and Authenticity in Ghost World
by Doug Mann
1. Ghost World as a Critique of Consumer Capitalism
A. From Comic to Film
Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film Ghost World is an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel of the same name (they co-wrote the screenplay). The spirit of the film is quite similar to that of the graphic novel. In both we see the physical and existential wanderings of two late teens, Enid and Rebecca (Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson), in the summer after their high school graduation in an unnamed city that could be Clowes’ home town Chicago.
Both graphic novel and film are subtle critiques of the effects of consumer capitalism upon our individuality and our freedom of spirit. Yet the bleak alienation of the consumerist ghost world isn’t pictured as a simple dead end, as some commentators has suggested, but as an arena where our individuality is challenged and where we can choose to act authentically, however difficult this might be.
Zwigoff’s film makes a few important changes to Clowes’
Yet the main change is the introduction of two entirely new
characters, one very important in understanding Zwigoff
and Clowes’ ideological intentions. Seymour (Steve Buscemi) is a middle-aged oddball who collects 78 rpm
records and is out of sorts with most of the world. He was cobbled together by
the screen writers from two minor characters in the graphic novel: a “bearded
man” who places a personal ad in the lonely hearts’ page of a local paper, and
to a lesser extent the wacky astrologist Bob Speekes,
who acts as a sort of absent guru for Enid until the final chapter “October”,
where he reappears on a cold, windy beach to do prescient psychic reading on
Enid just before she leaves town. One is tempted to also see something of Zwigoff’s old friend cartoonist Robert Crumb in Seymour,
who we know from his 1994 biopic Crumb
also obsessively collects 78s.
A second fairly significant character new to the film is
B. Commodity Fetishism in the Ghost World: Collectors and Shoppers
To understand the nature of the “ghost world” we can turn to
director Zwigoff himself, who sees post-millennial
...just one big happy strip mall filled with Gaps and
Starbucks and Burger Kings. This is part of
So on a basic level, the ghost world is a cityscape dominated by mass-market franchises and an ideology that tells us that meaning can be found principally in the purchase of commodities. We are what we buy, and there’s plenty of stuff out there to fill up our existential voids. If we accept Marx’s diagnosis of commodity fetishism in modern capitalism as our unholy reverence for the things we buy to the point where relations between people turn into relations between things, then clearly the ghost world of the film is a world full of fetishes and fetishists.
Everywhere we see shoppers and collectors: Rebecca at the homewares store,
Enid herself is a collector of dead commodities: her bedroom is strewn with old clothes, tapes, records, toys and other assorted bric-a-brac. She has a love/hate relationship with her “stuff,” as we see in the garage sale scene when she refuses to sell “Goofy Gus”, a childhood doll, and asks $500 for the dress she lost her virginity in. Indeed, her collection of commodities are central to her navigation through the murky ghost world she sees around her toward some sense of authenticity. Yet as we shall see, there are several ways this commodity fetishism gets played out in the film, some less inauthentic and debiltating than others.
C. Alienation in Ghost World: Glimpses of a McDonaldized Culture
George Ritzer has provided us with an analysis of our franchise-ridden modern consumerism than nicely dovetails onto Marx’s classical analysis of alienation. To refresh your minds: Marx argued in the 1844 Manuscripts that man under capitalism is alienated from his work, from the objects of his labour, from other workers and from his human essence, his “species being.” The Marxist analysis of alienation fits the modern service-industry workers to a tee: they are not at home when working and usually shun work like the plague, do not consume the things they make (for the most part), compete for jobs, and work in an artificial environment powered by mechanical tasks.
