Enid as Situationist: Commodity Fetishism, Alienation

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).[1] 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’ central narrative. Enid becomes the central figure, both in terms of screen presence and ideology. Those around her provide ideological foils in terms of the film’s analysis of commodity fetishism and alienation in our modern consumer culture. Rebecca is still there, but becomes more peripheral, their fading friendship spelled out at greater length in the screenplay than in the final version of the film.[2]


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. Enid’s interaction with Seymour is key to understanding her search for authenticity in the film.


A second fairly significant character new to the film is Enid’s art teacher Roberta Allsworth (Illeana Douglas).[3] Roberta is a flamboyant ex-hippy type who presents us with an interesting variation on responses to consumerism: that of the modernist artistic avant-garde, which Zwigoff depicts as deeply narcissistic. Two minor oddball characters who collectively represent “alternative” youth culture - John Crowley and John Ellis - are folded in the film into a single such character named John Ellis. The film also reduces the role of Josh (Brad Renfro), Enid and Rebecca’s young friend and object of sexual fantasy, some of his comic-book scenes being played out by Seymour in the film.


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 America as:


...just one big happy strip mall filled with Gaps and Starbucks and Burger Kings. This is part of Enid’s dilemma – to find something authentic to connect with in modern monoculture (MGM online interview).


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, Seymour and his record-collecting buddies, the customers at the Sidewinder variety store, background characters at the video store and on the street. There are even some quite literal fetishes, for instance, Enid’s black  bondage cat mask, along with some figurative ones, such as Seymour’s collection of “old-fashioned thingamajigs” seen in his sacred record room. In fact, Seymour himself confesses to his own commodity fetishism when he asks Enid: “You think it’s healthy to obsessively collect things? You can’t connect with other people so you fill your life with stuff.”


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 Seymour’s bitterness about mainstream culture, from the drab strip malls than dominate the landscape to the drab people who visit them. In the opening scene we see a sharp contrast between a flamboyant and colourful dance routine from the 1965 Bollywood musical Gumnaam, which Enid is watching on TV, and the blue world of boredom we see through several of her neighbours’ windows as Zwigoff’s camera pans by them.


Yet part of the sadness of the film comes from the fact that Enid is by no means immune to this blue world. Just before the end of the film she visits Seymour in the hospital. Enid tells him that she’s sorry about how their short-lived affair turned out, that “there is just no way to explain how I feel” in a textbook example of existential alienation. Her only solution is to leave this alienation behind, boarding a bus that’s “no longer in service” to leave town, both literally and spiritually.


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).


Ritzer’s 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 Enid walking along a similar strip at twilight: she passes by a man stuffing his face with fast food, then a strip mall with Mario’s, Radio Shack and Allstate outlets. The drabness and ugliness of these shots speaks to the connection between Enid’s sense of alienation and our McDonaldized culture, a connected that Zwigoff and Clowes clearly intend us to make.


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 later takes a perverse Situationist joy in coming to Wowsville, calling it the “Taj Mahal of fake 50s diners.”


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. When Enid tries to embarrass Josh by forcing him to recite the list of frozen yogurt flavours the Sidewinder has for sale, he does so in a laconic, mechanical way, but only after his Greek immigrant boss yells at him. Enid replies “I don’t believe I care for any of those,” thus mocking Josh’s role as a spokesman for commodities.


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 Enid, no one finds much good to say about Doug: he’s little more than a barnacle on the ship on consumerism. His proletarian rebellion (if we can call it that) offers us no vision of authenticity, even if he is one of a kind.


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 Hollywood film on one of the store’s TVs. Just in case we don’t get the point, Enid punctuates their visit by telling Rebecca “let’s get out of here, this place makes me sick.”


We also see glimpses of McDonaldization in the two franchises Enid briefly works for: Pacific Theaters and Computer Station. Each franchise mobilizes its workforce into conformist roles through uniforms - a black and yellow shirt at the cinema chain - and policies - the cinema manager, a mere strap of a lad no more than a couple of years older than Enid, chews her out for criticizing their “product” (both the film and the snacks) to their customers. Once again film is treated as a standardized, mass-produced product by a minor functionary of the culture industry.


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).


Sperb 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 Enid puts on in the film (more on these later) symbolize her search for some sense of the real underneath all those simulacra. For Sperb, Enid is a Jamesonian warrior out to construct a sense of personal authenticity out of all the simulations floating around her in the ghost world. The larger point of the film is to “unmask” the nameless urban wasteland’s simulations to discover whatever depths it might be hiding, just as some of the dancers in Gumnaam remove their masks midway through their show-stopping performance (211). 


