By Daniel Clowes
In which we try to get to grips with the finer points of intentionality and how exactly stories mean things – almost completely leaving Ghost World behind in the process (but somehow managing to rope in both Simon Pegg and Hegel). But how meaningful can you make meaninglessness? Who’s that guy painting on all the walls? And why exactly do you want that Pizza Dog figurine?
I think the name “Ghost World” is more literal.
Every one of the characters is a ghost. Each lives a life of quiet desperation, haunting their surrounds, they interact weakly with the physical world. Even Enid’s relationship with her best friend Rebecca is shallow – there’s no real interaction, they’re just drifting around being teenagers – bitching about stuff; they both like the same boy but just orbit him aimlessly. This is also borne out by the peripheral characters – the satanists who eat only lunchables, Norman at the bus stop – the Don Knotts-a-like Bob Skeetes who Enid even has a kind of seance with.
Even during sex Enis and Allen don’t really touch – it’s like they’re incorpereal. They have no substance.
I think this is down to a lack of a fixed identity*. All of these people aren’t what they seem – Enid’s changing hair and uncertain identity, the punk ex-boyfriend who becames a yuppie, John Ellison who loves to shock to get attention, the pretentious Allen Weinstein. Enid’s father who drifts from wife to wife, spineless, refusing to set boundaries for his daughter.
* which ties in with the theme of being encroached on by franchises I guess – their egos are literally under attack by outside forces?
I guess you could say it’s also a kind of hauntology – in that Enid and Becky are also haunted by the spectres of their past. Enid refuses to let go of her childhood toys.
I first read this in 2004 I think? And I remember thinking that it made me think of Robert crumb in some strange way – maybe it’s the grotesqueness of the characters – no one is “pretty” in the conventional sense. I’m guessing Terry Zwigoff also made this connection because he changed the Bob Skeetes character to a Crumb substitute in the film.
I do love the book, the wit of the characters, the dialogue is just wonderful. Of it’s time, but also strangely outside it too. It’s definitely a Gen-x book, from the cultural references date it – but a lot of it seems anachronistic too – Hauntology again I guess.
> (has anyone written a book on that? I’d really like to read it if so: just something that says: if a story does this thing
> – that means that this meaning is being created – or whatever).
I could recommend swaths of literature on this topic. Indeed, I just took a huge test on it—one of my preliminary exams for my PhD was on “formalism and anti-formalism.”
The past 70+ years saw great interrelated debates over how texts mean. The three dominant schools of thought here are (very roughly):
1) Formalism, which argues are “self-sufficient,” meaning in and of themselves according to shared social conventions, such as language. Another way of putting this is that what a text means is public, and you don’t need to go ask an author what he or she meant in writing it (indeed, consultation with the author is ruled out of bounds). Classic texts here include Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “Intentional Fallacy” and “Affective Fallacy” and (for the negative case) Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.” Plus certain Russian Formalist texts are relevant, since they examine “rules” of plot formation—stuff by Shklovsky, Propp, Todorov, Bakhtin, others. (This is where I’m obliged to recommend that everyone read Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose.)
2) Poststructuralism, which argues that a text’s meaning is determined either partially or wholly by its reader(s). Classic texts here include Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”, Derrida’s Of Grammatology, Paul De Man‘s Allegories of Reading; also relevant are works like Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class? and Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value.
Very interesting reading. Some thoughts occur to me. How conscious do you think the writer is of their intent in writing a text? Is it a concious attempt to transfer meaning from the world of the mind to the world of the page, or do they derive meaning from it afterwards? Can you retroactively apply intention?
Do texts convey meaning, or are they relational and part of a conversation? Are texts “functional” or relational? These seem like political questions, almost.
It brings to mind Robert Crumb saying that when he approaches a work he just allows it to form on the page and that he doesn’t really have any idea of what it means, it just falls out of his subconcious.
As a side note, I posit that the transfer of subjective information without corruption is absolutely impossible. Words seem to contain fractal meanings which are relational, historical, experiential and contextual so it’s a wonder to me that we even manage to derive meaning in the first place!
Ok ok ok.
Like I said above, I’m quite happy to discuss all this meaning stuff, but I’d be happy to do it in a different thread, if people desire that, since it doesn’t have anything to do with Ghost World per se.
