"Comics really are for adults now."
-Carson Grubaugh, in his “Afterword” to The Abolition of Man #5 (Feb. 2023)
The Abolition of Man (Living the Line, 2023) collects five comics by Carson Grubaugh, published in late 2022 and early 2023, into a book whose impact those of us of a certain age more commonly associate with Kool-Aid Acid Tests. Each raises head-rewiring issues capable of, if not causing one to jump naked out of windows, launching a thousand seminar discussions.1
Issue #1 derives from a 1943 work by C.S. Lewis, a Christianity-infused philosopher best known today for The Chronicles of Narnia. Grubaugh fed Lewis' text, also titled The Abolition of Man, sentence by sentence to the artificial intelligence program Midjourney, which offered four images per sentence, derived from the “hundreds of millions” it had been trained on.2 Grubaugh selected one from each quartet to illustrate the panel containing the sentence which had triggered them.
The premise of Lewis’ text is that scientific advances have given a few men undreamed of power over all other men: past, future and present. How these few choose to act will limit the actions available to those not yet born. By refashioning what has been handed down to them, the few will negate actions of past generations. The power amassed by these few has taken them beyond “traditional humanity.” Motivated by nothing but the satisfaction of their own momentary desires–“guns,” “gold,” “girls”–they have “abolished man.” They have abandoned all concerns for “truth,” “mercy” or “beauty” and, devoid of spiritual values, stand out of balance with the natural order of the universe.
The picture, one realizes, is grim - but 80 years old. Science has advanced far beyond what Lewis is likely to have contemplated, yet man still talks about “truth” and “beauty” - without making apparent progress in giving primacy to either.
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. Bob Dylan said that.
The palette Midjourney summons for Lewis’ words is muted and gloomy. Blacks and shaded greens dominate. When blues or reds appear, they have a “sickness” to them. The panels include human figures or identifiable objects, but never in a directly representational way. It is as if the AI sensed the dis-ease within Lewis’s writing and applied it to deform and distort its rendering of the world. Occasionally, inadvertent humor sneaks through, as when the text contains the verb “bear” and the program delivers a grizzly. It may also comment–perhaps sub-“consciously”–politically, like when the text refers to “our public enemies at the moment,” or those unable to “stabilize... impulses,” and Midjourney produces a hulking, orange-haired figure to which I am probably not alone in responding “Trump.”
But these are scattered stepping stones on which to cross a forbidding swamp.
In issues #2 and #3, Grubaugh shifts from “highlight[ing] any intelligence the machine might have” to making it “do what I wanted...” This proved frustrating because the AI took longer to draw a panel than it would have taken him, but it “trounce[d]... [Grubaugh's] ability to produce harrowing images and composition.”
Grubaugh had written the story, “HodTech,” which became the basis of these issues, 20 years earlier and revised it for his current project in collaboration with Sean Michael Robinson. Set in an unspecified-as-to-time-and-place future of “No need! No want! No poetry!”, it centers on an office worker, Jasper, whose job is to turn old information into new information in ways beyond the ability of robots. But he desires “something more... some other purpose.” As he moves to resolve his dilemma, events–personal and wider-spread–explode around him. The final words are Aristotle’s: “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.”3
As a theme, the soul-crushing effect of corporate work is familiar to anyone who grew up amidst the fallout from David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). But Grubaugh freshens both words and pictures enough to lead us into his story and twists it enough to bind us. Nearly every spoken word–there are no captions–is one we have said or heard or read and whose meaning is clear; but some are not. These words puzzle and entertain - and raise questions about language as we “translate” them. At the same time, they make clear that we are in a world beyond where we sit and whose differences, for better or worse, concern us. The absurd–and deadly–side of this world that people can be conditioned to accept is apparent. One project Jasper considers entails folding documents into paper airplanes, measuring how far they fly, and using the results to design housing projects. Another would weave documents into a spiked net hung between buildings to ensnare birds, whose decapitated heads could then be stacked into a monument.
The science Lewis warned against has trampled human sensibilities flat.