If we mix in some Sartrian nausea,
this sense of alienation is everywhere in Ghost
World, from Rebecca’s listless attitude toward life to
Yet part of the sadness of the film comes from the fact that
Yet this alienation isn’t just existential: it has concrete social and economic foundations. In his famous analysis of consumer capitalism today, Ritzer put forward the McDonaldization Thesis, the idea that the principles of the fast-food industry - efficiency, calculability, predictability and control over the production process - are being applied to more and more sectors of the economy and to public institutions such as higher education. McDonaldization, in league with globalization, is turning real places, things, people and services into non-places (e.g. an Internet university or fast-food restaurant), non-things (e.g a Big Mac), non-people (e.g. fast-food servers) and non-services (e.g. ATMs). The result of these processes is a standardization, dehumanization, and disenchantment of social life as we are lifted out of our historical locations into a timeless “now” of a seemingly endless series of McDonaldized franchises and services (Mann 398).
globalized, McDonaldized economy, with its non-places and non-people, is seen
everywhere in Ghost World. Two shots
are particularly telling in this regard: one early in the film, one late. In
the first we see for a few seconds a telephoto shot of a “strip” of franchise
outlets densely packed together on a unnamed city
street, with the McDonald’s golden arches in the center. The very density of
these outlets heightens our sense of alienation. Late in the film we see
The film also pictures a series of imaginary franchises as
McDonaldized non-places. Enid and Rebecca’s favourite
hangout is the Quality Café, with its red vinyl-covered booth seats and seeming
genuine individuality. It’s one of those unique “third places” (away from home
and work) that are quickly disappearing from North American cities. In contrast
to the Quality Café stands Wowsville, a supposedly
“authentic 50s diner” located in a mini-mall. Enid and Rebecca openly mock this
diner, sarcastically referring to a rap song playing on the table-side juke box
as a “great hit” from the 50s, speculating that they have, perhaps, gone
through a time warp. There is no hesitation in their rejection of this
“pathetic” attempt to simulate the past, though
Enid and Rebecca’s young friend Josh works at the Sidewinder
mini-mart, with its Wild West motif being yet another attempt to borrow
something real from the past to give this non-place significance. Yet as with Wowsville, no one is taking this simulation very seriously.
During our first visit to the Sidewinder we also get a
glimpse of American trailer-trash culture in the person of the shirtless,
beef-jerky chomping, nunchuk-brandishing Doug, who
spends a significant part of his day inside the store or playing obnoxious rock
music on his boom-box in the parking lot. Other than the playful
When Enid and Rebecca visit a “Masterpiece Video” outlet
(perhaps a mirror of Blockbuster), we see yet another picture of the
insubstantial nature of the modern McDonaldized economy. A middle-aged customer
inquires whether they have a copy of Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½. The happy-faced young clerk asks him if this is a “new
release,” then after a few clicks on his computer cheerfully informs the movie
buff that they do indeed have 9 ½ Weeks, in
the erotic drama section. For the video store employees
film is not art, just a dehistoricized product that
they know almost nothing about but gleefully promote to their customers. They
are non-people providing a non-service to customers in a non-place. This point
is driven home when we see a chubby teenager wearing a Tommy shirt sucking on a
super-sized pop as he stares entranced at a promo for a pretentious
We also see glimpses of McDonaldization
in the two franchises
Lastly, Rebecca’s workplace of choice, The Coffee Experience, is an obvious stand-in for the king of coffee franchises Starbuck’s, right down to their employee uniforms with their green-and-white logos. Like Josh at the Sidewinder, Rebecca seems to barely tolerate working there, though by the end of the film seems to have consoled herself with being a non-person working in an non-place. Her acceptance of her service-industry job, and thus of the value of the ghost world, parallels the decline of her friendship with Enid, who stays true to her critical stance to the end.
D. A Depthless Culture of Masks? Sperb’s Jamesonian Analysis
In one of the few attempts to provide a cogent theoretical analysis of Ghost World, Jason Sperb (2004) argues that Enid and Rebecca’s territory is one filled with Baudrillard’s simulacra, with hyperreal simulations of social life. This is the same postmodernist culture described by Fredric Jameson as being a depthless culture of superficial images without any historical grounding. For Sperb, Ghost World confirms Jameson’s critique of postmodernism as a “weakening of historicity,” its detached masses privileging “reassuring simulations over the awkward, painful confrontation of historical depth” (217).
