The crea­ture stares straight at us, as if it knows we’re watch­ing, sug­gest­ing that it might be more intel­li­gent than your aver­age mar­su­pi­al. The animal’s con­fi­dent gaze is ini­tial­ly unset­tling and comes to seem alien pre­cise­ly because the ani­mal itself is so ordi­nary, so unthreat­en­ing. With this innocu­ous pan­el, McGuire opens up a new con­ti­nent of time, sug­gest­ing that the sec­ond half of Here will more ful­ly explore the ulti­mate fate of the house. And again, Here does not dis­ap­point, show­ing us the house’s fright­en­ing destruc­tion by (pre­sum­ably glob­al-warm­ing-relat­ed) flood­ing, tak­ing us as far for­ward as the year 22,175, where new dinosaur-like crea­tures roam the earth. And yet there is some­thing unique­ly affect­ing about this par­tic­u­lar mar­su­pi­al, some­thing about it that is even stranger than the lat­er dinosaur-crea­tures, some­thing about its haunt­ed eyes that gives us access to the larg­er, unnerv­ing sig­nif­i­cance of McGuire’s mas­ter­work. This lit­tle ani­mal per­fect­ly illus­trates how McGuire uses comics to explore the rela­tion­ship between time and space.

McGuire first pub­lished “Here” in 1989 in Raw, an avant-garde comics mag­a­zine cre­at­ed by Art Spiegel­man and Françoise Mouly. Only six pages long, the orig­i­nal “Here” elec­tri­fied the tiny world of exper­i­men­tal comics. It was warm­ly received by long-estab­lished Under­ground car­toon­ists like Justin Green and, most impor­tant­ly, huge­ly influ­enced younger car­toon­ists like Chris Ware. [i] The French comics crit­ic Thier­ry Groen­steen has been extolling its prais­es for years, writ­ing one of the first analy­ses of “Here” in 1991. [ii]

Fig 2

Fig­ure 2: A page from McGuire’s 1989 “Here” 

The 1989 ver­sion of “Here” is super­fi­cial­ly sim­i­lar to the book. Each pan­el fea­tures a dom­i­nant image of the cor­ner of a room over­laid with small­er pan­els dis­play­ing oth­er images, images of the same room in the past and the future. Like the book, the pan­el-win­dows jump around in time and, tak­en togeth­er, don’t tell a uni­fied or straight­for­ward sto­ry, though we do get to see the whole life of a char­ac­ter named William, born in 1957, dead in 2027. Instead, McGuire tells the sto­ry of the room itself (much like Ware tells the sto­ry of a sin­gle build­ing in Build­ing Sto­ries). More impor­tant­ly, “Here” has a sto­ry to tell about the rela­tion­ship between time and space. In McGuire’s exper­i­ment, space and time togeth­er form a uni­fied four-dimen­sion­al block, and “Here” gives us inter­est­ing cross sec­tions of that block. We may expe­ri­ence time as a mun­dane sequence of moments, McGuire seems to argue, but we should not for­get that oth­er times are equal­ly real, exist­ing where (if not when) we stand. What has made this six-page com­ic so appeal­ing to form-con­scious car­toon­ists is, I think, the bril­liant­ly sim­ple device that McGuire devised to com­mu­ni­cate his core idea. Pan­els with­in pan­els: before you see what McGuire does with it, you wouldn’t have expect­ed such a sim­pleeven obvi­ousdevice in the cartoonist’s toolk­it to be so pow­er­ful.

