Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Panelists Archive: Comments on "Enid Coleslaw and the G.O.P."

My initial post on Ghost World piled up 51 comments over on The Panelists. Apparently people care about Enid Coleslaw!

I am going to try to "curate" the comments a little in this archive, since there was a lot of material there, and not all of it was constructive. I won't misquote anyone, but I will probably prune a few comments and expunge a few more, in the interest of brevity if nothing else.

On January 5, 2011 at 10:41 am, Craig Fischer said:
Neat analysis, Isaac, though I don’t find Enid “uninformed, immature, and a little lame.” To me, she’s a vibrant, intelligent person stuck in a banal environment, and she deals with crushing suburban boredom by wishing that the stuff around her was a lot weirder than it actually is.

Hubba Hubba is a sterile diner located in a strip mall, but Enid elevates it into “the Mona Lisa of the bad, fake diners.” She’s desperate to find the quirky elements (Allen’s hair!) that’ll make going to Hubba Hubba a kitchy, playful experience, even if those elements are actually more pathetic and dismissable than kitchy. Her “What does that even mean?” line is her attempt to make the environment around her strange and interesting—a mantra of sorts that she repeats a page later, while looking at the “Mind-Benders” on the menu.

Maybe part of the “emplotment”—the narrative trajectory—of GHOST WORLD is this: Enid begins as a character who mocks and “makes strange” the environment around her, but it’s not enough. Eventually, she needs a less stultifying, more intellectually stimulating world (not a ghost world, nyuk, nyuk), and even though she doesn’t get into college, she knows she has to leave home, to find people and a milieu worthy of her attention.

To which I replied:

That’s a very hopeful reading of what’s going on in Ghost World, but I really don’t share it. I don’t mean to say that I think Enid is out-and-out lame, but I think that realizing that under her “vibrant” exterior she’s naïve and crushingly insecure is a major part of the book’s trajectory.

I think Enid leaves town to get away from herself, or to get away from her memory and others’ memories of her, rather than to seek a “more intellectually stimulating world.” That’s more or less how she explains her “secret plan” (p. 74-75).

Then, on January 5, 2011 at 1:35 pm, Charles Hatfield said:
I had thought that Enid was commenting on the banality of the idiom in the newspaper headline: IN BED with the GOP. Which, I’ve got to say, is a type of banality--the would-be titillating come-on–-that journalism traffics in so much that sometimes we desperately need an Enid (or a Clowes) to point out how strange and interesting our reliance on such cliches is.

I do agree, though, with the larger pattern of Isaac’s interpretation, particularly with the idea that the prank played on “Bearded Windbreaker” is a turning point in terms of Enid’s understanding that her smartass rebellious hipster persona can actually be damaging, and suffocating. Isaac, it’s at precisely this period, isn’t it, that Clowes also does that great short story “Caricature,” which similarly questions the terms of hipster alienation that the earlier Eightballs insist on? I remember feeling that Clowes was gaining in subtlety and gravity during those issues.

I tend to prefer the Clowes stories that I think aspire to this same type of moral and emotional engagement (I find Ghost World quite moving) over those stories that seem merely icy, chill, and alienating to me, e.g., “Black Nylon” or “Gynecology.”

But I was hearing none of that:

Considering that two pages later Enid says that she used to think “DWF,” in a personals ad, stands for “dwarf,” I think it’s possible that she’s so disconnected from “grown-up”politics that she genuinely has no idea what the G.O.P. is.

Becky’s response is, basically, “Who even reads the articles in the front of the paper? Aren’t papers just about personals ads and stuff?” I’m paraphrasing, and maybe skewing her point a little bit, but I think both of them are genuinely ignorant here.

On January 5, 2011, at 10:44 am, patrick ford said:
Something I’ve noticed over the years is there are many people who want to like, or identify with characters in fiction.
That’s something which has never exclusively interested me, and much of the fiction I like doesn’t feature characters who are intended to be likable.
It’s certain (I think) that Clowes never intended Enid to be a role model.
She really isn’t any more likable than Wilson, less so really because given her shallow personal character if we were to revisit her years later she probably would be more irritating than Wilson.

