BOOK REPLIES/REVIEW (2014): M. deForge’s (2014) Ant Colony

18 September 2014

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: M. deForge’s (2014)[2] Ant Colony

Imagine the love child of Jim Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals and Anders Nilsen’s (2011)[4] Big Questions, and you will land somewhere in the vicinity of this book. [5] Include the change from mammals (and avians) to insects.

If you surf to the New Yorker’s review of the book, then you will see in the pictures selected what I would call a standard response to deForge’s book. Unlike many minimalist type of texts, deForge occasionally bursts out with very large-scale pieces, especially when the story calls for them; for example, in the massive battle between the red ants and the black, which has the kind of scope of varied detail familiar in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or even simply in the depiction of the many charred bodies after the magnifying glass burns many to death. Similarly, at the review, you will see the striking (first) image deForge supplies for the ant colony’s queen, who also over time experiences a process of decay equally strikingly drawn.

I say this marks a standard response to the text, because these occasional lapses into grandeur stand out and seem to suggest the work consists of something more than doodling., But doodling often forms a main impression. The “larger” pieces establish deForge’s credibility as a craftsman and this credibility will (or may then) bleed over to suggest an equal scope of grandeur to the book generally. Nonetheless, it also keeps lapsing back to the sub-banal in a way that negates this impression; by sub-banal I mean the impression of something less than an intentional depiction of banality by deForge.

From the review, we may read something of his aesthetic sense:

“I like writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world,” says Michael DeForge, a twenty-seven-year-old cartoonist based in Toronto, about his just published first graphic novel, “Ant Colony.” “I want to show characters who don’t have much agency—or who don’t feel they have very much agency over their lives.” DeForge continues,

I want them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things. And I found that ants are a pretty perfect way to wring jokes out of that (¶1–2).

Those who’ve read enough of my blog may already anticipate I will go bat-shit all over again at authors who think we could or should “wring jokes” out of people destroyed (or buffeted) by the impersonal forces of history, &c. In my last book reply, to Stechschulte’s (2014)[6] multiply inept The Amateurs, he resorted to cheap stereotypes about “poor white trash” to “wring jokes” out of human misfortune. deForge at least avoids this obvious trope while still falling prey to the same inexcusable gesture.

First off, I would certainly appreciate it if fewer (white) males decided to take up this nihilistic position of scoffing at the stupidity of the human condition. Importantly, the back of the book suggests that the ants exhibit bigoted attitudes. This seems incorrect—at least, compared to the clear and unambiguous ignorance and stupidity of the “poor white trash” in Stechschulte’s book, the ants here don’t have anything so unambiguously ignorant.

This matters, because apparently the ad-text writer believes that deForge has “targeted” (human) stupidity in his book. This makes for the same kind of starting point as Stechschulte’s book and thus, in the same way, falls prey to the same sort of assumed superiority (either taken up by the author or granted as a possibility to the reader). In Stechschulte’s book, the text permits us to “laugh at the idiots”; deForge’s book similarly positions us, though nowhere near so unambiguously as the book jacket would suggest.

Even so, whatever the thematic mis-deployments in Stechschulte’s book, he does not give us the implicit contradiction deForge does when he writes narratives of people with little agency from the position of a god-author who has all of the agency in generating the text. I would expect that deForge may tell us his process of creation played out in an involuntary way—that he, like his characters—found himself at the mercy of unknown forces—but unfortunately this “excuse” doesn’t wash. Unless you do automatic writings (or something like it), then claims of “helplessness” in the process of artistic creation do not stand up to scrutiny.

Of course, an artist may incorporate aleatoric (chance) elements into her work, may incorporate process of channelling or unconscious gestures, and the like, but to the extent that one reworks this “found” material the more the helplessness as claimed drops away. Similarly, the less that one reworks the material, the less such work warrants the designation “art”.