The art to these issues, perhaps due to Grubaugh’s taking the controls, is more constrained than previously. Midjourney has shaded panel backgrounds black, blue, rose, lime, lemon, plum, brown, without a clear reason accounting for its choice; but each–singly and in consort–enhances the what-the-fuck aura of the language and activities of this future world. The characters’ figures are such that males are distinct from females and one male or female distinct from another; but they are, without exception, freakish, mutant, as misshapen as their world.
Midjourney does birth some unlikely, designed-for-kinkiness rodents. But let’s not go there.
For issue #4 (“Maria’s Story”), Grubaugh asked the AI program Deepstory for a script but gave it no guidance beyond a title: “The Abolition of Man.” It produced a story about which, Grubaugh says, “As far as I can tell... a child sex trafficking/snuff film ring [sells]... Maria’s child into indentured marriage to...? I dunno. Whatever it is is reprehensible.”4 [The entire script can be found here.] He then gave this script to Midjourney.
The result is extraordinary.
The covers–front and back–are headshot portraits of a middle-aged woman (Maria?), weary, weepy, wrinkled, anguished. The first words to appear inside the story are “The End,” which, with “Abolition of Man” as your prompt, can not be surpassed.
Later words appear, often as sound effects afloat within panels - “tap, tap,” “step, step,” “SCREAM,” “SHRIEK,” “Weep,” “Wail,” “Bang.” Past the midpoint of the book, these give way to words within speech balloons, though never to coherent conversation: “The wedding is on the table.” “Carry your wife.” “My mother please,” After a final “Bang,” the story seems to center an unnamed pre-adolescent boy (or boys), who appears, sometimes brandishing a firearm, on each of the concluding 10 pages. He will seem to be both a husband and a father. He will be searching for his mother. He will learn he has a father. The horrific events of the opening pages have inexplicably vanished. The final words are Maria’s. “What happened?”
It is a question all could ask.
The issue’s art raises it to a transcendent level. The dominant images are ash and blood and tooth and flame and amputated body part. There is night and assault and men bound and hung, shooting after shooting, gun upon gun. The faces on figures attain, at times, emotional depth reminiscent of Renaissance masters. Other times they distort into grotesques associated with German expressionism. Grubaugh himself confesses to being “flabbergasted by how gruesome everything was.” The art could have been “more vile,” he writes, but for the programs controls which limited it to the “tolerably disgusting.”
Does this world logically follow from Lewis’s march of science and Jasper’s monument of bird heads? With what confidence would one argue “No”?
Issue #5 is devoted to “On Human Dignity as a Foundation for the Right to Privacy,” an exposition by the Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi upon the threat “large scale data processing” poses to humanity.
Man, Floridi posits, is a “special” species, unique to the cosmos in being conscious not just of the present moment, but of a past and future,5 which makes him capable of caring about more than the interests of the self.6 Our lives depend, Floridi writes, on information we acquire and use to establish our selves and sense of the world. We are “works in progress,” “constantly becoming [our]selves” and require privacy to “keep our identities and our choices open...” So “any technology... that tends to fix and mould such openness risks dehumanising us...”
In the illustrations accompanying this thesis, images are frequently abstract, often iconic stick figures like those on traffic control signs. The coloring is often bright and sunny. Pinks and golds and robin’s egg blues abound. It appears as if the AI program recognized the simplistic mode of thinking on display and responded accordingly.
Floridi does not explain why “data processing” per se threatens personal development or why “privacy” per se is desirable. Could not one have personal data mined and continue to develop along lines of one’s own choosing? (My computer may know what sneakers I bought, but that does not mean I have to snap up the next pair it offers. Or socks.) I recognize the fear that it could sift through my likes and dislikes and tailor arguments to appeal to me and lead me astray. (Through “disinformation,” AI may “degrade critical thinking and erode the factual foundation of modern society” is how the New York Times put it.7) But couldn’t those arguing the opposite do the same? Is this not just another possibility for the freewheeling exchange of ideas in the marketplace the First Amendment demands? People are always being asked to weigh, evaluate, sort wheat from chaff, and yesterday’s “disinformation” sometimes becomes today’s “truth.”
