Memento Mori: Richard McGuire’s “Here” and Art in the Anthropocene

Gerry Canavan


From the standpoint of the Anthropocene, memory is a troubled thing. The memories trapped within the skull of a single individual hardly register at all against the vertiginous, multi-million-year perspective of geologic time; art, literature, music, and other cultural achievements all hardly fare better, likewise flickering and disappearing with the rise and fall of local language families, trade networks, and too-brief civilizations. From the point of view of the Anthropocene all structures are Ozymandian, always premediated as ruins, as if watching history on fast-forward; this dual temporality has not only become habituated by a hundred years of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic speculative fiction in Europe and the United States but even become formalized through the contemporary LEED “green building” certification, which requires architects to dream not that their structures will last forever but instead imagine how and under what circumstances they someday will be dismantled, recycled, and junked. Indeed, the memory of the human race in the time of the Anthropocene will persist most strongly in precisely the garbage and pollution we will leave behind: glass and plastic bottles that will never decompose, space junk looping forever in low earth orbit or stranded on the Moon and Mars, tech trash leeching chemicals into the soil, Styrofoam, radioactive waste. And alongside this wretched legacy the deep time of the Anthropocene adds to its ledger an incomprehensible accounting of mass death: a sixth mass extinction of animal life, this time caused by human activity; a transformed climate; acidified oceans; and on and on.

The very formulation of the Anthropocene, as a view from the deep temporal standpoint of human extinction, figures ourselves, our society, and our entire species as not only already dead but erased from history so completely as to be nearly unrecognizable, except in the traces of industrial byproducts and fossilized corpses left behind in our wake. I have often been struck by the way Anthropocenic thinking as a sort of neo-Romantic revival of the melancholic fascination with death, ruination, illness, and a vanishing natural world that characterized so much English and American literature (especially poetry) in the 19th century—but the shock of the Anthropocene does not seem to activate same sort of sublime reorientation of spirit as Romantic poetry and art once did. The temporal sublime of the Anthropocene does not suggest a human species that is a vital, organic part of the grand tapestry called life, much less the partly divine organ of some godhead; rather, Anthropocenic figurations tend to suggest the human as a cancerous deviation from an otherwise unifying natural order: nightmare kings of a horrid empire of plastic trash and toxic poisons, blessedly soon departed.

With this dyspeptic necrofuturological vision having taken root in our culture, nowhere moreso than in academia, I have come to wonder where the idea of utopia might persist in the neo-Romantic melancholy of the Anthropocene, an era where the extinction and total disappearance of human beings now seems so entirely inevitable and has been so thoroughly rehearsed as to be a catastrophe that has already happened—indeed, an event that we sometimes find ourselves even longing for, if only to protect what’s left of the animals before we go. If everything I have written above is true of the Anthropocenic worldview, what sorts of political or philosophical comforts might remain available to us that might confront this kind of totalizing cosmic pessimism, without becoming self-loathing, or even suicidal on the species level? What sort of art object might be appropriate to the temporality of the Anthropocene in which we now find ourselves lodged, or trapped?

Very much still in search of an answer, I turn to the interplay between extinction and utopia in Richard McGuire’s beautiful and very interesting graphic novel Here, from 2014. Extending and fundamentally transforming a six-page black-and-white “Here” published in Raw in 1989, the 2014 watercolor Here depicts a single corner of a home on the New Jersey seaside over the century or so of its existence, as the home is constructed, inhabited, bought, sold, abandoned, and ultimately demolished. (The corner of the room aligns with the two spine of the book, producing a lovely 3D effect for the reader.) The central formal innovation of Here, and the thing that makes it such an incredible work of comic art, is the way it dislocates the reader in space and time by focalizing their attention through a single geographic location which they see in many time periods simultaneously. Both the 1989 “Here” and the 2014 Here move the “camera” in time, rather than in space; while the viewer’s geographic standpoint never changes, different moments in time stack across the page, disjointedly producing a sublime vision of the entire history of the house as a lived space. What’s more, the book frequently moves its reader to periods before and after the house was built as well; we see a Native American hunting on the spot before being murdered by white colonists, dinosaurs wandering the spot millions of years ago, what is built on the site after the house’s demolition, and so on. This effect produces a cognitive estrangement not unlike the sort one might find in more traditionally science fictional texts—albeit in a narrative that doesn’t need to be articulated through human time.









                                                    “Here” (1989).

In these two pages from the original 1989 “Here” we the house (modeled on the New Jersey house in which McGuire grew up) being built in 1902; what was there before the house was built (1870, as well as the Cretaceous); the house’s occupation by humans in various time periods, culminating in the house’s destruction first by fire in 2029 and then deliberate demolition in 2030, resulting in the reemergence of an open field by 2032 (not pictured is a ceremony that takes place in 2033, which appears to be the burying of a time capsule on the site). The 1989 “Here” grants us cognitive access to nonhuman time in a few senses: first, its production of a sense of history that is, first, not anchored to any one individual consciousness (but rather to the site itself); second, its highly nonlinear presentation of events; and third, its sublime deployment of geological time (the time of the dinosaurs, of the time of extinction, 100,650,010 B.C.) Through its presentational strategy of temporal laying, Here puts its human reader—as the larger logic of the frame of the Anthropocene does—in the highly peculiar but oddly familiar state of being alive and dead at the same time.

The last page of the 1989 “Here” makes this in some sense the “point” of the comic in its layering of the human drama of life and death: the person who grew up in the house from the 1950s has died, but the 2027 occupants are about to have a baby; against the life and death of the house itself (the 1902 building, the 2029 fire); against the genocide of the native population (the 1850 panel); and the implied continuity of the 2033 time capsule (which presumably somebody will someday open), culminating in a panel that returns our attention quickly directly to deep time by overlapping the cooling of the Earth itself in the (actually non-existent) time of 500 billion BC against what is actually one of the most prominent proposed dates for the start of the Anthropocene, that year of the bomb, 1945.

