Book Club / the Transfer of Subjective Information


Ghost World 

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 there’s somekind of law that says that every library in the world HAS to have a copy of Ghost World somewhere on it’s shelves. The only other books that come close for such sheer ubiquitousness are The Dark Knight Returns and Maus (only with Maus it’s usually just Volume 1 or Volume 2 – but never both). 
That’s the first part of the reason why I thought it would be a good idea to choose it as a book to talk about. Also: just from speaking to lots of different people over the years – it seems like there are a lot of Daniel Clowes fans out. (It’s usually in response to me saying something like “oh yeah – so: do you ever read comics / graphic novels?” and in return getting a reply that goes something like “oh yeah – but I’m not really into mainstream / superhero stuff you know? I’m more into Daniel Clowes / stuff like Daniel Clowes.” Does that sound familiar to anyone else – or is it just me? I promise I’m not trying to start a fight or anything)
Also: well yeah: we’ve had quite a testosterone-filled time with Crossed, Holy Terror and All Star Superman all one after another and it seemed like it might be a good idea to have something that was much less BANG! CRASH! SMASH! but then that in itself raises all sorts of interesting questions: because – hey – surely we’re no longer at the moment where we have to have a gendered view of genre – right? Right? Or does it still make sense to say that there are some things that “guys” like and some things that “girls” like (I feel like I might be in dangerous waters here – but you all know my intentions are pure yeah)? 
Plus also: all things being equal it’s a good thing to have a comic where the main characters aren’t white guys even tho – oops – the guy who wrote it is (dang). But especially after watching the latest episode of Silicon Valley which featured the killer line of “We want to hire the best people. Who happen to be women. Regardless of whether or not they are women, that part is irrelevant.” Which well yeah – feels like a pretty nice summation of two conflicting views which both kinda make sense… (1. Let’s make the world more a more equal place. 2. By treating everyone equally). But then I guess that’s part of the fun of being a human being. Or something? 


And the final part of my reason: well yeah – I guess I’d like to get somesort of good straight answer as to why exactly Ghost World is held up as such a seminal work / why every bloody library has a copy on it’s shelves. Part of me thinks that it’s because it was the right book at the right time and not to get too cynical and marketing (or whatever) about it – I mean – it’s kinda perfectly aimed in terms of it’s position in the marketplace. It’s a “serious” comic that doesn’t actually get into anything too sexual or violent. It’s kinda thin so you can breeze through it in less of an hour. It’s about teenage girls – and come on: everyone’s kinda fascinated by teenage girls right? (Especially teenage boys – you know: speaking from experience here). 
And yeah – (and I think this is what’s most interesting for me: and also maybe the thing that maybe most of you will disagree with?) is it’s almost exactly as deep or as shallow as you want it to be. I mean – yeah: because what is Ghost World actually about? I mean – reading it today I was kinda struck by all the flak Enid and Rebecca where casting on to all the other characters (as well as themselves). Like – it was all so violent and mean. Just to grab a line at random: “I hate this fucking magazine! These stupid girls think they’re so hip. But they’re just a bunch of trendy stuck-up prep-school bitches who think they’re “cutting edge” because they know who “Sonic Youth” is!” I mean – wow. Calm down already. Take a chill pill. Stop expending all that negative energy – you know? 
But then maybe I’m projecting my own issues into the comic? I dunno. I’m not sure if it’s just because the whole book is in green – but the nearest metaphor that springs to mind is looking into a fish tank. You know – there’s a sense of peace that comes from watching all these messed characters just sort of float aimlessly about and – to go back to that comment above: it’s up to you to decide if it’s deep or shallow. Like: maybe you like because there’s so much to think about? Or maybe because you don’t really have to think about it much at all? And that just reading it makes you feel smarter because – you know: it’s not just mainstream superhero comics or whatever. 
Still saying that: I guess to pre-empt some possible answers: I guess the main appeal of Ghost World is the characters rather than the story (if that’s not like a totally cheap distinction to make?). I mean for a lot of things (and yeah – ok: hands in the air – most of the things that I really like) – it’s the shape of the story that’s the main appeal and how it twists and turns and what it does is what’s interesting and cool to me. And the characters are just the moving parts that helps to make it work. 
But there’s also another popular school of thought that says that characters are the main draw and that the point of comics or fiction or whatever – is to make fictional versions of humans that act and behave in the sort of strange and believable ways that we encounter every day (in fact it says this exact thing on the back cover of the version I’ve got: “For once in a comic story, people are portrayed as they really talk and act. Clowe’s pitch is uncannily accurate.” Washington Post).  
And yeah – there is a part of that I do really love so… (“That’s why you’ll never hear any reggae on the radio!”) 
But whatever. That’s my take. What’s yours?  