Sperb 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 Enid is pursuing a mere “fantasy of authenticity”, and in reducing the film’s narrative largely to Enid’s personal search for depth, which he hints might be yet another simulation (211). Her search is very real, though not entirely successful, and takes place in a cultural landscape traversed by a variety of paths to authenticity.


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.[4] 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.[5] 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 Frankfurt School (thus “Frankfurter”), and the more actively critical Situationist. All three positions are explored by Ghost World.


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.[6]



3. Enid as Confused Situationist


A. Enid and Rebecca’s Situations and Derivés


In Ghost World, Enid can be most profitably seen as a confused Situationist. She does buy things, and even treasures some of these things; yet she situates herself outside of not only mainstream consumerism, but of the alternative youth culture she finds all around her. It’s clear that Enid sees herself as living in Debord’s society of the spectacle (without being able to articulate this in theoretical terms), and it’s equally clear she doesn’t like it.


Enid, and early in the film Rebecca, live their lives according to Situationist theory. First of all, Enid echoes Debord’s life in putting off getting a job as long as possible, then sabotaging her job at the cinema as quickly as she can (she gets fired after one day). Ne travaillez jamais is as much Enid’s slogan as Debord’s, in part because of the way it imprisons the worker into a social role.


Yet the most obvious echo of Situationism in Enid’s life is her construction of situations as a way to overcome the boredom and banality of everyday life. A constructed situation is a playful game built out of the materials of everyday life that aims to substitute real life and real relations for the overly commodified society of the spectacle, which Debord (1967) saw as a culture where relations between people are mediated by consumer images. At several points in Ghost World, Enid constructs situations out of the banal materials of what on the surface might seem to be a drab everyday life.


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 Enid wanders the streets, cafés, and shops of her home town, at first with Rebecca at her side, looking for situations to construct. We see about a dozen scenes with Enid walking the streets, drifting from one place to another - between the Quality Café, Wowsville, Zine-o-Phobia, the Sidewinder, Anthony’s porn shop, and other locales - in seemingly aimless journeys. Yet in all these cases (except perhaps the end sequence) Enid seems to be playing the role of the dérivist, using pyschogeography to open herself to the various emotional tones of the city. She also uses her dérives to construct playful situations to alleviate the boredom and cut through the conformity of everyday life as a sort of latter-day Debord.


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.


Later, when Enid sees a strange-looking middle-aged couple at the Quality Café, she decides that they’re Satanists, a judgment that seems to be confirmed when they use their umbrellas on a sunny day. Enid convinces Rebecca to follow them on a playful dérive, constructing a whole fanciful narrative around the “Satanist” couple.[7]       


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 phones Seymour, pretending to be the mysterious blonde, and suckering him into an imaginary date at Wowsville. When they observe how sad-sack he seems, Enid takes pity on him, in this rare case regretting the situation she’s just constructed. A sort of follow-up to this situation comes when Enid becomes determined to find Seymour a girlfriend, in part to disrupt the preconception that most would have that a marginal figure such as Seymour is “undatable.” A minor variation on the Wowsville situation is Enid and Rebecca’s christening of their mop-haired waiter Allen “Weird Al”, despite the fact that the taciturn and low-key Allen is nothing like the ebullient Mr. Yankovic. This is yet another attempt by Enid to turn the commodified boredom of the everyday into a type of play.


A couple of Enid’s situations construct playful sexual fantasies. About a third of the way into the film Enid and Rebecca drift over to over to Josh’s apartment to “hassle” him. He’s not home, so Enid leaves him a note saying “We came by to fuck you but your were not home. Therefore you are gay. Tiffany and Amber.” Later Enid convinces Seymour to take her into Anthony’s adult novelty and porn shop. Fascinated by porn, which as Sperb (213) notes is for her “a kind of primal, genuine existence, free from the blandness of sanitized society,” Enid mocks the sex toys and the customers who are perusing them. But she hits on a particular item key to her construction of her next situation: she buys a black cat bondage mask, and shows up at Coffee Experience to surprise Rebecca (she’s less than enthused) and to shock her customers.


Enid’s short-lived job schlepping snacks at the Pacific Theaters also leads her inevitably to create a situation. She tells a “loser” wanting a beer that after five minutes of the film he’s about to watch that he’ll wish he had ten beers. Naturally, her young boss curtly informs her that she must never criticize the feature. As she adds butter to a second customer’s popcorn she calls it “delicious yellow chemical sludge!”, and when forced to push the super-sized snacks, gives a third customer a mocking speech about how medium sizes are for “suckers.” The entire short scene in the lobby of the cinema is showcases Enid’s playful id in its struggle with the manager’s rule-imposing super-ego.


