AMERICAN PSYCHO

I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip

LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA, VOI CH’ENTRATE                    

American Psycho is a satire on the consumer culture as typified by the ‘Yuppie’ phenomena of the nineteen-eighties. This was a decade of excess and hedonism, narcissism and ‘conspicuous consumption’, driven by self-interest and centered upon personal fulfillment. A society of mass industrial production, and overproduction, necessitates the creation of a corresponding mass consumer base to sustain and sanction it. The ideological dimension of such a society will be of a type that promotes the values of acquisition and financial power. This was exemplified by the post-war boom in America and the consequent growth of advertising and applied psychology to reshape the citizens into consumers.

CUSTOMER SERVICES

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There is an interesting analysis of this marketing strategy in its initial stage by Theodor Adorno as early as 1938:

For a while, an English brewery used for propaganda purposes a billboard that bore a deceptive likeness to a whitewashed brick wall. Properly placed the billboard was barely distinguishable from a real wall. On it, chalk white, was a careful imitation of awkward writing. The words said ‘What we want is Watneys.’ The brand of beer was presented like a political slogan. Here the wares masquerade as a slogan; the type of relationship suggested by this billboard is one in which the masses make a commodity recommended to them the object of their own action (Theodor Adorno On the fetish-character in music and the regression of listening)

By the nineteen-eighties there was a shift from the manufacturing base toward an expansion of the financial sector. The bubble of wealth which resulted brought into focus for a short period the inhabitants of Wall Street where opportunism and selling-ability were valued over loyalty and integrity.

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There was also a distinctive change in that period toward an intensified focus on image surface and appearance. For example: the advent of MTV, the proliferation of fashion and lifestyle magazines with glossy, eroticised imagery presenting commodities as objects of desire and symbols of status. None of this is new within a society but the peculiar intensity with which it was pursued and exalted in that period was suggestive of a fault line within the culture. The scene of Patrick Bateman driven to barely contained psychotic rage because of the superior quality of a colleagues business card is a satirical illustration of the prioritising of style over substance.

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This concern with surfaces implies a neglect of the inner dimension which is impoverished and starved and emerges in the shape of the homeless tramps who appear at the margins of his consciousness throughout the novel and to a lesser degree in the film. These operate as an indictment of his own detached and sterile existence which is severed from reality and inhabiting a world of images. This is a world of brand names, fashionable restaurants and apartments filled with sleek and immaculate surfaces.

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With the emphasis on surfaces arises a corresponding superficiality in the conversational exchanges which remain on a level of vacuous banality, where the empty rhetoric of a career politician filled with soundbites and platitudes can pass for humanitarian concern. This is parodied in the book by Bateman’s references to a fictional daytime TV talk show called The Patty Winters Show and in the film by this exchange:

Bateman: Come on Bryce. There a lot more important problems than Sri Lanka to worry about.        

Bryce: Like hat?                                                                                                                                         

Bateman: Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights, while also promoting equal rights for women. We have to encourage a return to traditional moral values. Most importantly, we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people.

Consumer culture attains dominance when the coercion of financial forces dictate the terms of the cultural discourse. The submerging of the individual into the realm of fantasy and desire is a means of control and neutralization. A person dependent upon and identified with a materialistic culture is unable to gain perspective and is continually manipulated by their own attachment to a fluctuating realm of rationalised behaviour and situational ethics. Such a person might well be considered as homo-economicus, an identity constructed out of advertising, stupefied by propagandist slogans and motivated by greed and conformity.

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I live in the American Gardens Building on W. 81st Street on the 11th floor. My name is Patrick Bateman. I’m 27 years old. I believe in taking care of myself and a balanced diet and rigorous exercise routine. In the morning if my face is a little puffy I’ll put on an ice pack while doing stomach crunches. I can do 1000 now. 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 10 minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine. I always use an after shave 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.

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JUST SAY NO

Rene Guénon, writing in 1945, sees history as a descent from Form (or Quality) toward Matter (or Quantity) which he identifies with modern materialism and the rise of the ‘masses’. What he has to say regarding this situation sheds light on Bateman’s existential predicament:

A reduction to the quantitative can be seen as contributing to the confining of existence within the limited horizon of the profane point of view. This is sufficiently understandable after what has been said of the peculiarly quantitative character of modern industry: by continuously surrounding man with the products of that industry and never letting him see anything else, he is really compelled to shut himself up inside the narrow circle of ordinary life, as in a prison without escape. (Rene Guénon: The Reign of Quantity)

That Brett Ellis intended the work to be understood as something more than a satire on consumerism or an escapist fiction is evident from the opening references to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Dante’s Divine Comedy (ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE) as well as the closing lines (THIS IS NOT AN EXIT) which alludes to Sartre’s play No Exit.

THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL

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Bateman spends a considerable amount of time reviewing the music of the period, critiquing Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis and Whitney Houston. These middle of the road, commercially successful artists are unable to sustain the analysis he subjects them to. Whitney Houston is the recipient of his deepest spiritual feelings, provoking derision from a soon to be killed sex partner. The shallow culture of New York in the eighties is a product of a disconnect from reality and an analysis of America’s ideological position would have to confront its subservience to Matter, in Guénon’s sense of the word.

Guénon himself called America ‘the Far West’ by which he meant that it represents the advanced stages of the cultural and human disintegration and regression occurring throughout the West. To this way of thinking the American mentality is atrophied and its ideology is a puerile and primitive expression of pragmatic, rational and quantitative values resulting in the standardisation and conformity of the marketplace as well as the seemingly opposed cult of ‘individuality’. Within a culture severed from traditional roots the ‘self-made man’ echoes the American ideals of freedom and the creation of a new world, as inscribed within the Declaration of Independence. This results in a plethora of fabricated masks simulating the real individuality which derives its authenticity from a qualitative domain not accessible to the egalitarian or mercantile mentality.

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Allen has mistaken me for this dickhead, Marcus Halberstram. It seems logical because Marcus also works at P&P, and in fact does the same exact thing I do. He also has a penchant for Valentino suits and Oliver Peoples glasses. Marcus and I even go to the same barber, although I have a slightly better haircut.

The Assertion of Independence

Within the film and the book low-key references are made to the Iran Contra affair, an event which highlighted the fault line between America as an ideal and the grubby reality of realpolitik. This dichotomy between image and reality spawns the confusion and misunderstanding which pervades the world of Bateman. When asked what he does in a  noisy nightclub he replaces the the term ‘mergers and acquisitions’ with the term ‘murders and executions’. This amusing pun also reveals the violent substratum underpinning the surface success story.

Ronald Reagan said in his farewell address to the nation:

I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. …In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still‘.

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The Declaration of Independence is saturated with the thinking of Rousseau and Montesquieu. The basic idea, as in all Rationalism, is the equating of what ought to be with what will be. Rationalism begins with confusing the rational with the real, and ends by confusing the real with the rational. This arsenal of ‘truths’ about equality, inalienable and inherent rights, reflects the emancipated critical spirit, devoid of respect for facts and tradition. The idea that governments are ‘instituted’ for a utilitarian purpose, to satisfy a demand of ‘equal’ men, and that these ‘equal’ men give their ‘consent’ to a certain ‘form’ of ‘government’, and then abolish it when it no longer serves the purpose is pure Rationalistic poetry, and corresponds to no facts that have ever occurred anywhere. The source of government is the inequality of men – this is the fact. (Francis P. Yockey: Imperium)

THIS IS NOT AN EXIT

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If the definition of Ideology is the successful implantation of specific ideas into a populace to the extent that they assume the status of self-evident assumptions then Patrick Bateman is a product of the American Ideology. If the only reality is the reality accessible to the senses then we are at the mercy of those who have the financial power to control the cultural environment and set the parameters of thought. It results in a capitulation to appearances, a worship of the material realm, a repetition of the mantras of acquiescence created by the corporate and political machinery. We become enmeshed within the cycles of boom and bust economics, the election cycles of hopes raised and promises broken, the building up and tearing down of celebrities and the ever-changing trends of fashion. In this late stage we are engaged in the cannibalisation of our own culture as evidenced, within the film and music industry, by the number of revivals and remakes.

Servant of the machine, the man must become a machine himself, and thenceforth his work has nothing really human in it, for it no longer implies the putting to work of any of the qualities that really constitute human nature. The end of all this is what is called in present-day jargon ‘mass-production’, the purpose of which is only to produce  the greatest possible quantity of objects as exactly alike as possible, intended for the use of men who are supposed to be no less alike; that is indeed the triumph of quantity as was pointed out earlier, and it is by the same token the triumph of uniformity. These men who are reduced to mere numerical ‘units’ are expected to live in what can scarcely be called houses, for that would be to misuse the word, but in ‘hives’ of which the compartments will all be planned on the same model and furnished with objects made by ‘mass- production’ in such a way as to cause to disappear from the environment in which the people live every qualitative difference; it is enough to examine the projects of some contemporary architects (who themselves describe these dwellings as ‘living-machines’) to see that nothing has been exaggerated. What then has happened to the traditional art and science of the ancient builders, or to the ritual rules by which the establishment of cities and of buildings was regulated in normal civilisations? One would have to be blind to fail to see the abyss that separates the normal from the modern civilisation, and no doubt everyone will agree in recognising how great the difference is; but that which the vast majority of men now living celebrate as ‘progress’ is exactly what is now presented to the reader as a profound decadence, continuously accelerating, which is dragging humanity to the pit where pure quantity reigns. (Rene Guénon: The Reign of Quantity)

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