Pan­els are, if you think about it, a pret­ty strange weapon in the cartoonist’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al arse­nal. They depend on cre­at­ing two types of rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al con­fu­sion. First, the indi­vid­ual pan­el cre­ates an illu­sion of open­ing onto a scene with­out obtrud­ing into it. It invites com­par­i­son to the cin­e­mat­ic frame, and one often finds crit­ics using the visu­al vocab­u­lary of film stag­ing to describe par­tic­u­lar moments in comics. Like the pho­to­graph­ic image, the indi­vid­ual pan­el can seem to ren­der frozen instants of time. But, as Will Eis­ner notes in Comics and Sequen­tial Art, the pan­el is much more than a tech­ni­cal device. It is “part of the cre­ative process, rather than result of tech­nol­o­gy” (38). The pan­el is just as much an iconand requires just as much thoughtas the car­toon fig­ures with­in the pan­el, and the best car­toon­ists know this, manip­u­lat­ing pan­el shape, size, and bor­der weight to cre­ate dif­fer­ent moods and aes­thet­ic effects. More­over, as Scott McCloud shows in Under­stand­ing Comics, time works in a fun­ny way with­in pan­els (96). Any seem­ing­ly still moment with­in a pan­el is actu­al­ly inter­nal­ly divid­ed, con­sist­ing of a tem­po­ral sequence. But in order to read comics, we often sus­pend our aware­ness of this sequence.

Fig 3-3-2Theory of Here

 Fig­ure 3: Scott McCloud on Intra-Pan­el Time

The sequen­tial arrange­ment of pan­els invites a sec­ond help­ful con­fu­sion: the con­fu­sion of read­ing comics with read­ing text. It is easy to par­tic­i­pate in this con­fu­sion because pan­els are usu­al­ly orga­nized rough­ly into read­ing order, from left to right, top to bot­tom. We are invit­ed to imag­ine that the order of read­ing cor­re­sponds to the pro­gres­sion of a film strip, that every new pan­el, with the excep­tion of flash­backs and oth­er overt breaks in lin­ear sto­ry­telling, moves us inex­orably for­ward in nar­ra­tive time. And most of the time, this is the case. Avant-garde comics, how­ev­er, such as those col­lect­ed in Andrei Molotiu’s Abstract Comics anthol­o­gy, tend to chal­lenge the assim­i­la­tion of pan­el order to read­ing order. 

Fig 5 Theory of Here

Fig­ure 4: From Ibn al Rabin, Cidre et Schnapps, reprint­ed in Molotiu’s Abstract Comics

Pan­els con­tin­ue, in many of the comics that Molotiu col­lects, to cre­ate a rhythm of read­ing (and with­out this visu­al rhythm it would be hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate these abstract comics from paint­ing). But Molotiu’s anthol­o­gy also draws our atten­tion to the fact that the comics page can achieve design effects that tran­scend those cre­at­ed by read­ing pan­els in a strict­ly lin­ear sequence. This is the prop­er­ty of the comics page that Groen­steen calls “icon­ic sol­i­dar­i­ty,” which he defines as the capac­i­ty of comics to cre­ate “inter­de­pen­dent images that, par­tic­i­pat­ing in a series, present the dou­ble char­ac­ter­is­tic of being sep­a­rat­ed … and which are plas­ti­cal­ly and seman­ti­cal­ly over-deter­mined by the fact of their coex­is­tence in prae­sen­tia” (18). Pan­els in sequence, pan­els that seem to por­tray time’s move­ment, can actu­al­ly become mean­ing­ful in terms of their spa­tial rela­tions. It’s as if all of the pan­els on the page were occur­ring at the same time or momen­tar­i­ly tran­scend­ing time. So time and space have a fun­ny rela­tion­ship on the comics page. Sta­t­ic moments seem­ing­ly cap­tured by the pan­el always nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tain their own past and future; and tem­po­ral sequences across pan­els always nec­es­sar­i­ly form larg­er spa­tial units of mean­ing that tran­scend the suc­ces­sion of time. But to read the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of comics, we are required to for­get these truths, or at least tem­porar­i­ly to sus­pend our aware­ness of them. What McGuire’s pan­els-with­in-pan­els do is make the unin­tu­itive com­min­gling of time and space on the comics pageand the false­ness that char­ac­ter­izes a sur­face-lev­el read­ing of comics nar­ra­tive tech­niqueexquis­ite­ly clear, turn­ing this com­min­gling into an object of aes­thet­ic plea­sure. This is the genius of the core device of “Here.” Twen­ty-five years on, McGuire’s book-length update to his rev­o­lu­tion­ary six-page com­ic rais­es a vari­ety of ques­tions. If the orig­i­nal had such a huge impact, what is left for the book to do? Does Here move beyond “Here,” or sim­ply bring the short­er comic’s bril­liance to a wider audi­ence (which would itself be a wor­thy goal)? Does McGuire deep­en or recon­sid­er the tem­po­ral phi­los­o­phy of the orig­i­nal “Here”? And if comics are a “way of think­ing,” to para­phrase Chris Ware, what exact­ly is Here think­ing about? (Ball and Kuhlman xix) 

