Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity:
Defining the Postmodern through
Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/blazer.htm

Alex E. Blazer

Ohio State University


Some kind of existential chasm opens before me while I'm browsing in Bloomingdale's and causes me to first locate a phone and check my messages, then, near tears, after taking three Halcion (since my body has mutated and adapted to the drug it no longer causes sleep-it just seems to ward off total madness), I head toward the Clinique counter where with my platinum American Express card I buy six tubes of shaving cream while flirting nervously with the girls who work there and I decide this emptiness has, at least in part, some connection with the way I treated Evelyn at Barcadia the other night, though there is always the possibility it could just as easily have something to do with the tracking device on my VCR, and while I make a mental note to put in an appearance at Evelyn's Christmas' party-I'm even tempted to ask one of the Clinique girls to escort me-I also remind myself to look through my VCR handbook and deal with the tracking device problem.

-Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman, the psychopathically unreliable narrator of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, exists in the banal hollow of popular culture, specifically the height of the Reagan-era, Wall Street, me generation in which everything revolved around money and image; as such, Bateman is an idea and an image, but empty and void of deep identity. As a walking billboard for elite, conspicuous consumption and high-end product placement, he lacks inner resources and glosses over an emotionally sterile existence. An argument with his fiancée poses the same degree of bemused consternation for him as an appliance problem; both throw him into the void, an oblivion of psychic numbness that is just barely covered over by his mundane, albeit hyperconsciously, image-ridden, world. Bateman takes into his being nothing but ritualistic workouts (a thousand crunches per day), status symbol goods (only the coolest, highest-priced clothing, cosmetics, and furniture), endless pop culture images (trash talk show tv, synth pop music, pornographic videotapes), exclusive parties (with nameless, exchangeable, and disposable friends at only the best clubs and restaurants of the minute); such routines are far from nourishing. He has so filled himself up with hype, pomp, pretense that his identity is nothing more than an advertisement, an illusion, a mask under which no human character dwells. While John Berryman's Henry may well be ironic, Bateman cannot fathom irony because he has no layers, no sense of depth. He cannot differentiate between products and people, consumption and affect: he's flat, superficial, and ultimately in-fathomable. His character is a mask covering a void; his identity is an aberrational reaction to the abyss of being that founds his existence.

Patrick Bateman is a product of postmodern popular culture. Modernist culture, due to the rise of Freud and Marx, was fixated on the psychic economy of neurosis and of alienation from society, family, and oneself due to the rising bout between a conservative Victorian past and an ever-accelerating industrial future. Modernist narration exemplifies the neurotic; it feels a lack and a lie and speeds toward filling it by unmasking illusions: Quentin Compson obsesses over Caddy, his father, and time; Jay Gatsby dreams the impossible return to the green light of Daisy; Nick Adams, disillusioned by the birth of war, attempts to return to the Big Two-Hearted River; Mrs. Ramsey seeks her dark wedge. Postmodernist culture, habituated to the velocity of life, takes emptiness as its foundation and its origin, and is thereby driven by and to images of hyperreality in an exponentially mediated existence. Below the mask is simply another mask, another media. Depth is an image, an image of an illusion. Depth is precisely what Jack Gladney in Don DeLillo's White Noise lacks: existing in an age of incessant media bombardment, a virtual reality of sorts, the only epiphany he-a professor of Hitler studies no less, a doctor of death who touches death (and life) only through archives and documents, in a word, language-the only epiphany he is capable of involves a Toyota Celica, the word as pure signifier, not even the thing itself. William Kohler in William H. Gass's The Tunnel, ironically another Hitler historian, spends his banal and pathetic life in a chair, "[studying] all other methods of desperate disappearance" (12) in order to dig, or in this case, fade into the tunnel of his own mind, a self-indulgent depressive and a passive voyeur to the real abyss of life whose only act, a fantastic rather than substantial deed, is to found the Party of Disappointed People. Gladney, Kohler, and Bateman exist in a Baudrillardian hyperreality world of pure signification; but their communication is far from ecstatic for the postmodern borders on the psychotic.

In Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, Slavoj Zizek differentiates the postmodern from the modern by considering the status of reality. While modernism seeks to unmask characters to get at the root cause of their symptoms, he conceives of postmodernism as a reversal. Zizek, through Lacan, theorizes a psychological reality that can not only oppose but also withstand the plague of popular fantasies that bombard consciousness. He argues for subjective destitution, the complete evacuation of symbolic guarantees so one may merge with the real of existence, now devoid of pervasive imagery. He points out a postmodern subjectivity that, contrary to infernally neurotic modern subjectivity, has attained an almost nirvanic suchness and thinghood: "The lesson of modernism is that the machine revolves around an emptiness; the postmodernist reversal shows the Thing itself as the incarnated, materialized emptiness" (145). His infamous "enjoy your symptom" means know that your identity is merely an image, ultimately empty, of an-other's demand (in the case of Bateman, an image-conscious society); do not simply accept it, but revel in it. Play the game, but realize it's a game. Feel free to desire as you've been taught to desire through your total immersion in your mediated existence, but be aware that this desire is an empty circuit going nowhere. However, Zizek's commandment goes awry when one does not realize that a game is afoot; the line between reality and image is trampled. Rather than being simply destitute, the subject can become psychotic: the subject can fall into the image, as Patrick Bateman eventually does.

For a character like Bateman, hedonism is an easy feat since, in the age of popular culture's mass marketing of desire, all-consuming campaigns for consumer products, and media blitzkriegs upon reality, human beings do not live life, they traverse textuality-mediation and the imaginary: he is completely enraptured by the image of Manhattan high life of elite consumption. He has become so plugged into the party scene, which has significantly merged with the brand name scene, that he describes (evaluates, really) himself and his friends by their image, their products. He namedrops his exclusive friends just as much as he drops brand names:

There's a black-tie party at the Puck Building tonight for a new brand of computerized professional rowing machine, and after playing squash with Frederick Dibble I have drinks at Harry's with Jamie Conway, Kevin Wynn and Jason Gladwin, and we hop into the limousine Kevin rented for the night and take it uptown. I'm wearing a wing-collard jacquard waistcoat by Kilgour, French & Stanbury from Barney's, a silk bow tie from Saks, patent-leather slip-ons by Baker-Benjes, antique diamond studs from Kentshire Galleries and a gray wool silk-lined coat with drop sleeves and a button-down collar by Luciano Soprani. An ostrich wallet from Bosca carries four hundred dollars cash in the back pocket of my black wool trousers. Instead of my Rolex I'm wearing a fourteen-karat gold watch from H. Stern. (126)

He has been hooked by the "aesthetics of consumerism" enthusiastically explicated by Daniel Harris in Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic. He's the epitome of "coolness" (Harris 51-78) and "glamorousness" (209-232), detached from the life he's leading, above the event and the people, disinterested from everything but getting another fix: "I wander aimlessly around the Puck Building's first-floor ballroom, bored, sipping bad champagne (could it be nonvintage Bollinger?) from plastic flutes, chewing on kiwi slices, each topped with a dollop of chèvre, vaguely looking around to score some cocaine" (126). Bateman's an indifferent narcissist, as anyone trained by the aesthetics of consumerism must be. His life engenders nothing more than a search for sensory pleasure through goods, which, Harris points out, readily provide: "If such soulless insentience is any indication, cuteness is the most scrutable and externalized of aesthetics in that it creates a world of stationary objects and tempting exteriors that deliver themselves up to us, putting themselves at our disposal and allowing themselves to be apprehended entirely through the senses" (8-9). Harris theorizes the aesthetics of consumerism play on the desire to be an individual in this world of mass-marketed products. He observes a dark side that the aesthetics hide: the underside of the cute and desirable is the anti-cute and the grotesque (12-15).