Saying this, I recall my friend accusing me of resorting too much to absolutes. And of course we may split hairs until the end of time about the creative process and to what extent “unwilled” versus “willed” elements of a work legitimately contribute to a work, and what admixture (if any) suffices to deem a piece an actual piece of art—if we even decide that fussing over the matter matters socially. In this respect, we might remember, while trying to grapple with the complexity of this, that Ginsburg offered his notorious (and often abused) maxim “first thought, best thought” (as a statement that seems to promote calling whatever springs to one’s mind “art”) in a wider context where meditative openness to a (more) enlightened state of mind formed a prerequisite to gaining access to those “first thoughts”; in other words, the “first thought” issued (so the conceit runs) not from the limited selfish human ego but from the higher Self. Whether or not one takes this notion seriously, one certainly can’t accuse Ginsburg of saying “just write down the first thing that pops into your mind and call it Art.”

In this case, one cannot speak of an “involuntary” process. The conceit insists that the higher Self actually wills the “first thought”. Any “helplessness” involved impinges on or devolves only to the limited ego. BY this method, our (small) self “stumbles” across an oracular truth, which arise whole cloth from the beyond, in the manner of billions upon billions of human utterances (artistic or otherwise) over the centuries. Similarly, one often “involuntarily” finds imagery inhabiting one’s imagination, imagery that pops up seemingly out of nowhere, and which we then can only try our best to translate it onto the page, accurately or not.

But, again, precisely this re-working stands as the part quite the opposite of “helpless”. It would take probably thousands of pages of distinctions to try to nail down the exact difference between the sense data that appears to us from the “real world” apart from “imaginative imagery” that occurs to us and “linguistic descriptions” of both types. For now, we can say simply that all of these types of experiences (of “real world” imagery, of imaginative imagery or dreams, and verbal phrases that describe them or exist on their own) present themselves to our consciousness as a piece of data and experience that we then have the opportunity to work with. I look outside and see a green tree; I have no more say over that “fact” than anything else, and if I insist that I “have no choice” but to draw that green tree simply because it presents it to me, then this serves not as a proof of my helpless but rather of my laziness and a sign that I opt out of my responsibility (as an artist, as a human being) at that moment to take responsibility for whatever reworking I do.

In this light, “realism”—which no shortage of critics and authors have called out rightly as simply nothing but a set of conventions—shows itself as a lazy lie frequently resorted to by lazy artists. More precisely, “realism” offers a kind of argument for aesthetic (artistic) veracity, and one that a given current society accepts. For critics of that society, “realism” may serve a protective function. In Defoe’s Moll Flanders, sometimes called the first novel in English, he goes to considerable length to justify depicting the graphic details of his heroine’s former life of prostitution. He does so, wrapping the whole project in at least a stated intention of showing her moral rehabilitation, because “realism” demands he not misrepresent her chequered past. Later authors of the era frequently resorted to the conceit of “found letters” as a way to justify the publication of (fictional) lies in an era when moral vigilance had gotten pitched up to an almost painful degree. Once again, the claim to have to show “the world as it is” (in order to make a moral case of one sort or another in fiction) demanded a claim of “realism”. The veer toward (later) theatrical “naturalism” rather boneheadedly took this concept literally, but even naturalism could never completely drop the fact that art imposes a demand for some variety conventionalism. In other words, even absolute naturalism comes with conventions, no matter if the author tries to ignore them or not. One sees this even in pieces like Warhol’s (1964) Empire and (1963) Sleep, which try to bring conventionalism to an absolute minimum by simply pointing the camera at the event recorded. But even at this super-minimum level, we still have the convention of a camera angle and the duration of a shot, &c. I would add also that where Warhol tremendously wastes our time without evading conventionality (if he had that intention), Cage’s (1952) justly famous 4’33” maximally and covertly leverages the conventionality of music to make a similar point, but much more economically and interestingly.

Of course, this ineradicable presence of “convention” does not mean, of course, that the convention never changes or cannot.

Similarly, if we zero in more on the process of artistic creation as it emerges in theatrical performance, we can ask pertinently whether, at the moment of delivery, to what extent that delivery seems “voluntary” or “involuntary”, seems “rehearsed” or “spontaneous”. I don’t propose to try to answer this here but—with my friend’s accusations of absolutism in the back of my head—I simply point to the fact that we can find lots of places to raise the question. For the literary or graphic artist, the question of “deliberate” or “improvised” arises exactly at the moment of putting the pen to the page.