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Fig 5-3

 Fig­ure 5: A dou­ble-page spread from McGuire’s 2014 Here

One thing Here is think­ing about is the rela­tion of comics to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. We might say that Here teach­es us that comics isor at a min­i­mum is becom­inga new­ly dig­i­tal medi­um. Dis­cussing con­tem­po­rary notions of tex­tu­al­i­ty in Digi­mod­ernism, Alan Kir­by brings togeth­er two sens­es of the term “dig­i­tal,” not­ing “the cen­tral­i­ty of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy” for con­tem­po­rary artists as well as “the cen­tral­i­ty of the dig­its, of the fin­gers and thumbs that key and press and click in the busi­ness of mate­r­i­al tex­tu­al elab­o­ra­tion” (51). This might seem like an unfor­tu­nate pun (and it is), but it’s a pun that is nonethe­less help­ful to keep in mind when read­ing the new ver­sion of Here. After all, comics is noth­ing if not a fin­ger-obsessed medi­um: it invites manip­u­la­tion by our dig­its: flip­ping, fold­ing, point­ing, fondling, stroking, even rip­ping.

The reader’s capac­i­ty to touch pic­tures, the phys­i­cal weight of the book in our handsthat is, the hap­tic dimen­sion of comicsis part of what has his­tor­i­cal­ly dis­tin­guished the medi­um from oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al art forms and is one rea­son comics can so suc­cess­ful­ly com­bine the visu­al urgency of film with the emo­tion­al inti­ma­cy of the nov­el. It is only slight­ly an exag­ger­a­tion to say that comics is an art of touch­ing. And the best comics have often sought to acti­vate our aware­ness of their hap­tic mate­ri­al­i­ty. At the same time, comics is also becom­ing dig­i­tal in the tech­no­log­i­cal sense. Like every oth­er art form, it is being sub­sumed by dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, butagain like every oth­er artit is becom­ing dig­i­tal in its own strange way. There’s even an iPad ver­sion of Here, which allows read­ers to manip­u­late pan­els show­ing dif­fer­ent times.

Fig 6

Fig­ure 6: Richard McGuire’s recent New York­er cov­er

But Here’s con­cern with dig­i­tal com­put­ers is not just a mat­ter of its (seem­ing­ly inevitable) dig­i­ti­za­tion. Rather, dig­i­ti­za­tion is vis­i­ble even in the dead-tree ver­sion of Here, in the form of con­cepts drawn from the his­to­ry of graph­i­cal user inter­face (GUI) design. At least since Van­nevar Bush first described the pos­si­bil­i­ty of his imag­i­nary Memex machine in the pages of the Atlantic Month­ly and Ivan Suther­land, inspired by Bush, cre­at­ed the influ­en­tial Sketch­pad pro­gram in 1963, the his­to­ry of dig­i­tal com­put­ers has been, in part, a his­to­ry of the schemas, metaphors, and medi­at­ing con­cepts that have been designed to guide our rela­tion­ship to tech­ni­cal sys­tems and to mit­i­gate the intim­i­dat­ing abstrac­tion of the machine. 

Fig 7

Fig­ure 7: Ivan Sutherland’s Sketch­pad

As the sci­ence fic­tion writer Neal Stephen­son has point­ed out, our dom­i­nant oper­at­ing sys­tems have long relied on metaphorsmost­ly visu­al metaphorsto make com­put­ers acces­si­ble (3). So it should come as no sur­prise that con­cepts devel­oped for the design of graph­i­cal user inter­faces can migrate onto the pages of comics and (in the case of the iPad ver­sion of Here) back again. And indeed, one of the orig­i­nal inspi­ra­tions for the 1989 ver­sion of “Here” was the win­dows-based GUI pop­u­lar­ized by Apple and then by Microsoft, which was in turn inspired by (or you could say stolen from) Xerox PARC’s ground­break­ing Xerox Alto, the first com­put­er to use a desk­top metaphor to gov­ern user inter­ac­tions.

