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For Pierre Bourdieu, the field is a social arena in which people

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For Pierre Bourdieu, the field is a social arena in which people

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    TRAVIS VOGAN

    “Inside Doesn’t Matter:

    Ronald Reagan and American Psycho

    Facts are stupid things.

     Ronald Reagan, 1988 Republican Convention

    All the world will be a stage, with Reagan in the leading role

    as carrier of a dehumanizing contagion.

     Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual

Ronald Reagan‟s greatest strengths as President are perhaps most interestingly examined through

    his greatest failures. The 1986 Iran Contra scandal, for instance, involved members of Reagan‟s

    administration selling Iran arms, allegedly to aid the release of US hostages in Lebanon and to

    fund anti-communist Nicaraguan guerillas with the profits. This act, if it was indeed done for the

    above-mentioned reasons, contradicted Reagan‟s vehement promise never to negotiate with terrorists and was in defiance of the Boland Amendment, which restricted support to Nicaragua.

    Reagan initially denied the allegations completely. A week later, however, he admitted that

    weapons were transferred to Iran, but persisted in his denial that the transfer was made to

    negotiate for the release of American hostages. He opens his speech by stating, “I know you‟ve

    been reading, seeing, and hearing a lot of stories the past several days.[…]Well, now you‟re going to hear the facts from a White House source.

    1 Despite his assertion of truthfulness, polls

    2indicated that only fourteen per cent of Americans believed his statement.

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     In addition to Reagan‟s perceived dishonesty, his presidency marked a period of

    economic hardship for lower- and working-class Americans. Reagan‟s social policies, however, remained seemingly indifferent to this privation. His administration operated according to the

    logic that stimulating the private sector rather than supporting public programmes would

    optimize economic opportunity for all classes, or, “lift all boats” to prosperity. Thus, a classist sentiment informed Reaganomics—as the administration‟s economic philosophy is called—that cast welfare programmes as factors contributing to social ills, and taxes as unfairly supporting

    the unemployed at the expense of “productive”—or workingtaxpayers. Despite Reagan‟s ostensible intention to “lift all boats” through free-market capitalism‟s supposedly trickle-down benefits, unemployment actually rose during his administration. By the end of 1982, over 10 per

    cent of the American population was unemployedthe largest percentage since the Great

    Depression.

    3

    Regardless of his dishonesty and his policies disastrous economic effects, Reagan left

    office in 1988 with a 64 per cent approval ratingthe highest of any President since Franklin

    Roosevelt (who is incidentally remembered for ameliorating the Depression‟s economic effects through the development of social programmes). But how could Reagan have a 64 per cent

    approval rating when 86 per cent of Americans apparently did not trust his word? There was

    thus a disjunction between his public image‟s signification and his actual performance as

    president that enabled him simultaneously to be the most and least successful president since

    Roosevelt. Though most Americans did not trust his word or even agree with his policies, they

    did trust his public image. “In February 1982, for example, only 47% of the national population approved of „the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as President,‟ yet 70% approved of him „as a person.‟ Another poll found that nearly a third of those interviewed disapproved of

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    4Reagan‟s policies, yet personally „liked him.‟” As evidenced by his re-election in 1984 and

    popularity when he left office, Reagan‟s likable image overshadowed his often unpopular actions.

    5According to David Harvey, “The triumph of aesthetics over ethics could not be plainer.” As Reagan‟s statement quoted in the epigraph implies, the facts simply could not compete with his

    carefully constructed image. Robert Dallek incisively calls him the first true Prop President, one

    whose real self is the image on the TV screen and whose shadow self is the man in the White

    House.”6 This separation between Reagan‟s image and substance enabled him to signify

    reliability despite his rather unreliable political actions and their consequences.

     Mary Harron‟s 2000 film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis‟s 1991 novel, American Psycho,

    comments on the disruption between the signifier and signified that marked the Reagan era.7 The film chronicles the life of Patrick Bateman, a young Wall Street businessman. Bateman is

    Harvard-educated, rich, and handsome. He wears the most expensive designer suits, lives in

    Manhattan‟s most luxurious section, rubs elbows with New York‟s elite, and dines daily at the most exclusive restaurants. Indeed, he epitomizes the yuppie stereotype of vacuity combined

    with greed, overconsumption and materialism that pervaded America during the 1980s. Elizabeth

    Young calls Bateman the “Everyyuppie, indifferent to art, originality or even pleasure except

    insofar as his possessions are the newest, brightest, best, most expensive and most fashionable.”8 In addition to his social stature and the commodities he uses to construct it, Bateman believes

    himself to be a serial killer. Throughout the film he imagines himself torturing and killing a

    number of people in extremely gruesome, and often highly sexualized, ways.