How about, instead of curtailing data, we educate people so they could better evaluate it? Isn’t improved people–gentler, kinder, wiser–the answer to so many things?
What’s so hard about that?
And is all personal data to be treated the same? I might prefer my computer know less about my sexual preferences than my footwear; but even if it knew about both, and even if others could access this information, could the world at large not benefit? (Why not, in terms best expressed by J.J. Cale, “Let it all hang out”?) Our psychiatrists know our stuff. Our family and close friends know much of it. Our biographers are likely to discover what’s hidden in our closets. Don’t we cling to secrets because of “shame” instilled by religions of various puritanical strains, when even religions can’t agree on the forbidden? If we knew what everyone else was up to, wouldn’t we stop repressing behavior that needn’t be repressed, allowing our lives to become more enjoyable?8
A right to privacy didn’t even exist until two Victorian Boston lawyers, who objected to a gossip-peddling press “overstepping... the obvious bounds of propriety and decency,” lowering “social standards and morality,” and distracting people from the “solitude” and deep thought modern life demanded, called for one.9 And wouldn’t my–and Cale’s–solution remedy this by expanding the boundaries of the “decent,” loosening the restraints on the “moral,” making more behavior seem ho-hum, and letting weighty thinking fill that void?10
Agnes Callard, a professor of philosophy herself–University of Chicago–is quoted as having said: “If you’re a real philosopher, you don’t need privacy, because you’re a living embodiment of your theory at every moment, even in your sleep, even in your dreams.”11 When I asked her if that meant that "people are who they are, and all input from the world, regardless of its nature, even if an ‘invasion of privacy,’ is received and reflected back by this person, perhaps effected by the input and perhaps not," she e-mailed back: “No, not quite; I think people are not who they are and they become who they are in concert with others, so that privacy (understood in one sense) consigns us to ignorance of ourselves. But I am not sure what implications this view has for questions of data privacy.”
Nor am I, but I thought I’d raise the question.
I knew next to nothing about AI when I picked up Abolition. When I began paying attention, I saw something in the news nearly every day. People from Elon Musk to Henry Kissinger had caught tits in that wringer. AI might solve massive problems in health and climate and–to Aristotle’s delight–free man from “drudgery... [so he] can enjoy life more”; but it might also “subordinate humans to the machines’ own interest,” the San Francisco Chronicle warned.12 Half of 700 experts polled believed there to be at least a one-in-ten chance AI would cause “human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment),” said the Times.13
Fortunately, Grubaugh’s book didn’t put this in my portfolio. It was more concerned with AI’s impact on art.
Which is plenty.
Soleil Ho wrote in the Chron’s lead editorial of April 5th that a poll of 1,000 artists showed 97% feared AI “would jeopardize their job security.” She cited a local artist-illustrator who complained that she could have made $10-15,000 for an ad campaign on which a ballet company had paid less than $100 for an AI-designed equivalent. Admittedly that’s a blow to the artist-illustrator, but I could not escape thinking how many ballerinas may have benefitted from a re-allocation of the company’s funding.
I do not find the risk of economic harm from AI to artists a compelling argument against it. That is, I am afraid, of how things are and have always been. Probably close to 97% of blacksmiths worried about their livelihood when cars came chugging by. Probably 97% of vaudevillians worried about motion pictures. Arts and artists evolve. No artist is guaranteed a particular standard of living into an unlimited future. Ho anchors her op-ed with William Morris’s lament about the future of 19th century weavers. They may be less plentiful than they were in 1884 when Morris sang the blues, but Googling “weavers near me” reveals more than two dozen guilds active today in Northern California alone.
Ho’s piece is headlined “Artificial Intelligence Dehumanizes Art,” and I don’t see that as a problem either. (Its actual, essential gripe is with the non-compensation of artists whose work is gobbled up by AI programs, and I am all in for protecting intellectual property through appropriate legislation.14) But the cry of “dehumanization” seems to imply that relying on a machine results in work lacking human feeling and devoid of soul. Artists today regularly use metal fabricators and 3D printers instead of chiseling their way through blocks of marble or welding iron bars in place. Technology has been part of the creative process since cave painters recognized plants made better brushes than hands.