Fig 8

Fig­ure 8: The Xerox Alto

(The Xerox Alto itself drew on con­cepts pre­vi­ous­ly devel­oped in Dou­glas Engelbart’s oN-line Sys­tem. Take a look at Engelbart’s 1968 “Moth­er of All Demos” if you want to see how gen­uine­ly non-inno­v­a­tive mod­ern UI design is). All of this design engi­neer­ing was, of course, an impor­tant part of the his­to­ry of com­pu­ta­tion, but it was arguably even more impor­tant as part of the his­to­ry of what we might call applied epis­te­mol­o­gy. How, GUI design­ers were forced to ask, can the abstract world of the machine, the imper­son­al realm of the micro­proces­sor, be made acces­si­ble (espe­cial­ly to non-engi­neers)? But when we begin think­ing of GUI design as applied epis­te­mol­o­gy, it quick­ly becomes clear that visu­al metaphors do not elim­i­nate abstrac­tion but rather sub­sti­tute one kind of abstrac­tion for anoth­er, one rep­re­sen­ta­tion scheme for anoth­er. A term like “acces­si­bil­i­ty” is a decep­tive­ly sim­ple word, whose seem­ing trans­paren­cy obscures impor­tant assump­tions about the rela­tion­ship among per­sons, machines, and the world. As has often been not­ed, the metaphor of the desk­topor the notion of stor­ing data in dis­crete objects we call “files”encodes all sorts of norms guid­ing how humans and machines inter­act, sug­gest­ing that the per­son­al com­put­er is first and fore­most a work machine, a machine for peo­ple imag­ined as work­ers. 

The fig­ure of the win­dow, mean­while, is a spa­tial trans­la­tion of human-machine inter­ac­tion, com­part­men­tal­iz­ing user atten­tion, imag­in­ing the user as engaged in a work­flow of switch­ing between win­dows (dis­crete atten­tion-states), bundling togeth­er tasks that soft­ware design­ers decide belong togeth­er, and facil­i­tat­ing user mul­ti­task­ing. Though soft­ware design­ers influ­ence what we see, what tasks we are meant to asso­ciate togeth­er, the win­dows metaphor invites us to imag­ine that we users have a cer­tain kind of agency, that we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to man­age our own atten­tion, that we can sim­ply look out of this or that win­dow, by choice, when­ev­er we want to. Win­dows evoke our exist­ing sense of voli­tion (we feel we are choos­ing to look out this win­dow rather than that win­dow) while also reify­ing the tech­ni­cal sys­tems we’re encoun­ter­ing along par­tic­u­lar lines (the con­tents of the win­dow in ques­tion are nat­u­ral­ized, like the land­scape or cityscape we observe from the com­fort of our home). So at the same time that UI research addressed itself to the prob­lem of giv­ing humans access to a seem­ing­ly imper­son­al, tech­ni­cal­ly unwel­com­ing realm, it also shaped that inter­ac­tion toward par­tic­u­lar use cas­es and has invit­ed us to accept what the machine serves up as giv­en, nat­ur­al, and beyond our abil­i­ty to change out­side pre­scribed bounds. The machine becomes both more acces­si­ble andas any­one who has too many win­dows or too many tabs open right now knowsquick­ly over­whelm­ing.

