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Critical Essay by Carla Freccero
SOURCE: "Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho," in Diacritics, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 44-58.
In the following essay, Freccero discusses reactions to American Psycho and explores the significance of the novel's violence.
US mass media has become a much-publicized target of censorious commentary within American public culture in recent years. Censorship, as E. S. Burt notes, may take at least two forms: philosophical censorship, such as that discussed by Leo Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing, and the more commonly applied form of US censorship enacted against "pornography" or "obscenity." Philosophical censorship, in this reading, entails the state's persecution of message-bearing texts or utterances that counter the doxa and threaten to disrupt the state, while the second form of censorship involves "a language use that falls outside the interpretive scheme defining the work as the intentional act of a moral being". In the United States, state censorship of the first kind may perhaps be practiced through the "incitement to riot" escape clause provision in the First Amendment, while obscenity censorship—in certain forms—is explicitly written into legislation as excluded from speech protection.
Extending Strauss's argument to the liberal state, Burt suggests in effect that these two forms of censorship become related insofar as the state's censorious intent is directed not so much at the content of the expression as at the degree to which it confirms the axiom, what Burt calls the "very fundamental, convening assumption of the … liberal state" that "virtue is knowledge". Thus obscenity is a form of expression that cannot be interpreted as productive knowledge but instead as a certain repetitive excess, "dirt for dirt's sake". The problem here, of course, is that such distinctions do not apply comfortably to that category of utterance termed the literary, and especially to the use of figurative language, where "art for art's sake" can be seen precisely to resemble the nonproductivity of obscenity. The text I am going to discuss in depth here, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, has been attacked on both grounds—as an active (and violent) disruption of the doxa that is also obscenely nonproductive of knowledge—and as such, it serves as an illustrative, and I will argue, noncoincidental, case of "censorship" in the liberal state.
It may be useful here to begin by surveying and making distinctions among the various popular and popularized censorships in recent US media: Ice-T's "Cop Killer" was probably the most authentic case of "philosophical" censorship, even though its silencing did not derive directly from the state (the liberal state often does not function in some of the ways supposed when the definition of censorship is restricted to state censorship). "Cop Killer" is a song about killing policemen, and thus came closest—in the list I am going to propose of silenced works—to tempting the state's retaliation. It was written and sung by a black man (a black man who often plays a gangster and a cop in popular films), in a genre already regarded as threateningly disruptive to the state: rap. The result is that the CD containing this song was pulled from the shelves of music stores and can no longer be purchased. There was no trial. The author withdrew his work from public circulation in the face of death threats and informal police retaliation. Another instance involving a rap group was a case of censorship on the grounds of obscenity. 2 Live Crew were arrested at a live concert, and so was a man selling their CD, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," in a record store in Florida. The group went to trial in a latter-day instance of the more famous obscenity trials of the literary work of James Joyce and Arthur Miller.
Michael Jackson's "Black or White" was also in a sense censored: the scene where "he" (the actor, singer, protagonist of the mini-narrative) expressed rage inside the prison of race was excised from the MTV-aired video, so that what we remember instead is the Benetton-like display of high tech digitalized morphing back and forth among beautiful, racially differentiated, multiply gendered faces, a serene version of the technology used in the film Terminator 2. But the original video is available for purchase or rental in stores. Here, the censoring apparatus took a classic liberal form: consumption of the commodity in question was confined to more restrictive venues, so that "thoughtful men [sic]" who are "careful readers" would continue to have access to the text.