re: “fictional versions of humans that act and behave in the sort of strange and believable ways that we encounter every day.”

Every day I see an old woman who sits at the bus stop down the road all day.  First off I just kept noticing at the bus stop, only after months did I realise I wasn’t just walking past at the same time she happened to be there. She sits there all day. I have only once ever seen her actually near a bus and that was getting off one to sit at the bus stop. Maybe she travels in especially? It’s a busy bus stop right opposite the bus station so they all stop there. She seems quite happy sitting there watching them come and go.

All of which always reminds me of the bus stop guy in Ghost World. Similarly the recurring phrases of graffiti I remember being on walls around where I grew up that I could never decode. The only one I remember seeing a lot was ‘Black Sabbath’ sometimes written as an inverted cross. I had no idea that it was a band or what it meant but I know it made me feel deeply unnerved by an adult world that made people write such things on walls. So I totally got it in Ghost World when the mysterious phrase is encountered randomly on walls. That was my world. 

But the best thing about Ghost World is the dialogue. It’s some of the best dialogue I have ever read in a comic or graphic novel. It feels real. It’s writing of the highest calibre underpinning a perfectly pitched portrayal of the kinds of relationships you have at that age (at any age?), when you first start to have awareness of their emotional form. As shallow or as deep as you like.


With apologies for copypasting smth I’ve written before, want to add my suggestion for why in the seven hells this book is called “Ghost World”:
Early on Enid is excited about meeting “David Clowes” – a stand in for the author of her comic – at a signing. The guy turns out to be a creep, and Clowes may be aiming this episode at writers unselfconciously creating their very own fantasy girlfriends in their work. Clowes is not doing that, and apparently that Enid Coleslaw is actually an anagram for Daniel Clowes, which further underlines his determination to keep his protagonist very “close”, i.e. not letting any ‘other-ing’ distort his account.
That piece of meta prepares us for Enid’s second encounter with a manifestation of her author. Because that is who I believe the guy with the paint brush leaving all the “Ghost World” graffiti is. Clowes is literally branding his creation, imposing a unifying metaphor over it. But as his central character approaches for answers, he literally runs away from providing any. In that scene, he divests himself of the responsibility of giving a moral to his tale, or a direction for Enid. The book ends on the exactly the opposite of a deus ex machina – God isn’t revealed in the machine, He leaves it.


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.



I’ve been having some thoughts about Ghost World and about how stories work (etc blah) I realise that they might be slightly contentious – but what the hell right?
I think what Ilia and Jeremy were saying about the meaning of the title was really interesting and I think that both ideas have a lot to them. But then I started wondering just how exactly it is that Ghost World as a title and as a book leaves itself so open to different readings… 
Back when you’re a kid the types of stories that adults tend to favor are the ones which have very definite morals and messages (“Remember kids. Captain Planet says – winners don’t do drugs.”) but then as we grow up most people (well – ok: maybe I’m just speaking for myself) kinda start to go for stories that don’t have messages so much – but instead go in for things with lots of shock values and twist endings: where the fun isn’t so much what the story is about – but more what kind of fun the story can actually a do (a bad example maybe – but yeah: I’ve always thought of Watchmen as less about a story that’s really actually about anything and more like an exercise / demonstration of all the fun things that a story can do – you know? Different perspectives and etc). But then – yeah – there’s the stage after that (again – maybe just talking for myself here) when you start to realise that there is meaning that comes from certain stories told in certain ways and – even more scary / impressive / etc – is when you realise how stories can act as transmission devices for – well: our dominant capitalist ideology (fun time). 
So where does Ghost World fit into this? 