One of McGuire’s orig­i­nal insights was that these tech­ni­cal­ly imple­ment­ed fig­uresmetaphors designed as the solu­tion to prob­lems of human-machine inter­ac­tionwere portable and fun­gi­ble. “Here” appro­pri­ates the win­dows metaphor for new, but relat­ed, ends. In McGuire’s hands, win­dows orga­nize anoth­er sort of inhu­man vast­ness: the incom­pre­hen­si­ble vast­ness of time. Where win­dows-based GUIs unin­ten­tion­al­ly lead the user from a feel­ing of mas­tery (one win­dow open) into a feel­ing of drown­ing (way too many win­dows open), McGuire’s lit­tle win­dows pile up indi­vid­u­al­ly acces­si­ble, even semi-autonomous moments that in aggre­gate snow the read­er under the hideous size of time. In the orig­i­nal “Here,” Deep Time comes in hand, becomes dig­i­tal. Today, our tech­nolo­gies of human-machine inter­ac­tion have shift­ed and so too has McGuire’s approach to the dig­i­tal poten­tial of comics. The most sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion of human-machine inter­ac­tion since the cre­ation of the mod­ern GUI is almost cer­tain­ly the rise of ubiq­ui­tous mobile com­put­ing. Bush described his Memex, after all, as “a desk … pri­mar­i­ly the piece of fur­ni­ture at which [the user] works.”

Today, we car­ry our tiny, sleek desks inside our pock­ets. We wear them on our wrists. And we may, soon enough, slap them onto our faces. This mobile rev­o­lu­tion builds, of course, on what already exists. Our lit­tle pock­et desks, run­ning iOS and Android oper­at­ing sys­tems, still depend on var­i­ous desk­top-like and win­dows-based metaphors. We often still work with “files” that we occa­sion­al­ly toss away into the “trash” or a “recy­cling bin.” What is dif­fer­ent, though, is the increas­ing­ly salient pos­si­bil­i­ty that mobile devices might build a lay­er of infor­ma­tion atop real­i­ty, that visu­al fig­ures designed to inter­act with machines might pro­found­ly reshape how we fig­ure oth­er dimen­sions of real­i­ty. As one char­ac­ter announces in William Gibson’s 2007 nov­el Spook Coun­try, cyber­space is “evert­ing” or col­o­niz­ing the world (28). Where­as Gibson’s ear­ly nov­els focus on hack­er anti-heroes who enter the machine, nav­i­gat­ing its sub­lime, unnerv­ing datas­capes, his more recent books have been focused on how machines have trans­formed his char­ac­ters’ modes of embod­i­ment with­in what we used to naive­ly regard as the real­i­ty out­side the com­put­er. In the near term, this set of trans­for­ma­tions may give rise to full-blown aug­ment­ed real­i­ty sys­tems that use var­i­ous visu­al metaphors to lay­er data dynam­i­cal­ly atop the world. Where­as once upon a time we looked out from our com­fy rooms through clear­ly des­ig­nat­ed “win­dows” onto some­thing we could well mis­take for an out­side world, today the room and the world have almost seam­less­ly merged. The world itself has become our office, and we are now, for­ev­er, chained to the desk. This, at any rate, seems to be the new ide­ol­o­gy of user-inter­face design.

This ide­althe con­flu­ence of ubiq­ui­tous mobile com­put­ing and aug­ment­ed real­i­tybecomes the new dig­i­tal hori­zon for Here. The book fea­tures sev­er­al sequences set in the twen­ty-third cen­tu­ry, in which a holo­gram or android leads a group of tourists on a tour of the site of the now-destroyed home. The tour guide has a fan-like device that projects holo­graph­ic win­dows show­ing the past. The mem­bers of the tour group are eth­ni­cal­ly ambigu­ous but visu­al­ly resem­ble the Native Amer­i­cans who were pre­vi­ous­ly dis­placed by white set­tler-colonists. This tour becomes, to some degree, the moti­vat­ing nar­ra­tive device of the book. What the tourists are expe­ri­enc­ing is noth­ing oth­er than a ver­sion of Here itself.