I am inclined to view Midjourney as a tool employed by Grubaugh - as another brush or chisel. He has challenged it with writings he selected and reflected upon its responses. He has influenced these responses between somewhat (issues #1-3, 5) and hardly at all (issue #4), but none of these responses or comics would have existed without Grubaugh. His experiences, thoughts and emotions are at the heart of his book. The thoughts and emotions of its readers are partially his creation too.
According to an article at the website of the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, “How the Brain is Affected By Art,” man developed forms of “creative expression” because they enabled him “to imagine new ways to communicate and engage with the world...” Explained neuro-anatomically, creativity raises serotonin levels in the brain, which lowers stress, deepens focus, and increases the ability to analyze and think. (How much an artist makes from the art has nothing to do with how much the serotonin rises.) Even viewing art has this effect - regardless, I imagine, whether it is the work of Michelangelo or a machine.
So, evolutionarily thinking, man or machine, six-of-one, half-a-dozen...
After grappling with AI, Grubaugh reaches a positive conclusion. “We can,” he writes at the conclusion of issue #5, “worry about... AI all we like,” but everyone can “ultimately... live [our] life as [we] see fit.”
Unless, of course, the Times is right about that “human extinction” business.
"[L]ife has no meaning... [and] everybody’s always looking for something a little unusual that... answered questions for them about how to spend their time and their money and who their friends would be and where they will travel and what they did when they got there."
-Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief.
When I read that passage a couple weeks ago, I thought, “Hmmm. ‘Unusual.’ Writing about comics. I think she’s got me nailed.” Then the other morning, I read an article asking why poverty persisted in America. The answer was: all of us.
That resonated too.
I read my first MAD when I was 10. It led me to EC comics, which led me to writing about comics, which led me to this word right here. It has been an unexpected and rewarding journey, but it may have abetted a diversion from other things. MAD #1 set the story “Blobs!” in 1,000,000 A.D., when “EVERYTHING is taken care of by machines,” and man has atrophied into “BLOBS OF FLESH,” “COMPLETELY HELPLESS” without them; and then–GOOD LORD!–the “MASTER MONSTER MACHINE that... controls our WHOLE EXISTENCE...”–guess what?–“BREAKS.”
Maybe the only thing new under the sun is that thinkers today would not give us the 997,977 years Harvey Kurtzman did in 1952. It strikes me that if you are aboard a sinking or burning ship, or a ship that is exhausting its food or water, lives devoted to a commonality of purpose might be a more sensible way to go.
You are either part of the solution, or...
I thought I’d mention that in passing.
When I had finished my first draft, I sent Grubaugh some questions so I wouldn’t look like too much of a fool. Rather than rip out the plumbing and knock down the walls of what I had constructed, I am presenting my questions and his answers, slightly edited, below.
BOB LEVIN: For issue #1, did Midjourney have the entire essay at any point before offering images sentence by sentence? (In other words, did it know where it was going or was it reacting word by word?)
CARSON GRUBAUGH: That would be wildly cool but no AI yet has the ability to take in a whole overview and plan towards an outcome. Midjourney is predicting pixel distribution in a defined ratio relative to the language in the prompt. The most it can process is one prompt at a time. They could have been fed in any order without much difference in the result, as far as I understand. If there were differences, it would be more a matter of refinement in the predictive rules based on user behavior rather than any understanding of a larger semantic structure built within a single body of writing.
For issue #4, did Midjourney get any guidance in terms of number of pages it had to fill? Where did its “words” and “sounds” come from?
All sound effects were in the script. Panel aspect ratio was driven by random number generators, dialogue not specified in the script was generated using a dialogue generator. [As of last July]... AI could not design and package a book entirely on its own. All it could do was illustrate one panel at a time. New models can loosely construct a story over the course of a single page but the results are poor and there would be no continuity page by page. The next problem for AI trainers to solve will be how to have an AI envision an end result and build toward it.
Why is the art in issue #5 so different than the previous issues?