To which Jared Gardner replied:
Good lord, MORE unlikable than Wilson? {shudder}

I am inclined to agree with Isaac here that we are meant to think of Enid as a little “lame” in precisely the same way we are all inclined to think of our younger selves as a little (or in my case, a lotta) lame. And I think Isaac has found a crucial moment where the change in perspective happens–signaled not only by her political naiveté but in this panel by a (to my memory: forgive me if I’m wrong) uncharacteristic perspective where “we” seem to be seated in the next booth, ourselves (and our freepaper) being judged (lamely) by Enid.

On January 5, 2011, at 1:38 pm, Gabe Roth said:
I read that moment differently. The headline “IN BED WITH THE GOP” is a classic instance of a particular type of insider-speak. The reader is presumed to know not only that GOP = G.O.P. = Grand Old Party = Republican Party, but also that “in bed with” in a political context means “engaged in an (implicitly shady) alliance with.” If you take away all that accreted code knowledge, the phrase starts to seem meaningless and absurd.

I think Enid knows exactly what the headline means. But knowing what it means implicates her in the whole conventional daily-newspaper-reading, political-scandal-following mainstream culture. She doesn’t want to be part of that culture. But to say “God, what a stupid insidery headline” is to say “I understand the discourse in which that headline exists, and therefore I’m a participant in it.” The only way out is incomprehension.

(There’s a similar moment in ‘Wig Wam Bam,’ when one of the pretentious NY art-punks refers to the Dead Boys and Hopey replies, “I hate that song ‘Truckin’.” Hopey knows the difference between the Dead Boys and the Grateful Dead, but, by pretending she’s never heard of the Dead Boys, she announces that she’s not going to participate in this pretentious NY art-punk conversation.)

To which Jared Gardner replied:
I like this way of thinking… but I’m not sure I can buy into (and believe me I wanna) the Enid=Hopey logic here. I mean, we have so many reasons to believe in Hopey’s critical distance from the mass mediated blabbage around here; but do we really for Enid?

And I piled on:
Plus, there’s a big difference between knowing the jargon of mainstream national news-media political-party coverage and knowing the name of a fairly obscure punk band that existed for three years.

And Gabe's answer was:
Enid definitely ≠ Hopey; I just think they’re making the same conversational move in those two panels.

Enid’s problem in Ghost World is the classic adolescent struggle to figure out where she fits in relation to ‘mainstream society’—inside or outside. Inside is for losers, but outside has been so thoroughly co-opted that there’s no real place to stand. ‘IN BED WITH THE GOP’ is just one little example of everything horrible and smug and insidery that she hates about inside. She escapes it by positioning herself (at that moment) as a person who’s not on the inside of political-journalism cliché-speak.

(It’s worth bearing in mind that GW was published in the ’90s, when a teenage outsider wannabe was much more likely to think of politics as a trivial sideshow.)

Then there's a minor bout of sniping from Noah Berlatsky that I won't bother repeating, but it motivated Charles Hatfield to observe this:
... the moral arguments in Ghost World are not reducible to who’s hip and who’s not. There are questions of empathy and responsibility there that exceed, I bet, even what Clowes expected from the work when he was midstream.

To which Noah, after some goading from Jeet Heer, replied:
Oh, all right. Sigh.

I don’t find the questions of empathy and moral responsibility Charles is talking about either engaging or enlightening. As I’ve written about the book elsewhere, what I mostly get from it is an older male creator acting out his attraction/repulsion for younger girls. I think that fits this panel quite well. The girls are looking off panel at the reader/author, whose paper it is. The paper is about the Grand Old Party (coded old and surely male) performing metaphorically sexual acts. Clowes has Enid ironically refusing to understand the headline — a sexual disavowal, which actually means she understands quite well this headline about perverse sex with grand old men. The knowledge/not knowledge binary is a tease and a provocation; the moral experience Isaac articulates in which we are able to feel superior (and/or possibly inferior) to Enid is part of the (sexualized) satisfaction we (the grand old party) get in pretending that Enid knows and does not know us.