Madonna, whose career has been forged in the courting of censorship, has had three famous brushes with the problem of silencing: the first involved a Pepsi commercial, aired once and thereafter buried when the lyrics to the song turned out to have as their full-length video a shocking combination of sexual, interracial, and religious commingling that disturbed and outraged the Catholic and fundamentalist establishments in the US. The Pepsi commercial is unavailable for viewing. The second incident involved live performance, the rendering of "Like a Virgin" as a song about masturbation, where Canadian officials, invoking that country's obscenity laws, threatened to close down the show. The third incident involved MTV's refusal to air "Justify My Love," one of Madonna's videos, for the reason, presumably, that the video exposes an occasional breast and that television's federal arm prohibits such exposures on stations like MTV. Madonna, however, has found a way to advertise censorship: "Like A Prayer" spawned an unprecedented amount of academic inquiry and analysis, while the concert tape of the Blonde Ambition tour and the video of "Justify My Love" assumed a life of their own at the video stores (though Madonna still profits less this way than she would have if both of these videos had been aired continuously on MTV). Indeed, the production of "veiled" spectacles, the striptease performed around selected works within an artist's ample corpus, the production of scarcity, and the marketing of censorship as a technique to spur consumption have proven profitable as long as the artist continued to remain visible through the sheer volume of his/her other, easily circulating work.
The Internet has become one of the most recent targets of censorship efforts; here comparisons might be drawn with the infamous senate debates regarding Robert Mapplethorpe and state funding for "obscene, indecent, and offensive" art. One of the proposed solutions to the distress occasioned by Internet pornography is to make the Internet a more highly privatized domain; indeed, censorship in the United States seems to have drifted once again toward the question—in popular or populist arenas—of public versus private. The language of public and private succeeds in evading questions of censorship and silencing, focusing instead on regulation and restraint, as in the cases of the Jackson and Madonna videos, so that what emerges is a benign paternalism that reinstates the elite/popular distinction in the domain of culture.
I perform this survey of recent mass media/popular cultural artifacts and their conflicts with the law or with public standards in order to move toward another popular artifact whose encounter with an effort to silence may seem more surprising in late twentieth-century America by virtue of the medium in which it is presented: writing. The examples above are aural or visual (indeed even the hairsplitting around Internet regulation suggests that "freedom of expression" is to be taken rather anachronistically and that words—by virtue of their already elite status and limited access—are to be protected more than pictures; symptomatically, the Communications Decency Act compares the Internet not to written text but to telephone and telecommunications). They are also artifacts of mass media whose circulation is massive, for they are ubiquitously accessible via electronic technology—perhaps the most difficult of all technologies developed so far to cordon off, control, effectively regulate and confine—across the United States and internationally. Finally, these are all works of art produced by citizens markedly marginalized in other ways in US public culture: they are African American males, a white female coded as sexually dangerous, a white gay man who died of AIDS, and in the case of the Internet: youth.
One might assume, then, that a novel, a work of fiction, would suffer the benign consequences of neglect, if for no other reason than that its circulation does not benefit from the mass distribution available for video or audio artifacts. Furthermore, a book published by what are called "respectable" (middle-brow?) publishers (Random House) ordinarily would not be expected to be as familiar to the public as Madonna's videos or Ice-T's songs. Finally, it is a book written by a white man (of indeterminate sexual "orientation") who, even in the opinion of the conservative writer George Will, is "conventionally dressed and barbered". Yet Bret Easton Ellis's Amercan Psycho occasioned a minor outburst in the publishing industry in the US in 1990 and 1991, which produced in its wake a weighing-in by culture critics and magazines across the political spectrum, from Time and Spy magazines to the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, the Nation, Commentary, the New Republic, and library and publishing journals. Well-known writers and commentators joined the fray: Norman Mailer, Fay Weldon, Roger Rosenblatt, George Will, and Roger Kimball. To Simone de Beauvoir's famous question, "Must We Burn Sade?," which was a considered and serious defense of the man and his writing, this country answered, regarding Ellis, yes, we must, at one extreme; and no, we mustn't, at the other, but let's not read him either. The New York Times, somewhat uncharacteristically, weighed in on the side of bonfires, for Roger Rosenblatt's prepublication review was (humorously?) entitled "Snuff This Book!"
The story, in brief, is this: Ellis's manuscript, American Psycho, was accepted for publication, and its author was given an advance by Simon and Schuster. After the book had been advertised, announced in catalogs, and a press packet had been mailed around the country in anticipation of a publicity tour, prepublication proofs came under the scrutiny of Time and Spy magazines, each of which published particularly explicit excerpts of the novel accompanied by reviews decrying the decision to publish the book. The publisher at Simon and Schuster subsequently read the manuscript and decided to withdraw the offer of publication. Within forty-eight hours, Random House bought the publishing rights, and the novel appeared the next year in Random House's Vintage series.