Well – my take is that maybe Ghost World (and other stories of it’s ilk (ilk is such a good word!)) are about taking the devices and mechanisms of erm meaning generation and scattering them around the place so that everyone is free to generate their own point of view about what the title means / what the story means / etc. Which yeah – I guess is another idea about what the titles means – nothing is solid – it’s all ghosts. 
I mean: I’m sure that there might be some disagreement about this idea: but I don’t think that Ghost World is alone in this. It actually feels more like a general trend in the upper brow booker prize fiction bracket – where the idea that a story contains the meaning is deemed – well – slightly childish: and instead the meaning comes from the fragments – bits of sentences and conversations and: like I said above – the most important part is making characters that feel “real.”
To me this approach seems (dare I say it?) slightly bogus. I mean – yeah – I read Ghost World and kinda liked it. But my preferences swing more towards something where the meaning comes from the story (some good comics example maybe (?) of the type of thing I’m talking about: Scott Pilgrim or The Filth). And in fact – it’s less like erm: how I think a story should work (and you’re very free to disagree with me) and it’s more like a song or something. A few lines of lyrics that you’re free to give your own interpretation. Rather than something leading you from point to point to point (although that may be slightly under-selling what I’m trying to mean). 
Of course – it may be possible that I’ve completely missed the point and that actually Ghost World doesn’t actually do any of this and is actually quite direct about what it means – in which case I guess (if someone points out how it works) I’m gonna feel real embarrassed. But what the hell – it’s fun to talk about the ideas right?  
Oooh – sorry: and just to add. 
I found this when I was looking for Ghost World panels: 




Which yeah – sums it up for me maybe / makes a bit clearer what I’m trying to say… 
With Ghost World – the meaning doesn’t reside so much in the story. But more in what the story sets off in you. Again – like a song. The way it works is that it leaves things open enough so that it can trigger off things in you (“Yeah. It reminds me of my best friend from High School.”)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just that for me: well – I prefer the story to do the work and take me somewhere else – rather than it being something that makes me reflect about myself. 


Do you mean something along the lines of Barthes’ the meaning not being contained in the text but in the reader?


No. Actually – almost the opposite. That stories can be built in a way to convey particular meanings. I’m trying to think of some good examples – but everything that comes into my head at the moment is non-comic booky – but also: to just reduce a whole story or a book or a film or whatever into – “oh yeah and it was all about this” literally reduces it and sells it short. So I guess it might make more sense / be clearer to make up an example so: 
There was a girl called Red.
People told her not to trust wolves.
She trusted a wolf. 
The wolf ate her. 
The end
I wanted to make a story that just had one meaning – “don’t trust wolves” but damn it (but interesting!) having that second line also kinda makes it a story about how you should trust other people too. But then yeah – it feels like maybe this could be the start of maybe a diagram of how stories work and how they convey meaning (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). 
But yeah: back to Ghost World. It’s more like a story that goes around meaning. Something more like. 
There was a girl called Red. 
People told her not to trust wolves. 
She ate an ice cream. 
Then she felt sad. 
The end
And you know – sure: that’s more a “real slice of life” and it’s not so cheesy and the character feels more real – but it’s not really conveying any real meaning – apart from the meaning that any reader wants to give it… (“I think it’s all about how ice cream works in our culture”). Or – you know: it’s open so the reader can go. “Oh yeah – that reminds me of the time that I ate ice cream” or whatever. 
I mean: personally I prefer the first type of story (meaning generating) rather than the second type (no meaning) but I guess that’s just a personal preference? I just think it’s very interesting that it’s mostly the second type that tends to get all the – I dunno – critical love or whatever. But then I guess that’s a drum I tend to bang on a lot so I’ll just leave it there.  