    However, neither his supposed homicidal habits nor his apparent schizophrenia are

    noticed within the social arena in which he operates. As long as Bateman continues to wear

    Valentino suits and is seen at the right restaurantssignifying a successful businessman and

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    shielding his substance (or lack thereof) with these status symbolshis acts, intentions, and overall mental state don‟t seem to matter. However, I disagree with Young‟s contention that

    Bateman is indifferent to originality; rather, he seems hopelessly caught in a similarly

    schizophrenic sociopolitical and discursive context in which the relationship between image and

    reality has dissolved, providing an unclear reality from which he can base his actions. There is no

    originality to which he can be indifferent, and his actionsno matter how violent, perverse, or insane—are sublimated by his public image‟s signification.

     Bateman‟s obsession with form establishes itself immediately. He introduces himself by

    carefully describing his morning routine and the beauty products he uses daily to manufacture his

    image:

    I live in the American Gardens Building on West 81

    st street, on the eleventh floor.

     My name is Patrick Bateman. I am twenty-seven years old. I believe in taking

     care of myself, in a balanced diet, and a rigorous exercise routine. In the

     morning, if my face is a little bit puffy, I‟ll put on an icepack while doing my

     stomach crunchesI can do a thousand now. After I remove the icepack, I use a

     deep pore cleaner 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 and makes you look older. Then moisturizer, then

     an anti-aging eye balm, followed by a final moisturizing protective lotion.

    Throughout his monologue, the audience is only presented with either Bateman‟s masked face or

    the reflected image of it in picture frames and his bathroom vanity. At one point in the scene he

    opens his medicine cabinet. Bottles with the brand names “Yves Saint Laurent” and “Oscar de la

    Renta” replace his reflection while he continues to describe himself, suggesting that these

    commodities, and the brand names attached to them, are as important to Bateman‟s identity as

    the face they help transform into an image. Indeed, his identity gains meaning through these

    objects‟ signification. In reference to Guy Debord‟s notion of the spectacle, these commodities

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    and the symbolic value they have in his time and placehave colonised Bateman‟s identity,

    9marking a condition in which commodities are now all that there is to see.” As such, Bateman‟s identity is refracted through the coded objects he uses to manufacture his image. The

    brand names signify and give value to the products to which they are attached, which in turn give

    value to Bateman‟s identity. Bateman emblematically displays this hyperreality at the end of the

    scene. He applies and removes a translucent facial mask while looking in his bathroom mirror,

    suggesting that even after his mask is removed all that is left is a carefully constructed reflection

    of a handsome face shaped by expensive commodities rather than a genuine object.

    Bateman thus establishes his identity through a process of simulation; he is a symbol that

    refers to an additional set of symbols rather than a clear referent. As Jean Baudrillard states,

    “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality.”

    10 At the end of the scene, after peeling off his facial mask to reveal a reflection that is similarly veiled by the invisible mask his

    expensive moisturizers provide, Bateman coldly asserts his hyperreality:

    There is an idea of a Patrick Batemansome kind of abstraction. But there is no real me;

    only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze and you can

    shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, any maybe you can sense our lifestyles are

    probably comparable, I simply am not there.

He is Patrick Bateman; however, his identity is dependent upon the image he manufactures

    through the objects with which he surrounds himself. According to Stephen W. Busonik,

    Bateman is “a gap, a vortex into which the structural environment would collapse were it not

    upheld by the consensus of the value relations that maintain it.”

    11 The chain of signifiers in which he is caught therefore makes it “impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real because it is determined by the codes on which it relies for its significationso

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    determined by these codes that the codes themselves take precedence over that which they

    12signify.