American Psycho is narrated for the most part in the first-person voice of a serial killer. The serial killer is a popular American figure of dementia, universally regarded as unthreatening precisely because of his singularity, the nonrationality of his pathology, and the individualized and eccentric nature of his violence. A serial killer is not the oppressed masses, and although his murders are usually lurid, his reach is limited. In this sense, the serial killer serves the function of a fetish in public culture: he is the means of the disavowal of institutionalized violence, while the "seriality" of his acts of violence marks the place of recognition in this disavowal. Through the serial killer, then, we recognize and simultaneously refuse the violence-saturated quality of the culture, by situating its source in an individual with a psychosexual dysfunction. We are thus able to locate the violence in his disorder rather than in ourselves or in the social order. As Amy Taubin, in Sight and Sound, puts it:
With just 5 per cent of the world's population, the US is believed to have about 75 per cent of the world's serial killers.
Disturbing as these figures are, the fact is that the number of people who will die at the hands of serial killers doesn't even bear comparison with, for example, the number of women who will die because they don't have access to breast screening, or even know it exists. But institutionalised violence—the destruction of millions of lives through poverty and neglect, the abuse practised against women and children, the slaughter of 100,000 Iraqis—has no easy representation. The image of the serial killer acts as a substitute and a shield for a situation so incomprehensible and threatening it must be disavowed.
Serial killers also typify an individualistic conception of violence, singularly embodied and psychically caused. In serial killer stories the sources of pathology lie in a decontextualized family romance separable from the social order. What is somatized in the figure of the serial killer, then, is also an ideology of violence that presents violence as something originating in the private sphere. Taubin concludes, "Bred in the heartlands, he's the deformed version of the American dream of the individual". Yet the "deformation" of the American dream—that which we do recognize and avow—is located not in corrupt government, or economic institutions that exploit us, but in an individual. The solution to the problem of violence then also becomes relatively simple: kill the serial killer and your problem goes away.
In "Burning Acts: Injurious Speech," Judith Butler traces how the polity elides or effaces the violence of history (a continuative, iterated process of wounding, a transitivity not imaginable as originating from a singular source), by establishing a moral framework of accountability whereby a subject is brought into being, in Nietzschean fashion, to stand as the cause of an injurious "deed" ("For Nietzsche, the subject appears only as a consequence of a demand for account-ability"). She notes that this process, the process of demanding accountability for injury, not only produces a subject as an effect that then stands in as the cause, but also produces from action a discrete act, a singular deed that can be isolated and can serve as an object of prosecution. The Nietzschean formulation presupposes, however, a prior, sovereign subject or supreme being capable of deeming—or judging—as she puts it, the "injurious consequence". This prior subject is the law, and Butler here questions the wisdom of conferring power on the (presumably neutral) domain of the juridical to assign blame for and to prosecute injurious action. One way in which hate speech prosecution has been understood to be possible is by assigning to citizens the power to enact violence normally assigned to the state through the "state action doctrine". The suspension of this doctrine in the prosecution of hate speech has the potential to displace state power "onto the citizen, figured as a kind of sovereign, and the citizenry, figured as sovereigns whose speech now carries a power that operates like state power to deprive other 'sovereigns' of fundamental rights and liberties".
Butler suggests that not only does such a shift of emphasis from the state to its citizenry as "sovereign" agents risk "a suspension of critical insight into state power and state violence", but also that "the juridicalization of history … is achieved precisely through the search for subjects to prosecute, who might be held accountable and, hence, temporarily resolve the problem of a fundamentally unprosecutable history", given that the utterance that produces injury does so "through a transitivity that cannot be reduced to a causal or intentional process originating in a singular subject"; in other words, through the iterability (citationality)of the violence of history itself.