A final constructed situation stands out: when Enid discovers a fifty-year-old poster for the Cook’s Chicken franchise with a racist depiction of the head of a black cook with oversized eyes and lips, she borrows it and presents it to her art class as a “found object.” When her art teacher Roberta enters this détournement into an art show supposedly celebrating art as a form of dialogue, prudish parents compel its removal, which leads to Enid’s failing the class and eventually to Seymour’s getting fired from Cook’s Chicken.


Despite disappointing outcomes of some of her actions, Enid’s situations and dérives are forms of play that implicitly critique the pre-established roles and mainstream consumerism. They are Situationist in spirit.


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.[8] Many of Enid’s efforts at détournement require her to use the dead commodities she’s collected over the years. Her room is full of old clothes, records, knick-knacks, including even a portable record player from circa 1968, which she employs to distance herself from infantile consumerism.


The most obvious détournements we see in the film are Enid’s many costume changes, which we can read as changes in personae or social masks. I count at least twenty distinct ensembles. Among the more striking are her:


!Schoolgirl Persona: white shirt with Catholic school tie, burgundy sweater, red hair band (a seen when she attends her art class).


!Anti-Fashion “Bricoleur” Persona: Green liptstick, brown nail polish, “recycled” shirt, black skirt (when she attends Seymour’s garage sale).


!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).


!Sexy Seductress: A bright red shirt, lipstick, a black skirt and fishnet stockings (seen when she tries to convince Seymour to go to the art show).


!Corporate Slave: Yellow and black Pacific Theaters uniform.


As mentioned before, Enid uses a  half-century old Cook’s Chicken sign as a piece of “found art” to make a comment on how racism hasn’t disappeared, but gone underground. It has been whitewashed by large corporations wanting to avoid bad publicity. The reaction of her classmates is interesting: one doesn’t like it, a second calls it “totally weak”, a third saying that it’s “not right,” all without being able to explain why. These infantile consumers are simply parroting politically correct rhetoric in response to Enid’s more critical sense of history. Ironically, Enid’s hippy narcissist teacher Roberta supports her détournement against the majority opinion, perhaps flashing back to her radical youth.


Enid’s occasional use of détournement to critique the consumer mentality is linked to her construction of situations and to her refusal of the social and economic roles her family and friends have in mind for her.


C. Refusing Roles and the Spectacle: Enid’s Search for Authenticity


Raoul 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. Enid sees herself as having to refuse the roles associated with infantile consumerism, hence her avoidance of the service-industry jobs that most of her fellow high school graduates seemed to accept as their lot in life. Yet she also refuses the cultural roles prescribed by youth culture, which is tied to the commodification of music, fashion, and mass media by large corporations.


Enid’s search for authenticity in Ghost World leads her to an Adorno-like rejection of the standardized, pseudo-individualized nature of popular culture, especially music, film and television. This is especially true of “alternative” youth culture. Early on we see Enid and Rebecca mock the oddball comedian Joey McCobb while watching his standup routine on TV, which emphasizes his “weirdness”: Enid sarcastically exclaims that “Joey McCobb is our God!”, yet also wonders why a supposedly “weird” comedian is wearing Nikes.


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 Enid dyes her hair green for her “punk day” she listens to a tape of the Buzzcocks (another dead commodity), then visits Zine-o-Phobia with Rebecca in tow. Its creepy male denizens mock Enid’s “Cyndi Lauper” look, John Ellis acting as the mouthpiece of alt youth culture when he informs her that “punk rock is over!” This unsettles Enid: she feels compelled to reclaim her authenticity by explaining to Ellis and Rebecca that her new  persona is a 1977 punk look, not that of some “modern Punk dickhead,” and that “everybody’s too stupid” to understand this fine distinction.


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 Enid plays the blues compilation she bought at Seymour’s garage sale on her archaic sixties-era portable record player. When Skip James’ acoustic number “Devil Got My Woman” plays, Enid is mesmerized: she repeats the track over and over, having finally discovered something truly authentic. Seymour’s beloved traditional blues acts for Enid like both a critique of youth-orientated mass culture and as an arrow pointed down the road to a deeper sense of individuality.