    In an interview, Mary Harron describes Bateman as a symbol who “represents the craziness of an era, all its psychoses wrapped up in one personobsession with clothes,

    obsession with food, obsession with his skin.”13 Bateman‟s relationship to his historical and political moment is made explicit at the film‟s end. After going on a supposed killing spree and

    deciding his homicidal habits are out of control, he manically confesses to his lawyer‟s answering machine. When he approaches his lawyer the following day in a fancy Wall Street bar,

    Bateman is immediately confused with another member of his firm, suggesting the degree to

    which his individuality is sublimated by the code that signifies his public personaa code that governs his colleagues‟ public appearance and demeanor as well. Second, his lawyer treats

    Bateman‟s confession as a bad joke and leaves. The lawyer thus confirms Bateman‟s earlier assertion that there is no “real” him. Bateman‟s carefully manufactured image overshadows his

    actions and prevents the ability to create a link between his image and those actions insofar as

    they may be inconsistent with his image‟s signification. His schizophrenia is therefore

    complemented by his community‟s similarly schizoid inability to connect form to substance. As

    Baudrillard states, “today reality itself is hyperrealist.[…]Today everyday, political, social,

    historical, economic, etc., reality has already incorporated the hyperrealist dimension of

    simulation so that we are now living entirely within the „aesthetic‟ hallucination of reality.”

    14

    When Bateman approaches his friends‟ table after his fruitless confession, they are

    watching a newscast of Ronald Reagan commenting on the Iran Contra affair. In response to

    Reagan‟s speech, which contradicts his earlier denial that the United States transferred weapons

    to Iran, Bateman‟s friend Timothy Bryce cynically asks, “How can he lie like that? How can he

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    be so, I don‟t know, cool about it?... He presents himself as this harmless old codger, but

    inside…. In a monotone voiceover, Bateman replies, “But inside doesn‟t matter.” Bryce then explicitly asks Bateman what he thinks about Reagan‟s disingenuousness, to which Bateman replies, “Whatever,” as the group‟s conversation shifts to their dissatisfaction with the drinks

    they ordered and where they will dine later that night: in other words, back to the codes through

    which they assert their simulated identities and back to a discourse that is indifferent to the link

    between form and substance. Bateman closes the film with a final voiceover, exhaustedly

    concluding that his “confession meant nothing”—its potential substance and consequence is

    incorporated by the codes that maintain a disjunction between image and reality.

    This final scene links Bateman‟s apparent schizophrenia to Ronald Reagan‟s image-politics and seeming irreverence for the difference between image and reality. This irreverence is

    epitomized by Reagan‟s statement that facts are stupid things, which, according to Lawrence

    Grossberg, “is often taken as proof of the importance of fantasy, images and desire in

    contemporary political struggles.”

    15 Thus, American Psycho can be read as a hyperbolic

    comment on the implications of image politics during the Reagan era. Bateman‟s seeming ability to get away with murder through the manufacturing and deployment of his image parallels the

    manner in which Reagan‟s image—so meticulously constructed and affective that the former

    actor earned the nickname the “Teflon President”—enabled him to maintain public favour while

    being involved in scandals and helping create the highest unemployment rate since the

    Depression. As Harvey states, Reagan “could make mistake after mistake but never be called to

    account. His image could be deployed, unfailingly and instantaneously, to demolish any

    narrative of criticism that anyone cared to construct.”

    16

    Travis Vogan: “Inside Doesn‟t Matter” 213

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    An examination of American Psycho‟s commenting on Reagan‟s image politics illustrates how the Reagan era marked a hyperreal cultural condition in which the codes of signification

    took precedence over that which they signified. (Indeed, on account of Reagan‟s background as an actor-turned-politician it is only fitting to examine his public persona and presidency through

    a film.) In Baudrillard‟s words, this reading demonstrates the manner in which “reality has

    passed completely into the game of reality. 17 In addition to locating Reagan‟s image politics as

    hyperreal, my reading seeks to examine the manner in which Reagan‟s use of and reliance on the

    image, though deployed through simulation, could precipitate material effects. While Reagan‟s “inside, like Bateman‟s, may not have mattered, his carefully constructed form somehow

    produced material consequences. He therefore can be viewed as shaping material conditions

    through his image politics‟ affect.