The political power of this analysis lies in questioning the notion that injury, such as the injury produced by utterances, can be in any sense simply and finally attributed to a singular subject and its act, for when it is, it becomes a juridical matter of assigning blame rather than a political matter of analysis and opposition. "Indeed," Butler writes, "when political discourse is fully collapsed into juridical discourse, the meaning of political opposition runs the risk of being reduced to the act of prosecution. How is the analysis of the discursive historicity of power unwittingly restricted when the subject is presumed as the point of departure for such an analysis?".
This analysis may go a long way toward explaining the consoling fantasy of the serial killer as a condensation of the violence of American historicity into a singular subject who performs discrete, singular injurious acts. If such is the case, and if the popularity of the vehicle of the serial killer as sign of social disease is any indication, it also illustrates the degree to which history is already successfully censored in the manner Strauss suggests, since we figure history's violence, and the violence of the state, in the sovereign citizen-subject of the serial killer. Furthermore, as the case of American Psycho illustrates, the critics who respond to the violence "depicted" and—according to the censors—"enacted" within it, have also internalized the censor, internalized the law, the juridical, by assigning the blame for the harm produced to an agent, the author, and an act, the writing of a novel.
Hate speech is not too farfetched an analogy in considering the case of American Psycho and those who most vigorously protested its existence, the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women. Indeed, NOW's response to the novel construes it as act of incitement, as hate speech, in other words. I want to ask Butler's question, "How is the analysis of the discursive historicity of power unwittingly restricted when the subject is presumed as the point of departure for such an analysis?," in part because I think it is a matter of political urgency in liberal feminist political analyses that have recently targeted pornography and in liberal political analyses that have targeted hate speech as objects of prosecution. As a feminist interested in the interventionary power of the political analysis of culture, I want to explore the (in) adequacies of the discourse of injury and accountability invoked by denunciations of this novel.
NOW called for a boycott of Random House, the publisher that picked up Ellis's book after Simon and Schuster dropped it in a breach of contract with the author. In a January 1991 resolution, NOW stated that "the publication of American Psycho is socially irresponsible and legitimizes inhuman and savage violence masquerading as sexuality. This is totally unacceptable". The book was referred to as a "how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women." In a move similar to that of Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse, which transcribes the pornographic passages that it then denounces, NOW's hotline phone message included a recording—in a woman's voice—of one of the passages of rape and dismemberment from American Psycho (as the New Republic put it, "the phone number is sure to fall into the wrong lonely hands").
NOW seems to acknowledge the citationality of the novel's violence, though not its own, when it follows the recording with a statement that crimes of rape and violence against women are epidemic and on the rise. The hotline tape concludes by calling for a boycott. "'We are not telling them not to publish,'" says Tammy Bruce, president of the Los Angeles Chapter, in an interview with the New York Times; rather, NOW hopes the publisher "will learn [that] violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable" [see McDowell]. One might be tempted to ridicule this exercise first for the patent falsity of the statement that somehow violence against women is not socially acceptable, and second for refusing the possibility that, just as its own gesture of citation is not to be construed as a misogynist act of violence, so too perhaps the passage quoted may bear a complicated—and willfully citational—relation to the violence it depicts. But it is worth noting that NOW's response is not atypical of public culture's responses to popular cultural artifacts: representation is construed as advocacy, and figuration is construed as performativity. Furthermore, the emotional denunciations, uttered in horror and disgust, inevitably cite—obsessively and in detail—the target of their denunciation, thus betraying the perverse or pornographic investments of the censors themselves.
Here, then, is another consoling fantasy: Bret Easton Ellis and Random House are the serial killers, they are the agents of the injurious act of misogyny that is the novel. At least one very obvious political limitation ensues: George Will, author of numerous misogynistic social analyses of the family, is confirmed in his self-congratulatory denunciation of this book and all of popular culture on the grounds of "today's depraved appetite for imaginary violence against women," while continuing to dismiss that very "real" social violence with the inclusion of the emphatic term "imaginary".
NOW may be an easy target for liberal "freedom of expression" intellectuals; its response seems a straightforward call for censorship in the interests of protecting the public—women in particular—from the violence enacted by the novel. Yet the other reason for which American Psycho was denounced and dismissed, namely "taste," demonstrates the ways in which liberal intellectuals engaged in artistic evaluation also relinquished analysis; indeed, their response may be said to resemble censorship on the grounds of "indecency" or "obscenity." The refusal to defend the novel on the grounds of its content and its style was, in this case, also symptomatic, betraying a longing for the consoling fantasy of the serial killer to narrate and contain the trauma of historicity.