I knew we’d come around to my field of study! (I study formal aesthetics, which includes the study of how texts mean in the first place—assuming they mean at all.)

> it feels like maybe this could be the start of maybe a diagram of how stories work and how they convey meaning
> (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.

3) Intentionalism, which argues that the author is the sole source of a text’s meaning, and that texts mean what their authors intend them to mean. The classic text here is “Against Theory” by Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels, later expanded into “Against Theory 2.” Also relevant I would also recommend Michaels’s recent book The Shape of the Signifier.
… When examined in finer detail, though, some of these positions collapse into one another; the above is invented simply as a rough overview for grounding oneself on the essentials of the debate.
In the exam I just took (with Walter Benn Michaels), I studied debate and would be very happy to discuss it further with anyone wishes—but don’t feel obliged:)
Shorter version: what you’re looking for here isn’t a single book, but a whole academic field. Come study with me at UIC!

P.S. I guess I should add that I’m an intentionalist and thus don’t believe—can’t believe—that texts mean the way you suggest in your email. “if a story does this thing that means that this meaning is being created” sounds to me like formalism, and I’d argue that formalism, while dreamy-sounding (I was a formalist before I became an intentionalist), is ultimately untenable; it will always collapse into the postructuralist account. (This is what I’ve spent a lot of the past four years learning, often in a very painful fashion.) Instead, authors use conventions to express intended meaning; to put that another way, meaning isn’t predetermined. This is why different authors can use the same words and devices to create different works with different meanings. To put it another way, a vampire doesn’t always mean the same thing; its meaning depends on the authors intentions. Same thing with words. Same thing with plots, and so on. That said, how authors express meanings via conventions gets complicated because authors are historically situated and must work with received, shared conventions and textual traditions.

Shorter P.S.: You also need to read Hegel.


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. 

So – what’s the best way for me to agree and say thank you but then also disagree? (Is that even possible? Ha!)
Like – I guess the kinda book I was imagining was more a kind of “if this happens in a story then this means that” kinda thing. Like – almost like a dispassionate set of diagrams of whatever. 
I mean – yes: the Formalism / Poststructuralism / Intentionalism stuff is v interesting: but I dunno – as someone that was briefly involved with you know – going to University and everything: I just don’t know how much it helps maybe to have all these long works for stuff? Of course – yeah yeah – it’s not my world and learning all the jargon helps to fit big large concepts into tight little words. But oh my gosh – there’s so many books! And – man – is it really the case that I need to read all of them in order to get to grips with stuff? I mean – maybe this is just all my own prejudices and un-worked out emotional issues – but isn’t it possible to live in a world where everything is clear and easy to understand? Or is that just something that capitalism (or neoliberalism or whatever – ha!) has tricked me into? 
I mean – I tried to read some Zizek the other day (it was on a friend’s shelf) and I really enjoyed the first few pages with the jokes and mentioning films and whatever – and then: well yeah – it slowly dissolved into alphabet soup: just letters and words all swimming past my eyes. And so yeah – I dunno: I guess I distrust conversations or arguments where the reply is “oh yeah – in order to really understand this stuff you need to read some other stuff….” I mean – can’t you be the only who makes it clear? 
But also saying that – Adam studying with you at UIC sounds very very cool. Maybe in another life? 
And yeah ok: if I was to read some Hegel – where should I start? Or – even better: is there just a comic book or something? Can I not just rewatch The Matrix?   



