Table of Contents
2. Consumerism and Violence in Society Today
2.1 Consumerism comes into Existence
2.2 The Origin of Aggression and Violence
2.3 Connecting Consumerism and Violence
3. A Look at the Authors
3.1 Brett Easton Ellis
3.1.1 Parallels between Ellis’s Life and “American Psycho”
3.2 Chuck Palahniuk
4 . Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho
4.1 April Fools
4.2 Beauty is only Skin-Deep
4.3 Patrick Bateman – When Consumerism goes Wrong
4.4 Investigating the Violence in American Psycho
4.4.1 Increasing Violence and the Differences between Male and Female Victims
5 . Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club
5.1. The Narrator – Trapped in his Lovely Nest
5.2 Tyler Durden – A Way Out
5.3 “I’m Not Tyler Durden”
Art has always reflected society. [...] Fight Club examines violence and the roots of frustration that are causing people to reach out for such radical solutions. And that's exactly the sort of discussion we should be having about our culture. Because a culture that doesn't examine its violence is a culture in denial, which is much more dangerous.1
This assessment of Fight Club by Edward Norton, who plays the narrator in the novel’s movie adaptation, explains the reasoning behind this thesis, which examines the basic principles of today’s consumer culture, its connection to aggression and violence, and the way these topics are presented in two contemporary novels: Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.
In these books, the respective protagonists face similar deadlocks connected to life in the consumerist world of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite, evidently, having everything a person could ask for, both main characters’ lives remain unfulfilled, leaving them frustrated and dissatisfied. As it turns out, acts of violence become the only thing that lets them get away from the boredom of their daily routine and gives them a sense of satisfaction.
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho was first published in 1991. Set in Manhattan in the late 1980s, the story covers roughly two years in the life of Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old, successful, Wall Street investment banker, who claims to be a serial killer. As the story’s narrator, Bateman describes in detail many aspects of his everyday life among New York’s upper class, including a series of gruesome murders he apparently commits.
While seemingly living the American Dream, Bateman is completely caught up in a world of appearance and materialism. Violence, rape and murder become his only way of escaping his hollow life in a consumer society. Dr. Alex E. Blazer, the author of several publications dealing with Bret Easton Ellis’s work in general and American Psycho in particular, describes Patrick Bateman’s character the following way:
Patrick Bateman [...], exists in the banal hollow of popular culture, specifically the height of the Reagan-era, Wall Street, me generation in which everything revolved around money and image; as such, Bateman is an idea and an image, but empty and void of deep identity. As a walking billboard for elite, conspicuous consumption and high-end product placement, he lacks inner resources and glosses over an emotionally sterile existence. [...] He has so filled himself up with hype, pomp, pretense that his identity is nothing more than an advertisement, an illusion, a mask under which no human character dwells. [...] He cannot differentiate between products and people, consumption and affect: he's flat, superficial, and ultimately in-fathomable. His character is a mask covering a void; his identity is an aberrational reaction to the abyss of being that founds his existence.2
The book contains scenes of disgusting violence, especially against women, some of which were printed as excerpts in different magazines before its publication, resulting in massive protests against the novel. As a result, Ellis’s publishing house, Simon & Schuster, refused to publish it, even after having paid him $300 000 in advance. The novel was later published by Vintage Books and finally hit bookstores in 1991.
Today, American Psycho is referred to as a cult classic. Nevertheless, the detailed presentations of the sadistic torture procedures and subsequent killings are still shocking, nearly twenty years after its original publishing.
Chuck Palahniuk’s debut novel, Fight Club, was published in 1996. Its nameless narrator (or “Joe” as he refers to himself on occasion) is an average guy, who has spent his entire life being a member of a brain-dead consumer culture. His life changes when he meets Tyler Durden, who seduces Joe into co-founding a secret fight club where men beat each other bloody and whose members eventually develop into an anarchist army, called “Project Mayhem”.
However, at some point the narrator suspects that Tyler is taking “Project Mayhem” too far. When the story reaches its climax, the narrator not only discovers the ultimate plan behind “Project Mayhem”, but also uncovers the fact that he and Durden are the same person. Tyler Durden is part of the narrator’s personality, his attempt to escape the consumerist world that is holding him captive.
While the publication of Fight Club put Palahniuk’s name on the map (it received positive reviews and won some awards, such as the Oregon Book Award and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award) his rise to prominence reached new heights with the novel’s film adaptation in 1999. The movie, the novel and its author have since reached cult status, evidenced by the fact that Palahniuk’s Web site (www.chuckpalahniuk.net) is nicknamed “The Cult”.
After this introduction, the second chapter will deal with the sociological aspects of consumerism and violence. The emergence of consumerism following World War II and different theories on the origin of aggression and violence will be presented before these subjects are linked to one another.