American Psycho does not offer its readers the serial killer as consoling fantasy; instead, as the narrator/killer/protagonist Patrick Bateman himself remarks, in a moment of near-revelation at the end of the novel: "Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in…." Ellis explains: "'I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface—food, clothes—that is what defined people. So I wrote a book that is all surface action; no narrative, no characters to latch onto, flat, endlessly repetitive'" [see Cohen]. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt best illustrates Burt's contention that the liberal state insists on the positive productivity of knowledge in expression when he complains that American Psycho does "violence to an organic idea of art," by collapsing form and content and by eliminating a "moral framework" for the depiction of "monstrous criminality" in the novel. He thus rejects as self-evidently impossible the aesthetic of surface deployed in the text: "The trouble with American Psycho is, of course, that you can't create a meaningless world out of meaninglessness. Surface, surface, surface cannot serve to define substance". A related critique involves Ellis's use of formal mimesis: "Mr. Ellis's true offense is to imply that the human mind … can no longer distinguish between form and content", and "But to write superficially about superficiality and disgustingly about the disgusting and call it, as Ellis does, a challenge to his readers' complacency, does violence to his audience and to the fundamental nature of his craft". Not only do these critics explicitly reject the MTV-style postmodernist aesthetics of surface adopted by Generation X (for which Ellis has been dubbed a spokesperson), but they also inadvertently miss Ellis's citation of what is perhaps the most famous and time-worn literary deployment of mimetic violence, known to Dante scholars as "infernal irony," for the novel's first words are: "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank…." As Norman Mailer, to his credit, points out: "Bateman is living in a hell where no hell is external to ourselves and so all of existence is hell".
The aesthetic critique of the absence of a formal or stylistic surface/depth model in the novel is echoed by a critique of the absence of a metaphorical surface/depth model in Ellis's character portrayal. What critics reproach Ellis for is that he precisely does not provide a psychologized narrative of origins, a comforting etiology for his killer's illness; we do not hear that he was a sexually abused child or that he had a domineering mother. Indeed the novel inserts the mother—for, in serial killer stories, at least since Hitchcock's Psycho, the mother has to be there—in one chapter toward the end, when Bateman goes to visit her in a nursing home, where she lives out her days heavily sedated. She seems like quite a nice person, really, and no clues are provided that would suggest a tortured relationship between the two. Rather, the chapter concludes tantalizingly (but inconclusively) with a line about Patrick's father in a photograph: "He's standing next to one of the topiary animals a long time ago at his father's estate in Connecticut and there's something the matter with his eyes", hinting, in interestingly feminist terms, that, if there is an etiology, it is patrilineal, and thus located squarely within the dominant social order itself.
Ellis is thus taken to task—and negatively compared to Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs—for failing to provide a "moral framework" for his tale of the twenty-six-year-old Harvard graduate, Patrick Bateman (Norman Bates? Batman?), an independently wealthy Wall Street investment banker who works for Pierce and Pierce(!), the company his father owns, and who is devastatingly handsome, beautifully dressed, "hardbodied," and a psychopath. Mailer, who defends the concept but not the execution of the book, writes: "Since we are going to have a monstrous book with a monstrous thesis, the author must rise to the occasion by having a murderer with enough inner life for us to comprehend him". "Can he emerge," Mailer asks, "entirely out of no more than vapidity, cupidity, and social meaninglessness?" And again: "We cannot go out on such a trip unless we believe we will end up knowing more about extreme acts of violence, know a little more, that is, of the real inner life of the murderer".