Oh my god do not read Hegel (mountains of alphabet soup). Nietzsche’s Genealogy is much shorter, easier and doesn’t have any of the teleological rubbish.
This is derailing even more but want to ask Adam if he’s read Regarding Method by Quentin Skinner. I did intellectual history at uni and that book pretty much solidified my allegiance to what you call “intentionalism”.
I’ll come back on more of this stuff (really interesting!), but am at work at the mo.
I think Joel is after something more like this (I haven’t read it but flicked through it in the bookshop and thought it was interesting). I personally am of the opinion any kind of lexicon of plot moves and their associated meanings (incl variations on the “there are only x types of plot” school) is not only a doomed enterprise, but also rather thankless. It’s sells the wealth of possibilities inherent in storytelling short, as well as being (as Joel says) inevitably reductive. On Jeremy’s despair at the tall mountain climbing involved in arriving at an author’s intentions, motives etc, I’m a little bit more optimistic about that, and think Barthes is barking up the wrong tree.
I sorta get where Joel is coming from when he says he’s a bit disappointed by authors running away from providing meanings or themes in their work. (Sorta had this problem when I watched Persona). In Ghost World, I think it works because it compounds the characters’ own sense of meaninglessness. That is to say: the sense of meaninglessness kinda becomes the meaning of the book – there’s an existentialist insistence that you are ultimately the only possible author of your own story.


Hi Jeremy, Joel, Ilia, everyone else,

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.”


Another way to think of this (and, by the way, I am entirely indebted here to Walter Benn Michaels for this understanding of the indexical—for more on it, see The Shape of the Signifier) is that when we read things that are symptomatic or indexical, we’re reading something mechanistic, and determinate. Again, there is no choice. If you have a fever, it is a symptom of something going on inside your body. It’s not as though your body is representing something via a fever. It is expressing itdirectly, and that’s why the fever is a direct sign of something else—say, the flu. Your doctor doesn’t interpret your symptoms, she or he reads them.
Another way of putting this is (and this example is taken directly from Shape of the Signifier), if I take a photo of your stealing a bridge, it counts as evidence of the theft because photographs are necessarily indexical. Barring some Photoshop shenanigans, you had to be stealing the bridge for me to photograph it. The camera can only register what it can observe—and it can’t choose to register something else. But this is also why I can’t say, “I know you stole that bridge, and I can prove it!”—and then produce a painting of you doing that. Because paintings aren’t strictly evidence of anything, other than that I had access to some paints and a canvas. You didn’t have to steal the bridge for me to paint a picture of you doing so.

To put it another way: the famous final shot of North by Northwest implies that Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall (now “Mrs. Thornhill”) are having intercourse. Hitchcock intended the shot to be read that way (to mean that), and if your friend didn’t see that, you’d be right in thinking them slow-witted. But what do we make of Hitchcock’s penchant for casting blonde actresses in his films, or his obsession with making his heroes the victims of circumstances, “the wrong man falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit”? Those look more like symptoms of Hitchcock’s psychology, which was the product of a particular time and place. (He was a momma’s boy; he fetishized Nordic women, believing them cool and aloof; his father punished him for things he didn’t do.)
To recap: meaning is formal and intentional and representative and requires interpretation. Symptoms are indexical and can be read but are not representational, not formal, not meaningful, and not intentional.

To put it yet another way (because why not—and I am indebted to my friend Elf for this particular example). When Pollock beat his wife, it didn’t mean anything. He was beating his wife, and he was acting in a way symptomatic of his culture. 1950s America was sexist, and men embodied those attitudes and husbands often beat their wives. (I hope I don’t have to say this was horrible and that sexism is awful, but I’ll say it anyway just in case.) The operative point is that, if we were to look at Pollock’s paintings and consider them sexist—say, we wonder why Helen Frankenthaler was the only successful female Abstract Expressionist painter—then, again, we’re not asking as to the meaning of Pollock’s paintings, or Abstract Expressionism, but rather asking as to how those paintings, and that art movement, were symptoms of the historical moment that produced them. Full Fathom Five, meanwhile, still means whatever exactly whatever Jackson Pollock consciously intended it to mean.


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!

And I don’t know the Skinner book you mentioned, but I will check it out ASAP—thanks!

