Blind Man with a Pistol

American Psycho

The tragedy of Brandon Crisp, whose funeral was Friday, has fuelled a resurgence in the backlash against violent video games, like Brandon’s favourite, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Although Brandon likely died of chest trauma sustained after falling out of a tree, the incident has inspired what critics term ‘video game addiction’, as in this sensationally titled Macleans article, ‘What Happened to Brandon?’:

The idea that a simple video game could so completely upend a teenager’s life is the kind of thing that most parents, at least until recently, would not have taken seriously. After all, shoot-’em-up computer simulations don’t raise the same sort of red flags for parents as drugs, alcohol, or delinquent friends. But there is growing concern, even in medical and scientific quarters, that there may be a link between video games like Call of Duty and obsessive, even addictive, behaviour. For some teens, this might lead to minor problems like slipping grades and a loss of interest in other hobbies. But there are an increasing number of reports of far more tragic outcomes. Earlier this year, for instance, a British boy committed suicide after his father took away a Wii game. In a youth culture where so much social interaction has moved online, the deep ties young people can form to games and other computer pastimes could, some experts say, be a recipe for disaster. How do you tell when that line has been crossed? Today, it’s the kids who don’t play video games that stand out. According to a survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project last month, 97 per cent of U.S. teens aged 12 to 17 say they regularly “game,” whether on a console system, computer, or handheld device. In Brandon’s school alone 25 other students regularly play Call of Duty on the same online system he used. And the business continues to grow exponentially. In 2007, software sales reached US$9.5 billion, with nine games sold every second, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

I’m not sure why any of this is cause for alarm: surely a stat saying that 97 per cent of teens play video games indicates that it is normative behaviour? Are teenagers equally ‘addicted’ to driving cars or ice cream sodas?

In his 2008 book Violence, Slavoj Žižek posits the theory that there are two kinds of violence: subjective violence, violent acts that incite our subjective outrage and ire; and objective or ‘systemic’ violence,  the necessary violence that sustains liberal capitalist hegemony. More importantly, acts of subjective violence—the suicide bomber, the school shooting, particularly violent video games, movies or books—blind us to the systemic, endemic violence in which we are complicit. ‘Is there not something suspicious’, Žižek writes,

indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence—that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn’t it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them? According to a well-known anecdote, a German officer visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. There he saw Guernica and, shocked at the modernist ‘chaos’ of the painting, asked Picasso: ‘Did you do this?’ Picasso calmly replied: ‘No, you did this!’ Today, many a liberal when faced with violent outbursts such as the recent looting in the suburbs of Paris, asks the few remaining leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: ‘Isn’t it you who did this? Is this what you want?’ And we should reply, like Picasso: ‘No, you did this! This is the true result of your politics!’ (9-10)

Although I’ve written about this dissonance before, I am reminded now more than ever about the controversy surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991). The novel, a hyperviolent satire about closet psycho killer Patrick Bateman (interpreted masterfully by Christian Bale in the 2000 film version), viciously skewers the sadistic violence that underpins the so-called free market. Bateman, a stupidly rich Wall Street investment banker blandly narrates his daily life between meaningless affairs, decadent lunches and copious lines of high-grade cocaine. He describes his sadistic torture and murder of prostitutes as casually as he describes returning video tapes or the vacuous pop music of Whitney Houston. Ellis’s statement is clear: violence and the capitalist system are inextricably and pervertedly linked.

The backlash against American Psycho was as palpable as it was predictable. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was ‘outraged’. Incredibly, however, NOW chose to voice their criticism in liberal, capitalist terms, with appeals to ‘free speech’ and free-market principles, precisely the principles Ellis critiques in his book:

“We are not telling them not to publish,” Tammy Bruce, the president of the Los Angeles chapter, said. Instead, she said, members are being asked to exercise their right of free expression by refusing to buy the novel so the publisher “will learn violence against women in any form is no longer socially acceptable.”

The free market would teach Ellis. Consumers would ‘vote with their dollar’. As we now know, the book was a runaway bestseller and spawned a critically and financially successful film. The consumer, as anyone who has read Ellis will tell you, is nothing if not powerless.

I decide to even up the score a little bit by showing everyone my new business card. I pull it out of my gazelleskin wallet (Barney’s, $850) and slap it on the table, waiting for reactions.

“What’s that, a gram?” Price says, not apathetically.

“New card.” I try to act casual about it but Fm smiling proudly. “What do you think?”

“Whoa,” McDermott says, lifting it up, fingering the card, genuinely impressed. “Very nice. Take a look.” Be hands it to Van Patten.

“Picked them up from the printer’s yesterday,” I mention.

“Cool coloring,” Van Patten says, studying the card closely.

“That’s bone,” I point out. “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail.”

“Silian Rail?” McDermott asks.

“Yeah. Not bad, huh?”

“It is very cool, Bateman,” Van Patten says guardedly, the jealous bastard, “but that’s nothing He pulls out his wallet and slaps a card next to an ashtray. “Look at this.”

We all lean over and inspect David’s card and Price quietly says, “That’s really nice.” A brief spasm of jealousy Courses through me when I notice the elegance of the color and the classy type. I clench my fist as Van Patten says, smugly, “Eggshell with Homalian type. . .” He turns to me. “What do you think?”

“Nice,” I croak, but manage to nod, as the busboy brings four fresh Bellinis.

Ellis’s, and our, world is a capitalist one, choice without option, sustained by a dark underbelly of violent psychosis. In the words of Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), published the same year as American Psycho: ‘this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror’.

And here we are quibbling about video games.

3 Comments so far
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Bravo! What an excellent analysis.

I think American Psycho should be required reading in high school. Easton Ellis’ work is just as relevant if not more so today. And although I have not read it, Jameson’s work seems like a very appropriate companion piece. I think it would definitely help understand how such horrors as the blood, torture, death and terror that we are witnessing today in Guantanamo, Abu Garib, Bagram and various torture cells operated by US client governments.

Here’s a link to an older Guardian article (2005) entitled One Huge US Jail:

Comment by Beijing York

Damn, I thought I posted an elaborate comment earlier today.

Oh well, the short form is BRAVO!

Comment by Beijing York

Ahh, there you are, Beijing. WordPress’s mistrustful spam filter nabbed you at the gate. American Psycho is an incredible text, and I wanted to write more about it but I could already feel myself getting carried away.

Žižek actually writes about Abu Ghraib in his book, citing the prison as an example of Western reluctance to acknowledge the violence we enact as a culture. Saddam’s prisons were overt, his torture explicit. Ours are hidden, surreptitious, dubious and cynical. The performative aspect of the now-famous photo of a hooded, chained Iraqi prisoner with wires issuing from his fingertips expresses this grotesque social split: secret prisons like Abu Graib and its colleague in Afghanistan actually introduce these prisoners to the American way of life: one where physical torture is sublimated into psychological torture. Explicit violence dissipates into subterfuge and horror, all that is solid melts into air…

And I can’t think of any contemporary novels that identify this paradox as neatly as Ellis’s work. By the end of the novel, we don’t even know if the violence, Bateman’s psychosis, is even ‘real’. It’s a ‘mindfuck’. Which only lets us extend the fantasy where this half-million dollar sports car is objectively different from that one; while exceptionalist, imperialist, violent excess proceeds apace.

Comment by Blind Man

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