Friday, August 9, 2019

Crit: Monsanto by Mathieu Asselin

The author of this book, Mathieu Asselin, recently made the book available as a free PDF download. Since the book was much lauded in certain circles, I took advantage of the opportunity to download it and give it a looksee.

You too can download it and check my work. It's not a particularly arduous read. Click here to get your own copy: Monsanto.

The executive summary is that this book desperately wants to be Minamata and it isn't. It is, in fact, terrible. Reading it was a profoundly depressing experience, because these are important topics badly handled, and because I thought perhaps that something that's won or contended credibly for major prizes might be a cut above the gruesome mess that is MFA-student photobook making. The laudits are entirely based on the progressive/anti-Monsanto stance of the book, which is very contemporary and chic, not the actual content, which is garbage.

So what is this thing? It comprises four sections, each covering an extended episode in Monsanto's storied history. The production of PCBs in Anniston, Alabama; Agent Orange and its long term effects; Monsanto's company town in Illinois; Roundup-Ready products and the controversies around same.

The first three sections are historical summaries, written with a pro-consumer anti-corporate slant. It's slightly more detailed than wikipedia material, but to be honest, not much more, and it does a rotten job of combing out the actual history. In the first section, we learn that Anniston was the site of PCB manufacturing with all manner of gruesome followup effects, and later we find that the main site of PCB manufacturing was in Monsanto's company town in Illinois. This is only one of many minor inconsistencies which deserve to be clarified but are not.

None of the inconsistencies I noted are outright contradictions, but they are points of historical fact which, as presented, are confusing.

More of the same sort of thing: Asselin presents the company town, now called Sauget Village, as a "borderless wasteland" with, essentially, a handful of survivors wandering the zombie-filled landscape. It's pretty clear from a few minutes of research that Sauget Village is now an industrial park in East St. Louis that happens to be incorporated as its own municipality. Which, sure, makes it a terrible place to live. I don't wanna live in an industrial park either.

In the section on Roundup-Ready crops, Asselin persists in (sometimes) calling Roundup a pesticide, which it is not. While you can kill pests with Roundup, you've really got to work at it. It's an herbicide, it kills plants. Given that Asselin uses both terms, it's possible that he doesn't actually know the difference, which is really a problem since he's pretending to present some sort of serious analysis of Roundup and associated products. In this section, Asselin simply repeats the standard progressive anti-Monsanto position about Roundup, which lands scientifically somewhere in the range of questionable to simply wrong.

There's plenty to criticize on the topic of Roundup-Ready products, but the standard progressive narrative gets the situation, and the problems, almost completely wrong. Asselin makes no attempt whatsoever to sort it out. He simply repeats the standard material uncritically.

The writing is stilted, and contains at least one howler, which is pretty good for a guy for whom English is at least a second language. Still, an editor might have been usefully employed here. There simply are not that many words here, a good editor would have cleaned the language up greatly, and could possibly also have worked out some of the inconsistencies between sections. Overall, the text is about what I would expect (perhaps naively) from a competent high school student. I certainly could have written this in 10th grade, but I am informed that standards have fallen.

The French edition might well be better, although the content is presumably still the 10th-grade-research-paper material (spot checks seem to confirm.)

The photography and other graphical material is utter shit, worthy of the worst kind of MFA student. He literally photographs the box containing the microfilm with the newspaper that contains the account of a train accident from decades before, then shows us the microfilm reader with the newspaper page displayed, and then shows us reproductions of the pages from the newspaper. Each of these consumes a full page, or more, of the book. Later, he photographs the train tracks where the accident took place (spoiler: it looks like a fucking train track.) This is both wildly boring and completely insane. Worse, it's an insult to the reader.

There are some pictures of people, all with that vaguely washed out/odd color look that people think is a "film look", mostly of glum, anonymous, people staring at the camera. Captions tell us that this is Bob from Anniston and his sister died of dioxins, or whatever. There is a collection of photos of Agent Orange victims, with deformities and so on. Some of them are actually pretty decent. It is here that Asselin most closely approaches Minamata mainly because he is unable to effectively drain the life from people who have lived with these kinds of problems. Several of these pictures possess a kind of vitality that Serious Artists are seemingly at pains to remove from their work.

There's a lot of reproductions of Monsanto advertisements (possibly the author spent a lot of time in Google Books.) There are a few reproductions of Monsanto internal documents, which serve usefully to backstop the text about what Monsanto knew and when. These last are probably the only non-textual material that serves any kind of purpose here, the rest being nothing much more than some sort of evidence of the author's presence and labor.

Ok, all that is chaff. Sure, it's a dumb amateurish book with the visual and literary appeal of a dead badger. That's not the real problem.

The real problem is that this book wants to be Minamata and it isn't. There are two basic problems here. Well, three if you count Asselin's complete failure to acknowledge his inspiration.

The first is that it's not Minamata. The latter is a lyrical, poetic, and powerful piece of reportage, which combines a consistent and coherent historical narrative with in-the-moment photography of critical events and, to some degree, reporting of the end of the affair. Monsanto is an ugly, clumsy, mess which is entirely historical. The photos are boring not only because Asselin is a Serious Artist taking shit photos, but also because there's nothing to photograph. These events took place years ago. There isn't anything to photograph except train tracks, microfilm reels, and old men holding photographs of relatives who died of cancer years ago.