Joel, Zizek is more impenetrable than Hegel, and a terrible place to start. By all means, read Nietzsche instead—I started “doing philosophy” with him (and look at the trouble it brought me). And I understand if you don’t want to read Hegel, though note I said one “needs,” Hegel, not that one necessarily has to read him. And I’d add (charitably) that I think you should be less dismissive or distrustful of the argument that “in order to get Y you should read X,” because all the things we think and believe come from somewhere—knowledge is produced by humans, and it has a history. If you trace an idea backward, you begin producing a genealogy. E.g., Nietzsche (a great genealogist) was influenced by Schopenhauer, who was influenced by Kant, who was influenced by Hume—and it just keeps going. To ask where any idea or notion came from is to ask about its lineage. People invent very little, I think. (I’ve invented nothing I’m saying in this email, but have learned it from other people, who learned large swaths of it from others. That doesn’t make it true, per se, but if an idea holds up, it should hold up for some amount of time, no? Or it should be modified to hold up, or discarded.)
OK, hope that’s interesting/useful, and again, I’m happy to continue this convo in another thread if that’s tidier / more to be desired. (I’m also happy to leave it lie, if I’m being a bother.) I’ve not read Ghost World and can say nothing of any use about it. I did see the film (once, in the theater when it came out), but I’ve mostly forgotten it. Although, isn’t there a part where one character brings a racist artifact to school, and gets in trouble? Even though she didn’t intend anything racist by it? But the person who made the artifact doubtlessly intended something racist when they made it. Again, different people can have different intentions when it comes to representations (leaving aside the issue that the Ghost World character—Enid?—didn’t make the artifact—but she was trying to repurpose it as an artwork, if I recall correctly?)
Enthusiastically friendly sign-off from across the pond (from Chicago),


I don’t have much to say on this particular graphic novel. My thoughts are: Seinfield meets Mean girls. 

The story isn’t strong enough for me and the characters (main and secondary) aren’t interesting enough. When I start to find myself mildly interested, pettiness and mean-spirited actions leave me not caring what happens to them.
Not one I’d recommend to anyone else. 


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). 

But yeah – the stuff I really wanna tussle with is basically everything Adam said…
*puts on skin-tight wrestling leotard*
I mean – just to say the obvious first off: for me most of the fun of talking about stuff is going on the fun tangents so the fact that maybe Ghost World and Daniel Clowes is maybe receding away in the rear-view mirror a little isn’t really an issue. In fact – maybe my brain isn’t adhesive enough but I’ve always found it tough to stick to the point. 
But anyway yes – stuff / things I want to say:
Adam – there’s this really fantastic writer you should check out called A D Jameson:   
He did this on The Worlds End
This on The Hobbit (which I haven’t seen and probably never will – but still really really enjoyed reading that article) 
And – oh! – this on Cloud Atlas
Plus you know – Batman stuff
Now – part of me saying that is that I just like being cheeky and mischievous (for those of you that don’t know – Adam + A D Jameson = SAME PERSON! *shocked gasp*) but also (from my memory anyhow – hmmm: maybe I should have gone back and reread the things I linked before I linked them? Naaah – it’ll be fine right?) is that 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 them (hell – with The Hobbit one: I didn’t even need to see the Hobbit!). The point that I’m (ham-handedly) trying to make is that – well: 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. 

Or a simpler way of what I’m trying to say (maybe): less reliance on other authorities and more faith and fun in yourself? 
All the disclaimers: yes obviously there are lots of different ways to talk about stuff and different registers and they will work and be more helpful in different contexts. And the fact that I’m pitting Adam versus A D (hopefully) shows that I’m aware that really this kinda stuff is all just aspects of the same person… 
Or whatever. 
(I’m thinking maybe I should just delete this / not send it: but what the hey right?) 
On to: “My car ran out of gas.” – well yes. Obviously there are different ways to get meaning of out that. But well –
1. Doesn’t your example just show that you can have two (or more) meanings from the same sentence? 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? 
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. To go back to my (super-lame) example from before: 


There was a girl called Red.
People told her not to trust wolves.
She trusted a wolf. 
The wolf ate her. 
The end


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… 
Also (oops – actually going back and rereading your last email) your meaning / symptoms definitions = are you redefining them to make a point? 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? 
I feel like I have only just managed to get an ice-cube of everything that I want to say about this -and the rest of the iceberg is just sitting there laughing at me: but what the hey – maybe you can just guess the rest of what I mean from this?
But I think that all this stuff is cool. And important. So yeah. 


