Gothic Meltdown

Posted by on December 09, 2008 in Guest Blog tagged with

"I’m having a difficult time containing my disordered self" (American Psycho: 301).

 

Last week while teaching Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho it struck me how relevant this text is to our current moment of crisis, as we continue to face the horror of global economic meltdown. Although Reagan’s "voodoo economics" of the 1980s may seem a far cry from the toxic debts of 2008, there is an uncanny dimension to our present financial woes that echoes the cultural script of American Psycho. There is something particularly troubling about this "uncanniness", as Ellis provides us with a narrative that we cannot break out of while representing a psychological state that cannot be controlled. Here the "monotonous seriality of the novel … resembles a Gothic tomb hermetically sealed off from all progress, development, or escape by its first and final sentences: ‘Abandon all hope ye who enter here’ (3) and ‘This is not an exit’ (399)" (Schoene 2008: 382). It would seem that Ellis offers us no way out and no sense that Bateman’s (and society’s) violence against the Other – as that category dissolves before us – is cathartic. After all, empathy (and difference/différance) does not exist within the narrative world of American Psycho. The "historical and epochal ‘unfolding’ of Being" does not take place, as Bateman remains "some kind of abstraction … only an entity, something illusory … simply … not there" (Derrida 1982: 22; American Psycho: 376-7). 

 

What we are confronting here – once again – is Baudrillard’s discourse of "the end". As Baudrillard explains, in the postmodern age we experience:

 

The end of labor. The end of production. The end of political economy. The end of the signifier/signified dialectic which facilitates the accumulation of knowledge and of meaning, the linear syntagma of cumulative discourse. And at the same time, the end simultaneously of the exchange value/use value dialectic which is the only thing that makes accumulation and social production possible. The end of linear dimension of discourse. The end of the linear dimension of the commodity. The end of the classical era of the sign. The end of the era of production. (Baudrillard 1993: 8)

 

In this sea of floating signifiers and the endless play of signs, we seem to confront a breakdown of not only meaning but offence, outrage and horror. For Baudrillard the social implications of this postmodern rupture with history are that "before, the task was to dissimulate scandal; today, the task is to conceal the fact that there is none" (1995: 28).

 

Where do we go from here? The answer was given in September this year with the announcement that American Psycho: The Musical is being prepared for Broadway in 2010. According to David Johnson of Johnson-Roessler, one of the companies that have acquired the rights to the adaptation:

 

Now in particular it seems relevant, especially given what’s happening on Wall Street. … Ellis’s book contains so many memorable lines and musical references that a live musical is the perfect fit. The character of Patrick Bateman has become an icon for fans of the book and the film adaptation, and now we can bring this dark but comical world of greed to the stage in an entertaining and thought-provoking way. (Green 2008)

 

In this oxymoronic appraisal of American Psycho’s reinvention for the stage, the frivolity and fluff of the musical as a form seem to parody the visceral horror of Ellis’ novel, evacuating all meaning. For Fredric Jameson this postmodern parody is a sign of imprisonment in the past, an "alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history" (1983: 117). The critical force carried by parody has been supplanted by a depthless and ahistorical nostalgia that equalises all identities, styles and images as it privileges heterogeneity and random difference. Jameson offers a description of postmodern parody as a value-free, de-historicized quotation of the past, an empty realm of pastiche and an apt mode for a culture in which, as Baudrillard declares, "all that are left are pieces. All that remains to be done is to play with the pieces. Playing with the pieces – that is postmodern" (Baudrillard 1984: 24).

 

Within this context, American Psycho: The Musical would seem to capture our own inability to feel, to empathise and ultimately critique – let alone define the horror of greed beyond the "comical" and "entertaining" – in much the same way as Ellis’ novel does (in parts). Yet as Ellis’ text denies meaning – for Bateman and us as readers – this cultural turn to American Psycho: The Musical takes us one step further and can be recognised as a parody of the process of generating meaning in the early twenty-first century. Here we are confronted with the possibility that meaning not only has no origin, but also it has no Other, it is just "some kind of abstraction … only an entity, something illusory … simply … not there" (American Psycho: 376-7). 

 

References

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. "Game with Vestiges", On the Beach. 5 (1984): 19-25.

Derrida, Jacques. "Différance"  in Margins of Philosophy. (ed.) Derrida, J., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 3-27.

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. London: Picador, 1991.

Green, Chris "‘American Psycho’ – the Musical", The Independent. 27 September 2008 <www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/american-psycho-ndash-the-musical-944058.html>.

Jameson, Fredric 1983. "Postmodernism and Consumer Culture", in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. (ed.) Foster, H., Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 111-125.

Schoene, Berthold 2008. "Serial Masculinity: Psychopathology and Oedipal Violence in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho", MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 54.2, (2008): 378-397.

 

New guest blogger, Dr. Kirsty McDonald, starting February on Scottish Gothic

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