For these critics, there needs to be an inner truth, and the truth of "extreme acts of violence" needs to be located in the psyche of the serial killer. Yet it is precisely the violence of this kind of search for truth that the mainstream cultural critics decry in (what they view as the current spate of) novels and movies that eviscerate women. For example, Lorrie Moore recounts how in her writing classes twenty-year-old boys are producing more and more stories of "hacked-up women": "It's like David Lynch, the boys say now. It's getting to the truth, the difficult, hidden core, they say". And Lehmann-Haupt, who at one turn denounces American Psycho's superficiality, its lack of depth, also claims that the novel suggests that "the human soul is something to be sought with knives and hatchets and drills." In Torture and Truth: The New Ancient World, Page du Bois writes:
The female body—among others—is still represented as a locus of truth … and th[e] philosophical subject needs to find the truth, needs to locate truth elsewhere in the body of another, employs torture or sexual abuse against the other, because he finds that he does not know truth, because truth has been defined as a secret, as the thing not known, not accessible to consciousness … a hidden truth, one that eludes the subject, must be discovered, uncovered, unveiled, and can always be located in the dark, in the irrational, in the unknown, in the other. And that truth will continue to beckon the torturer, the sexual abuser, who will find in the other—slave, woman, revolutionary—silent or not, secret or not, the receding phantasm of a truth that must be hunted down, extracted, torn out in torture.
She concludes pithily that "the psychotic pursues women's truth through torture", Critics who denounce American Psycho's refusal to provide an inner truth for his character's monstrosity insist upon precisely a model of truth, and its disclosure and/or recovery, that, du Bois argues, produces the desperate monstrosity of the psychopath in the first place: that somehow the truth must be there, lurking beneath a surface—of skin. Indeed, this is what distinguishes the author Ellis from his serial killer protagonist, for the novel demonstrates that there is no truth to be found beneath appearances, and the accumulation of Bateman's successful, unnoticed, and ultimately deeply unsatisfying torture-murders that do not teach him—or the rest of us—anything, proves this point.
Even Bateman's confession, a moment in the novel that teases us with Foucauldian irony, succeeds in revealing absolutely nothing, not because anything remains hidden, but because there is no truth to be revealed, extracted, and expiated in confession. No one is listening to him (he speaks to a telephone answering machine) and, since proper names correspond interchangeably to bodies, no one can tell who is who; nor does anyone (except the protagonist) notice that fact, and no one, including Patrick, cares. As Fay Weldon notes, to explain why "you got so squeamish all of a sudden":
I'll tell you why. It's because there's always been someone in the other books to play [sic] lip service to respectability; to the myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect. The serial killer gets discovered, punished, stopped. There are people around to throw up their hands in horror, who can still distinguish between what is psychotic and what is not. Justice is done. There is remorse.
Not in American Psycho. And we hate him for saying it. In American Psycho, nobody cares. Slaughtered bodies lie undiscovered. The city has fallen apart. Nobody takes much notice. The police have other things to do. Those who are killed don't rate—they are the powerless, the poor, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sellers of flesh for money: their own and other people's. The tides of the city wash over them, erase their traces. The landlady, seeing her blood-spattered walls, is vexed because she needs to re-let quick. She doesn't want a fuss, she wants her rent.
Gilles Deleuze's "Coldness and Cruelty" analyzes the literary symptomatology of the clinical terms sadism and masochism and points to some of the reasons for the massive prosecutorial defenses that have been erected to fend off the cultural analysis that American Psycho proposes. The first point he makes about the practice of sadism as a literary mode, via Bataille, is that its language is paradoxical, for normally the description of torture (as in testimonials) is the language of the victim and not the torturer, who usually invokes the hypocritical language of established power to rationalize and justify his actions, but not to describe. Elaborate descriptions of torture, then, are the victim's strategy. Thus, as victim, Bateman establishes a relation of identification with the reader. Furthermore, Deleuze notes that the sadist's intention is not to persuade or convince his reader, but to demonstrate: to demonstrate that reason itself is violence through the cold impersonality and singularity of its demonstration. He argues that what is at work in sadism is the attempt to arrive at the thought of pure negation through a totalization and transcendence of the partial and repeated negating of what is outside the self: "There is a progression in sadism from the negative to negation, that is, from the negative as a partial process of destruction endlessly reiterated, to negation as an absolute idea of reason". In psychoanalytic terms, the sadist identifies so exclusively with the superego that his ego no longer exists except as it is externalized onto the other. "What normally confers a moral character on the superego is the internal and complementary ego upon which it exerts its severity"; the relation of judgment and punishment that normally exists between the superego and the ego becomes an intersubjective, rather than an intrasubjective relation, and the superego then exercises its cruelty upon the externalized other, as ego. The sadist thus both projects his ego onto the external world and, simultaneously, the external world becomes nothing but his ego.