     Bateman, as evidenced by his morning routine, operates within a community in which

    one‟s status is determined by images. Indeed, he does not even have to work to be wealthy. His

    father, as Bateman‟s fiancée Evelyn points out, practically owns the company” for which he works. When Evelyn asks him why he doesn‟t just quit his job and live off of his family fortune,

    Bateman replies, “Because I want to fit in! The assertion of status within his field is dependent

    upon performing his role as a member of the upper classa performance in which the symbolic

    value of one‟s job (and the office, personal assistant, designer suits, and lunch dates that signify

    it) is a key component. In fact, though Bateman goes to the office every day, he doesn‟t really work. He is not once shown speaking to a client or even taking a business-related phone call.

    When he is pictured in his office, he is most often listening to his headphones, reading magazines,

    or drawing crude sketches of the murders he imagines. His actual function as a businessman is

    therefore secondary to his acquisition of the symbols and performance of the activities associated

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    with one who has that occupation in his time and place. The true workplaces of Bateman and his

    peers, as Martin Weinreich indicates, are “the restaurants and clubs [] and even the New York cabs that transport them from clubs and restaurants and vice versa”—all of which function symbolically to assert their status.18 As Jean Baudrillard notes, “[labour] is everywhere, because

    19there is no more labour.” In other words, the performance of labour is incorporated by the

    codes that signify one‟s capital within a field—“work is reconstituted as time spent performing

    a socially inscribed role.

     As Bateman‟s acquisition of these work-related symbols shows, there remains a desire to

    simulate actual labour through its performance as a social ritual [affectation], as a reflex, as

    morality, as consensus, as regulation, as the reality principle. The reality principle of the code,

    that is: an immense ritual of the signs of labour extends over society in generalsince it reproduces itself, it matters little whether or not it produces.”20 Bateman and his peers are

    therefore compelled to partake in this affective social ritual en route to asserting their status

    publicly. This legitimizes their lack of actual work by placing their actions within a form that

    signifies work. As he is masked even when unmasked, Bateman works without doing any work.

     Bateman‟s hyperreal signification of “successful businessman” simultaneously masks his

    substance and maintains his social positioning in the material world. Thus, his hyperreality has

    the potential to influence the material inasmuch as it functions to maintain the relations of

    production, legitimizing his role as a successful businessman through the simulated image‟s

    import in the material. However, Baudrillardian simulation, a condition in which reality is

    reduced to a hallucinogenic game, does not allow for an interaction or differentiation between

    the simulated and real. This engagement between the hyperreal and the material can be

    negotiated through the manner in which simulated images have effect in the material. Affective

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    EnterText 7.3 images can at once reproduce the reality principle of the code while producing material

    consequences through that code‟s import. This notion of affect is therefore useful for examining

    the manner in which Reagan‟s image remained disconnected from his actions while influencing

    material circumstances.

     As noted, Reagan, a former actor whom Americans identified as an entertainer long

    before his political career began, largely maintained public favour by deploying his image as a

    “harmless old codger” who epitomized traditional American values. According to Frank Van Der

    Linden, Reagan

    clings to the traditions of courtesy, civility, and gentle manners. To the total disgust of

    sophisticates, he embodies all twelve traits of the Boy Scout Law: he is trustworthy, loyal,

    helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

    21

    In Baudrillard‟s words, Reagan‟s performance as President maintains the reality principle of the

    code through his image, even when his actions, as evidenced by his dishonesty and his policies‟

    effects, do not conform to that code. As Diane Rubenstein states,

    Reagan was elected as a signifier—that is, elected for his “representation of leadership

    and not for his possession of qualities of leadership.” He is thus not just a signifier, but an

    autonomous one. He represents the nonobligation of the signifier to the signified.22

    Reagan‟s aestheticized politics therefore operated much like Bateman‟s hyperreal identity. As

    Bateman associates himself with and deploys images that signify a wealthy businessman, Reagan

    deployed images that suggest trustworthiness and patriotism, making his actions and their effects

    secondary to this powerful signification. Thus, he was not obligated to match his actions to his

    rhetoric as long as he unfailingly reinforced the image he was elected to signify.

     According to Grossberg,

    Reagan governed affectively. His power rested on his popularity, as his politics was

    defined by his commitment: even reality could not interfere with his commitments. The

    world was simply coded: right and wrong, black and white, rich and poor, masculine and

    feminine, us and them.

    23

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