I added style cues to the prompts. In issues #2 and 3, where we try to tell a story, I figured it would read more easily if I prompted pen and ink, black and white, detailed line art. In issue #5, I wanted a more designed look to fit Luciano’s more designed philosophy, and we already knew what AI would do without style prompts. I wanted to see how at-risk designers were since issue #1 proved that illustrators definitely were.
Hope that helps.
Three months after I wrote the above, Living the Line released its gold-lettered, faux-leather-covered hardbound “Deluxe Edition” of Abolition, appending 62 new pages to the original five comics.
The first eight pages, whose art in color and style reach a crescendo reminiscent of the San Francisco Oracle, “preview” a webcomic, “Pranay Day,” accessible at the Living the Line Patreon, whose story can be remade whenever a new version of Midjourney appears. People can nominate and vote on alterations to the story with the winners being incorporated into it. The next 10 pages have been randomly selected from the comic’s first issue and given to “DALL·E,” another AI program. Though the text is identical, the art is vastly different, like two jazz musicians improvising on the same standard.
The remainder of the new material is primarily text by Grubaugh, written between 2006 and 2022. Portions are notes to himself; portions are essays in assorted stages of development. They constitute what Grubaugh calls a Philosophy of Information, beginning with the idea that information is “the product of form being given to, or created in, a mind.” Take dogs. Whether short haired or long, whether three inches tall or three feet, whether golden or black, all contain an “essence” which makes them identifiable as “dog,” an “actual instantiation of the definition at some universal, abstract level.”
After this it gets sticky.
Grubaugh sets out different types of information (“true,” “false,” “fictional,” and “pure”). He discusses its storage (“actual” and “abstract”) and meaning (“natural,” “non-natural,” and “non-natural semantic”). He takes up “informational substructure” (“‘Reality’ is really an actual of a primal abstract of informational substructure”), algorithms and their manipulation, and the unprecedented power of the Internet. He discusses “universal synesthesia,” the “erosion of narrative,” and “content skin.” He is all over “ontocentric ethics,” “parameters of redundancy and randomness,” “corporeal, cognitive and conscious membranes, ” “LOA” (“Level of Abstraction”), “hyper-history,” and “publicly available, parallel, potentially contradictory narrative.” Along the way, we meet suicidal teenagers, the Kolmogorov complexity, a visual compression of a decade of Playboy centerfolds into a single image, an aunt asked to interpret a painting in which a death-headed man stands over a naked woman, an artificially created FB “person,” and a block of text “degenerat[ed]... into a grid of colors... [determined by] the cmyx color of each square. If a = 0%, b = 4%, and so on...”
A reader–this reader, anyway–meets words he has neither spoken nor written and concepts as unknown to him as would be life on another planet a thousand years from now. At one point, Grubaugh, to emphasize his meaning, uses the example of a dictionary with all definitions removed. “It would be difficult,” he writes, “to find someone interested in reading this book cover-to-cover.” Without narrative, “the likelihood of producing and impact on an audience is near to zero.” While I can imagine that, if it were presented as a poem or copied on a wall or (large) canvas, the definition-free dictionary would find takers, some of whom would review it in learned journals; at times, reading Grubaugh's essays–their pages infuriatingly not-numbered and non-indexed–I was as baffled as I would have been by the tome he posited.
Not that Grubaugh is without humor (see his remark on tattooed sumo wrestlers) or incapable of dropping lines that brings one up short (“Content gets us laid or killed”). But more importantly, if you read (and, if necessary, re-read) with sufficient attention, you will see he has matters of consequence on his mind. “We risk being expelled from the exhaust pipe of hyper-history into post-history,” he colorfully, dramatically puts it, “where narrative, both personal and societal has completely evaporated, leaving us confused and dizzy in the white-noise fog of a banal, content Apocalypse.”
The menace which has enshrouded us in this fog is the Internet. By enabling and encouraging to an unprecedented degree the development of individual identities and promotion of disparate agendas, it weakens dangerously a shared belief in the commonality of human beings. (“Personal identity,” Grubaugh points out, “is the source of all conflict.”) For someone (Me) whose thinking had already evolved to the point of recognizing that the idea of nation-states, with their incessant squabbles over the possessions of plots of dirt, had reached its sell-by date and that, for the survival of the planet, the realization was necessary that we were one tribe (Man) on one plot of land (Earth), this was an idea with which I was comfortable.
