Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Patrick Bateman: White Negro

The hipster’s immediate descendent, the hippy, became a figure of disdain, at least if you didn’t like patchouli and the Grateful Dead. Anyway the hippie seems to have very little to do with the hipster qualities outlined by Mailer in ‘The White Negro.’ You don’t really expect some granola-chomping tree-hugger to spontaneously kick the crap out of a store clerk. Bret Easton Ellis’ anti-hero in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, embodies Mailer’s hipster better than any hippie kid, his evolution accelerated by three decades of market manipulations, the individual split between an empty social order and the indulgence of his most immediate desires – for Bateman sexual violence and murder. Ellis’ characters express their individuality through minute concern with gradations of style, and yet remain generally unrecognizable to each other (a running joke in the book). Bateman’s bloodlust is, in part, a reaction to the fact that there are others cooler than him.

Mailer focuses on the most romantic aspect of the hipster – the impulse to spontaneity and violence – and says very little about the elaborations of cool. Thus his hipster is lopsided, no Lester Young there. Mailer is onto something though with the idea of the hipster trying to make real his ‘infantile fantasy.’ What’s changed is the way in which the marketplace has nurtured the infantile fantasy. Nothing is more pleasing to people selling things than customers who can’t resist their most immediate impulse. The social revolutions of the 1960s fell short, but ‘expressing yourself’ by way of ‘lifestyle’ has conquered the world.

The origin of the contemporary hipster has everything to do with Reagan-era America. The manufacturing of a new national consensus in the 1980s left many out. Thrift no long figured into the construction of the American character – the most lasting legacy of the 1960s was comfort with debt – but flag-waving, conformity, and a return to traditional gender roles swept across the country. The corporate raider became a hero. On the outside: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. On the inside: Patrick Bateman.

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