The last page of the 1989 “Here.”

The 2014 Here starts with nice joke about his return to his 1989 self-adaptation: a woman enters a living room and asks herself “Now, why did I come in here again?” One might well wonder, at first, why McGuire has chosen to return to this imaginative space to do the same “joke” again in a new media and extended format—but it soon becomes clear that while the general construction of the book is similar, the thematic interests have significantly changed. Even the shift in format registers this widening of McGuire’s ambition: the larger, intricate, full-color panels make for a much more striking and immersive experience, something that no longer seems like a gag strip.

Perhaps most crucially, where the shorter “Here” showed us the future of the room only as far as the 2030s, the novel version of Here takes a much larger view, tracing the site of the room hundreds and ultimately many thousands of years forward into a radically post-human future. Now the house, rather than being destroyed by fire and demolished, is destroyed in 2111 by rising sea levels caused by climate change (which is then immediately linked, visually, to the sea levels that would have obtained in New Jersey hundreds of thousands of years in the deep past).


But the story doesn’t end here either: in 2213, a resurgent human civilization has rehabilitated the space as a kind of museum of the past, using future technology to allow the people of the future to see the house disjointedly in multiple time periods much like the reader of Here is able to, outside the text.





                                                                            “Here” (2014).

In still another hundred years, in 2313, the site seems to be a post-atomic wasteland in the aftermath of some unfathomable war; in 2314 there is another trash floating in the breeze in what we imagine is a silent landscape (while, back in 1958, they play indoor golf). Now we sail into the deep future: in the dark and barren landscape of 10,175, an unfamiliar but vaguely humanoid animal—almost something like the next evolution of H.G. Wells’s Morlocks—wanders the site, melancholically looking directly at the reader (in a way none of the human characters in the novel ever do) as if to demand recognition of the continuity linking Homo sapiens to this strange future creature. (The link is further suggested elsewhere in the book by a snippet of a moment from 1975, depicting a child dancing in an animal costume). In his essay on Here Lee Konstaniou suggested this animal looked like a marsupial, while to me it always looked like a primate; as we debated the point in our correspondence on the book Lee found the apparent original model for the animal—not a marsipual at all but a South American bear who, in the radically transformed climate ten thousand years hence, now makes its home in New Jersey.







                                                                           “Here” (2014).

The era of this odd bear is grim, to be sure—but the world of the 22,000s is almost unrecognizable, populated again by weird, dinosaurlike giants and giant, jungle-like plants – but brightly colored, lush, beautiful, alive. This is very much a vision of what Donna Haraway has now famously dubbed the Chthulhucene, highlighting the unexpected utopian charge of her version of the Anthropocene: the future will be monstrous, yes, but it will also be vital, explosively alive, and thank God for it. As with some of the other deep time elements, the scale of the transformation is probably unrealistic in terms of the actual speed of evolution—but imagistically this sliver of the future is still tremendously powerful, even redemptive, like journalistic accounts of the rapid explosion of life in radioactive zones like Chernobyl since they have become no-go zones for humans. Whatever happens to us, life will go on.









“Here” (2014)

Having given us this transcendent vision of an Anthropocenic, posthuman future—a world that is still alive, despite all our worst efforts—McGuire concludes Here with more temporal layering, seeing many generations appearing and disappearing against promises of cyclicality (set against the refrain of Casablanca, “it’s the same old story”) trending always towards death (the familiar children’s rhyme about the plague: ashes, ashes, we all fall down).









                                                     “Here” (2014).

This culminates the humanist thread running against the Anthropocenic thread across the book; for every sublime encounter with deep time there is also an encounter with quiet normalcy: children playing, a birthday party, a couple watching a movie, a parent showing a newborn baby the moon.

We end on the same image of the forgetful woman we began with, an unexpected punchline to McGuire’s joke about adaptation. Why did I come in here? “Now I remember.”  What else do we remember in a book like Here so much as death: ours, everyone’s? The book is a memento mori: always a sad thought, but one still worth having, in accordance with the sacred vision of any Romantic or neo-Romantic work of art. The disruption of the memento mori expands our minds and reorients us to the sacredness of all life, even as it makes the scale of our own personal existence vanishingly smaller.

Remarkably, Here manages to achieve this effect not just for the individual human life but for the human species as such. Decoupled from the relentless march of entropy, and disconnected from the terror of the breakdown of both our bodies and our larger civilization that characterizes most of the necrofuturological speculations of the Anthropocene, in Here the rise and fall of civilizations and the rhythms of life and death somehow become beautiful again. The nearly impossible artistic achievement achieved by its imaginative juxtapositions makes Here a quintessential (and, I must say again, truly wonderful) novel of the Anthropocene—a heterotopian, if not quite utopian, vision that counters the cosmic pessimism called forth by the concept of the Anthropocene through its production of a disjointed and estranged temporal sublimity, whose exquisitely haunting but recuperative beauty derives precisely from the fact that it is unable to privilege any one temporal moment, or any one form of life, over any other. Here thus provides a much-needed glimpse of what might come “after humanity”—“after extinction”—that can fill us with something other than just sadness, that give us back a little hope, even joy.

Bio: Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His current research projects include Science Fiction and Totality and Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available now from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler, out this fall from the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series from University of Illinois Press.


Works Cited

Konstantinou, L. (2015) “A Theory of Here.” The Account.

McGuire, R. (1989). “Here.” RAW 2.1

— (2014). Here. New York: Pantheon Graphic Novels.

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