Following the theoretical framework, chapter three focuses on the authors, Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, in an attempt to find biographical connections between their lives and their respective novels.
Chapter four concentrates exclusively on American Psycho. Beginning with an in-depth analysis of the books first chapter, “April Fools”, this section goes on to elaborate on Patrick Bateman’s obsession for material goods and links it to his violent outbreaks. Furthermore, the reasons behind the book’s most gruesome passages are explained, as is the steady increase of violence and the differences between male and female victims.
The fifth chapter then deals with Fight Club. First, the influence of consumer society on the life of the unnamed narrator is presented. After this, the character of Tyler Durden is introduced and the function of violence within the novel is examined. The last section details the narrator’s struggle to escape Tyler’s grasp as he attempts to find contentment without Fight Club or Project Mayhem.
Concluding remarks in the final chapter give a short summary of the results gathered by the analysis of the two novels, and attempt to provide a suggestion for further research.
2. Consumerism and Violence in Society Today
2.1 Consumerism comes into Existence
Throughout history, society and culture have always been subject to change. These changes are often closely linked to historical events. According to the American literary critic Fredric Jameson, a new kind of society emerged at some point following World War II. This new society has been described in various ways, such as ‘multinational capitalism’, ‘the society of the media’ or ‘consumer society’.3
On a sociological level, the origin of contemporary consumerism can be traced to the late 1940s post-war boom in the United States. Families had accumulated savings during the war years, and were willing and able to purchase new homes, cars and other luxuries denied them during the war. Television sets were soon added to the 'must have' list. In 1955, 55% of U.S. households had a television set and by 1962 that number had increased to 90%.4 This development, of course, presented advertisers with an unparalleled opportunity to reach an incredible mass of potential consumers.
Today’s consumer society can be characterized in the following way: Identities are built largely out of things because things have meaning. People define their lives by money and by the ownership of things. People are convinced that to consume is the surest route to personal happiness, social status, and national success. Advertising, packaging, and marketing create illusory needs that are deemed real because the ‘social standards’ have made people feel inferior and inadequate. People tend to be dissatisfied with what they have, and hence, with who they are. Consequently, the meaning of one’s life is located in acquisition, ownership, and consumption.5
Since art is influenced to a great degree by the culture in which it is produced, it should come as no surprise that consumerism, which is now omnipresent in everyday life, has found its way into contemporary literature. Published in the early and middle 1990’s, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, for example, are both satires on consumerism that present the dangers that come with it. In both novels, the main characters’ obsession with material belongings perfectly match the characteristics of people living in a consumer society, including the critical fact that all their possessions have ultimately failed to bring them satisfaction, much less happiness!
2.2 The Origin of Aggression and Violence
In order to properly understand the phenomena of aggression and violence it is necessary to define these terms and analyse what causes their outburst. Aggression refers to any form of behaviour that is intended to injure someone physically or psychologically.6 “Violence involves the bodies of perpetrator and victim and it may thus be defined as bodily response with the intended infliction of bodily harm on another person.”7 In accordance with these definitions, the term violence constitutes an extreme act of aggression.
Aggression has been a focal point of extensive scientific research since the beginning of the 20th century. Over the years, two positions concerning the origin of aggression have developed. While some believe that aggression is an innate feature of human beings, others argue that it is an acquired behaviour, a product of social learning.8
The first person to deal with aggression from a psychological point of view was Sigmund Freud, who was convinced that aggression is a natural human instinct. In his mind, humans are born with a life instinct - which he named ‘Eros’ - and a death drive, which is commonly called ‘Thanatos’.
