Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English & Rhetoric

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061

alex.blazer@gcsu.edu

alexeblazer.com

 

Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

and the Horror of Postmodernism

 

The focus of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is the postmodern subject par excellance. Just as postmodernism capitalizes on modernism's stylistic and subjective experiments by pushing the envelope of formal innovation—from the stream of consciousness of modernism to the stream of signifiers of postmodernism, from the exploded representational narrative of modernism to the exploded frame of any and all reference in postmodernism, in American Psycho Bateman's actions grow so increasingly horrific that they reach the point of representing the unimaginable—from "simply" stabbing or axing men to mutilating women with acid and rats, from "simply" killing to having sex with dismembered body parts and eating brains.  Eliot's rats' alley metaphor has been literalized. . . Or has it?  Postmodern literature, in following through on the modernist tradition of breaking (up) form, has thoroughly deconstructed the text; Bateman has responded in kind at the level of subjectivity by decomposing the Other. The source of his rage is no-thing, for he has seen the lack in the symbolic order opened by modernism and completely castrated by postmodernism. He has been so utterly desensitized to humanity by a decadently mediated culture that calls life a game such that he kills in order to fill in the mask and make himself feel alive, the logic being that the witnessing the dismembered corpse as grotesque bodily real will awaken or generate in him some—any—form of emotion by moving from the symbolic register in which everything goes to the real register in which certain acts are impossibly traumatic, and therefore cannot be evacuated by symbolization. Postmodern literature seeks to slide past this real by displacing their anxiety over the real into textual aporias. Subjectivity, as it has assimilated the lessons of the postmodern text, therefore exudes indeterminacy: Patrick Bateman is the postmodern subject par excellance because he knows his actions and thereby his very self are ultimately undecidable. "To kill or not to kill?" is not the question; rather, "What is real and what is my (symbolically mediated) fantasy?" is. Because he poses the question, he is not a psychotic sociopath, but rather a neurotic who has been forced by postmodern culture to use repetition-compulsion to locate the real beyond the symbolic. Although at first glance the shock of this book may appear to be that he has committed such unspeakable and unimaginable acts, the true horror is that he has spoken them . . . and we have forced him to do it.

 

This abstract summarizes my presentation, "Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and the Horror of Postmodernism." Central New York Conference on Language and Literature, Cortland, NY, October 28, 2001, subsequently revised and published as "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) 1.2 (Fall 2002): <http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/blazer.htm>.