Graphic Treatments of the Posthuman Condition: 7 Miles a Second
As a form, comics and graphic narratives are particularly well-suited for enacting posthumanism: they often employ radical juxtaposition and assemblage as method, and delineate subjectivity as a process of becoming in relation to animate and inanimate objects as well as human and nonhuman others. In this entry, I discuss David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook’s collaboratively-produced 7 Miles a Second, a comic that documents Wojnarowicz’s experiences of hustling, homelessness, and illness in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. It offers a graphic treatment of the posthuman condition as becoming-queer – queer here understood not or not only as a sexual identity, but as a multiplicity of practices of embodiment (sex, affect, and illness), art, and politics.
In their edited collection from 1995, Posthuman Bodies, Judith (now Jack) Halberstam and Ira Livingston diagnose David Wojnarowicz’s work as a signifier of the “becoming-posthuman of the body” in postmodernity. 7 Miles a Secondwas still unfinished at the time Halberstam and Livingston theorized Wojnarowicz’s writing, in particular Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration, as “a manifesto for action” in which the “self disintegrates [. . .] into a posthuman rage for disorder and uncivil disobedience”. In some respects, narratively speaking at least, the text is a conventional bildungsroman; its three chapters offer a portrait of the artist as child, adolescent, and young adult respectively. Yet, the formal elements – both verbal and visual – work against such a developmental trajectory and identity frame. The three chapter titles – “Thirst”, “Stray Dogs,” and “7 Miles a Second” – suggest instead a posthumanist counter-bildungsroman – with need, non-domesticity, and speed as aspects of queer becoming and temporality.
The cover shows a young Wojnarowicz running towards the reader through an urban landscape, with dark buildings in the background looming above an eerie yellow glow illuminating the sidewalks. Wojnarowicz’s skin appears red, blending in with the unnaturally red sky at the top of the cover behind the buildings. Mid-stride, Wojnarowicz’s left leg is planted into, not on, the street, and is drawn as a literal red root extending up his pants leg and down into and spreading below the asphalt surface. We see the root intermix rhizomatically with the concrete, pipes, wires, and other infrastructural material usually unseen below the surface of the city, rendered visible here, the earth cracked open like a gaping wound. Despite the root holding him in place, Wojnarowicz appears set to launch himself into the unknown, off the edge of the city, perhaps in the hopes of escaping what Wojnarowicz termed the “preinvented existence”. On either side of Wojnarowicz’s head is a drawing in a circular peephole-like inset, a visual trope Romberger borrows from Wojnarowicz’s own art. On the cover and elsewhere in the text, these circular insets function as portholes into other existences. On the left is the head and shoulders of a skeleton with popping eyes and an exposed red-colored brain and on the right is the head and shoulders of a person on fire. The three long, angular heads with open-mouthed expressions of fear and awe all vaguely resemble each other, and act as visual markers of decay and fire as forces of disintegration of the self.
The title 7 Miles a Second is in white upper-case letters at the top, the letters leaning sharply to the right, as if in motion. The book opens with a statement about the disconnection between what we can think and what we encounter visually – “My mind cannot contain all that I see” (5). We then learn that seven miles a second is “the minimum speed required to break through the earth’s gravitational pull,” and that, without “access to rockets and spaceships [. . .] we would have to learn to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are heading” (5). This forms an epigraph above another peephole-view inset of a locomotive, echoing Wojnarowicz’s use of trains as emblems of civilization and conquest in his art’s visual syntax.
As Halberstam and Livingston write, “extrafamilial desire exposes the family as a magic trick pulled by science and sustained by social science”. There is no pure body, “the body in culture is always a viral body, a time bomb of symptoms”. The first chapter “Thirst” captures this posthuman virality: the reader is caught up in a network of relations that Romberger’s multi-perspectival page layout stages as a series of looks. Our minds cannot contain all that we see, but through the intermixing of words and images, affects and colors, sex and violence, 7 Miles a Second gives us a feeling for these extrafamilial posthuman relations.
While the book mainly documents his past experiences, the last chapter shifts to the reality and horror of the present of the late 1980s, attempting to capture the affective intensity of David’s experiences living with HIV, seeing countless friends die and knowing he is likely to die soon too, feeling rage at the U.S. government’s murderous inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic, and a determination to make art that bears witness to so much loss and devastation. Feelings of rage transform Wojnarowicz’s relationship to his body and the (preinvented) world. The desire to become monstrous to avenge what has been lost is put into words and images if not into action. Here the self does not disintegrate so much as fills to bursting with a pressure that demands release somehow of the self from itself. At the same time, the text documents in words and images the desire for connection and intimacy with those who are sick or already dead that is a becoming queer as becoming other: “If I could open up your body and slip up inside your skin and look out your eyes and forever have my lips fused with yours I would” (61). This is not empathy so much as a desire for fusion not with the self of the other, but with the other’s embodiment, at the same time as the body of the other is disappearing in illness and death.
The book ends with an eerie visual echo of the opening scene of a young David hustling in the city, with another splash page dominated by yellow and green tones, the urban context replaced by a nature scene. The final image shows an older David almost fully submerged in an underwater environment (only the top of his head is above the water line), bubbles coming from his mouth as if he is breathing underwater, water plants wrapped around his legs and arms, and sea turtles, frogs, and fish swimming around him. Romberger has said that the book ends with Wojnarowicz dying, rather than as Wojnarowciz had wanted with a happy day – “him just happy to be alive”. Yet, the final image of David under water is, I think, appropriately enigmatic, suggesting an interactive relationship between body and environment that is beyond in space and outlasting in time the preinvented world of a civilization careening towards disaster. It is perhaps a happy day in the posthuman future to come.
Lisa Diedrich, “Comics and Graphic Narratives,” in Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 96-108.
David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite van Cook, 7 Miles a Second (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2012). Subsequent references are cited parenthetically in the text.
Judith M. Halberstam and Ira Livingston, “Introduction: Posthuman Bodies,” Posthuman Bodies (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995), 3.
Halberstam and Livingston, “Introduction,” 16.
Halberstam and Livingston, “Introduction,” 13.
Romberger quoted in Cynthia Carr, Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 550.