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  • Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho
  • Carla Freccero (bio)

R.L.: Do you believe in God?

B.E.E.: Are you asking me if I was raised in a religious family or if I go to church? I was raised an agnostic. I don’t know—I hate to fly, I have a fear of flying. That means either that I have no faith in air traffic controllers or that I’ve done something really bad, and this is God’s way of getting at me. Maybe I’m caught in the middle. . . . But no, I don’t believe in God. That’s such a strange thing to admit in an interview.

—Robert Love, “Psycho Analysis,” Rolling Stone interview with Bret Easton Ellis

Before Capitol Hill acts on these dimwitted proposals, we should remember what the writer Bret Easton Ellis might have said, but didn’t: “Doing bad stuff is wrong.”

—Ted Rall, “Meet the Cusp Kids”

US mass media has become a much-publicized target of censorious commentary within American public culture in recent years. Censorship, as E. S. Burt notes, may take at least two forms: philosophical censorship, such as that discussed by Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, and the more commonly applied form of US censorship enacted against “pornography” or “obscenity.” Philosophical censorship, in this reading, entails the state’s persecution of message-bearing texts or utterances that counter the doxa and threaten to disrupt the state, while the second form of censorship involves “a language use that falls outside the interpretive scheme defining the work as the intentional act of a moral being” [Burt 25]. In the United States, state censorship of the first kind may perhaps be practiced through the “incitement to riot” escape clause provision in the First Amendment, while obscenity censorship—in certain forms—is explicitly written into legislation as excluded from speech protection.

Extending Strauss’s argument to the liberal state, Burt suggests in effect that these two forms of censorship become related insofar as the state’s censorious intent is directed not so much at the content of the expression as at the degree to which it confirms the axiom, what Burt calls the “very fundamental, convening assumption of the . . . liberal state” [25] that “virtue is knowledge” [see Strauss 25]. Thus obscenity is a form of expression that cannot be interpreted as productive knowledge but instead as a certain repetitive excess, “dirt for dirt’s sake” [Burt, quoting Judge Woolsey 28]. The problem here, of course, is that such distinctions do not apply comfortably to that category of utterance termed the literary, and especially to the use of figurative language, where “art for art’s sake” can be [End Page 44] seen precisely to resemble the nonproductivity of obscenity. The text I am going to discuss in depth here, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, has been attacked on both grounds—as an active (and violent) disruption of the doxa that is also obscenely nonproductive of knowledge—and as such, it serves as an illustrative, and I will argue, noncoincidental, case of “censorship” in the liberal state.

It may be useful here to begin by surveying and making distinctions among the various popular and popularized censorships in recent US media: Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” was probably the most authentic case of “philosophical” censorship, even though its silencing did not derive directly from the state (the liberal state often does not function in some of the ways supposed when the definition of censorship is restricted to state censorship). “Cop Killer” is a song about killing policemen, and thus came closest—in the list I am going to propose of silenced works—to tempting the state’s retaliation. It was written and sung by a black man (a black man who often plays a gangster and a cop in popular films), in a genre already regarded as threateningly disruptive to the state: rap. The result is that the CD containing this song was pulled from the shelves of music stores and can no longer be purchased. There was no trial. The author withdrew his work from public circulation in the face of...

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pp. 44-58
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