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? 🙂 

Re: Simon Pegg – I mean: gosh – really? 

“Obviously,” he said, “I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

“It is a kind of dumbing down because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

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….

And yeah – challenging emotional journeys can come from anywhere. But yeah – it’s probably not the best idea to get your thoughts and thinking from newspapers seeing how they’re mostly concerned with trying to get people to think in only a very narrow way. 
Infantilsation of culture = good or bad?  

Well – actually: the truth is a lot more complicated – innit? 


Oops – yes, World’s end.  D’oh.  In the middle of procrastinating whilst writing a research proposal… my head isn’t in the game!


Joel – In case there was any doubt. I love Seinfield and I enjoyed Mean girls…Ghostworld not so much :(. It should be possible to combine the two in an enjoyable form (this just wasn’t it). 


“Nerd culture is the product of a late capitalist conspiracy, designed to infantalize the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.”
– which I think is basically what I said? (lol) 
I like this bit: 
Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. 
(Also – this all kinda reminds me of “Perky Pat” in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick: but maybe that’s something for another time…?) 


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…


Let’s talk about a grubbier aspect of what we’re talking about when we talk about Ghost World, namely the packaging, how it’s been sold and re-sold, whether it’s got a picture of Thora Birch on the cover (I don’t think any such edition exists, but maybe I’m wrong). The stuff you’re not supposed to judge it by, basically, despite the fact that this but into all that stuff about intention, reception, and interpretation you were talking about in a tangible way.  After all, the sort of intentions and expectations you read a comic with will be different if you read it as one strip amongst many in Clowes’ Eightball than they are if you read it as a graphic novel, or as the source material for a movie that left you slightly unsatisfied but curious enough to read more. 


It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that all of the critiques of the comic that have been provided here relate to its failure as an extended narrative, but that does seem to be a recurring theme, and I think that’s pretty fair. There are notes of epiphanic ambiguity that seem to be aspiring towards the status of the literary short story, just as there were in various other Clowes strips from that era, but these are too rote and underdeveloped to hold much appeal in themselves.

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!

Yes, the book doesn’t have much in the way of a conventional story, but that seems to me to be besides the point, Enid and Rebecca observe the world, and we observe them observing the world in lacerating, cherishable detail. all the while drifting slowly apart in this post school limbo. Their relationship with everybody and everything drenched with so much irony that their own emotions confuse them.
Ghost World is just so full of sharp, strange business I’m a little surprised that anybody could feel ‘meh’ about it. It nails its targets beautifully, captures  that certain elusive mood of nightmarish mundanity so well…
Tssch.. there’s no accounting for taste, but if you prefer books where someone dresses up in spandex to go fight crime, then all I have for you is pity and contempt.
Cheery bye



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!

On Ghost World, disagree with everyone who privileges the texture of the comic over the thematic wrap around Clowes tries to provide at the end. It may be “rote”, but I do love the image of an author running away from his own characters and his own work. Without that ~meaning~ I wouldn’t have warmed to the comic so much. But like I’ve said, I do like nailing down intentions and meanings – the exercise provides a satisfaction that far outweighs the immediate ~feels~ I pick up as I’m reading.


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.)


OK, Joel—

> 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.

To clarify:

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”:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
         I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
         The touch of earthly years.


No motion has she now, no force;
         She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
         With rocks, and stones, and trees.
… The debate is, are we meant to read the poem optimistically or pessimistically? Is the woman’s death and burial a cause for joy, or sorrow? Or both? Because it seems it can be read a few different ways. Are all those readings equally correct? Or is one more correct than the others?
A poststructuralist would say they are equally correct. An intentionalist would argue that the correct meaning is the one Wordsworth intended (which would seem an optimistic reading, as he was a pantheist, and believed the woman was now part of a living nature).
So, again, things are at stake!