Grubaugh sees a possible solution. In response to an e-mail, he wrote me:
Maybe the AI can see with a large enough view to wipe out any struggle over resources, while also figuring out how to physically group people in such a way that no one ever has to encounter a person with antagonistic views. You want to live in a city where no one is homosexual, no one chews gum, and no one plays their music out loud, the AI will happily relocate your to that population. The person who has no problem being around autistic transexuals, wants to chew gum but doesn’t want music out loud, we have a place for that. Heterosexual, cis-gendered, but totally open to gay and trans colleagues, loves a loud block party, wants to own guns, hates marijuana, and for some reason hates Asian culture and food. We have a place for that. Etc. Etc.
It sounds nutty as hell and completely nightmarish to me, but it seems to be the most honest description of what we would need to happen to eliminate all conflict and discomfort for the individual while doing the most good for the collective.
We certainly must do something.
My take, triggered perhaps by that “Oracle”-like artwork with which AI concluded “Pranay Day,” was to flash back on the remedy for solving society’s defects that was tossed around back in the day: sluicing LSD into the water supply. Assuredly, if we don’t come up with something, “The Abolition of Man”–say each word clearly, let them resonate–comes more into focus.
* * *
- At each issue’s end, a QR code connects the reader to conversations of elucidation and arousal. They take up to 150 minutes to complete, and I lasted 30 at the first. I am 81, with a heart whose flutter has caused my cardiologist to summon me for regular check-ups. My time, I am reminded, is limited, and AI not likely my issue. I decided to deal with that before me in the pages on my desk and café table and leave the rest alone. (Grubaugh advises the connects in Issues 1 and 5 are “the most crucial...”)
- More recent figures state that Midjourney now has banked nearly six billion images.
- Using Aristotle to nail down his point may be an over-reach. According to Michael Dorfman, this is a commonly distorted mistranslation. Moreover, in Aristotle’s time, all workers were little better than illiterate slaves and lacked the leisure time to develop the “virtue” necessary for citizenship. For Dorfman’s full discussion, click here.
- It is not true, all appearances to the contrary, that the “intelligence” Deepstory derived from is Marjorie Taylor Greene’s.
- This proposition, known as “mental time travel,” is disputed.
- As my esteemed and admired wife pointed out upon reading this sentence, having this capacity does not mean man will ever achieve the ability to behave in such a fashion. Some may, but the conduct of a certain twice-impeached, once (so far) indicted ex-president illustrates it is no requisite for career advancement - and may even be contra-indicated.
- April 8, 2023.
- I realize this is an extremist position. But Janet Malcolm, a writer and thinker I admire almost as much as my wife, believes that ultimately our privacy cannot be invaded. In Reading Chekhov, she writes that all letters, journals and impressions of friends “we leave behind are the mere husks of the kernel of our own essential life. When we die, the kernel is buried with us.”
- Warren & Brandeis. “The Right to Privacy.” 9 Harv. L. Rev. 195 (1890).
- Warren and Brandeis were particularly appalled by press coverage of the weddings, fêtes and funerals of the socially prominent [See: Gajda. “What if Samuel D. Warren Hadn’t Married a Senator’s Daughter?” U.Ill Law Research Paper No. 07-06. Nov. 1, 2007]. So one might argue that “privacy” is an anti-democratic construct, erected by the upper classes against incursions by the plebes. No one, after all, cares about weddings of the poor.
- The New Yorker. March 13, 2023.
- April 1, 2023.
- March 24, 2023.
- It occurs to me that Midjourney’s making art from its billions of images isn’t that different from how I write. My brain has absorbed billions of bits of information during my 81 years; and when I sit down at yellow pad or keyboard, what comes out stems from my processing this information - including, without their permission, authors whose rhythms, approach to dialogue, and techniques for narrative tension I am mimicking.