Enid’s search for authenticity takes another step forward when she accompanies Seymour to a sports bar to see ancient bluesman Fred Chatman play as the warmup act to the raucous faux-blues band Blueshammer. The audience, pictured as posers wearing such typical social masks as “sports dude” and “cowboy” (as we seen in a short pan of the bar itself), are more interested in the game on TV and the coming of Blueshammer than the stylings of the gentle bluesman. Enid tries to set Seymour up with an attractive woman, but this potential romance falls apart when she vapidly praises the “authentic blues” of Blueshammer, who turn out to be little more than a parody of an electric blues band. Their leader singer, a pretty white boy, promises “way-down-in-the-delta” authentic blues, then proceeds to lament their days spent plowin’ the fields and pickin’ cotton.


We get another glimpse of alt youth culture at the college café Enid and Rebecca visit. One young hipster asks his pals if they’re “up for some reggae tonight?”, while a second hipster identified in the script as “alternative rock guy” distributes flyers for his band Alien Autopsy’s coming gig, promising Enid and Rebecca in slack-jawed fashion that there will be a “bunch of cool bands playing and stuff.”[9] When Enid refers to the alt rock guy as a “dork,” it’s once again clear that alternative youth culture is a dead end to her. Rebecca concludes that Enid is a sourpuss, hating “every single guy on the face of the earth.” Enid remains unfazed: she’s says she’s not a lesbian, but simply hates “all these extroverted, obnoxious pseudo-bohemian losers!” In other words, she sees alternative youth culture as inauthentic, just as much a preprogrammed role as mainstream consumerism.


Her rejection of alt culture is also hinted at during her garage sale, which shows Enid to be a failure even as a purveyor of dead commodities. She refuses to sell her cherished “Goofy Gus” to a trendy young hipster because he has a soul patch. Later, when a “club girl” type wants to buy an old dress, Enid demands the ridiculous sum of $500. She refuses to attach realistic exchange values to the dead commodities that mark her passage to adulthood.


Another key rejection of roles by Enid is seen during two visits to Seymour’s apartment late in the film. Seymour explains that his new girlfriend Dana doesn’t understand how he could know someone so young. Clearly, age differences are just roles for Enid. In a second visit Enid tells Seymour of her fantasy of going off to some random place and disappearing. Burdened by the social roles prescribed by others, Enid wonders out loud “Why can’t I just do whatever I want?” Fueled by a bottle of champagne, Enid rejects the role of age and sleeps with Seymour, doing just what she wants (at least at the time).


A final picture of authenticity comes when Enid is sorting out her stuff prior to moving in with Rebecca. She has a bout of childhood nostalgia when she unearths a long-dead commodity in her closet, a 45 of the song “A Smile and a Ribbon.” As it plays in the background Enid stares at her new orange Computer Station shirt, seemingly contrasting in her mind her entry into the semi-adult world of infantile consumerism with the emotional richness of her lost childhood. This leads her to pack up her life and catch a metaphysical bus out of town.



4. Rebecca as Convert to Infantile Consumerism


Rebecca starts out the film as Enid’s neo-Situationist ally, going along with her dérives and construction of situations. Wowsville is just as fake to Rebecca as Enid, and she regrets missing Enid’s foray to the porn shop. But as the economic realities and expected social roles of young adulthood start to press upon her, Rebecca begins to adopt the mentality of an infantile consumer, though she never really lets go of her sense of alienation from the roles of young adulthood she feels compelled to adopt.


Rebecca’s shift from being Enid’s culture-jamming ally through alternative youth culture into mainstream consumerism is symbolized by the slow deterioration of their friendship. It’s also symbolized by Rebecca’s negative attitude toward Seymour, who offers Enid the possibility of a friendship outside of mainstream consumerism and social roles. When Enid muses in the Quality Café that she finds Seymour to be “kinda cool” since he’s “the exact opposite of everything I hate,” Rebecca replies that he may be many things, but he definitely isn’t “cool.”


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 Enid’s fascination with Seymour and his collection of odd artefacts and blues 78s, which are very uncool from the point of view of the infantile consumer (who, after all, wants to buy the commodities currently mass produced by the culture industries).


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 Enid has no money. Later, when Enid gripes about the “depressing” area of town they visit while searching for an apartment, Rebecca reasserts her conversion to mainstream consumerism in insisting that it’s a “totally normal, average neighborhood.” As if to point out the falseness of Rebecca’s claim, in the background we see a young pregnant woman walk by drinking a bottle of beer and smoking. In their final scene together on a bench outside the hospital where Seymour is interred, they part ways, briefly holding hands before Rebecca goes off to work. One gets the sense that they’ll never see each other again. In the end, Rebecca conflates becoming an adult with conformity to infantile consumerism and to whatever limited social roles the McDonaldized economy will allow her to perform.