The second problem is that we already have Minamata. Monsanto engaged over roughly the same timeframe in essentially the same kinds of malfeasance as Chisso. The story here is not that Monsanto did more or less the same things, but that there seems to be a pattern here.

The story is not that this company or that did some bad things, the story is that they all did this sort of thing. The story, in the here and now, is about what behaviors are they engaged in now, that replaces the old behaviors? The reality is that these companies have changed. They don't just dump chemical wastes into rivers by the ton any more, at least not as a matter of policy. They do not, despite desperate efforts to prove otherwise, continue to discover and then conceal Horrible Toxic Effects in their products, at least not as a matter of policy.

They have updated their behaviors into new, equivalent, obnoxious behaviors.

There is no investigation into why corporations, or more precisely the people who staff corporations, consistently behave in the way they did. Asselin simply waves vaguely in the direction of greed and calls it a day. Smith, by contrast, went to some effort to humanize the people in the corporation, and at least nodded briefly at the conflicts that the people in the company face in these situations. While Smith never did a full-scale analysis, he does seem to be aware that these things happen for reasons that are complex and nuanced.

The following appears in Minamata, nothing even remotely like it, nothing with one 100th part of the power of this scene appears in Monsanto. Asselin is hampered by the passage of time, of course, but not only by that.

To set the scene, Kawamoto is a man poisoned by Chisso's actions, and is negotiating on behalf of many of the other victims. Shimada is the CEO is Chisso. He is refusing to pay the victims (the "patients" referred to here) because Chisso doesn't have enough money to do so. They are in a crowded and antagonistic meeting room, Kawamoto is seated cross-legged on the table less than a foot from Shimada, there are photos included with the text. Here is the text:

Kawamoto (quietly): President, do you have a religion?

Shimada (transparently, to Kawamoto alone): Yes. I am a Zen Buddhist.

   Sarcastic snickers come from supporters in the background, but it seemed that neither have heard.

Kawamoto: Ah. And your wife too?

Shimada: My wife is Christian....

Kawamoto: Ah, yes. Do you pray?

Shimada: Yes. I have a small room with just a shrine in it. I have the patients' names writen there, and I pray....


Pro-tip: It's not greed. It is vastly more complicated than that.

There is no pushing past Minamata here, to give us new ideas, new insights. There is not even an update of Minamata, this is simply a shoddy photocopy.


The Guardian reviewed this thing in 2018, you can read the review here. Hilariously, or tragically, depending on how you look at it, they didn't review it very carefully. They refer to a creek which now runs red as a result of contamination. They share a photo from the book of Choccolocco.

What they missed out on, because they just flipped lazily through the book, is that Asselin uses red blotches photoshopped on to some of his photos to indicate "contaminated areas" within the picture. The creek isn't red.

This sort of shit just makes me want to tear my eyes out and scream. Well, I guess that would make me scream, but you get the idea.


  1. From the purely political activist point of view, that's a shame because it might discourage someone else from doing better work. They might think, why bother, no one will look at it now, it's been done. OTOH, maybe the activist target market (whichever sub-segment of it) isn't as demanding as you. Either way, it's not good.
    Seems like a tough assignment though in any case. Documenting corporate malpractices or mistakes is difficult to do in images only, or at least I wouldn't know how to do it well. In this context, I see images as just something to accompany the more important text. But maybe no one reads much anymore.

  2. Despite some photos (victim portraits) that could and should have been organized into a worthy project, the book is some misguided artsy shit. Not clear where you're getting "this book desperately wants to be Minamata" from, a hunch?

    1. It's covering exactly the same kind of corporate malfeasance, in the same era, and features photographs of the victims, some of whom have fairly radical physical damage. The parallels are clear, surely?

      It is impossible for me to imagine that Asselin is not aware of Minamata, so the parallels cannot have escaped him. He must have known the comparison would be obvious, and yet seems to have done nothing much to differentiate his book (other than making it lesser).

    2. OK, well W. Eugene Smith was a straight-up journo and already a master storyteller in that genre, and Asselin seems to want to inhabit ground broken by the likes of Hans Haacke, conceptual artist/provacateur so I think that's where a valid comparison may lie.

      Dunno why he (Asselin) thought this would work in a book format except "photobooks" with tricksy color overlays and suchlike are a thing, so...

    3. Fair enough, there's also a pretty strong connection to the "political commentary" line of Fine Art, which Smith was not so much behind. His work is deeper and more nuanced than the kind of trivial commentary that Asselin is performing.

      This is another route, I think, to my final conclusion which is that the book is basically lightweight, uncritical, repetition of things we've seen before.

  3. I remember an interview of Asselin telling about his book that he didn't "invent" anything as everything was already said and in a much better and deeper way in the Movie from Marie-Monique Robin, Le Monde selon Monsanto shot in 2008. Where I can disagree with you (or I misunderstood your point) would be more about the fact that Monsanto company is still a company producing shit that kill farmers and pollute water everywhere...