The story sadism tells, writes Deleuze, is of
how the ego, in an entirely different context and in a different struggle [from that of masochism], is beaten and expelled; how the unrestrained superego assumes an exclusive role, modeled on an inflated conception of the father's role…. Desexualization, now represented by the superego, ceases to be of a moral or moralizing character, since it is no longer directed upon an inner ego but is turned outward, upon external victims who take on the quality of the rejected ego…. The Death Instinct now assumes the character of a Thought of a fearful nature, the idea of demonstrative reason.
The story American Psycho tells is the story of the superego, the father, the law. The sadism and violence of the law are enacted upon the bodily ego of the self (this is how we and he are victims), a self now externalized as other: a dog, a beggar, a child, some prostitutes, a gay man, some women, and a colleague—all of them are him, all of them are us, and we are him. Weldon puts it this way: "Look, I didn't want you to actually read Ellis's work. I did it for you. I expect you have enough trouble with your own fantasies of revenge, as you wonder whether you're brave enough to walk down your street late at night".
Deleuze concludes his discussion of Sade and Sacher-Masoch by pointing out that pathologies are often defined first from their symptoms and only later as a function of their causes and that, while scientific or clinical medicine seeks the etiology of disease, etiology is subordinated to symptomatology, the artistic and literary, or interpretive, aspect of such inquiry. Within what Foucault has described as our social order's medico-juridical regime, there is little recognition of the literariness of a discourse that proposes not etiologies but symptomatologies, and, in delineating an uncanny symptomatology, American Psycho has articulated an unbearable—but lucid, but rigidly logical—antihumanism as the mundane and mannerly order of the day. One of the epigraphs to American Psycho features a quotation from Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners. In the first part of this passage, Martin declares: "One of the major mistakes people make is that they think manners are only the expression of happy ideas. There's a whole range of behavior that can be expressed in a mannerly way. That's what civilization is all about—doing it in a mannerly and not an antagonistic way."
The political loss for progressives, in denouncing American Psycho, has been a victory for conservatives, who decry modern popular culture and the "twentysomething" Generation X's postmodern approach, which they interpret as a relativization of values, a lack of a moral framework, and as producing a world without civilization, without decency. Carol Iannone, writing in Commentary, focuses instead on the second half of Judith Martin's statement, which seems, in Iannone's view, to invoke the Sixties as the "immoral" beginning that culminated in the decline of civilization represented by Generation X. Here is Martin: "One of the places we went wrong was the naturalistic Rousseauean movement of the Sixties in which people said, 'Why can't you just say what's on your mind?' In civilization there have to be some restraints. If we followed every impulse, we'd be killing one another." Iannone quotes this second half of the epigraph and continues, in an extravagant indictment of "postmodernism" as the culmination of the sixties:
In one way or another, then, Ellis seems to have absorbed a sense of our age as one in which a deluded permissiveness has badly misread human nature and the contingencies surrounding the human condition. In this light, his caricature of Reaganite America becomes a mere epiphenomenon of a deeper cultural holocaust. Indeed, when Patrick Bateman speaks his mind, he invokes not the culture of Reagan, which for better or worse is only the culture of middle-class America, but rather a phantasmagoric, quintessentially post-modernist landscape from which all traditional structures, values, truths, have been eliminated…. In a deconstructed world of jagged surfaces, devoid of hierarchies of meaning, there are no depths to cry out of, and none to receive the cry….
… we are witnessing: a novel that both seeks to portray and at the same time is itself a manifestation of extreme cultural breakdown. As such it inadvertently forces a number of politically incorrect truths on our attention—that civilization does not cause barbarism, it controls it; that the weakening of civilized restraints does not mean the flowering of the individual but the rise of savagery; that when we deny the moral law, people will just go farther to hit bottom, to feel, if only negatively, the boundaries of their humanity.