I contend that Harris doesn't go far enough: yes, he argues that our preoccupation with inanimate objects, with "so much stuff" is dangerous. He references the rise of "zaniness" (117-9) that makes the human body a comic, yet morbid, plaything: pratfalls, slapstick, scatology. However, as we create more and more objects which please us, so too things which terrify us: as our standard of living and our media capacity increase exponentially, so too does our capacity to kill (the bomb, school shootings) and our sensationalism of killing (snuff films, video games, etc.). Our obsession with consumerism is psychologically fatal: underneath the narcissist lies not the loony toon but the sociopath. When Bateman questions his existence, he does not merge into an undifferentiated void of materialized emptiness per Zizek's analysis of the postmodern, and he doesn't simply buy more stuff to cover up and fill in his lack. Instead, he falls into an existential chasm that rips asunder his very identity. Clutching for stability, he grasps the images that have always provided his desire. Reality become mere image. Ripped apart himself, he tears apart other human beings who are reduced, in his image-conscious mind, to mere objects of desire, to be manipulated and played with until they satiate his need. But because they never can, he, an infantile narcissist, aggresses; he destroys what displeases him; he rips life apart. Two alternatives exist for the postmodern narrator who has internalized the desire for death from the popular culture: mediate it or realize it. While Gladney and Kohler engage their deadly desires by studying the history of death through texts and images, Bateman fucks life to death. When Patrick Bateman enjoys his symptom, he looks upon the bodies of others as "meat and bone" for him to dismember:

"What do you want to do, Bateman?" McDermott asks.
Thinking about it, thousands of miles away, I answer, "I want to . . ."
"Yes . . . ?" they both ask expectantly.
"I want to . . . pulverize a woman's face with a large, heavy brick."
"Besides that," Hamlin moans impatiently. (313)

Constructed of nothing but a shifting sea of images, Patrick Bateman possesses no innermost being; rather he is a hollow shell who articulates death within and without because he has taken it, the insentience of consumer goods, inside himself, the nothing that exists out there at the heart of this symbolic world whose operations are now overloaded with media-saturated images and shifting sociopolitical signifiers, paradoxically so full of itself, its own sensational propaganda, its excess is bursting and doomed to collapse in on itself. For Bateman, the symbolic and the imaginary have slipped into the real, allowing him to visit devastation not in his mind or his discourse, but upon the real world. Traveling in hyperreality, severed from the real, the human mind slips into the psychotic, the delusional and the ultraviolent. Even he admits that he's not "the boy next door" but instead a "fucking evil psychopath" (20). I argue that Patrick Bateman constitutes the postmodern, pop cultural subject carried to its logical conclusion, its apocalyptic apotheosis. The postmodern psyche slips and slides across a sea of signifiers, frozen on the outside, unable to be internalized, unable to be repressed so as to create an unconscious core of trauma and alienation. His soul cannot be caked in ice because he has no soul; rather he's an infernal machine which merely processes images and signifiers as codes, incapable of reflecting upon their meaning, because they are overwhelmingly meaning-full, thus rendering them farcically empty, that is, meaning-less. Bateman's traumatic psychological reality reappears in the real as the imaginary, as psychotic hallucination and insane malevolence (see Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses, 81-8).

Let's take a closer look at this frozen sea of signifiers, this plague of images. One cannot help but do so, for in a certain sense, that's all Patrick Bateman's narration offers us, perhaps in the final psychoanalysis all that his subjectivity is capable of understanding at best, of miming at worst. We don't know him, his innermost self, but we know every last detail of his apartment and his brands, particularly the hi-tech boy toys: Toshiba TV and VCR, Wurlitzer stereo system (I won't go into it here, but trust me, his description sounds like that of a salesman). We know his elaborate, if not fantastically impossible, morning (mourning) ritual: scrub, exfoliate, masque, moisturize; rinse, shampoo, condition, mousse, gel; rinse, brush, polish, rinse, balm (embalm); sit-up, crunch, push-up, multiplied by one thousand. We know his brands: for teeth-Plax, Rembrandt, Listerine, Probright, Cepacol, Kent (yes: he rinses his mouth three times with three different rinses); for hair-Vidal Sassoon, Greune Natural Revitalizing Shampoo, Folteene European Supplement and Shampoo, Vivagen Hair Enrichment Treatment, Redken, Aramis Nutriplexx, Mousse A Raiser, Pour Hommes Gel Appaisant (yes: he puts eight products in his hair daily); for eyes-Clinique, Baume Dex Yeux; clothes-Ralph Lauren, Fair Isle, Enrico Hidolin, Alan Flusser, Valentino Couture, A. Testoni. And those are just the brands Batemen feels compelled to namedrop in the five short pages of his morning ritual expository. Bateman devotes all of his mental efforts to absorbing brand images, to addressing (his) body image.