Der Aggressionstrieb ist der Abkömmling und Hauptvertreter des Todestriebes, den wir neben dem Eros gefunden haben, der sich mit ihm die Weltherrschaft teilt. Und nun, meine ich, ist uns der Sinn der Kulturentwicklung nicht mehr dunkel. Sie muss uns den Kampf zwischen Eros und Tod, Lebenstrieb und Destruktionstrieb zeigen, wie er sich an der Menschenart vollzieht. Dieser Kampf ist der wesentliche Inhalt des Lebens überhaupt.9
While the concept of “Eros and Thanatos” continues to be highly controversial, some still share Freud’s belief of aggression as an instinctive act. Among these supporters is Konrad Lorenz, who states that aggression is not a reaction which follows certain impulses, but a natural agitation that must be discharged. He famously compared this process to a steam boiler, which accumulates a certain amount of energy before partially releasing it.10
On the other hand, the concept of social learning takes a completely different approach on this matter; stating that aggression is developed through experience. Albert Bandura, one of the most respected researchers on this subject, argues that people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modeling.11 In order to prove his theory, Bandura conducted the so called “Bobo-doll experiment”. Bandura divided children, between three and six years of age, into different groups exposing them to adult models exhibiting either aggressive or nonaggressive behaviors. Then, in a new environment without the adult model, he wanted to observe whether or not the children imitate the behaviors they had been shown. He was able to prove that the children who witnessed aggression were significantly more likely to react in an aggressive way than those who were not exposed to the aggressive model.12 Bandura’s conception that aggression is learned is shared by Marilyn French:
We would not have such a violent culture if we did not want such a violent culture, whatever its biological root, aggressiveness is learned. One need not even exalt violence (as our movies and television films in fact do) to foster it: one need only create a culture that worships power, individuality, disconnection from others, and competition; and disparage the satisfaction of life to affection, fellowship, and harmony. Since aggressiveness is learned it is a moral rather than a biological quality.13
Both theories mentioned contain aspects that leave room for discussion. The theory of aggression as an innate feature does not consider any social factors which would explain the different levels of aggressive acts performed by different people. It also begs the question of how people can be held accountable for their actions if they are merely a product of their genetic predisposition. Hence, Hannah Arendt’s warning concerning the application of this theory: “Nothing, in my opinion, could be theoretically more dangerous than the tradition of organic thought in political matter by which power and violence are interpreted in biological terms.”14
On the other hand, Bandura’s social learning theory suggests that aggression develops through certain kinds of experience. This, however, completely negates the meaning of people’s genetic predisposition, neglecting the very source of every human being’s uniqueness. Therefore, the answer to the question, whether aggression is inherited or acquired, presumably lies somewhere in between these two concepts.
2.3 Connecting Consumerism and Violence
In a consumer society, computers and television sets can be found in nearly every household. They are accessed constantly by adults and children. Depictions of all sorts of violence are presented to people on a daily basis in movies, TV shows and computer games. While the long term consequences have yet to be determined, most experts are highly critical of this development. Norbert Muhlen was one of the first people to question the effects of constant exposure to violence through the media on our society:
The American daydream (and nightmare) of the media of mass entertainment is acted out in a world in which human relations are opened and settled by daggers, whips, tommy guns, or atomic exterminators. In psychoanalytic terms the entertainment of a large part of the nation’s adults, and of the overwhelming majority of its youth, is directed toward mortido rather than libido: toward destruction rather than procreation, toward hate rather than love, toward aggression rather than understanding, toward death rather than life. Its common denominator is violence – all forms, techniques, systems, and possibilities of violence. And almost never is there any concern with the reasons for which people act violent.15
Viewers are constantly given the impression that violence is a legitimate option when it comes to achieving a certain goal. Naturally, supporters of the concept of social learning are highly critical of this development, as they believe that people will follow the examples presented to them. In addition to popular TV shows, news broadcasts are relying more and more heavily on the coverage of violent incidents, as for example the Littleton High School and Virginia Tech massacres, making it especially difficult for children to distinguish between reality and fiction. According to the German social psychologist Hilde T. Himmelweit, “violence on television may make children not so much callous as apt to consider all violence, even in newsreels, as if it was occurring in a fictional context.”16 While it is not believed that popular TV shows, movies or news broadcasts are the single cause for violent behaviour, they are able to increase one’s willingness to act aggressively.17
Curiously, it seems as though viewers have not only become used to constantly being exposed to ever increasing on-screen violence, but actually seem to enjoy it, as evidenced by the popularity of movies such as The Terminator, Jaws, Rambo, Star Wars or The Matrix, in which violence is demonstrated in every shape, type and form. This begs the question, why are so many action, adventure, science-fiction and horror movies produced and why are people standing in line to see them?
Richard Slotkin, a cultural critic and historian, has stated that, in the end, it is the consumer, not the producer, who is responsible for the ever-growing request for violence:
Producers offer their fables and images, consumers buy or refuse to buy them; producers respond to consumer choices, eliminating those formulas that lack appeal and massively reproducing those that register well by the canons of market research and box office receipts. What emerges at the end is a body of genres or formulas whose appeal has been commercially validated.18
Compared to past generations, modern society does not provide a platform to act on personal fantasies of violence, due to a legal system that prohibits all kinds of violence, including self-administered justice. In order to function in this society, people must learn to manage their passion and become social-minded. Most people are able to adjust to this reality. For them, the consumption of on-screen violence may simply be a way of ‘daydreaming’. Others, however, find it difficult to adapt to the demands of an incredibly fast moving world.