sees the fact that many of the dancers and singers in the wild Bollywood musical Gumnaam Enid
watches in the opening scene are wearing masks as central to understanding the
film. The many fashion masks
is right that we are indeed on Jamesonian territory
in Ghost World. It does picture a
culture full of McDonaldized simulacra of real services and real things, a
depthless culture of masks. Yet he’s wrong in hinting that
E. The Search for Authenticity: Situationists, Frankfurters and Infantile Consumers
In their book The Rebel Sell, Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (2004) argue that the notion of counter-cultural consumption being more “authentic” than the mainstream’s gobbling of Big Macs and fries is an illusion. Sandals made of hemp bought in a head shop are just as much commodities - after all, they were manufactured to be sold for a profit - as a pair of Nike sneakers. They are deeply skeptical that the “rebel sell” proposed by culture jammers such as Kalle Lasn leads to a greater authenticity. Heath and Potter attack the Situationists and cultural jammers for seeing mass consumption as equivalent to mass conformity. In fact, innovation is the name of the capitalist game, and what most consumers seek is not sameness, but distinction. We buy products that we think will distinguish us from others in a marketplace that is competitive both economically and culturally. They reject the entire Situationist/culture jamming ethic as a delusion: we’re all consumers, whether we like it or not.
We can characterize the two extremes in the debate over how the consumption of commodities affects our sense of authenticity as the “Puritans” (e.g. the Unabomber, culture jammers), who argue that we should reduce the consumption of mass-produced commodities to an absolute minimum if we wish to construct a meaningful personal identity, and the “Hedonists” (e.g. Heath and Potter, most North Americans), who argue that we can’t escape being consumers so we may as well enjoy the ride. Though the Hedonists make a strong argument in pointing out that buying counter-cultural products is still a form of consumption, their throwing of all “things sold” into one big pot of commodity fetishes is a gross over-simplification, and reeks of bad faith. It also ignores aspects of life that don’t involve the direct consumption of commodities, an area that the Situationists saw as central to the dramas of love and poetry they sought to create.
A more fine-tuned theory of commodities is needed in order to better understand the nature of commodity fetishism today. This theory will show that there are three fairly distinct types of commodities, the consumption of which leads to at least three different types of commodity fetishism. There is also a fourth area of life that is pleasurable but doesn’t require that one consume things. From this theory we can derive three forms of authenticity that nicely map onto the three major characters of Ghost World: that of the infantile consumer, the Frankfurter, and the Situationist.
2. A New Theory of Commodities
We need a more nuanced theory of the consumption of commodities and of mass culture to interpret politically critical films such as Ghost World, one that avoids the extremes of cultural Puritanism and Hedonism. We can divide the “things for sale” in our culture into three categories. They are all commodities in the sense that we have to pay for them to legally own them, yet each category has a quite different effect on our sense of authenticity.
(1) Basic Necessities: These are things we need to survive on a reasonable level of well being that aren’t advertised as specific commodities, though they might have limited promotion in terms of competitions for lowest price. Food and drink, non-name-brand clothes and shoes, electricity, heat, shelter, and perhaps basic forms of communication (land-line telephones, broadcast radio) fit this category. One never sees TV commercials trying to convince us to “wear clothes!” or “turn your electricity on!” or “it’s a good idea to eat food”, though we do see ads trying to sell us specific brand-name clothes and food.
Admittedly, the line between a basic necessity and a living commodity can be a thin one: one can legitimately ask “what’s the difference between a plain blue sweat shirt and similar sweat shirt with a Tommy logo on the front?” The answer is that only the latter is mass-marketed as a shortcut to coolness for the consumer, as a way to conform to brand’s hip image and thus find peer acceptance. Both have the use value of keeping one warm (not to mention avoiding nudity); but the latter is a purer commodity in that its allure is centered on its exchange and symbolic values (it costs more, and it’s a symbol of allegiance to mainstream culture).
Commodity fetishism doesn’t really apply to basic necessities. It’s difficult to turn socks or bananas or potatoes into fetishes, impossible to do so with electricity, gas heat or tap water. Puritans shouldn’t object to the consumption of such commodities as damaging to our sense of individuality since we need such things to function as anything better than hermits or monks in modern society. Hedonists who argue that paying one’s gas bill or rent is the same thing as spending a day at the mall buying name-brand fashion accessories have constructed an impossibly slippery slope from authenticity to fakery that practically no one can avoid sliding down, ironically mirroring the Puritan’s own extremism.