5. Seymour as Adornoesque Collector of Dead Commodities


Seymour occupies a key third position in the narrative triad of Ghost World. He is a Frankfurter, an Adornoesque collector of dead commodities in which he finds an authenticity absent from the ghost world around him. Specifically, he collects 78 rpm records of early twentieth-century blues music, along with newer LPs, photos and posters, and assorted reminders from the early days of recorded music. His collection of records and other artifacts acts like a window in time back to what he sees as a more honest era. His love of old-time blues, ragtime and jazz acts is an antidote to the mass-produced, standardized music heard in the public places of the consumerist ghost world.


Not counting the phony date Enid sets up for him at Wowsville, we first really meet Seymour at a garage sale where he’s selling some LPs. He explains to Enid that he doesn’t really collect anything after 1935, thus situating him as a consumer of only very dead commodities. Although he does take a somewhat fetishistic attitude toward his collection of 78s - when Enid pretends to drop one of them, Seymour almost has a heart attack - his own particular form of commodity fetishism put him at odds with both alternative youth culture and with mainstream infantile consumerism. Simply put, Seymour collects things that haven’t been manufactured or advertised for over a half century, and thus exist outside of mass consciousness.


We get a glimpse into the subculture of record collectors at the “party” Seymour hosts in his apartment. Though they seem a bit pathetic - Rebecca certainly sees them this way - they have managed to create their own sense of authenticity based on a dwindling supply of a specific type of dead commodity. Seymour’s private record room is a miniature museum full of old posters, photos, mobiles, and recordings from a bygone era. Seymour’s retreat from the present through the medium of these dead commodities gives him a real individuality, one that Enid recognizes, while the more conformist Rebecca doesn’t. This is symbolized in a brief clip where Enid traces her name in the dust covering a wooden gramophone cone in Seymour’s “museum”: she’s inscribing her identity on this new sense of cultural authenticity that Seymour offers.


Yet the key moment for understanding Seymour’s role in Ghost World comes about halfway into the film, during his visit to the blues bar accompanied by Enid. Seymour condemns the shrill and piercing radio DJ they listen to in the car, informing Enid, in a Leavisite rejection of mass culture, “I never listen to the radio.” When Enid brings a young woman over to the table to meet Seymour and she tells him how much she likes the “blues,” he can’t help but pedantically explain that the music being played by the old bluesman Fred Chatman is actually closer to ragtime, even though this ends any possibility of a romantic connection her (who falsely thinks that the sloppily played rockin’ blues of the mainliners Blueshammer is more authentic in any case!). After the “alpha males” get up to dance to Blueshammer and one spills a beer on him, Seymour leaves the bar in disgust. He tells Enid that he’s can’t relate to 99% of humanity, for whom “a Big Mac and a pair of Nikes” is enough to make them happy. Seymour is not even in the same universe as “those creatures back there,” i.e. the consuming masses. He sees himself as almost a different biological species from mainstream infantile consumers, who have reduced his beloved blues to a trivial and standardized musical form.


A final glimpse of how Seymour’s collection of dead commodities can lead to a degree of authenticity is seen in the scene where Enid flips through his scrapbook of Cook’s Chicken memoribilia. We see the evolution of Cook’s corporate image on the napkins and menus Seymour has collected from a picture of a stereotyped black cook from the early 20th century through a  more distinguished looking black chef, then a generic looking white chef, and then finally a perky white female chef, thus completing the journey from overt racism to political correctness. In reply to Enid’s question about whether he prefers the past to the present, Seymour says that things weren’t especially better in the past, but hatreds and prejudices persist: it’s just that today we know how to hide it better. This critical sense of history shows that Seymour takes something more than fetishistic pride of ownership from his collection of dead commodities.



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 blonde who Seymour tries to contact through a classified ad, and later dates. She represents an adult acceptance of consumer capitalism and “age appropriate” social roles. Her apartment is a bland beige, and tastefully decorated with an equally bland collection of bric-a-brac with a slight edge of cultural sophistication. When Seymour visits her apartment during their first date, she gets excited about a cheesy soft soul song playing on her stereo, trying to coax Seymour into dancing to it. She also praises the film “The Flower that Drank the Moon” we see the Tommy boy gazing at the promo of in Masterpiece Video.