Theory of Here Fig 9

Fig­ure 9: The Fan

We might read this tour not as the tri­umph of the ide­ol­o­gy of mobile com­put­ing but as the restora­tion of what was lost, as a return of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion to the land that was tak­en from them after the rapa­cious civ­i­liza­tion that dis­placed them inevitably destroyed itself. But our con­so­la­tion (if we find such a vio­lent fate con­sol­ing) does not last long. Though we get a glimpse of what might be some sort of utopi­an future, Here’s human sto­ry ulti­mate­ly stands against a stark back­ground large­ly devoid of human pres­ence. That is, a yawn­ing cos­mic indif­fer­ence book­ends the life of McGuire’s lit­tle house. Begin­ning from the affor­dances of our own prim­i­tive aug­ment­ed real­i­ty tech­nol­o­gythe iPad on which we might be read­ing Here itselfMcGuire wants to give us access to what we might ordi­nar­i­ly find dif­fi­cult to keep in view: the non-human back­ground upon which life unfolds, the inan­i­mate world upon which life final­ly depends. McGuire wants us to imag­ine comics as a sort of mobile device that opens up tem­po­ral vor­tex­es, dig­i­tal­ly extend­ing the human mind, help­ing us con­front the universe’s indif­fer­ence to us. Comics might train us to adopt habits of mind, an ori­en­ta­tion toward the world, that brings the past and the futurethe extreme past, the extreme futurepre­cip­i­tous­ly into the present.

Fig 10

Fig­ure 10: The Mar­su­pi­al

This is, I think, the ulti­mate sig­nif­i­cance of McGuire’s bizarre mar­su­pi­al. It’s an imag­i­nary crea­ture that helps us enter into some­thing like a rela­tion­ship of recog­ni­tion with the vast­ness of the non­hu­man world. If this is true, it would not be too pre­ten­tious to say that, in the eyes of McGuire’s alien ani­mal, we observe the decon­struc­tion of time. 

And I do not mean the term decon­struct loose­ly here. Rather, I have in mind Mar­tin Hägglund’s provoca­tive recon­struc­tion of Derrida’s thought in Rad­i­cal Athe­ism. Häg­glu­nd describes a tem­po­ral log­ic, which he regards as fill­ing out Derrida’s under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between time and space, in which all pres­enceevery­thing that is seem­ing­ly presentis nec­es­sar­i­ly divid­ed with­in itself. Kant’s tran­scen­den­tal cat­e­gories, space and time, are always, in Hägglund’s view, co-impli­cat­ed. Time always becomes space and space always becomes time, a process that Häg­glu­nd prefers to call the “spac­ing of time,” which is in his view “an ‘ultra­tran­scen­den­tal’ con­di­tion from which noth­ing can be exempt” (19). Any “here” can only be “here” by virtue of its exten­sion in time. Any “now,” like­wise, is divid­ed between a past moment (vis­i­ble as a trace) and the future unmak­ing or trans­for­ma­tion of that trace. Time can only be reg­is­tered by the spa­tial means of the trace, and all traces are nec­es­sar­i­ly destruc­tible, which implies that the future is rad­i­cal­ly open, that all pos­i­tive struc­tures or val­ues can become neg­a­tive.

To think the trac­ing of time as the con­di­tion for life in gen­er­al,” Häg­glu­nd writes, “is to think a con­sti­tu­tive fini­tude, which from the very begin­ning expos­es life to death, mem­o­ry to for­get­ting, iden­ti­ty to alter­i­ty, and so on” (79). This notionthe notion of “autoim­mu­ni­ty”holds that “every­thing is threat­ened from with­in itself, since the pos­si­bil­i­ty of liv­ing is insep­a­ra­ble from the per­il of dying,” and that, more­over, “[w]hatever is desired as good is autoim­mune, since it bears with­in itself the pos­si­bil­i­ty of becom­ing unbear­ably bad” (9) It is a destruc­tibil­i­ty thatbecause it depends on the con­cept of the spac­ing of timeuncan­ni­ly mir­rors the imbri­ca­tion of time and space with­in and between pan­els that I reviewed above. I am not, I should make clear, sug­gest­ing that McGuire was famil­iar with Häg­glu­nd or Der­ri­da but am rather observ­ing a fam­i­ly resem­blance between their under­stand­ings of the rela­tion­ship between time and space. More so than the orig­i­nal Raw six-pager, the book ver­sion of Here dwells on the rad­i­cal (because intrin­sic) destruc­tibil­i­ty of life.