(2) Dead Commodities: These are things that one can buy second-hand but that are no longer mass-produced or the subject of mass-marketing campaigns (though they might be advertised in specialized and niche publications such as community newspapers or fan magazines). They once were living fetishes, but are now in their retail graves. As of the early 21st century, the following are good examples of dead commodities: records and 8-track tapes, retro used clothes, old books and comics, unfinished antique furniture, and black-and-white televisions.
As with basic necessities, the mass media spend little or no time colonizing our inner lives to convince us to buy dead commodities for the simple reason that they’re no longer mass produced and therefore large corporations, which control mass-media advertising, make no profit from their sale. Of course, we do have to take into account inventories: it may take 5-10 years after a living commodity has stopped production before it is no longer sold as a new product and thus fades from a mass consciousness programmed by advertising. Products most closely associated with technological change have the shortest transitional periods: it wasn’t that long ago that cassette tapes completely disappeared from chain music stores, almost overnight.
Generally speaking, dead commodities are no longer consider “cool” or “hip” except in subcultures with limited memberships. They can be symbolically re-possessed by specific subcultures to aid in their self-definition, as the punks did with safety pins, swastikas, hair dye and bondage gear. Yet without campaigns of mass production and mass marketing backing them up, the consumption of dead commodities does little damage to one’s individuality or authenticity. The strongest conformity they call for is to the limited subcultures mentioned above, with their obscure niche markets. Certainly a collector of such commodities can become a fetishist. Yet such a collector can also have a genuine intellectual or historical interest in the commodities they collect. The buying of dead commodities doesn’t logically imply either mass conformity or a lack of authenticity, though both depend on the buyer, the commodity itself, and the way it is used. Obsession is still obsession, even if it involves 8-tracks. Generally speaking, the older the commodity, the greater the sense of individuality it can generate: so 78 rpm records are more “individual” than cassettes, 40s fedoras than 80s white sports jackets, 20s delta blues than 70s punk rock.
The more individual the dead commodity, the less it strips its user of authenticity. For Hedonists to equate an SUV to a collection of old folk records in terms of authenticity is absurd: walk around any suburban parking lot and ask everyone getting out of their SUVs and minivans who Ewan MacColl if you want to prove this point. Since all commodities are potentially available to all consumers, the number of people who actually consume a given commodity is directly linked (contra Hedonists like Heath and Potter) to the degree of individuality that the commodity affords its consumer. If I’m the only person who treasures commodity X, then by definition I am very individual. And if I have good reasons for treasuring X, and am sincere, then I can also be seen as authentic (at least in this regard).
(3) Living Commodities: These are mass-produced and mass-marketed commodities advertised as specific products rather than as generic goods competing for the lowest price. To echo Herbert Marcuse, living commodities are not basic needs: we can survive both physically and economically without ever buying Nike sneakers, Britney Spears CDs, Calvin Klein jeans, or Apple iPods. Living commodities are intimately tied to the brand names that define them and the corporate logos seen in ads for them. They are what drive the modern consumer economy.
Culture jammers like Kalle Lasn and cultural critics like Naomi Klein mistakenly conflate living commodities with commodities pure and simple in their critiques of consumerism. Yet neither basic necessities nor dead commodities affect our sense of authenticity to any where near the same degree as do living commodities. The mass-marketing campaigns associated with them urge us to conform to the mass perceptions of cool or the good life. If these campaigns are successful, them millions buy the product. This is the very definition of conformity: doing what almost everyone else is doing. It’s also therefore the opposite of individuality.
Dead commodities have a history, while living commodities exist in an eternal present. Commodity fetishism in its purest form applies to the buying of living commodities. Thus the consumption of mass-marketed living commodities does the greatest damage to any sense of personal authenticity.
(4) Play: This is any activity that one does freely for pleasure yet is not required for one’s survival. Although play might require the use of a commodity, it doesn’t involve the consumption of commodities. Play always takes place against a background of commodities, but isn’t a commodity in itself. For instance, playing road hockey requires that the players are relatively healthy (thus have food, drink and clothing), and that they own a hockey stick and a ball of some sort. Yet the actual playing of the game doesn’t cost anything. Similarly, writing a poem requires a pen and paper, while playing a song might involve strumming on a guitar: yet both are forms of play since the act itself doesn’t require the consumption of a living commodity. One can write dozens of poems with a one dollar ball point pen, hundreds of songs on a twenty-year-old acoustic guitar. Conversely, going to Disney World might seem like a form of play, yet the institution is a highly constructed theme park where one must pay for an entrance ticket along with for food and drink consumed therein. It’s not a form of play at all, but a living commodity.
Commodity fetishism definitely doesn’t apply to play since no commodity is being paid for. As for authenticity, its very essence can be play. Raoul Vaneigem claims in The Revolution of Everyday Life that play is one of the three ways we can escape from the oppressive roles foisted upon us by modern consumer society, the other two being love and creativity.
The variety of ways we consume these three types of
commodities generate at least three distinct attitudes and thus three distinct
types of authenticity: that of the mainstream infantile consumer, the critical
though largely passive adherent to the tenets of the
In his book Consumed (2007), Benjamin Barber lays out nicely the ideological mindset of the Hedonist consumer today. The goal of consumer capitalism is to encourage impetuous consumption by prolonging childhood in children and re-awakening it in adults. It thus promotes an infantile ethos which values the easy over the hard, the simple over the complex, the fast over the slow, feeling over reason, the individual over the community, and play over work. Barber provides plenty of examples of the infantile ethos in operation: lying politicians, cheating students, fast food, dumb movies, soft news (“the Fox effect”), instant messaging, the popularity of video games. In fact, it actually co-opts play itself, turning it into a commodity that we have to work hard most of the year to be able to enjoy. The infantile consumer, who revels in living commodities, dominates sociologically our North American culture today.
A consumer of living necessities who also enjoys one or more dead commodities can be seen as a “Frankfurter” who rejects current mass-marketing campaigns and conformist images of cool in favour of half-forgotten past cultures. A third position on commodity consumption is that of the Situationist, who tries to actively disrupt these campaigns and images of cool through the creation of situations, psychogeographic wanderings, and détournement.
A. Enid and Rebecca’s Situations and Derivés
In Ghost World,
Yet the most obvious echo of Situationism in
Debord (1958) defines a dérive as “a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances” which involves “playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects” where:
...one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.
They drift through a city, soaking up the atmosphere,
creating situations that cut through consumer conformity. Throughout Ghost World
We see a sort of situation in the very first sequence of the film, where Thora Birch’s Enid dances joyfully to a video of a 1960s Bollywood musical clad in her red graduation gown, in striking contrast to the windows of boredom through which we see her neighbours: a sad smoker, a jaded family watching TV, a man mechanically eating by himself. Soon after her victory dance we see Enid and Rebecca stomp on their graduation miter-board hats in their Doc Martens, saying goodbye to high school and all its social roles.
In a third situation at the faux-fifties diner Wowsville, Enid
concocts the plan to answer what turns out to be Seymour’s personal ad to a
“striking blonde” in a yellow dress who he ran into at the airport. She later
A couple of
A final constructed situation stands out: when
Despite disappointing outcomes of some of her actions,
B. Fashion and Style as Détournement: Enid’s Many Masks
In Ghost World, Enid
uses changes in fashion and style - both sartorial and musical - as détournements, as attempts to both reject mainstream
social roles and to redefine her cultural environment according to her own
playfully critical mindset. Many of
The most obvious détournements we
see in the film are
!Schoolgirl Persona: white shirt with Catholic school tie, burgundy sweater, red hair band (a seen when she attends her art class).
“Bricoleur” Persona: Green liptstick,
brown nail polish, “recycled” shirt, black skirt (when she attends
!Punk Look (circa 1977): Green hair, black leather jacket, black pants, black boots.
!Nautical Motif: A blue “sailor” dress with wire-rim glasses (seen in the college hangout).
!Tiger Lady: A black and white dress with tiger stripes topped off with a red fishnet cap (seen in the blues bar).
Seductress: A bright red shirt, lipstick, a black skirt and fishnet stockings
(seen when she tries to convince
!Corporate Slave: Yellow and black Pacific Theaters uniform.