When Enid visits his apartment, we see Seymour uncomfortably modeling the new name-brand jeans Dana has bought for him to spruce up his public image. Her real estate career is the perfect model of a non-productive capitalism that generates a profit without actually making anything: it’s a simulation of work. In short, Dana is a mainstream consumer who has submerged her identity into a series of roles typical for her age, sex and class.


Lastly, Enid’s art teacher Roberta Allsworth represents an artistic avant-garde that has by and large descended into self-indulgent narcissism. Before we even meet her, we see her black-and-white short film “Mirror, Father, Mirror”, an excruciatingly bad montage of surreal images including a mutilated doll that the careful viewer will note was sponsored by “The Foundation for the Advancement of Mature Women in the Arts,” “The Struggling Artist Foundation”, “The Why Not Me Project”, and Roberta’s parents. While explaining to her philosophy of art to her class, she explains that their projects should be centered on self-exploration and on finding ways to externalize the internal. In a latter scene, Roberta informs her class that she wants them to find “the best way to look within yourself, the best key to your particular lock.” She praises the childish attempts at art by some of her students as parts of this self-exploration. Of course, the self-involved narcissism of the modernist avant-garde is only a variation on the narcissism of the infantile consumer, who is told by advertisers to impetuously reach out for all the stuff they want but don’t have. Be that as it may, Roberta’s position can be distinguished from Dana’s in that she has the critical impulse to support Enid’s display of the Cook’s Chicken sign in the face of the disapproval of both students and parents alike.



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: Enid’s Situationism, Rebecca’s somewhat reluctant infantile consumerism, and Seymour’s Franfurktism. In addition, we get glimpses of adult consumerism and of the narcissistic avant-garde in the persons of Dana and Roberta.


In the last scene in the film, which is lifted straight from the graphic novel, Enid walks down the street with minimal baggage, then boards the bus that Norman (a doppelganger of the two waiters in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) has already used to leave town. We see her sitting alone at the back of the bus as it disappears in the twilight over a hill. Naturally, this isn’t meant to be just a mode of transportation: it’s a metaphorical bus leaving the ghost world. It’s not clear where Enid is going, but it is clear that she feels defeated by an alienating consumer economy and the physical environment and social roles it has spawned. Yet she never gave up, never sacrificed her sense of authenticity to the dominant culture’s expectations. If she couldn’t beat the hegemony of infantile consumerism, she by no means had to join it. One imagines that she will fight the good fight elsewhere, perhaps with another Seymour at her side.



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.


Clowes, Daniel and Terry Zwigoff (2001). Screenplay for Ghost World. Screenplays for You, http://sfy.ru/sfy.html?script=ghost_world.


Clowes, Daniel (1998). Ghost World. Seattle: Fantagraphic Books.


Barber, Benjamin (2007). Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. New York: Norton.


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 Rebel Sell. Toronto: Harper Collins.


Mann, Douglas (2008). Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Toronto: Oxford University Press.


Olsen, Mark (2001). “Long Live the Losers.” Film Comment 37: 30-32.


Ritzer, George (2000). The McDonaldization of Society. Revised New Century edition. Thousand Oaks Cal.: Pine Forge Press.


Ritzer, George (2004). The Globalization of Nothing. Thousand Oaks Cal.: Pine Forge Press.


Sperb, Jason (2004). “Ghost without a Machine: Enid’s Anxiety of Depth(lessness) in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 21.3: 209-217.


Vaneigem, Raoul (1967, trans. 1972). The Revolution of Everyday Life. Red & Black.



Zwigoff, Terry (2001). MGM Online Interview. http://www.ghostworld-the-move.com/ie/index.html


   [1]Clowes’ graphic novel first appeared in 1998; it was serialized in his comic book Eightball from 1993 to 1997.

   [2]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.

   [3] Enid is forced to take one more high school credit before graduating, so she takes what she imagines to be an easy class.

   [4]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.

   [5]One exception might be Internet markets such as Amazon.com, which provide a nexus for consumers to purchase dead commodities from private sellers, used book stores, etc.

   [6]This isn’t to say that Situationism can change the whole structure of capitalism. And even Situationists eat, drink and wear clothes, so they are obviously consumers of basic necessities.

   [7]This is played out at greater length in the comic. In one sequence Enid and Rebecca follow the “Satanists” to a supermarket where they buy quite mundane food products: “Lunchable” prefab meals.

   [8]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. 

   [9]This is perhaps a subtle reference to the popularity of The X-Files and of UFO lore in the mid-to-late 1990s.