> 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.
The end.

… 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!)

Yours sincerely,
A (…but is this Adam or A D Jameson?)

tl;dr Adam’s right, Joel’s wrong.


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.

While I might privilege the texture of Ghost World over the ending because I think that it’s more successful on that level than as a sustained narrative, I’d like to draw a distinction between appreciating it more as a series of strips than as a “graphic novel” and reading it just for “feels”. 
Questions of authorship and intent haunt the strip on an episodic basis, and – as my previous blether about the strips having recurring concerns hopefully indicated – I think these are explored most satisfactorily in these smaller narrative blocs.  Enid Coleslaw is an anagram of Daniel Clowes, and as Ilia has already so skilfully established, her disappointing non-encounter with her namesake and creator is at the heart of the third strip in this comic. Clowes’ anxiety over his creation of a teenage girl whose verbal fireworks will inevitably burn him is also laid bare in the first chapter of the comic, when Enid narrates an encounter with a “totally normal-looking old guy” who makes computer generated images of children for his own sexual gratification. This represents a debased parody of Clowes own act of ventriloquism, the cruelest possible self-criticism of a grown man (and a normal looking one at that!) who knows that he is going to spend a couple of years drawing pictures of teenage girls. 
Elsewhere, this conflict between intention vs. possible perception is explored as it relates to the characters inside the strips rather than in how they relate to their creator. Enid has a “punk day”, but worries that her new look has been seen wrong by Grant Morrison style business punk John Crowley (formerly “Johnny Apeshit”, now getting paid to “fuck things up from the inside”):



In Ghost World, the possibility of people not appreciating something properly is a spectre that refuses to be banished, so if you go to a shitty diner you have to make sure that everyone knows how shitty you think it is, especially the waiter, because eventually people you don’t like will probably go there for the wrong reasons. If you want to back to “Cavetown USA”, the dinosaur-themed playground that was the site of your “only happy memory of childhood”, you have to be prepared for the people you shared that memory with not to remember it the way you demand them to. If you want to go to college and start a new life for yourself, you might even have to act like you don’t want to go at all to maintain relations with your best friend, and god knows where that will leave the pair of you if you don’t even get in! 



Rebecca’s with me in wanting the strip to go on forever, but alas, both versions of Enid Coleslaw had other plans! 
If I have to read it as a complete story, with an ending – and barring any future bus stop surprises, I do! – then I’m glad to have Ilia’s portrait of the artist as a cowardly vandal fleeing from his own creation to take with me.  How else would you close out a performance that’s this worried about being taken wrong, after all?  If I still don’t find Ghost World hugely compelling in this form, I can at least appreciate it as a precursor to Clowes’ more complicated explorations of some of these ideas in Ice Haven and The Death Ray.  
I think I called Ice Haven Clowes’ masterpiece a long time ago on the internet. I’d like to say that I stand by that, but I’d really need to read it again to be sure. I remember that book combining Clowes’ proficiency for making short, funny, thematically coherent comic strips with a more confident sort of authoritative gamesmanship, one that anticipated and challenged its audience’s reactions even as it manipulated them. For all that the reading burns strong in my mind, memory is a tricky thing, and as the characters in Ghost World know all too well, reality won’t always play along with it…



Who knows how I’ll read it (Ghost World? Ice Haven?) next time. 
For now, here’s my fellow Mindless One Amypoodle, writing about the treatment of nostalgia in the comic in a way that ties into my own feelings on it and the place it holds in my own past a little bit too well:

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.



I have tried to like this book, as I had a long period of boredom with Clowes because it seemed like all his work was Middle Class people being a bit miserable. A recent reread has got me back into his work. My main problem with it is that I think Enid is a dick and I just want her to shut up with her whining.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s