... a couple more notes. First, I don’t think this is something Clowes is unaware of. He picks his details carefully; the Grand Old Party is really not just a random choice.

Second — in this reading, Clowes emphatically gets the laugh on Enid. Enid is saying she doesn’t understand the headline in order to show she understands it; she gets the stupid metaphor. But the trick is, that stupid metaphor isn’t just a random paper lying around; it’s a snide sexual remark implicating Enid which has been placed there by Clowes. Enid gets the diagetic point, but not the extra-diagetic point. She’s attempting to assert her control and wisdom, but Clowes shows us she’s just his cipher. In this way Isaac gets the details wrong but the essence right; this is a panel which sneers at Enid for her lack of sophistication. I don’t find that particularly morally insightful or uplifting though.

On January 6, 2011, at 7:46 am, Mike Hunter said:
... why should she not know what “GOP” stands for? Rather than truly not knowing what the headline stands for, or – as Gabe Roth suggested, pretending she doesn’t know, couldn’t she (not to give Enid too much credit, but she’s still no dummy) be making a comment that’s an equivalent of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” painting? Pointing out that the headline not only cannot be taken for its literal meaning, but that it might not even come close to an accurate representation of the situation in the article?

For instance, it’d be as if Enid were to overhear someone saying “Have a nice day!” and comment, “What does that even mean?” Of course, understanding the intended meaning of the phrase, but raising questions such as, how many good things are necessary for making up a nice day? Does it mean, for some unfortunates, having a day in which far fewer lousy things happen? (I.e., as in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”) And so on…

So, her comment is simply another manifestation of her “looking through/beyond surface manifestations and culturally-accepted meanings and facades” attitude. And finding them meaningless. (“There’s no there, there!”)

...And on January 6, 2011, at 7:46 am, Rob Clough said:
The key line in the book, to me, is when Enid realizes that she and Becky are going in two different directions as people because Becky doesn’t hate herself. It’s the point where Enid voices her depression, where she understands that things can’t continue how they’re going. She’s created a world where she’s an outsider no matter what else she does, and so has to leave that world. Her rift with Becky finished off the only connection she had left, and she realized that the rift was not Becky’s fault for better adjusting to society, but hers for being unable to. Leaving town–leaving the story, as it were–can be construed as much as a form of metaphorical suicide as it is metaphorical rebirth. She’s not smiling or happy when she leaves (anticipating a rebirth or a new life)–she’s just hoping the escape can ease her pain.

... I thought your point was quite astute about Clowes putting together a narrative on the back end, basing it on clues he laid in the early chapters.

Then the conversation gets tangled up. Here, Jeet Heer is replying to something Noah Berlatsky said a few comments ago:

@Noah. “what I mostly get from it is an older male creator acting out his attraction/repulsion for younger girls”: this is a pretty good example of “the intentional fallacy” in action. I don’t think its very fruitful to judge works of art by what the author’s presumed motives are. In fact, I don’t even think it’s possible for anyone (even Clowes) to know what the motives of his art art, or what the motives of any art are.

The issue of “moral questioning” that Charles raised have to do with the friendship between Enid and Becky, and also how the two girls treat other people. This is something that can be discussed by looking at what Clowes wrote and drew. It doesn’t really contribute to the conversation to speculate about Clowes motives, unless by chance you are a telepath. If you are a telepath, then tell us and continue to enlighten us about the secret, ulterior motive of artists. On the other hand, if you are a telepath, you could use your power in more frutiful ways, perhaps by uncovering government and corporate corruption.

And I said:

I’m not really interested in whether Clowes personally thinks Enid is hawt, but I find that I am interested in at least one aspect of an author’s perceivable psychology (intentional or not): as his interests and ideas shift, the themes of the works shift. If I find myself responding more to the ideas in David Boring than in Like a Velvet Glove, and I know they’re written by the same person, I want to see when those new ideas started to develop.