One thing that might help is to sort out some terms. It’s definitely true, Jeremy, as you write, that when artists sit down to make artworks, they intend some things (consciously), and don’t intend to do other things, and artworks are produced by mixtures of both aspects of activity. Thus, we might usefully apply different terms to those aspects of the resulting work.
Meaning is conscious and intentional, and it is formal, and representational. It can be interpreted—indeed, it needs to be interpreted, because formal representation is necessarily arbitrary. That is to say, signifiers (which are formal) do not bear any necessary link with the things they signify. The word “cat” bears no necessary relationship with the real-world thing that’s called a cat (which is why it can be some other words in some other language). … This is why, Joel, there’s no strict method for making meaning, because (as I said above), the same words don’t have to mean the same things in different works. E.D. Hirsch gave a pretty clear example of this when he wrote the sentence, “My car ran out of gas.” One person could say that and mean that their Aston Martin depleted its supply of petrol. But another person could utter the exact same sentence and mean (as Hirsch famously put it) that “My Pullman emerged from a cloud of Argon.” … For the poststructuralists, both meanings (both interpretations) are simultaneously present in the sentence (plus more interpretations), which is why someone like Derrida would claim that language is inherently unstable—cannot be fixed to represent only one thing. But that’s only if you believe that nothing fixes the meaning. In the intentionalist view, something does fix that meaning, and it is the conscious intention of the author—what he or she intended to say via language.
But we still have the case of things that get inside the artwork (or any formal representation) that were not intended by the author (or by the person making the representation). (It might be better, though, to think of those things not as being insidethe work, but as surrounding it, or subsuming it.) According to this line of thought, those aspects cannot be meaning, since they are not conscious, and are not intentional (and are not formal or representational—hence, not inside). Thus, we can consider them symptoms manifesting themselves in the artist. That is to say, they are not arbitrary, but directly produced by whatever is causing them. Think, for instance, of a Freudian slip: your friend’s mum dies, and you accidentally say to her, while offering her a tissue, “Would you like a mother?” What makes this embarrassing is that you’ve made a mistake—you didn’t intend to refer to her deceased mom; it instead slipped out somehow. And it is not arbitrary in that you’ve voiced the exact thing you didn’t mean to voice. Given a choice, you would have said “another,” not “a mother.”
Ilia, I will respectfully disagree with you about not reading Hegel, even though he is agreeably difficult. That said, I would rather read Marx myself, and I definitely agree that everyone should read Nietzsche!
Barbican Comic Forum
I don’t have much to say on this particular graphic novel. My thoughts are: Seinfield meets Mean girls.
LOL ” Seinfield meets Mean Girls” is such a sick burn. I mean – to me that sounds totally totally amazing (I love Seinfeld AND Mean Girls and the thought of combining them both sounds so fetch – only well: Seinfeld and Mean Girls are both massively entertaining and Ghost World – sorry everyone – just isn’t (it has more noble goals in mind I guess) – and also: well – Seinfled meets Mean Girls = Lena Dunham’s Girls – which (omg) is totally one of the most awesome things of all time and you should all watch it RIGHT NOW. (It’s the blissful mid-point between entertainment and art: in that you can watch it enjoy the hell out of it – and then think about it afterwards and get all smart and stuff: plus it has some of the most exquisite dialogue ever ever ever so).
I mean – if E.D. Hirsch and his mates show up and are like – oh yeah: actually that means Wolf from the Gladiators (sorry Adam – that’s an English reference that you might not get) or something: well – that just sounds like deliberate obtuseness… Does that make sense? A sentence can be a lot more open to being understood in different ways – but with a story: well – you can get multiple meanings from it – but your options for left-field interpretations are a lot more limited…
Not Ghost world related… but re: Adam’s ghost world article, there’s this from Simon Pegg today:
thought he might be interested, based on his World’s end review. Also – would be good to talk a little more about his points on intentionalism away from this topic maybe…
Adam’s Ghost World article or his World’s End article? 🙂
I mean – this seems so obvious – but this “real-world issues” thing. I mean – it’s not science-fiction and “genre” cinema which is the problem It’s more just shoddy films and rubbish stories.