We know his and his click's name-brand attire, as Bateman is compelled to size up the person with a classification of all of their clothing. We even know the business card hierarchy due to a pissing contest which Bateman loses: Bateman's bone (pun surely intended) with Silian Rail is beaten by Van Patten's eggshell with Romalian type is annihilated by Price's pale nimbus white with raised lettering (44). We know his musical taste: he's completely absorbed by the canned artifice of eighties pop, the vapid Huey Lewis and the News being the ultimate image, U2 and Bono (pre-Popmart) live in concert are Bateman's arch-enemies, for they bring authentic sociopolitical critique into Bateman's blind identification with synthesized and smaltzy vacuity. We know his dining habits, or more precisely the Zagat guide's rating system: Harry's, Pastels, Fluties, Barcadia, Texarkana, Deck Chairs . . . the list goes on and on . . . until it reaches Bateman's nemesis, the ever-elusive Dorsia. We know his drugs: Valium, Halcion, Xanax, Ecstasy, speed, cocaine. We know his viewing habits: daily he records and reviews (for himself as much as for us) the topics of the Jerry Springer-esque Patty Winters Show, positions of countless pornographic movies such as Inside Lydia's Ass, and minute trivia garnered from books about serial killers.

Bateman's world, our world, is an incessant, ritualistic wading through, often with the aid of mood-altering-if not stabilizing-drugs, of a tidal wave of brand name advertisements and pornography, which are much the same thing, images of sex that ultimately become images of death as they assault the reader, if not the narrator who is incapable of authentic self-consciousness, as they bombard the reader ad nauseum such that the real recedes under the deluge of ever-competing, ever-shifting, proper names repeated into infinity. Brands become the trope desperately imitated, books and movies the method meticulously mimicked. The symbolic world Patrick Bateman inhabits is a depthless realm of masks, of images and brand names whose cache and status inevitably change, revealing no stable core at best or no substance at all: "This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw" (345). Consequently, Bateman is plunged into and forged by a sea of signifiers ultimately signifying nothing. He is mere body image. His psyche is a void because his environment is an abyss, and the inner world, if one can call it that, which he recreates in his narration is just as depleted:

There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being-flesh, blood, skin, hair-but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. (282)

Bateman responds to the emptiness of the pop cultural world in kind. He has no feeling for humanity, rather for products. At one point, he cries over a Diet Pepsi (98); his version of loss is missing a sale at a boutique on Madison Avenue (162). The only affect Bateman is capable of is one of "nameless dread." Nameless because he doesn't have an image or a product to identify it for him. When he feels an "existential chasm" open up before him, usually in a store or among his superficial friends and their inane conversations, he soon feels the urge to kill in order to regain control of himself (see opening epigraph). Having taken the world's nothingness inside him via the plague of images, he evacuates that death by killing men, by mutilating and raping women. For him, "real" human beings are merely mediated objects on or from film. He has no sensation, no sensuality, no sexuality; instead, sex is a narcissistic, masturbatory hall of mirrors which yields no intersubjective feeling . . . no feeling at all for it must be performed according to script and routine, that is according to someone else's fantasy.

This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one's taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person's love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term "generosity of spirit" applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire-meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in . . . this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged . . . (375)

Consequently, he kills indiscriminately in order to feel for himself-in order to cause feeling, in order to shock some feeling, any feeling, into the hollow image that constitutes his very psychic identity. He mutilates and rapes specifically women, gets off on watching (and videotaping) their pain because it's the closest way in which he can come to coming with any sort of feeling. I suggest that he not only butchers women in order to vent his rage and assert control, as some feminist readings of the novel opine, but aside from that, to force reality-humanity, the traumatic-to usurp, if only for a tentative moment, the reign of the ubiquitous and empty imaginary. He dismembers the dead "hard bodies" of women to experience the real life-blood flow out. Similarly, he takes re-creational drugs in order to create a mood because he, a hollow and stuffed man, is incapable of feeling on his own. In other words, he's become so desensitized and affectless, not necessarily to violence, but to the world in general, a life in which the imaginary has traded places with the symbolic, so alienated by the hollow that he is compelled to make the real known through the only avenue left to him, the intensity of the grimace from the domain of the bodily real. Consequently, the postmodern age of the Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication collapses in on itself and forces the end of humanity and the commencement of horror. The modernist T. S. Eliot's rat's alley metaphor is made literal by postmodern horror: the age in which the line between reality and image becomes blurred causes Patrick Bateman to stake a claim on one side or the other: when the plague of hollowed out signifiers threatens to engulf him in its "existential chasm," he responds in kind by really and truly hollowing out the most charged image known to him, the female body: eyes with thumbs, breasts with batteries, vaginas with rats.

Patrick Bateman is psychotic, in the clinical sense of the word. With neither strong maternal nor paternal presence (his mother is in an asylum, his father an absent executive who has shuffled Patrick off to work in a meaningless job with no responsibility yet much compensation), he is a child of society; the symbolic order, shifting and ultimately empty, raised him. He is like a child who wants desperately to be told "No!" but barring that possibility, anything goes (as Dostoyevsky wrote, if there is no God, then everything is permitted). He wants to be stopped from-to be punished for-his compulsive, ritualistic ways, but more importantly, he wants to feel. He wants to force reality to grimace such that the symbolic order will be filled with traumatic pain, consequently prohibiting him from such action while also giving him a full object, an intensely authentic and full image of pain with which to identify. He dreams of and he wants to create apocalypse now, not to end his existence, but to break through the mask that he wears-that he is-and feel his existence. But the symbolic-turned-imaginary world will not permit him to limit his reality: his friends not only pay no heed to his psychotic comments, they also misidentify him, ultimately giving him an alibi for a murder of a colleague that he committed; and his lawyer refuses to heed not only his confession, but his very identity. He is doomed to repeat his psychotic actions because his "confession has meant nothing."

. . . there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. . . . coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . . . (376-7)

Signifier continues to battle signifier; reality fades away, and his subjectivity disappears in the vacuum of a conversation in a bar without an exit. He engenders emptiness incarnate, and he feels compelled to unleash his nothingness upon the world.

Most critics fail to question the status of his real world actions. They read one-hundred pages of monotonous, repetitive, and meticulously detailed narration and become dulled to the possibility that the text might simply be another image. Unlike the modernist text which is alienated from the real, the postmodernist text loses touch with or severs its relations with the external reality. Four possibilities exist for Bateman's relationship with reality, with killing and raping and dismembering. One, he really is the boy next door turned into an insecure and obsessional man (thanks to the images he's been bombarded with all his life), who merely has isolated but repeated fantasizes about a double-life, about exerting such control over his business enemies and the women he fears sexually in order to convince himself that he's alive and not dead. The second is that he's a psychotic who lives completely in an imaginary world where the image, failing to be internalized by the infernal machine which lacks an unconscious, reappears in his real as hallucination such that the murders (if not his whole life and the whole text) constitute the incessant ranting of a madman vainly striving to ascertain reality, yet convincing us, his readers, that he's found it. The third is that he's a sociopath with psychotic tendencies, prone to hallucinations, but really inflicting pain on and annihilating the other whose ontology he interprets as a mere filmic image, hollow to the core . . . just as he is a hollow abyss before the image built of nothing. The fourth is that he's just a character in a novel, brother of Sean Bateman, a narrator in Ellis' earlier novel, The Rules of Attraction, consequently possessing no reality other than that of pure language construct. In any case, we readers enter the text as his April Fool. As reality gives way to image, as the real gives way to the imaginary, this exhaustive recreation of the world, a repetitive list really, offers us no insight into the man's innermost psyche. The postmodern becomes a stream without consciousness (or unconsciousness either), impotent rage adift atop a frozen and hollowed out sea of signifiers, raging because reality has receded, impotent because it cannot do anything to bring that reality back. The true horror of American Psycho is not the murders, if they do in fact occur, rather it is the lack of inwardness that the postmodern novel represents in the psyche of Patrick Bateman and contemporary popular culture inaugurates in us.


Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.

Berryman, John. [Sonnet 14]. The Dream Songs (77 Dream Songs and His Toy, His Dream, His Rest). New York: Noonday, 1969. 16.

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Vintage-Random, 1991.

Gass, William H. The Tunnel. 1995. Normal, IL: Illinois State UP-Dalkey Archive,
1999.

Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. n.p.: De Capo, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book III: The Psychoses 1955-1956. Trans. Russell Grigg. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1993.

Zizek, Slavoj. Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1991.

-. Enjoy Your Symptom: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Back to Top

© 2002 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture
AmericanPopularCulture.com