Noah seems to be caricaturing those ideas as merely an older (not yet middle aged) cartoonist pining for teenage indie tail and then rejecting the notion of jailbait.

For me, or at least in my reading of Ghost World, it’s about more than (or less than?) simple attraction to scornful ugly-cute teenage girls: instead, it’s about Clowes as a writer moving out of a period of personal grotesquerie and universal satire (as in “I Hate You Deeply”) and into a period of social observation, where he becomes interested in writing characters.

There might be a grain of truth in Noah’s lampooning—remember the way that Clowes has Enid show up admiringly at a zine-store signing in “Punk Day,” then draws himself looking like a seedy dork—but I think the real crux of the matter is artistic development beyond teenage scorn and hipster one-upmanship. This is a lot closer to Charles’s notion of ethical stakes than Noah is allowing. And I think Clowes makes that turn in “Hubba Hubba.”

Jeet's reply:

@Isaac. I find your reading of Ghost World as a liminal work in Clowes’ oeuvre to be compelling and persuasive. But seeing Ghost World as being thematically focused on Clowes’ own evolution as an artist is a bit different than the type of argument Noah is making, which is that we can divine Clowes’ motives for doing the type of art he does. Your reading of Clowes is based on looking at the trajectory of his career, on looking at the comics itself. I think Noah’s approach is based on some sort of pretense to telepathic powers.

And mine, to him:

Well, you could call that a pretense to telepathic powers, or you could call it Freudian criticism…

As I said, though, I don’t think that “Did the cartoonist want to jump these fictional characters?” is the most interesting question we could be asking about a text.

And Noah entered into a comment about as long as the original post. Some of it went like this:
... I don’t think Clowes wanted to jump the characters necessarily, or only, by the by. It’s about inhabiting them too. Sadism is not just lust; it’s control.

There are lots of older men in Ghost World, incidentally. Clowes himself shows up, but there are various other figures wandering around the edges. And of course Enid’s name is Clowes’ name. Seeing her as and Becky as doppelgangers (doppelmeyers?) is hardly a counter-intuitive reading.

... Isaac, in terms of what’s more interesting in the text, morality or jumping bones. Do you really see Clowes’ moral vision as especially serious or insightful compared to folks who actually care about that stuff — George Eliot, Tolstoy, Jane Austen, even Dickens? It all just seems pretty thin gruel by those standards to me — the characterization is thin, the “morals” such as they are boil down to “don’t be a prick” — I just don’t see it as an especially powerful or interesting moral vision. Do we really need someone to tell us that it’s cruel to prank call people? I mean, this isn’t Lydgate being tempted here. The moral questions aren’t what’s interesting; what’s interesting is watching Enid be taught A Lesson.

To me, that’s because the energy of the book is not invested in morality as morality; rather it’s invested in morality as a lever of desire and power, about the experience of condemnation and wanting to be condemned. That’s why you’re reading of this panel isn’t really about morality. It’s about knowledge, and it’s about contempt. And about Clowes, of course.

To which I replied:
I don’t think I’m trying to compare Clowes to Tolstoy here. I’m comparing “early Clowes” to “later Clowes”—and noticing a difference that has to do with the position (moral, ethical, social, whatever) of the satirist or the satirical impulse.

Early in Ghost World, as in the Lloyd Llewellyn shorts, the satirist is impervious; beginning in “Hubba Hubba,” making fun of people starts to seem like a sign of personal insecurity and even a certain sort of naïveté. I think that’s an interesting development.

Rob Clough added:

To tie Isaac’s claims back into what I said, Ghost World represents the turning point between unfettered, unimpeachable satirist and a more self-aware artist and person understanding what their constant sneering represents. I agree 100% that Enid is a Clowes stand-in, but the issue is not even controlling a young girl, but rather exploring and expressing the understanding of how much self-loathing she (and he) possess at that point in time. Clowes drawing himself in as a grotesque, pathetic toad isn’t just a good gag, I would argue, but an expression of his own self-loathing.