At the risk of getting even further away from comics: the only thing I can think of recently that has dealt “properly” with “real-world issues” is Black Mirror: which you know – is proper hard-core science-fiction: but then (obviously obviously) – it’s 2015 and we’re all walking around with our own personal Mother Boxes that everyone stuck in the 20th Century could only dream of….
Well – actually: the truth is a lot more complicated – innit?
Barbican Comic Forum
I’m going to side step this fascinating discussion of formalism/post-structuralism/intentionality because otherwise I’ll either get so bogged down in it that I don’t find time to talk about Ghost World or I’ll say something stupid about being a “post-structuralist intentionalist” or spam you with idiotic diagrams I’ve just thrown together on Paint or whatever…
The pleasures of the strip, for me, are more in line with the pleasures of more traditional comics: Who are Enid and Rebecca going to rip the piss out of today? What sort of grotesques is Clowes going to draw? What pop culture artifact is going to be re-consumed and found to have a bitter aftertaste? How’s that mouse going to bam up Offissa Pup this week? How’s the landscape going to shift as the brick hits Krazy? What’s caused that look on Charlie’s face?
Like the best comic strips Ghost World has a distinct mood, a distinct visual style, a set of preoccupations, and a handful of instantly understandable characters. In this case: at once overbearingly cynical and prematurely nostalgic, buck-toothed caricature with a one-tone melancholy overlay, the impossibility of accessing the past through the objects that have survived it, a pair of teenage girls whose acidic humour helps them bond (with each other? the past?) even as it chokes and binds them.
Enid and Rebecca drift apart from each other, and if the best that can be said of the forces that push them apart is that it feels natural, and the best that can be said about the ending is that it feels like a metaphor, then the best that can be said about Ghost World is that I hope it’s still going on out there – that there are more strips to read, more pointlessly cruel diatribes, more ashen-faced oddballs in atrocious diners.
Perhaps I’ll find a new Eightball with a new Ghost World strop waiting for me at the bus stop one day, in which Enid and Rebecca will be together again, forever drifting apart. Probably not though, and hey, given that my nostalgia for the floppy, serialized version of Ghost World is every bit as affected and ironic as Enid’s punk rock shtick, maybe that’s exactly what I deserve…
In order to dignify my conceit, it’s perhaps worth noting that after the transitional work of David Boring (described by its author as “Fassbinder meets half-baked Nabokov on Gilligan’s Island“, intentionality fans!) Clowes started to compose extended narratives out of discretely organised comic strips…
Think Mr Allison has gotten closest to how I feel about Ghost World, and all of you crazy cats waxing lyrical about structural whatnot have been, In my humble opinion, reading it wrong. Or at least coming at Ghost world with a whole bunch of formal criteria that Clowes has no interest in engaging with. This isn’t a ‘hero’s journey’ quest narrative or a feelgood comedy about lovable teens with an easily digestible take home message. rather, his instincts are more observational and satiric, he’s trying to nail a mood, an attitude, he’s trying to portray something about life in America that clearly worries at him, amuses him, makes him despair.
He is often thought of as ‘cartoony’ by people used to the dynamic realism of fantasy comics, but portrays a world far closer to my own than anything Marvel or DC will ever produce. I love his art, and part of that love is based in his determined anti-heroic stance, his figures are aren’t ‘dynamic’, they slump, sweat, look nervous and doubtful in a manner that’s almost heretical in a country where everybody is supposed to be master of their destiny. His characters are boxed in by shadow and weighed down by gravity in a way that’s downright un-American, goddamnit!
actually Mark, most of what you’re describing also applies pretty well to the early Steve Ditko Spider Man comics! Judging by Clowes’ Death Ray, I suspect they’re were also a huge influence on him… You might not like superhero comics, but they were a formative influence on virtually every US creator of note. It’s akin to what I remember someone writing in the NME years ago, ‘The tragic fact is that every US rock band of note, regardless of how cool they are, grew up adoring KISS!’
I want a whole lecture from Adam on that venn diagram thing, but will restrict myself to saying that I found the distinction between intention and symptom (which Joel kinda rejects?) to be a really useful way of looking at it. Intellectual history is its own particular thing, but it has trained me to pay attention to intentions first, whatever I am reading. Reason for that is because they are public and recoverable as long as you understand the language (game), whereas everything behind that (Skinner prefers the term ‘motive’ rather than ‘symptom’) is conjecture and inessential to nailing down what the text itself means.
That said, I agree with Joel that those unintentional influences on a text are revealing and worth studying even if they are far more difficult to recover, not least because they arguably play a far larger role in the eventual shape of a comic, art etc. But having that distinction in place makes it easier to know about what you’re arguing, so thanks for that!
Joel, Ilia, Jeremy all,
Ilia—I think the last thing the world needs is a lecture from me! But I think that meaning has to be synonymous with what an author intended to mean, though of course intended meanings can be misunderstood—here some communication model would be useful. Or something like Laura Bohannan’s seminal essay “Shakespeare in the Bush.”
> the distinction between intention and symptom
> Skinner prefers the term ‘motive’ rather than ‘symptom’
That’s interesting. Do you know where he gets that term “motive” from? I’m asking because I’ve been reading a lot of Schopenhauer recently, and he’s really into motives, and I wonder if there’s any connection between those terms. (I imagine not, but am curious; I’ve been thinking more and more about motives.)
… I recently recommended to Joel Jennifer Ashton’s essay “Two Problems with a Neurasthetnic Theory of Interpretation”…
…and her discussion of “causes” might interest you (as they strike me as being akin to Skinner’s motives).
> I agree with Joel that those unintentional influences on a text are revealing and worth studying even if they are far more difficult to recover
I would never disagree with a claim like that. (And maybe this goes some way to addressing your concern, Joel? More about which below.)
> Adam – there’s this really fantastic writer you should check out called A D Jameson:I am happy to know about him. But tl;dr
> those articles are written in such a way that you don’t need to have read like loads of other stuff to read them and understand themWell, I’m not sure I’d agree, because I think one problem with that A D Jameson guy is that he was always linking to way too many things, which is a kind of saying “you need to read this (or watch this) in addition to the current thing you’re reading.” And he was also prone to mentioning theorists—Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson and Susan Sontag and David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson—which people at Big Other and HTMLGIANT didn’t always appreciate.
But I think a more important point is that those posts were standalone articles written for sites where I couldn’t assume people knew certain things—I tried very hard to write for a general audience, since I had no idea who was reading. But here, I know you, and was responding to you. I wrote my email in response to your asking if there was a book that essentially laid out how stories mean. I simply wanted to point out that there isn’t to my knowledge, a single book like that. And, believe me, I’ve been looking for that, because this is the subject I’ve been studying for the past 15 years, and am presently getting my PhD in. I also tried to explain why there isn’t such a book: the whole issue of how texts mean, if they mean at all, is arguably the most contested issue in the past 70+ years of literary studies. I’m sorry that means that, if you want to really understand the issue, you have to do a lot of reading, but that’s sometimes the way it is. If you want to understand physics, you aren’t going to learn all about it from a single book. And if you’re serious about understanding how stories mean, then there isn’t a single book, sorry. Meanwhile, if you aren’t really serious about the issue…then you don’t have to read anything I referred you to! That’s a beautiful thing about life.
I’m also happy to try summarizing it all (as I did in my post, and in other emails to you) so people who are interested but don’t want to do the reading can have some understanding of it without having to go spend years reading dozens and dozens of books and articles (as I’ve done), because I get that others don’t want to waste their lives in the silly fashion that I have. But at the end of the day, this is a field of study, and even a simple summary is going to be a synthesis resting on all those other texts. Knowledge doesn’t just suddenly come into meaning out of nowhere.
> the best writing/talking (ok ok – the stuff that I enjoy) is the type that doesn’t need to go into details of so-and-so said this and whoever wrote that – rather: it’s just about the person talking and the listening and yeah sure: mention what other people have said: but maybe only so much as to make what you’re trying to say clear.
I think it depends on the context, and what’s trying to be said. But let’s break down what you’re saying here:
> the stuff that I enjoy
> is the type that doesn’t need to go into details of so-and-so said this and whoever wrote thatWell, there’s a problem here, because you are aware that knowledge is something that humans create, and that embodies a history? For instance, I study philosophy, and it’s impossible to study that without studying a history, because philosophers are replying to one another. E.g., Nietzsche was responding to Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer was responding to Kant, and Kant was responding to Kant, and Kant was responding to Hume, and Hume was responding to Descartes, and Descartes was responding to Aristotle (to put it very simply). So it’s kind of hard to imagine a philosophy book that pretended as though it wasn’t an ongoing conversation. And, yes, this history does make it difficult for people to get into philosophy. It was a significant barrier of entry for me when I started reading Nietzsche fifteen years ago. But I was really interested in the subject, so I persevered, and there you go. If I hadn’t had been interested, I wouldn’t have stuck with it.
> rather it’s just about the person talking and the listening and yeah sure: mention what other people have said: but maybe only so much as to make what you’re trying to say clear.Again, I think it depends on the conversation. You were asking for resources, so I tried to provide you with some resources. Whereas a blog post or article is more self-sufficient and has a thesis and includes only those things that are necessary for that argument.
> Or a simpler way of what I’m trying to say (maybe): less reliance on other authorities and more faith and fun in yourself?I am not in any way appealing to authorities! I don’t think for a single second that anyone should believe anything I say simply because someone else wrote it. Indeed, part of the value in laying out the intellectual tradition is that people can enter into it, and not take any of it for granted.
I again think you’re missing the point here, and I think it’s because you are the one looking for some authority. Honestly, I think you’re being lazy here, Joel, and just looking for a single book that will explain things to you in terms you understand, which you can then agree with and go around believing. And, apologies, but I think that’s a poor way of going about this issue (if you genuinely want to understand it).
Take the issue of how texts mean. As I said previously, Walter Benn Michaels (among others) has advanced the argument that texts mean what their authors intend them to mean. But this argument is a response to other arguments: arguments made by the post-structuralists, for instance (Derrida, Barthes, De Man). And those arguments were responses to other arguments (by Wimsatt and Beardsley, among others). It’s pretty hard to understand what Michaels is trying to say unless you understand what others before him have said. And this has nothign to do with authority: it has to do with the issue being complex, and trying to get at what’s really at stake when one asks “how do texts mean?” Knowledge is built on knowledge; it is created in response to other knowledge.
If all you’re looking for is a single book that explains everything to you in terms you already understand—something tailored to you, something you don’t have to do much work to read or understand—then you have a pretty casual interest. Which is totally fine! No one has to be interested in everything, and lord knows while I find everything interesting, to some extent, I hardly feel compelled to go out and study everything in exhaustive detail. So if I want to know, say, how butterflies reproduce, then I’m fine with a single book on the topic, or an article, or even just the Wikipedia article. But note that I am then not really investigating the subject, but taking what others have said about it on faith. And I certainly then wouldn’t feel comfortable arguing with actual scientists about it. “Oh yeah? That’s how you think it happens? Well, I read the Wikipedia article on it, and that’s not what it said.”
> “My car ran out of gas.”> 1. Doesn’t your example just show that you can have two (or more) meanings from the same sentence?Hirsch wanted to show that language, on its surface, is always semantically ambiguous. He gave the example as a counterexample to Wimsatt and Beardsley (New Critics), who had argued that a meaning of a text is public, and that you don’t want to know what an author intended in order to understand what the text meant. Hirsch was showing how that can’t be true, because you can’t tell, just from that sentence, what the text “means,” unless you are prepared to believe it means all the things that it semantically can mean.
1. Wimsatt & Beardsley argued that a text’s meaning is always public and objective, and can be figured out from the text itself. You don’t need to go ask the author what he or she meant.
2. Hirsch responded, no, wait, that doesn’t really work, does it? Because how do you know what the words themselves mean? You have to know how to read the text to arrive at some objective meaning, and that knowledge can’t be in the text.
In other words, what semantically controls the text? … Walter Benn Michaels would later argue (paraphrase), “How do you even know that the text is written in English? How do you know it isn’t written in a language that looks like English, but one where the words mean totally different things? Like, a code? Also, how do you know which English it’s written in? Is it 18th century English, 19th century, 20th, etc.?” This knowledge, assuming it can be had, has to come from somewhere, and it’s hard to argue that it’s apparent in the text all by itself.
> And you know – why is that a bad thing? And just because you can get multiple meanings from something that doesn’t mean that therefore anything can happen. Right?Whether it’s “good” or “bad” thing depends on context. Here’s one way to think about it. Let’s say you want to leave a note for Mazin, you write “I left your key on the counter.” What does that note mean? Does it mean “The ego left your translation guide on the imitation coin”? Is that what you were trying to express in that note? Is it obvious, from the note itself, what you were trying to say? And what if Mazin understood you as saying the latter? Would he be justified in doing so?
Something is at stake in this debate. Either the meaning of texts is somehow fixed, and we can refer to an objective meaning, or the meaning isn’t fixed, and texts instead mean anything that they can mean. The debate has largely been over this issue. The New Critics and intentionalists are arguing that the meaning is fixed, though they disagree as to how that happens. (The new Critics think the meaning is in the text, whereas the intentionalists think the meaning is what the text’s author intended to mean.) Meanwhile, the poststructuralists think that meaning can’t be fixed, and that a text will mean whatever it can possibly be read as meaning. And this position can slide to the point where meaning itself becomes impossible. (Indeed, i think the poststurcturalist position has to slide to that point. So does the New Critical position, but that’s another article.)
So, yeah, it does kind of matter! … Think of it this way. If I assign a text to my class, and I ask them what it means, if I believe that the text means what its author intended it to mean, then I’m asking my class to try and figure that out. I.e., there will be some definitive objective meaning, and we are looking for it, and people can be right or wrong. (For the record, this is what I do believe, and this is what I intend when I assign texts in classes. Although we also do other things besides look for meanings. I’m happy to also discuss symptomatic readings, because I am a Marxist.)
But if I’m a poststructuralist, then I would be asking the class to do something else. Now, we’d be looking for how the text can’t mean a single objective thing. And we’d instead be looking to generate as many meanings out of it as we can. … I’ve taken plenty of classes with poststructuralists, and I’ve done this in their classes. My Master’s degree, I mostly studied with deconstructionists who subscribed to “the death of the author” and the belief that texts can’t have stable, fixed meanings. I don’t agree with that position, but I understand how they came by it.
Another example here is the classic debate over the meaning of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”:
> 2. I would say that there is a big difference between the meaning of just a “My car ran out of gas.” sentence and the meaning from a story.I don’t really say how, since they’re both texts made out of words, but go on.
> I mean – if E.D. Hirsch and his mates show up and are like – oh yeah: actually that means Wolf from the Gladiators […] that just sounds like deliberate obtuseness… Does that make sense?
No, it doesn’t make sense. I think it’s unfair to characterize the argument asone of some buddies trying to be obtuse. Everyone I have mentioned so far is genuinely interested in this issue, and are scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to trying to understand it. For you to characterize that as deliberate obtuseness because you have a casual interest in the subject—I don’t even know how to respond to that. It’s like a person picking up a scientific paper and complaining about all the big words. “Why can’t they just say it simply?”
But moving beyond that, how is a story different (in this regard) than a sentence?
> A sentence can be a lot more open to being understood in different waysHow so?
> but with a story: well – you can get multiple meanings from it – but your options for left-field interpretations are a lot more limited…I still fail to see how a sentence and a story are different in this regard. I can take any story you like and look at any word in it and ask what that word means.
There was a female servant whom people whispered was a Communist.
They told her not to trust the harsh discord heard in certain chords of keyboard instruments, especially the organ, when tuned on some system of unequal temperament.
But she trusted just such a discord.
The discord consumed her, and made her feel as though she were having oral sex.
… How does your story survive this kind of semantic instability just by being longer (i.e., comprised of multiple sentences)?
But Hirsch’s point is that the New Critical position (that texts are self-sufficient in terms of their meaning) is an impossible argument, because texts (whatever their length) don’t tell you which semantic meaning you should be using. Mind you, he wasn’t saying that we don’t somehow know this! His point though was that we somehow know it, and we can’t get that knowledge from the text itself, because it isn’t in the text.
> your meaning / symptoms definitions = are you redefining them to make a point?I’m not redefining anything, to my knowledge.
> Because I would strongly argue that meaning is not necessarily conscious and intentional. To use an example off the top of my head: the cumulative meaning of all these superhero films starting white guys called Chris is that – well – white men are the default. No one has consciously decided that should be the meaning that they have and yet still – that is the meaning that is there – right?Well, I’d love to see the argument. I’d say, start by trying to define meaning, and what lies behind it (i.e., how we know it when we see it, assuming we can even do that).