As mentioned before,
C. Refusing Roles and the Spectacle: Enid’s Search for Authenticity
Vangeigem saw roles as “nuclei of alienation embedded
in the flesh of everyday experience” which act as “bloodsuckers of the will to live” (Vaneigem in Mann 129). Roles force us to sublimate our
erotic energies: they’re like medieval suits of armour
that simultaneously restrict our freedom of movement while also deadening the
blows of our enemies. They protect us from real life.
John Ellis and his friends at Zine-o-Phobia
represent “alt” youth culture, which Zwigoff and Clowes clearly see as uncritical and conformist. This becomes clear when
Ellis tells Enid that he intends to go to business school and "fuck things
up" from within. As
Her hasty retreat from the magazine store leads her home to
another dye job (this time back to black) and to a key revelation. As she works
on her hair
We get another glimpse of alt youth culture at the college
Her rejection of alt culture is also hinted at during her
garage sale, which shows
Another key rejection of roles by
A final picture of authenticity comes when
4. Rebecca as Convert to Infantile Consumerism
Rebecca starts out the film as
Rebecca’s shift from being
Rebecca wants to at least wear the masks of mainstream roles from fairly early on, suggesting that she
and Enid buy “semi-expensive outfits” so they look like “totally rich yuppies”
during their apartment-hunting campaign. She accepts her impressment
into the the McDonaldized service economy,
specifically, her job at the psuedo-Starbuckian café
The Coffee Experience. While at work she makes clear that she rejects Enid’s
celebration of outsiders when she tells her that “you get tired of all the
creeps and losers and weirdoes,” preferring her regular customers, who at least
in the screenplay are portrayed as well groomed yuppies grabbing a quick
cappuccino before running off to work. She also accepts mainstream definitions
of roles based on age, sexuality, and fashion, seeing the young men in the
college café as sexually desirable, wanting to take up the alt rock guy’s offer
of free entry to Alien Autopsy’s concert. She simply doesn’t understand
By the time she’s rented an apartment, she’s also bought
into the need to fill her life with living commodities to give it meaning. In a
scene at a house wares big box store we see Rebecca insist that they need to
“start getting stuff” in preparation for their move, even offering to pay for
it herself since
Not counting the phony date
We get a glimpse into the subculture of record collectors at
Yet the key moment for understanding
A final glimpse of how
6. Dana and Roberta as Variations on a Consumerist Theme
A pair of relatively
minor characters provide us with two more
positions on commodity consumption and authenticity. Dana is the mysterious
7. Leaving the Ghost World
As we’ve seen, Ghost
World presents a triad of major positions on the relation between commodity
consumption and authenticity:
In the last scene in the film, which is lifted straight from
the graphic novel,
Ghost World (2001). Directed by Terry Zwigoff. Written by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff. MGM.
The Corporation (2003). Directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott. Written by Joel Bakan.
Daniel (1998). Ghost
Barber, Benjamin (2007). Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children,
Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.
Debord, Guy (1958). “Theory of the Dérive.” Internationale Situationniste #2 (December). Trans. Ken Knabb. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theory.html
Debord, Guy (1967, trans. 1977). The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Fredy Perlman. Red & Black. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/pub_contents/4
Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter (2004). The
Olsen, Mark (2001). “Long Live the Losers.” Film Comment 37: 30-32.
Ritzer, George (2000). The
McDonaldization of Society. Revised New Century
Ritzer, George (2004). The
Globalization of Nothing.
Jason (2004). “Ghost without a Machine:
Vaneigem, Raoul (1967, trans. 1972). The Revolution of Everyday Life. Red & Black.
A key scene from the comic which also appears in the screenplay never made it to the final cut of the film: when Enid visits Rebecca at work in the Coffee Experience, Rebecca says that she’s “all blurry” and fading away, symbolizing their fading friendship. Zwigoff obviously made a strategic decision to de-emphasize their disappearing friendship, a key theme in the graphic novel, in his film.
However, there’s no reason Hedonists can’t be environmentally responsible by buying green grocery products and hybrid cars. They just wouldn’t see these choices as more “authentic” than less ecologically minded ones.
For the Situationists a détournement is the use of repositioning, defacement or some other form of cultural sabotage to turn the meaning of a work of art or media artefact into something quite different from what its creator intended.