Enid being taught a lesson regarding pranks isn’t a simple control/corrective of a young female, it’s Clowes castigating himself for indulging in the pleasures of simple cruelty as a way of coping with alienation.

Lastly, while I agree with Isaac that Clowes’ character work became much sharper starting with Ghost World, I would argue that nearly every one of his characters represented some autobiographical aspect of his life, personality and/or desires. Even with all of the pomo deflections, Clowes’ work is deeply personal.

And Jeet chimed in:
I think Clough pretty much hits the nail on the head in sharpening the point Isaac originally made taht Enid is a way for Clowes to reexamine his earlier artistic practices. I’d go further and note that their is a contradiction between saying that Enid is Clowes’ alter-ego and saying that he’s using her as a punching bag to work out his revulsion/attraction to young women. Yet the same critic can hold these two positions simultaneously.

Then Ken Parille got into the discussion:

Rob Clough says: “To tie Isaac’s claims back into what I said, Ghost World represents the turning point between unfettered, unimpeachable satirist and a more self-aware artist and person understanding what their constant sneering represents…”

I see this kind of self-awareness in many earlier works by Clowes. It might be harder to perceive because the narrative is more surreal and less satirical, but the ways characters interact in Velvet Glove, especially Clay’s involvement with the grotesque Tina, shows someone conscious of these issues.

“Why I Hate Christians,” published in the same Eightball as the first chapter of GW, is perhaps the best example of story in which Clowes directs at himself the kind of criticism he directs at others; and he explores the personal impulses and social conditioning behind his parody. “The Party,” also in this issue, shows Clowes’s attentiveness as he critiques his own sneering at ‘hipsters’ and the objects they have on display in their apartments. Clowes often impeaches himself.

You also see in Pussey! (begun 1989) an identification with the satirical target . Clowes writes in the introduction to the 3rd edition:
“The initial spark for many of the Pussey stories came from some misplaced, low grade desire for ‘revenge.’ As time wore on I began to feel more and more sympathy for Mr. Pussey. I started to see him . . . as a variant of myself.”

Isaac says: “Early in Ghost World, as in the Lloyd Llewellyn shorts, the satirist is impervious; beginning in “Hubba Hubba,” making fun of people starts to seem like a sign of personal insecurity and even a certain sort of naïveté. I think that’s an interesting development.”

I think it’s there, though, in the third panel of the first chapter, in which Becky calls Enid out for her hypocritical attack on Sassy readers. Enid maybe impervious to this criticism, but Becky and Clowes understand what motives Enid’s hostility. Enid develops a self-awareness later in GW that has been present in Clowes’s work for a while.

To which "Caro" replied,
I agree with Ken: my experience of the panel Isaac describes wasn’t meaningfully different from my experience of the 3rd panel of the first chapter, even on my first read.

I think I’m hesitant in general about the “shift through time” linearity of your argument, Isaac. Ouevre questions aside, I didn’t find Ghost World to have nearly as linear a narrative trajectory as the shift you’re describing suggests — I read it in the Eightballs (long after their original publication) and it was very nested and recursive to me, with each episode covering very similar ground save very subtle, significant, changes as Enid matured. There were constant metaphorical returns as well — really a structural tour de force. (I was apathetic about it, actually, until I got deeply invested in disagreeing with Noah’s reading from our roundtable last year.)

I still disagree with Noah, but also with Jeet — there’s nothing contradictory about representing a character from both inside and outside. Although I don’t see the same objectification here that Noah does, I think the objectification that is there is of a piece with the identity crisis at the heart of the narrative — the blurring/confusion of self and other — “desire is the desire of the Other” — it is Freud playing the piano there on the back cover of Issue #17…

And Ken tied the whole long discussion up with a bow:

The Sassy scene is also complicated by the fact that Enid is attacking the magazine on Clowes’s behalf; the editors had stolen a panel from Eightball and used it to illustrate an article in 1990.

I promise my other Panelists posts won't need to be followed with such an extensive archive of comments.

No comments: