Absence Pleasures:
Whiteness, Death, and Music in American Psycho

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2012, Volume 11, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2012/jarcho.htm

 

Julia Jarcho
University of California, Berkeley


In September of 2011, The New York Times reported that a Broadway musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho has been “moving forward” towards production (Healy). This news has since been overshadowed somewhat by the announcement that a new film version of the book is in early development at Lionsgate (Sneider), but the prospect of American Psycho as a crowd-pleasing live musical retains its own peculiar fascination. After all, the novel makes harrowing demands on its reader, who has to endure not only its relentlessly graphic violence, but - more shockingly - page upon page of willfully, indeed gleefully inflicted boredom, as the narrator Patrick Bateman drones on about his wardrobe, his skin-care regimen, his favorite Top 40 tunes. How, one might wonder, will these fundamental features of Ellis’s literary experiment survive the move to the Great White Way?

Chances are, they’ll get lost in the shuffle. And indeed, to many, the very idea of such an adaptation must read like a sick joke. Still, there is a kind of precedent for the project in Mary Harron’s 2000 film version, starring Christian Bale. The film has become a cult classic in its own right; for those who were too young to have noticed the novel’s scandalous debut, this movie became the primary text of Patrick Bateman’s dazzling, murderous emptiness. The fact is, many of the fans who might soon be standing on line for rush tickets to see Patrick sing and dance will be there because of Harron - and, in large part, because of Bale. But what’s especially intriguing about revisiting the film in light of its potential musical adaptation is that in doing so, one can’t help noticing how the film itself seems to anticipate this possibility. The film, that is, sets itself in a particular relationship, if not to the Broadway, then to the Hollywood musical. And it is through this relationship that Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner establish the movie’s most incisive critical and aesthetic project: its covert exploration of race, more specifically of a certain libidinal investment in whiteness that has gone largely unregistered in American popular culture. The present essay examines this investment as the film presents it. The essay begins by laying out the cultural grounds of the movie’s intervention, drawing on scholarly accounts of blackness in American popular culture (Eric Lott, Linda Williams, Michael Rogin), of the Hollywood musical as a form (Jane Feuer), and of traditional constructions of whiteness (Richard Dyer). A reading of Harron’s film follows. Before the American Psycho industry gets us tapping our feet one more time, it seems important to understand the specifically racial dynamics of Bateman’s/Bale’s signature confession: “I simply am not there.”

 

I. The Source (Origin Story)

Everyone knows that blackness is the real source of American culture. Having murdered and displaced this continent’s native inhabitants, Europeans introduced a new race of “natives,” who would thenceforth play the role of the American original. While American whiteness might always remain on loan from the Old World, American blackness could guarantee that something here was authentic - that there was something truly American.
           
The preponderance of this notion - that black people are the originality, the origin, the heart and soul of America - shows itself as much in the vehemence with which overt racism negates it as in the friendlier cultural productions that endlessly repeat it. In the former category, for instance, The Birth of a Nation has to construct its fantasy of a truly white America as a “birth” precisely because it has to go all the way back to the origin in order to root out the blackness it fears; to erase America’s blackness, it has to begin at the nation’s beginning. Blackness as origin is, of course, just the flip side of blackness as savage primitiveness, an association of which Griffith and so many others have happily availed themselves. “Happily,” that is, because this association in all its modulations - from Birth’s titillated fearmongering to the various modes and moments of the celebration of American blackness that persist in the mainstream today - is continually the source of a great deal of pleasure for white audiences. The aim of this paper is ultimately to discover some surprising concomitants of this pleasure, but it is helpful to begin by reviewing its more familiar dimensions.

In his study of American minstrel entertainment, Eric Lott traces the “profound white investment in black culture” that has “constitut[ed] a particularly American structure of racial feeling” (18). Although the metaphysical dimensions of this structure are not Lott’s main concern, his analysis continually reveals the construction of blackness as source, as the nourishing presence of an original American something - American positivity itself. The nineteenth-century discourse of romantic racialism, Lott writes, insists that “what fund of emotion the ‘go-ahead-ative,’ aggressive Anglo-Saxon lacked, blacks would surely supply” (32, emphasis added): here, whiteness is construed as a kind of pure dynamism that would leave the country running on empty were it not for the ontological stability of the black emotional “fund.” As countless fantasies of blackness have demonstrated, this notion of black emotional sensibility or sentimentality can easily slip into the register of the hypersensual. It also lends itself to the celebration of a special black musicality, which in turn becomes a privileged site of the blackness-as-source construction. Thus when W. E. B. DuBois writes that Negro music is the “only real American music” (qtd. in Lott 16-17, emphasis added), he initiates blackness as a badge of musical authenticity, a function it still serves today. His remark also exhibits the close relation between origin, or source, and positivity, or reality: the only really American music (that is, the only music original to America, the only music that demonstrates America’s resourcefulness) becomes, in his phrase, the only “real” American music, that is, the only American music that can boast of a real existence, the only music that is really here.
             
Blackness, in short, is presence: the lifeblood of American music, that which ensures that our culture does not vanish either into the future, as the unrestrained dynamism of white “go-ahead-ativeness,” or into the past, as a mere iteration of European prehistory. If, in Norman Mailer’s fantasy, “the Negro…lived in the enormous present” (qtd. in Lott 54), this is because blackness is the site of American immediacy itself. Immediacy, like primitiveness, bears the force of an identity uncompromised by the passage of time: this is why blackness can serve the function of authentication, can be determined as - and can determine - what is real. In this sense, we can see blackface minstrelsy operating as a kind of extended set-up for the reaffirmation of what, even in minstrelsy’s heyday, American culture already knew: white representation could only cite the real thing that blackness was, a presence whose originality no representation could capture. The twentieth-century critical reaction that would, as Lott writes, “denounc[e] minstrelsy’s patent inauthenticity” (35), could do so by contrasting blackface performance to a real blackness, a blackness of authenticity and positive identity that demanded to be asserted in the “face” of white artifice. On the one hand, blackface performers like Al Jolson were able to invoke affective authenticity through the real blackness their fakery (only) cited; on the other, the ultimate insufficiency of that citation reaffirmed that blackness was a matter of depth, not mere surface, a matter - the matter - of the real, not the pretend.
           
Given this double construction of realness as blackness and vice-versa, it is hardly surprising that, as Linda Williams notes, “whites have relied on Africanist figures to provide them with some of their more ‘authentic’ feelings” throughout the history of American entertainment (140). Through her readings of The Jazz Singer and Show Boat, Williams traces the emergence of the American musical as “a new musical form in which ‘singing black, feeling black’ became a testament of white virtue” (137). In these shows - which can be regarded as founding moments for the film and stage musical respectively - the main characters, who are white, “acquire virtue by musically expressing a suffering that is recognizable as black” (137), whether through a childhood spent in close proximity to black people and their music (Magnolia in Show Boat) or through the virtuosic blacking-up that grounds Jolson’s affect in the traumatic mother-child separations of slavery. “There is something, after all, in my heart” (qtd. in Williams 149): if Jack Robin’s discovery of his inner substantiality is somehow enabled by the sight of himself as black, this is because blackness is the signifier of substance itself.

This substance is at once affective (it is, as Williams shows, the stuff of melodramatic efficacy) and, importantly, musical; if, as we have seen, black people could be called on to “supply” the emotional weight that would be lacking in a white America, they would do so in large part through their contribution to American music, a contribution that is figured as the gift of life itself. Thus Williams remarks that the “vitality” audiences found in Jolson’s singing “was popularly perceived as derived from African roots” (157, emphasis added), and Michael Rogin refers to a perception of “primitivist qualities, embraced by Jewish and black musicians…[that] would revivify American life” (101, emphasis added). It need not strike us as paradoxical that such fantasies of liveness emerge in a nostalgic mode - that, as Williams notes, “amidst the modernity of urban life, the ideal ‘folk’ of… nostalgic longing became fixed in the white imagination as black…nostalgia for the oral, the originary, and the primordial” (138). Although the ideal site of this nostalgia - say, the plantation - may have been (felt as) lost or past, its very framing as a site of orality ensures that the object, blackness, maintains the immediate temporality of the live voice. To be primitive or primordial or originary in this sense is not to be located early within history (in the past) but to escape history altogether, and thus to operate in a continual immediacy, as a “fund” or font of presence that the advances and corruptions of history cannot exhaust. The point to take from Lott, Williams, and Rogin is that American musical entertainment, and the musical in particular, is founded on this construction of blackness as originary presence and liveness, the “something” that guarantees a beating American heart.
           
If, as these scholars all show, American musical entertainment has always availed itself of a blackness that constitutes liveness, we can turn to Jane Feuer for an explanation of why the movie musical, in particular, would feel a pressing need for this resource. According to Feuer, the Hollywood musical implanted itself in a tradition of live musical entertainment, and its number-one challenge was therefore to reestablish the feeling of liveness that was lost in the transition to the mass medium of film. “One dominant impulse in musical films appears to be congenital,” she writes: “the desire to capture on celluloid the quality of live entertainment. Yet also from infancy, the dream of immediacy came up against the reality of technological truth: film is not a ‘live’ medium…with [mechanical] reproduction the performer’s presence, his ‘aura,’ vanishes” (2-3). It should be clear by now that blackness is ideally positioned to supply this deficit, and that the “technique” of invoking black presence, disavowed or not, might easily be counted alongside the various compensatory maneuvers that Feuer investigates. But at this point, one might also want to resist Feuer’s claim somewhat, for the dominant culture that consistently imagines liveness as blackness is also a culture that has relentlessly privileged whiteness from the moment of its founding. One might suspect that if white people accord liveness to blackness within a certain tradition, then there must be something at least as desirable in what this allowance leaves over. In other words, if liveness is blackness, then in a white-dominated cultural universe, liveness must not be the be-all and end-all of aesthetic value, even in so lively a milieu as that of Singin’ in the Rain. The film musical must have something besides liveness at stake.

 

II. White Absence

If the fantasy of black liveness is inseparable from the fantasy of black primitiveness, it is easy to see a number of advantages that thereby accrue to whites along the black/white binary: intellect, innovation, development, technological and political mastery, refinement, adulthood, and so on. As Lott notes, the romantic racialism that supported much abolitionist discourse (including Uncle Tom’s Cabin) through appeals to the “childlike” nature of the Negro promulgated “unwittingly hierarchical thinking” and “relied on the black inferiority [it] sought to displace”; adopting this discourse for its political efficacy, even a black activist like Martin Delany would have to posit that whites “probably excel in mathematics…commerce and internal improvement” while according aesthetic and ethical prowess to blacks (33). The whiteness of mathematics is especially telling: it emphasizes that the superior rationality that is implicitly retained for whites within the fantasy of black primitiveness is precisely a privileged position with respect to the universal, of which math is always the emblem. If blackness is what is immediate and real, then whiteness is what is transcendent and ideal; if blackness is the “something” that sustains life, whiteness is the nothing-in-particular of the a priori itself.
           
Richard Dyer’s White is an in-depth exploration of this white universality. Observing at the outset that whites “function as a human norm” (1), he traces the ideological stakes of this setup: “There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity… those who occupy positions of cultural hegemony blithely carry on as if what they say is neutral and unsituated - human not raced” (2-4). To combine my own terms with Dyer’s, black liveness is here so that white universality can remain “unsituated”; in this way, black authenticity preserves white authority. Dyer’s critical agenda is thus to restore specificity to whiteness, to make us “recognise white as a colour too” (11), so that it becomes impossible to think of white people as the neutral and hence authoritative representatives of the human race. But the very specificity of whiteness is its identification with universality, so in order to show its color, Dyer has to investigate and elaborate its transparency. In so doing, he discovers an affective investment in whiteness that is precisely the opposite of the investment in blackness that we have been following: an investment not in (live) presence but in absence. “[W]hat is absent from white is any thing," he explains; “in other words, material reality. Cleanliness is the absence of dirt, spirituality the absence of flesh, virtue the absence of sin, chastity the absence of sex and so on” (75). The moral “whiteness” that, across a vast range of Western representations, denotes cleanliness, spirituality, and chastity is precisely the whiteness of absence; the assertion of spirit over flesh is an assertion of no thing, or nothingness. A startling consequence of this logic is that no living human being can be truly and completely white, “not only because white skin can never be hue white, but because ideally white is absence: to be really, absolutely white is to be nothing” (78).
           
Associated fundamentally with absence, whiteness ultimately tends toward death. Dyer writes:

Death may in some traditions be a vivid experience, but within much of the white tradition it is a blank that may be immateriality (pure spirit) or else just nothing at all. This is within the logics of whiteness even if it is not at the forefront of white identity. White people have a colour, but it is a colour that also signifies the absence of colour, itself a characteristic of life and presence. To be positioned as an overseeing subject without properties may lead one to wonder if one is a subject at all. (208)

Acknowledging that death is sometimes cast as “radiant transcendence” in this tradition, Dyer nonetheless chooses, in his final chapter, to explore death as a mainly unwelcome extreme of white neutrality, expressing the hope that “if the white association with death is the logical outcome of the way in which whites have had power, then perhaps recognition of our deathliness may be the one thing that will make us relinquish it” (208). It is precisely because Dyer’s archeology of whiteness is so convincing that the present argument parts ways with him here: if absence is fundamental to the conceptual power of whiteness, then the death that absence always implies cannot be something like a nasty surprise that whiteness holds in store for itself. To really continue Dyer’s interrogation of white dominance would be to look for the ways in which whiteness accepts and even thrives on its own deathliness.
           
This returns us to the question raised in response to Feuer: can we not imagine the film musical agreeing to relinquish live presence as its highest goal, given that live presence in musical entertainment has been culturally determined as black? Or to put it another way, if the transposition of musical entertainment from stage to film is fundamentally (as Feuer claims) a loss of presence and liveness, shouldn’t we suspect that this event - reconceived as an acquisition of absence - would have been mined for its own aesthetic advantage, especially if that advantage would accrue to whiteness (to white power) itself? In the same gesture whereby it associates the pleasures of vitality, presence, and positivity (the “energy source,” the “something” that “is”) with blackness, the American musical entertainment tradition covertly reserves to whiteness a set of opposite pleasures: pleasures of negativity, absence, and death. If the film musical does not typically announce these values, it keeps them in reserve by means of its racial logic. In order to discover them, one may turn to a film that, in elaborating precisely these white pleasures, seems to take up just where Dyer leaves off: Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000).  

 

III. "I Simply Am Not There"
           
Harron’s American Psycho is not a musical: none of its characters sing, and the reconciliation of opposites that defines film musical syntax in Rick Altman’s famous paradigm is certainly lacking (Altman 27). But the film puts itself directly in conversation with the Hollywood musical genre, most notably in the way Harron and Turner appropriate the chapters on music in Ellis’s 1991 novel. In the book, the narrator Patrick Bateman engages in three disquisitions on the music of Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston, and Peter Gabriel respectively; the passages, which read like straight, pedantic music journalism, form isolated chapters separated from the “action” of the plot (133-136, 252-256, 352-360). In the film, these texts are incorporated - to awkward and hilarious effect - into the action: Patrick (Bale) lectures his colleague, Paul Allen (Jared Leto), on the finer points of Huey’s latest album just before hacking him to death; a lecture on Peter Gabriel initiates a three-way with prostitutes, and one on Whitney Houston takes place during a sex scene that ends in elaborate murder. A further difference enabled by the transition to film is that Patrick plays the albums as he discusses them so that each of these moments takes on the quality of a musical scene. Although the songs are not performed by the characters, as they would be in a musical, the monologues that introduce and accompany them are clearly marked as performances, moments of oratorical virtuosity on Patrick’s part that take the scenes into an extranarrative register, recalling the irruptive force of song-and-dance numbers in musical films (see Rogers).  Moreover, the framing of each song together with an extraordinary physical performance - axe-murder, elaborate sex, elaborate murderous sex - that the music thus seems to drive echoes the film musical trope whereby rising music, diegetic or not, moves characters to perform dazzling feats of dance.
           
The first of these scenes, the murder of Paul Allen, is the one that most clearly recalls the musical genre; because it is the first, it seems to teach the viewer how to take the other two. For starters, Patrick actually dances around his apartment while the Huey Lewis album plays and he himself speaks; his other movements, like taking pills and setting down his axe, coincide rhythmically with his words, forming a kind of elaborate choreography. Before the action begins, he leans against a wall with the jaunty posture of a Fred Astaire, but it is Gene Kelly who hovers over the scene most vividly, invoked by the incongruous (though practical) raincoat Patrick puts on; what can only be described as a high-fashion axe stands in for Kelly’s umbrella. The echo of “Singin’ in the Rain” - facilitated, perhaps, by the violence A Clockwork Orange has already inscribed in that song (Eldridge 30) - makes the musical genre reference impossible to miss; as Carol J. Clover has (for our purposes so fittingly) remarked, the original “Singin’ in the Rain” number “is to the genre of the musical what the shower sequence of Psycho is to the genre of horror” (159). But in case the viewer did miss the reference, she might pick up on it later, when Patrick tells a private investigator (Willem Dafoe) what was going on the last time he saw Paul: “We’d gone to a…new musical….” This recasting of the murder scene is obviously comical, but it reaffirms the musical genre as a point of reference, and one with specific application to Patrick’s own elaborate performances.

The name of the “new musical” Patrick claims to have attended with Paul, and which Patrick apparently comes up with on the spot, is “O Africa Brave Africa”; he continues: “it was a laugh riot.” Bale’s flat delivery, utterly devoid of sarcasm, never suggests that the “laugh riot” would have been at Brave Africa’s expense; instead, the viewer is being invited momentarily to imagine the two young executives merrily enjoying a lively black-cast production in good faith, even as she experiences that image as an outrageous lie. In other words, the quasi-musical performance that really took place the last time Patrick saw Paul was exactly not a performance of “O Africa Brave Africa.” The film audience’s laughter here is an appreciation of this 180-degree difference, which lands as cultural commentary on the bland, hypocritical white espousal of “other” cultures. Earlier in the film, Patrick had treated a table full of his friends to a lecture on social responsibility, in the same vein as his music lectures; “we have to end Apartheid” was his opener. What crystallizes now is the notion that Africa - the site of blackness - is precisely an alibi, an elsewhere, to Patrick, whose real idea of fun and whose true commitments thus emerge as entirely white. The racial truth about Patrick - the image of his whiteness - is on show in the musical scene he did attend: the scene of murder.

The “O Africa” moment is not the only one to pose blackness as the opposite of Patrick’s crime. The first time the detective shows up, Patrick gets out of the interview early by claiming to have a lunch date “with Cliff Huxtable,” the character Bill Cosby plays on The Cosby Show. Here, too, the claim that provides Patrick with an out codes the (agreeable) lie as black and, hence, the (disagreeable) truth that might otherwise be discovered as white. Finally, at the end of the second interview, the detective unexpectedly takes a CD out of his briefcase and holds it up for Patrick to see; it is the same Huey Lewis album Patrick had played and discussed in the murder scene, and the camera repeats a version of the CD-case-in-hand close-up that it had made in Patrick’s apartment. “Great stuff; I just bought it on my way here. You heard it?” the detective asks. “Never,” Patrick replies. “I mean I…don’t really like singers.” “Not a big music fan, huh?” “No, I like music. Just…they’re…Huey’s too black-sounding for me.” “To each his own,” says the detective, apparently a bit disgusted. This is an especially complex moment in the film’s racial logic. On the one hand, Patrick seems to be affirming his own whiteness by saying that Huey sounds too black; but on the other, this claim - like the other remarks by which Patrick allies himself with blackness - is obviously a lie. Patrick does like Huey Lewis, and Huey does, like so many white pop-rock singers, "sound black." How do we reconcile this moment with the detective alongside the other two, in which blackness is framed as the element that does not belong in Patrick’s murderous scene?

The answer points the way to a broader understanding of Patrick’s whiteness, and one which complicates the white-negativity-as-musical-murder equation this essay has been setting up. What is happening at this moment is not a revelation of repressed racism but rather a failure of citation; Patrick is reaching, as always, for a prefabricated cultural posture, but because the uncanny reappearance of the CD has made him nervous, he picks an inappropriate one. Thus this moment reorganizes the two others in such a way as to emphasize what the entire film relentlessly insists: that Patrick is a creature of pure citationality. Taken together, what these moments suggest is that citation and violence are both of the nature of whiteness.

In a paper published in the Journal of American Studies, David Eldridge discusses the predominance of citation in both the novel and the film versions of American Psycho. Patrick Bateman, he writes, is “a narrator built from all sorts of cultural debris – specifically from ‘writing’ usually regarded as debased literature. He is, to quote Ellis, literally ‘a mixture of GQ and Stereo Review and Vanity Fair and Fangoria.’ Almost everything Bateman has to say is a ‘recycling’ of such texts” (27). This patent inauthenticity extends beyond the remarks on social justice, music, and fashion to include Bateman’s lurid descriptions of his own violence - to the extent that it is unclear what it would mean to call the violence “his own.” Noting that “Ellis’s Bateman tells us directly that his reading matter consists of the biographies of real-life serial killers…and that he compulsively watches ‘video nasties’” and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eldridge also points out that Ellis drew from FBI files for the gory details of Patrick’s crimes (28). The film includes many of the novel’s cultural reference points: viewers watch Bateman work out to Texas Chain Saw long before he enacts his own chain saw murder, see him taking in the pornographic videos that it is his fantasy to remake, and hear him quote serial killers and restaurant reviews. But in the novel, Bateman’s narration is the reader’s only access to the story, so his citationality becomes that of the work as a whole; to achieve this effect in the film, the camera itself needs to be brought into a citational mode. As Eldridge observes, Harron accomplishes this through cinematic quotations from a wide range of other directors, including Hitchcock, Kubrick, Polanski, Tarantino, Abel Ferrara (Driller Killer, 1979), Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon, 1969), and of course Tobe Hooper (28-31). “Ellis’s Bateman is constructed out of everything he reads and consumes,” Eldridge writes; “Harron’s Bateman too is an intertextual creation, a fictive persona. But since Harron is constructing a cinematic Bateman, she draws on cinematic references, rather than ‘literary’ sources, to achieve the exact same undermining of his identity” (31-32). If the rampancy of quotation or iteration has banished identity for the American Psycho, substituting a structure of total mediation for anything like authentic self-presence, this fundamental absence or nonbeing - “I simply am not there,” says Patrick in voice-over while he looks at himself in the mirror - is recognizable precisely as whiteness. Whiteness is in evidence, that is, every time mediation is asserted over immediacy, technicity over authenticity - every time what Derrida calls the “grapheme” (318) makes itself felt as such.

This concept of the grapheme, which Derrida repeatedly extracts from the Western metaphysical tradition, posits that any unit of writing “is constituted, in its identity as a mark, by its iterability in the absence of whoever, and therefore ultimately in the absence of every empirically determinable ‘subject’” (315). What writing inscribes is the disappearance of live presence into a dead technicity: “To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that…my future disappearance will not prevent from functioning and from yielding, and yielding itself to, reading and rewriting” (315). Derrida then specifies that this “future disappearance” is not to be thought of as an empirical possibility but as the structural basis of the grapheme: “I must be able simply to say my disappearance, my nonpresence in general, for example the nonpresence of my meaning, of my intention-to-signify, of my wanting-to-communicate-this, from the emission of production of the mark” (316). Derrida’s work is, of course, devoted to showing that writing thus conceived - as absence, death, lifeless technicity - cannot really be the mere negative or shadow of presence that philosophy has always wanted it to be; but to the extent that we still find ourselves within the metaphysical tradition, it is clear how the logic of race this essay has been tracing appropriates the classic live presence/dead writing binary. Within this logic, blackness, the vibrant, oral “energy source,” is imagined as the presence of American musical entertainment; it follows that whiteness would appears as pure citation and technicity, as iteration broken off from origin and thus absolutely inauthentic. This is precisely what American Psycho exposes, but with the added insight that such bare graphematicity, far from being the cost of a generous white concession to blackness, is something we may have been prepared to enjoy all along.

This is the message we get when Patrick holds up the Huey Lewis CD case, flourishing exactly the mass-produced, consumer-good aspect of musical entertainment that, on Feuer’s terms, he should be hiding. To “appreciate music” Patrick Bateman-style is to relish not the immediate, original surge of the live voice but the machinic structure of the entertainment industry with its endless reproduction of reiterable products; this appreciation takes the form of a recited review, as if from a commercial publication; in enjoying (repeating) Patrick’s iterative enjoyment, we ourselves participate in the structure of iteration. Reviewing American Psycho for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane noted that at this moment “the audience whooped with glee…it was as if musical taste this bad could be read as mitigating circumstances” (124). But the real joke is that Patrick has, not bad taste, but no taste; his predilection for the most unadulterated mainstream elevator pop signifies that the market has made his choices for him, and his ability to defend those choices in lengthy prose reflects a merely cultural competency, a techne of writing, that has broken completely free of any origin in a personal identity. Thus the distinction between laughing at Patrick and laughing with him disappears. If viewers “whoop with glee” here, there is no way, no difference of self, to distinguish the killer’s “glee” from the audience’s own.

Indeed, not even the psycho’s violence seems to come “from the heart” - a far cry from the psychologized Hitchcock original. At his most passionate, hacking away at Paul, all Patrick can think to shout is, “Try getting a reservation at Dorsia now, you f------ stupid bastard!”: murder is not an expression of Patrick’s difference - from Paul or from, say, us - but a way of re-inscribing received, circulating significations (here, status symbols) even more efficiently. The “copies of the Style Section” that Patrick has spread out in a neat square beforehand to minimize the mess make the same point: this violence is about style, not substance. In fact, the film ultimately refuses to determine whether any of Bateman’s murders “really happened”; a scene near the end, in which his secretary discovers the hideously violent sketches that fill his datebook (and which the audience has never seen before), suggests that these acts are essentially pictures, or representations, themselves. The surrealistic stylization of murder that, as Eldridge notes, will reach its peak in the chainsaw killing (31) is already present in the Paul Allen scene, in the impossible temporality that has Paul’s blood spatter just as Patrick begins to lower his axe and in the aesthetic spray itself, “a voluptuous crimson whoosh,” as the New York Times reviewer put it, which on Patrick’s face “suggests a psychopathic yuppie Jackson Pollock” (Holden). But when Patrick sits down to enjoy a cigar afterwards, “Hip to Be Square” still playing on the stereo, the camera captures him in profile; significantly, it is not the red-sprayed half of his face we see, but the half that bears his normal, flawless skin tone - the same white face whose maintenance, through an elaborate regime of skincare, Patrick has demonstrated near the beginning of the film:

In the morning if my face is a little puffy, I’ll put on an ice pack while doing stomach crunches…. After I remove the ice pack, I use a deep pore cleanser lotion. In the shower, I use a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub. And on the face, an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb mint facial mask, which I leave on for ten minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an aftershave lotion with little or no alcohol, because alcohol dries your face out, and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then an anti-aging eye balm followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion. There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me….

What the very elaborateness of this passage suggests is that Patrick’s complexion - the color of his whiteness - is itself not natural or original, but something to be achieved through the daily iteration of beauty advice and brand-name products (we read the names as he picks them up): something pre-scribed. White skin itself is essentially a product of citation, the death of self-presence: no real me.

American Psycho is a satire, and it is poking fun at a particular moment in white culture. Given whiteness’s constitutive tendency to escape notice, it might not be obvious to every viewer that whiteness itself is one of the film’s main objects of concern. The film’s concern with whiteness, however, is maintained unmistakably through its relation to the American movie musical tradition, drawing out the implications for whiteness built into that tradition’s association of liveness and presence with blackness. If blackness is looked to as the source of “real American music” - the reality, the living presence, of our culture - then whiteness becomes the repository of absence, citation, non-identity, and death. What American Psycho achieves is the revelation that even this whiteness is not only a position of power, but one of pleasure - which is partly the fun of satire, itself a process of iteration. In re-presenting the eighties, Harron and Turner make us feel that the “real thing” could never be as much fun as the citation, and the viewer luxuriates in the privileged position of, like Patrick, not being there. This satirical remove is only another degree of the absence that structures the characters themselves, especially Patrick. In the vertiginous spinout of yuppie insincerity and excess themselves ironized and hyperbolized, of superficiality reproduced in gleaming surfaces, one cannot but feel the euphoria of an utter loss of ultimate referent, a look-ma-no-hands detachment from any origin. This is what it must feel like to be Patrick Bateman; this is what it must feel like to be white. The color of such whiteness is the color of Patrick’s business card, the printed-up repository of his totally graphematic (non-)identity. It is the color of death, naming itself with a wink: “bone.” 

 

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana UP 1987.

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Screenplay by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Perf. Christian Bale. Lionsgate, 2000.

The Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. David W. Griffith Corp, 1915.

Clover, Carol J. “Dancin’ in the Rain.”Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. Ed. Steve Cohan. New York: Routledge, 2002. 157-173.

Derrida, Jacques. “Signature Event Context.” Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997.

Eldridge, David. “The Generic American Psycho.” Journal of American Studies 42.1 (2008): 19–33.

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

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Healy, Patrick. "‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘American Psycho’ Musicals Get Starry New York Readings." New York Times 27 September 2011.
http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/little-miss-sunshine-and-american-psycho-musicals-get-starry-new-york-readings/

Holden, Stephen. “Murderer! Fiend! (But Well Dressed).” Review of American Psycho. New York Times 14 April 2000.
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Lane, Anthony. “To the Limit." Review of American Psycho. The New Yorker 17 April 2000: 124.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Rogers, Bradley. "The Interpellations of Interpolation; or, The Disintegrating Female Musical Body." Camera Obscura 23.1 (2008): 89-111.

Sneider, Jeff. “Lionsgate to Remake ‘American Psycho.’ ” Variety 8 December 2011. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118047212

Williams, Linda. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

 
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