So I don’t pretend that aesthetic creation occurs in some fantasyland of absolute control bereft of any accident. But this level of creation stands a far cry from the sorts of moments of choice the author does, in fact, have control over. Dostoevsky (just to give one example) famously describes how his characters would “get away from him”. Those who role-play similarly know how characters may often follow unexpected courses of action, such that we feel obligated to respect the integrity of the character by not wilfully making them do something they “wouldn’t do”. (More precisely, we should say that we won’t force them to do something that runs contrary to our present conception of them as a character.)

Certainly, this piece of non-accountability on the part of artists (I’ve resorted to it myself) does not mean we must take it seriously on its face. I also wonder if Shakespeare or Marlowe ever had this problem or if it only starts to appear in a post-Rousseau world (so to speak) after the “”invention of identity” in the sense we like to call modern.

However, any such claim amounts to a claim for representational veracity, i.e., that I simply present the character as it presents itself to me, just as Beckett excuses himself at points when asked to interpret his work. And this, like the claim of “realism” that protects authors from condemnation for presenting certain unsavoury “truths” about the social order in the presence of the Power that enforces that social order, the claim simply to (helplessly) represent the character as it presents itself seems a means to avoid criticism on the part of the author—a more sophisticated version of the “it was a joke” phrase people will resort to to try to get out of being held accountable for saying something shitty.

Whatever the case, authorial “helplessness” about character doesn’t generally have its analogy at the level of plot. Authors may try to excuse character elements of their work (for good reasons or not—Rabelais avoided being burnt at the stake for insisting his characters were satires, not soothsayers), but we much less frequently hear claims, “I can only tell the story as it happened.” We may hear this more often where biographies (or autobiographies) occur—or similar genres like memoirs, fictional or otherwise—but in particular where a work of fiction doesn’t claim to tell a non-fictional tale, then the argument of helplessly having to tell the story this way usually doesn’t come up, and when it does, it doesn’t sound too credible.

So any lack of agency deForge might try to claim—and he seems to want to describe the book as gradually emerging out of no intention initially to write a book—any such claim echoes hollowly. In any case, we may still wonder how he orients himself to his characters with limited agency. Does he sympathize, because he imagines himself in the same boat (as far as the composition of his work goes)? Or does he, like Stechschulte, take an essentially cruel attitude toward what he depicts and actually serves as the (divine) agency that inflicts helplessness and ignorance on his characters—and then parades them around in that condition as if it embodies “the condition of the world”?

When you drive a car, everyone assumes you have a sufficient control of the car to drive it safely. Accidents happen, yes, and determining (in the wake of one) whether one actually had an accident or if someone acted negligently becomes an important part of the investigation. If you don’t have sufficient control to drive it safely, then any avoidance of an accident amounts to sheer luck but most people, knowing that the case, would insist you stop driving—as some do in the face of hopelessly drunk would-be drivers.

This holding in a clear and unambiguous example, I see no reason especially to pretend that we should laud artists who actually lack competence to remain adequately in control of the car of their art. The argument by helplessness (or lack of agency as an artist) simply doesn’t wash. All the more so because an artist stands as uniquely positioned to actually stipulate the facts of the world created, however “bound” by “realism” or not. While everything we do finds itself necessarily constrained by all kinds of factors, the occasion of artistic creation, all else being equal, provides the opportunity for the least constraint, i.e., by definition provides an occasion where one may suspend the “usual” constraints to a virtually maximal degree.

To renege on that opportunity simply denotes laziness, ignorance, or (most sympathetically) inability. Delany (1977)[7] makes a similar point, when he observes that so-called naturalistic fiction actually comprises a sub-genre science fiction, i.e., a parallel universe story where the main difference between there and here appears in the presence of the characters in the book’s “our” world (or, alternatively, the absence of those characters in our real world). To fail to utilize the opportunities science fiction affords—to simply devolve to trivial stories about rockets and robots, as Lem so often points out—represents nothing “natural” in faction but, rather, again, a piece of ignorance, laziness, or inability on the author’s part.