What you’re describing here looks less like meaning to me, and more like some unconscious symptom.
I get the impression that part of your concern here is that you think I’m trying to through out the symptoms? But I am not trying to throw out the symptoms. I’m instead arguing that they have to be treated differently than conscious, intended meaning. All I’m really doing is, as per Jeremy’s email (hello, Jeremy!) is acknowlding that texts are produced by some mixture of conscious and unconscious forces. The meaning part of the text is the conscious intended part. Everything else is symptomatic.
For instance. Let’s say I write a note to my mother, “Dear Mom, for Christmas, I would like the Hawkeye figurine that comes with Pizza Dog. And I am not interested in any other Hawkeye figurine. In other words, it’s really the Pizza Dog figure that I want, not the Hawkeye figure. Love, Adam.”
Now, let’s assume that the meaning of this note is what I intend it to mean and am trying to express—I want the Pizza Dog figure. But of course we can also look at what motivated or caused this note in the first place—the unconscious forces that assisted its creation.
Why do I want a Pizza Dog figurine? Is this commodity fetishism? (I would think so.) And what does wanting this tell you about my psychology? It has to tell you something, right? If nothing else, it suggests something about my personality, that I’m some kind of Marvel fan more toward the hipster end of the spectrum. I’m not saying that information isn’t valuable or interesting. But it isn’t the meaning of my note; it’s something else, and you can’t discover it by doing interpretation. And that’s because interpretation looks to the places where we have conscious choice. Symptomatic readings look to where we don’t have conscious choice—where we’re just acting as symptoms of some larger cultural or biological force.
> But I think that all this stuff is cool. And important. So yeah.Well, obviously I do, too.
Apologies again to all the Ghost World enthusiasts for derailing this discussion! I really just wanted to respond to Joel’s email and provide some resources he might find useful. Again, I’m happy to continue this discussion on another thread, or to leave it lie.
(… Another reason for doing this in a separate thread is that it wouldn’t have to have a time limit, but could be ongoing. But, again, no one should feel obliged to carry on with this unless they really want to!)
A (…but is this Adam or A D Jameson?)
I too would like a lecture from Adam on that diagram, though perhaps there’s not enough time before the midnight deadline here. I wasn’t kidding when I said I threw it together on paint in a moment of glib stupidity. I was kidding when I made it, albeit in a very Ghost World way, where you make fun of something because you don’t feel like you have an “authentic” connection with the world around you despite/because of all that you think you know about it.
Ghost World first emerges in the pages of Eightball in 1993 and finally wraps, four years later, in 1997 just before the internet and mobile phone culture starts to make a serious dent on all our lives. The point at which, while you may have been making use of the web (read: on chatrooms) in the university library, Mum was still scratching her head wondering what all the fuss was about and what the bloody thing was for – and just look at her now, wrestling with all those pesky emails. It was a comic about the movement from childhood to adulthood, nestled on the edge of the precipice of the information age. While this is unlikely to be a contrivance on the part of Daniel Clowes, the poetry of Ghost World’s original temporal positioning won’t be lost on you, I’m sure, dear reader, and, once understood, adds an extra depth and weight to the work. Enid and Becky inhabit a world where physical artefacts contain real charge. Where the past is composed of decaying, hoarded *things* as opposed to incorruptible data, and dissolution is a real concern. The tangible effects of time’s passing manifests in the slow destruction of those objects containing memory, and memory itself is, necessarily, a more valuable commodity, the past sweeter, because slowly washing away.
David, Ilia, all,
I dislike being encouraged to lecture, since I think a deficiency of my personality is a tendency to lecture (as evidenced above). But since I have already stuck my foot in it, I will try saying briefly how I understand meaning in regard to the audience. I should stress that I hardly intend this as something definitive—I offer it more in the spirit of how I currently understand things—and that my understanding here is the result of having studied numerous other people, who deserve the credit if I happen to say anything smart.