Deeds of violence in our society are performed largely by those trying to establish their self-esteem, to defend their self-image, and to demonstrate that they, too, are significant. Regardless of how derailed or wrongly used these motivations may be or how destructive their expression, they are still the manifestations of positive interpersonal needs. We cannot ignore the fact that, no matter how difficult their redirection may be, these needs themselves are potentially constructive. Violence arises not out of superfluity of power but out of powerlessness.19
This powerlessness can be directly attributed to the ‘hardships’ of consumerism. People are caught up in the process of improving their lives through the acquisition of specific products. And yet, after buying one product there always seems to be something of greater value, something more important to chase after. The constant longing for more, in order to meet ‘social standards’, is accompanied by the frustration of never reaching a point of satisfaction. The element of frustration, in connection with violence, is dealt with in the ‘frustration-aggression theory’, (originally formulated by Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer & Sears), which is the most influential theory on aggression today.20 People take aggressive action as a result of frustration, when they feel that they are being blocked from achieving a certain goal. In Western civilization, this goal is resembled by a kind of “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. The lifestyle of “the rich and the famous” has become the focal point of television shows and magazines, further amplifying people’s desire of keeping up with the latest fashion, owning a certain type of car and living the overall life presented to them nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days week. Unfortunately, for most people the goal of living the life of a movie star is blocked by the reality of collecting a “run-of-the-mill paycheck”.
Summing up, consumerism has not only driven society to a point of constant frustration, by creating the illusion of personal happiness through the acquisition of material goods, thereby laying the groundwork for violent reactions; it has also managed to further fuel people’s urge to deal with this situation in an aggressive way by presenting innumerable varieties of violent behaviour on television and movie screens, in popular music and in magazines, all of which, of course, play an integral part in a consumer society.
3. A Look at the Authors
3.1 Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis was born on March 7, 1964 in Los Angeles, the eldest of three children. His father, Robert Martin Ellis, worked in the real estate industry and his mother, Dale, was a housewife. Bret Easton Ellis grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and was raised by his mother after his parents divorced in 1982. After graduating from High School he went to Bennington College in Vermont (which is fictionalized as ‘Camden’ in all of his works)21. This is where his writing skills were discovered and developed under the tutelage of teacher John McGinnis. Ellis’s first novel, Less than Zero, was published in 1985 while he was still in college and only twenty-one years old. The novel, which was dedicated to McGinnis, received great reviews and became a huge commercial success.22
After moving to New York City, in 1987, Ellis released his follow – up novel, The Rules of Attraction, which turned out to be a commercial disappointment, “and is in many ways his least successful book as well.”23
The protests surrounding the publication of American Psycho in 1991 had an enormous impact on Ellis’s life as he was now at the center of “the most animated controversy on America’s literary scene since Lolita.”24 These circumstances definitely sparked the public’s interest in the book, which is undoubtedly both Ellis’ most notorious and his most successful work.
It was followed three years later by The Informers, a collection of thirteen linked short stories that were written over a ten year period starting in 1983. The book is much more in line with Ellis’ first works, Less than Zero and The Rules of Attraction, as it lacks American Psycho’s sensational elements.
1 Benjamin Svetkey, “Blood, Sweat and Fears”, Entertainment Weekly, 1999, 5. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,271117_5,00.html (January 3rd, 2009)
2 Alex E. Blazer, “Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defining the Postmodern through Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho”, The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), no.1 (2002), www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/blazer.htm (December 25th, 2008).
3 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: New Press, 2002), 124 .
5 Sue McGregor, “Consumerism as a Source of Structural Violence”, Consumer Interests Annual47 (2001): 2-3.
6 Hans Werner Bierhoff, Sozialpsychologie: Ein Lehrbuch (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2000), 128.
7 Richard Mizen and Mark Morris, On Aggression & Violence. An Analytic Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 9.
9 Sigmund Freud, Anwendungen der Psychoanalyse (Hg. Von Anna Freud et al. Frankfurt: Fischer, 1978), 407.
10 Arno Heller, Gewaltphantasien: Untersuchungen zu einem Phänomen des amerikanischen Gegenwartsromans (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1990), 14.
11 Bierhoff, 142.
12 Albert Bandura et al, “Transmission of aggressions through imitation of aggressive models,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63 (3) (1961): 582.
13 Heller, 12.
14 Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969), 75.
15 Norbert Muhlen, “The Study of Man: Comic Books and Other Horrors”, Commentary Magazine, 1949, 82.
16 H. Himmelweit et al, Television and the Child (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 216.
17 Heller. 39-40.
18 ibid., 41.
19 Rollo May, Power & Innocence: a Search for the Sources of Violence (New York: Dell, 1972) 23.
20 Bierhoff, 133.
21 Julian Murphet, Bret Easton Ellis’s ”American Psycho”, A Reader’s Guide (New York: Continuum, 2002) 12.
23 Murphet, 14.
24 Ibid., 15.