Yet it is precisely that "civilization"—which Iannone refers to as "only the culture of middle-class America"—that is being indicted by the twentysomething perspective Ellis represents. In an essay for the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times far "bleaker" than the fictional philosophies of American Psycho, "The Twentysomethings: Adrift in a Pop Landscape," Ellis invokes history as the primal trauma of his generation: "Few of my generation were alive for, much less remember, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but the oldest of us, even at age 2, could sense something had gone wrong". And Ted Rall, describing a generation on the cusp of thirty-and twenty-somethings, remarks:
These are heady days for those of us who always suspected that treating people like dog meat is a recipe for a better breed of citizen. No more will weak-willed social engineers and their fellow travelers in Government fall for the trap of "caring," "helping" or other outmoded social policies. All over the nation, we "twirtysomethings"—Americans 25 to 35 years old—decide elections, set trends and fall behind no faster than other people. We're saving the United States from itself, and we're doing it by being neglected, mistreated, and ignored!
Liberals, in arguing for a moral framework and an etiology with which to turn Patrick Bateman and the novel American Psycho into a consoling fantasy of an evil agent as the cause of evil, want a humanist resolution to the monstrosity of the world Ellis presents, want to continue to believe that the killer will be caught and punished, rather than, as Ellis proposes, quoting Talking Heads in the epigraph to the novel: "And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention." Thus they collude with the right wing in their condemnation of the writer's symptomatic "inadvertency," while refusing—unlike the right, whose diagnosis is ready and true—to take up the question of history the writer poses. Ellis, who is here analyzing and demonstrating the philosophical insights of Generation X, is instead criticized for juvenile cynicism and the "bad taste" of the younger generation. Thus the generational perspective is trivialized—as "grown-ups" are wont to do—or else, indeed, rendered tragic (as in the case of liberal laments about violence, teen suicide, and AIDS).
What the critics and censors have done, then, is to denounce a symptomatology—antihumanism, or rather the total negation of humanism—in despair of ever being able to locate a cause, at least in this serial killer. The violence of history, its transitivity, its temporality, may be ungraspable as such, as Butler says, but in figuring that violence as a handsome, successful, upper-middle-class white male serial killer—an individual—and then refusing to confer upon that American icon of the serial killer an inner truth that would explain the cause of evil, that would provide some sort of moral accountability for that evil—Ellis responds to what Mailer argues is our postmodern condition:
Art is no longer the great love who is wise, witty, strengthening, tender, wholesomely passionate, secure, life-giving … no we are far beyond that moral universe—art has now become our need to be terrified. We live in the fear that we are destroying the universe, even as we mine deeper into its secrets. So art may be needed now to provide us with just those fearful insights that the uneasy complacencies of our leaders do their best to avoid.
In doing so, Ellis refuses us a consoling fantasy, a fetish for our disavowals; instead he returns us to that history, to the violence of historicity and to the historicity of violence.
The last words of the novel are a sign, written in red like the red of the sign scribbled on the Chemical Bank wall in the opening lines of the novel:
Someone has already taken out a Minolta cellular phone and called for a car, and then, when I'm not really listening, watching instead someone who looks remarkably like Marcus Halberstam paying a check, someone asks, simply, not in relation to anything, "Why?" and though I'm very proud that I have cold blood and that I can keep my nerve and do what I'm supposed to do, I catch something, then realize it: Why? and automatically answering, out of the blue, for no reason, just opening my mouth, words coming out, summarizing for the idiots: "Well, though I know I should have done that instead of not doing it. I'm twenty-seven for Christ sakes and this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so, well, yup, uh …" and this is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
From Dante to Sartre, from Europe's premodernity to its late modernity, from theology to existentialism, American Psycho charts its affinity with, and fragmentation of, a history of hellish visions of history. It does so, however, without necessarily seeking redemption from knowledge, without, that is, consenting to the positive productivity mandated by censors in the liberal state.
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