So, when deForge says he likes “writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world” or wanting “them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things”—notice that this expressly describes a desire on deForge’s part rather than any “naturalistic” claim that such stories need telling—then what he means, in practice at least, involves wanting to depict characters cruelly lorded over “by reality” (i.e., the author).

Politically, why do we need stories that aspire to normalise disenfranchisement. Putting it this way, it becomes no surprise that an organ of oppression like The New Yorker would review it.

Again, deForge does not claim to depict the human (or ant) condition but simply wants to show characters in mentally and circumstantially hobbled situations. This immediately reminds me of Lem’s (1971)[8] “Non Serviam” (i.e., “I will not serve”), which consists of a series of dialogues by elements within a computer program, who try to work out their existential condition. While boiling down to a blistering refutation of the premises behind Christian theodicy, the point as far as deForge’s book goes concerns how Lem uses a similar situation—of individuals in highly constrained situations of knowledge and agency—to criticise the imposition of that condition upon them. deForge, by contrast, does not just indulge in the creation of the situation, he never once permits his characters to inquire about the justice of it.

So, not only does he put the characters in an untenable situation—a condition of limited knowledge and agency that we all might to one degree or another identify with—he also strips them of their capacity to wonder why this has happened, and then he simply subjects them to a random barrage of experiences—again, without substantially or materially giving any a real space to try to make sense of their experience.

This amounts to laughing at mentally retarded people, and the metaphor of ants only makes the attempt to “wring humor” out of the scenario that much more dismal. Not point, because this gesture very much participates in the general shift that declares all social (political) action pointless and encourages people, more and more, to refer to nothing but themselves and their narrow (self-serving) desires as a criterion for acting. We have, then, the tragedy of the commons in one of its ugliest guises enthusiastically at work here.

And the fact that it reads as a “sign of the times” suggests no credit to deForge, whatever his talent as a draftsman, because to whatever extent he might claim simply to depict things “realistically,” this realism already amounts to a social construction designed generally to oppress, not liberate. deForge does not provide us an example where he has “spoken truth to power” and has to use “realism” to protect himself from censure, which (for example back in Rabelais’ day) might very literally mean burning to death at a stake. No, the “defence of realism” his work offers attempts to make him non-accountable for the narrative choices he made in laying the story out this way.

It means we may expect of him that he will line his pockets from his success and leave everyone else to die, although he may scatter an occasional crumb or two to the ants along the way. It means also we may browse his work and have some temporary wash of affect that satisfies or not but which, like masturbation, leaves us meh and disengaged from any constructive social action. Stechschulte’s failure seems minor, by contrast, not only because he reaches for less but also because of his lesser talent.

Wilson (1984)[9] has pithily defined criminality as simply “misdirected intelligence”. If so, then deForge’s work unfortunately embodies an entertaining but artistically criminal failure.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2]Deforge, M. (2014). Ant Colony. Drawn & Quarterly, 1–209.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[4] Nilsen, A. (2011). Big questions. Montréal, Quebec : Enfield: Drawn & Quarterly ; Publishers Group UK [distributor].

[5] Except that one finds much more explicitly a plot here (as compared generally to Woodring) and far more economically (than in Nilsen’’s unmotivatedly lengthy text). I put this remark in a footnote because people may want to argue that Congress of the Animals has a clear plot and that Nilsen’s unnecessarily lengthy book justifies that length. It matters less than simply to offer a comparison. Whatever one experiences as plot in Woodring’s book, here it seems likely most readers will sense “more” of a plot. And whatever Nilsen attempts to accomplish at his nearly 600 pages, deForge seems to get at with fewer.

[6] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books.

[7] Delany, S. R. (1977). About 5,750 Words. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, 21-37

[8] Lem, S. (1971). Non Serviam,”. S. Lem, A Perfect Vacuum, trans. by M. Kandel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)

[9] Wilson, C. (1984). A criminal history of mankind: Granada.

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