McGuire’s inter­est in his mar­su­pi­al, I would final­ly insist, isn’t pre­dic­tive, any more than any oth­er future sce­nario in the com­ic is pre­dic­tive. He’s not telling us to expect odd kan­ga­roo-like future ani­mals but is rather ask­ing us to think dif­fer­ent­ly about what we might call the log­ic of tem­po­ral suc­ces­sion. If time is rad­i­cal­ly open, if every­thing that is good or desir­able might beby neces­si­tyrevealed to be bad, it is not at all clear how we might (or should) relate to this anteater crea­ture that chews on our remains, or how to feel about the flood that destroys our home, or what to make of the tour group look­ing back upon us with the help of a holo­graph­ic fan. In this way, McGuire cuts against the opti­mistic, technophilic assump­tions that gov­erned the orig­i­nal GUI engi­neer­ing he was, how­ev­er indi­rect­ly, inspired by. After all, the ulti­mate promise of win­dows-based inter­faces or aug­ment­ed real­i­ty is a hap­py rec­on­cil­i­a­tion between human and machine. Good design sup­pos­ed­ly makes what is alien, inac­ces­si­ble, or abstract come (often lit­er­al­ly) into hand. It promis­es to domes­ti­cate an unruly non-human real­i­ty. But these promis­es seem hol­low in McGuire’s hands. Instead, his user-friend­ly win­dows open onto the ambiva­lent log­ic of autoim­mu­ni­ty. In Here, here always slips away, nec­es­sar­i­ly only ever exists in rela­tion to var­i­ous nows.

Such a way of under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between time and space does noth­ing to obvi­ate what we under­stand to be our ordi­nary or every­day expe­ri­ence of life. It doesn’t mean that we should look for­ward to our own destruc­tion by cli­mate change or throw up our hands despon­dent­ly. What Häg­glu­nd calls “rad­i­cal athe­ism” should there­fore not be mis­tak­en for qui­etism. Noth­ing, as far as I can tell, fol­lows polit­i­cal­ly from this philo­soph­i­cal posi­tion except the sen­si­ble view that no polit­i­cal strug­gle comes with guar­an­tees. Indeed, one might argue that the very pos­si­bil­i­ty of car­ing about the future, of being invest­ed in one out­come over anoth­er, depends on a pri­or con­di­tion of destruc­tibil­i­ty, the nec­es­sary truth that we can lose every­thing. On this view, our aware­ness of our inabil­i­ty to inhab­it these larg­er tem­po­ral­i­ties or his­to­riesour aware­ness of our own destruc­tibil­i­ty, the nec­es­sary destruc­tibil­i­ty of every­thingis the very basis of mourn­ing. 

Mourn­ing, Häg­glu­nd writes, is “a force that can­not be over­come and that emanates from the love of what is mor­tal” (110). Whether or not we find this account philo­soph­i­cal­ly com­pelling, it is pre­cise­ly such a love of mor­tal­i­tythe per­sis­tence of this love not despite but because of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of self-destruc­tionthat McGuire’s art elic­its. Here is, I think, most emo­tion­al­ly grip­ping when it com­pels us to real­ize how (for­give the pun) com­i­cal­ly small-mind­ed our nor­mal, habit­u­at­ed under­stand­ing of life is, how out of touch we are with his­tor­i­cal forces (or with non-human tem­po­ral­i­ties), and yet how lit­tle guid­ance Here’s grand view of Deep Time offers to the nec­es­sary, dai­ly project of avoid­ing self-destruc­tion. It is a brac­ing, deflat­ing insight that comics, in the hands of a mas­ter like McGuire, is unique­ly suit­ed to argue for.

 


Notes

[i] See Chris Ware, “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grate­ful Appre­ci­a­tion,” Com­ic Art 8 (2006): 5–7.

[ii] Thier­ry Groen­steen, “Les lieux super­posés de Richard McGuire,” Urgences 32 (1991): 95–109.

 

Works Cit­ed 

Bush, Van­nevar. “As We May Think,” The Atlantic. July 1945. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

Eis­ner, Will. Comics and Sequen­tial Art. Tama­rac, FL: Poor­house Press, 1985. Print.