So as I’ve already said at exhausting length, I think that when we ask, “What does a text mean?” we’re asking “What did the author intend?” And trying to figure out that meaning is what we call interpretation. (This is pure Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp; see their “Against Theory.”) At the same time, though, we can also ask what caused or motivated a text. Because people make texts for all sorts of reasons, and people are some mixture of consciousness and unconsciousness. So Joel, when you (rightly) ask, “Why are there so many superhero movies starring white guys named Chris?” you’re asking not after meaning, I’d argue, but after some unconscious aspect of society which is exerting an influence on the texts that individual artists produce. The name “Chris” is a common male name because of the influence of Christianity. And most superheroes are white guys because our society is racist and sexist—these films are being produced in a patriarchy. And we could also examine how these films manifest and reinforce the capitalist ideologies that suffuse us (something I tend to study). But none of that unconscious stuff means that all of the white male superhero movies are going to mean exactly the same thing. For instance, James Gunn’s Super stars a white male (not named Chris), and the film is some kind of bathetic parody of the superhero genre in a way that, say, Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t. To say that meaning is the product of a conscious author isn’t to deny this unconscious stuff, but to try and work out how it functions in a different way, and must be read in a different way. (It requires interpretation. Unconscious symptoms do not, as they are directly manifested.)
Anyway, moving beyond that, when we bring in readers, like in the diagram: I don’t think they determine meanings (so I would disagree with someone like Barthes and his death of the author here). But readers try to figure out what texts meaning according to social conventions. (Art is a public activity.) They don’t read texts in vacuums. Texts teach us how to read other texts (and David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have written a lot on how as we watch more movies, we become conditioned to understand movies). So in a recent Kraken, Joel, you mentioned the movie convention of a couple kissing, then the camera panning over to the window, which we commonly understand that to mean that the couple is now going to bed (even though we don’t see the act). But that doesn’t mean that every pan to every window means sex, or that a director couldn’t come along and do something different with the convention (which is precisely why it can be parodied).
(As a side note, I often find that college students tend to over-determine meaning in a way that might be relevant. Once they become accustomed to the idea that some texts use symbols—an author included an apple as a reference to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve—then they start thinking that every apple in every story is a similar reference. But while some apples are deliberate symbols, they aren’t all. Some apples are just apples!)
Moving on: readers who don’t share the social conventions of the author will often misunderstand texts—that is to say, they will produce wrong interpretations (meanings that aren’t what the author intended). A good example here I think is “Shakespeare in the Bush,” which I mentioned above, because I think it’s easy to see in that essay that the reading ofHamlet that the Tiv produce is miles away from what Shakespeare intended—hence the essay’s humor. (I will neatly sidestep the issue of the essay’s Eurocentrism.) The Tiv elders are producing a misunderstanding—they are misreading the play. Of course, that argument depends on your thinking that the meaning of the text is synonymous with the author’s intention. But if you believe that the reading produced by the Tiv elders is valid—that they are discovering meaning—then you have to believe that any reading in any social context will be valid, because you no longer believe that texts mean what their authors intended—you instead believe that they mean however they are read. (This would be comparable to Barthes’s position: “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”) And from here it isn’t hard to demonstrate that texts don’t mean anything at all, since we can always produce new social contexts that will produce new meanings. That is because societies aren’t natural things given to us, but are constructed by humans, and we can construct them in new ways—we do so all the time. Obviously we don’t think that “man” and “woman” still mean the same things they did one thousand years ago. And we can also see that subcultures invent specialized meanings for words (and new words) all the time. So for instance, in the card game Magic: the Gathering, the word “mill” has a specialized meaning—to place cards from a deck directly into a graveyard—something the word didn’t mean until Richard Garfield made the card Millstone. If you believe that texts mean what their readers think they mean, then Magic players can think that George Eliot’s The Mill and the Floss is about decking the opponent (because you can’t say, no George Eliot didn’t know anything about Magic—we’ve already established that the Tiv can interpret Hamlet their way, and Shakespeare didn’t know anything about the Tiv).
There’s more to it but I’ll leave it there because I’ve already said more than enough? I hope this is clear though I won’t be surprised if it isn’t; apologies if so.
Thanks to all for indulging me and apologies if I’ve been too obnoxious. Rest assured I don’t intend to hijack future conversations along these lines—I initially intended just to respond to Joel’s email regarding how stories work (an issue that fascinates me, and one I hope interested parties can continue in the future, perhaps in some other venue?). And thanks to all for your readings and thoughts on Ghost World. Before this thread, I honestly hadn’t thought much about that graphic novel, but now I find myself compelled to read it.