Gib­son, William. Spook Coun­try. New York: Put­nam, 2007. Print.

Groen­steen, Thier­ry. “Les lieux super­pos­es de Richard McGuire.” Urgences 32 (1991): 95–109.

–. The Sys­tem of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty. Jack­son, MS: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2007. Print.

Häg­glu­nd, Mar­tin. Rad­i­cal Athe­ism: Der­ri­da and the Time of Life. Stan­ford: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008. Print.

Kir­by, Alan. Digi­mod­ernism: How New Tech­nolo­gies Dis­man­tle the Post­mod­ern and Recon­fig­ure Our Cul­ture. New York: Blooms­bury, 2009. Print.

Kuhlman, Martha B., and David M. Ball. “Intro­duc­tion: Chris Ware and the ‘Cult of Dif­fi­cul­ty.’”  In The Comics of Chris Ware: Draw­ing Is a Way of Think­ing. Eds. Ball and Kuhlman. Jack­son, MS: Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Mis­sis­sip­pi, 2010. Print.

McGuire, Richard. Here. New York: Pan­theon, 2014. Print.

–. “Here.” Raw 2, no. 1 (1989): 69–74. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Under­stand­ing Comics. New York: Harp­er Peren­ni­al, 1994. Print.

Molotiu, Andrei. Abstract Comics. Seat­tle, WA: Fan­ta­graph­ics, 2009. Print.

Stephen­son, Neal. In the Beginning…Was the Com­mand Line. New York: William Mor­row, 1999. Print.

Ware, Chris. “Richard McGuire and ‘Here’—a Grate­ful Appre­ci­a­tion.” Com­ic Art 8 (2006): 5–7. Print.

Fig­ure 1: McGuire, Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 2: McGuire, “Here,” in Raw, p. 70.

Fig­ure 3: McCloud, Under­stand­ing Comics, p. 96.

Fig­ure 4: Ibn al Rabin and Cidre et Schnapps, “N’ergotons plus, je vous prie,” Les Édi­tions Atra­bile. <http://www.atrabile.org/ibn-al-rabin/Fanzines/fanzine.php?titre=CidreEtSchnaps&page=17>. Rpt. in Abstract Comics, by Andrei Molotiu (Seat­tle, WA: Fan­ta­graph­ics, 2009) 63.

Fig­ure 5: Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 6: Richard McGuire, “Time Warp,” New York­er 24 Novem­ber 2014  <https://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/CoverStory-Time-Warp-Richard-McGuire-872‑1200-13173805.jpg>.

Fig­ure 7: Ivan Suther­land, Sketch­pad: A Man-Machine Graph­i­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Sys­tem <http://www.wired.com/2013/01/grandaddy-gui/>.

Fig­ure 8: “Xerox Alto”  <http://toastytech.com/guis/altost1.jpg>.

Fig­ure 9: Here, n.p.

Fig­ure 10: Here, n.p.

 

Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Eng­lish Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land, Col­lege Park. He wrote the nov­el Pop Apoc­a­lypse (Harp­er Peren­ni­al, 2009) and co-edit­ed with Samuel Cohen The Lega­cy of David Fos­ter Wal­lace (Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa Press, 2012). He recent­ly com­plet­ed a lit­er­ary-polit­i­cal his­to­ry of Amer­i­can irony after 1945 (forth­com­ing from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press) and has start­ed a new book project called “Rise of the Graph­ic Nov­el.”

 

Sarah Sillin, Guest Crit­i­cism Edi­tor, received her Ph.D. from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land and is cur­rent­ly a vis­it­ing assis­tant pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at Get­tys­burg Col­lege. Her book project, enti­tled Glob­al Sym­pa­thy: Rep­re­sent­ing Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cans’ For­eign Rela­tions, explores how writ­ers envi­sioned ear­ly Amer­i­cans’ ties to the larg­er world through their depic­tions of friend­ship and kin­ship. Sillin’s essays have appeared in Mul­ti-Eth­nic Lit­er­a­ture of the Unit­ed States and Lit­er­a­ture of the Ear­ly Amer­i­can Repub­lic.