Patrick Bateman’s Ice Pick: Charlie Hebdo, Muhammad, and Speech Acts
In Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Patrick Bateman uses an ice pick to carve words into the backs of women, and the fact that he carves words into their backs is notable because their reaction (screaming and pain) is not in response to the words he writes but rather the act of dragging the ice pick across their skin. Inasmuch as Patrick Bateman may perceive himself as engaged in an act of speech (writing words with an ice pick), for the woman who becomes his parchment there is no act of speech but only a particular physical act inducing a physical reaction. This scene serves to illustrate an important difference between speech acts that are a function of representational meaning versus speech acts that are a function only of the features of their form in which meaning is somehow inherent in the object that comprises the representation rather than the thing to which that object refers. Put another way, Ellis’s scene shows us what it means to regard the object as meaningful in itself rather than the object as a signifier of a non-present referent.
Confusing meaning with the object itself is possible when those lines are traced with an ice pick into someone’s back, but the crucial point is that those lines are not themselves “meaningful” in the sense that for the woman whose back is being used to write them, those lines do not constitute words that she reads. Those lines instead produce a chemical response that is not a function of meaning but rather a response to a physical stimulus, and while we know that her screams are not in response to the message of the words that Bateman has written into her back but rather a response to the physical pain of the ice pick, any occasion in which we imagine the form of words or any representation to be itself a violent act, the result is, in Walter Benn Michaels’ words, “a world in which what a speech act does is disconnected from what it means” (Michaels 69). And what speech acts do is necessarily, in fact inextricably linked to what they mean, since the lines and forms that comprise representations are arbitrary and inert and since only a scenario in which a psychopathic murderer may be carving them into your back do “words” become actions prior to, or altogether independent of interpretation, since it’s not like the woman can even see them in order to read them. Meaning instead is produced through an act of interpretation in which objects, in this case lines, refer to an idea or concept that is independent of the form of the lines themselves and inherent instead in the concepts they represent.
The point is that speech acts use representations that signify thoughts and ideas, and meaning is produced through the act of interpretation—not, as it were, by screaming as an ice pick carves lines that one cannot even see to read. Those lines are not representations but rather physical stimuli, whereas representations are signifiers of meaningful referents. With this in mind, it is worth exploring how the mere act of drawing Muhammad is understood, for fundamentalist and perhaps even moderate followers of Islam, to be indistinguishable from Patrick Bateman’s ice pick.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre last week, the world has been reminded of the Islamic prohibition against visual depictions of Muhammad. The basis of this prohibition seems to be a belief that representations of Muhammad will make Muhammad an idol subject to worship, though even this explanation is somewhat murky and there seems to be a belief that any visual representation is inherently disrespectful (perhaps because no visual depiction could ever be good enough?). Because we are dealing with matters of faith rather than logic, there is a way in which this position precludes argument because it is entirely a matter of decree and of faith rather than a position predicated upon a specific argument, but for the sake of this essay, at least, the belief is at least subject to the question of consistency or, more accurately, its lack thereof. What matters here is that while there is a prohibition against visual representations of Muhammad, in particular drawings and paintings of the prophet, there appears to be no such prohibition against written or oral representations. While this may seem somewhat obvious, as it would be difficult to either establish or maintain a religion without the ability to either write or speak about its central figure, it does point to an inherent contradiction in the prohibition against visual representations and a fundamental misunderstanding of how representation operates.
Because the question thus becomes: with respect to signified referents, how does one representation—either a visual, written, or an oral one—differ from another?
The answer is: they don’t.
This is because any representation, as noted above, is a signifier of a non-present referent. Just as the lines that comprise the text Muhammad constitute a representation we recognize as the Islamic prophet, so too do the lines that comprise a Charlie Hebdo cartoon constitute a representation we recognize as referring to that same Islamic prophet. While it’s true that the latter is pictorial whereas the former is not, that makes it no less a representation than the linguistic representation demonstrated by the text Muhammad.
To better understand this, we need only flip the Charlie Hebdo image of Muhammad upside-down, distorting our eyes’ accustomed vantage and our brain’s predisposition to recognize familiar forms, in order to better see the basic composition of the representation, which like the lines that constitute the written text Muhammad, are fundamentally the same—a series of lines, perhaps embellished with color, that we recognize as referring to what we understand to be Muhammad.
The point is that if we accept that the lines that comprise the text Muhammad is a representation that refers to a concept of the Islamic prophet—and a visual one at that, since we must see the text in order to then read it—then we should also ask what makes it different from the lines that comprise the drawing of Muhammad, which likewise refer to a concept of the Islamic prophet (since even the drawing cannot be said to actually be the prophet)? A prohibition against one representation to the exclusion of others thus appears inherently flawed, to say nothing of the psychotic response manifest in methodically executing those who transgress that prohibition.
Interestingly, in some orthodox Jewish traditions, there is a prohibition against both writing and saying the name of God, represented as YHVH, which is an interesting departure from the Islamic prohibition but still fraught with the same problem: insofar as the Islamic prohibition prohibits one form of representation and not another, this Jewish orthodox prohibition, in either writing YHVH without vowels or as G-d or by using a silence instead of speaking God’s name, the blank spaces or vocalized silences become the referent and therefore as equally a representational signifier as if a name had been either spoken or written. In other words, nothing is lost, you’ve simply used another representative symbol—even if that symbol is silence or blank space—to signify a referent, in this case God him or herself.
And herein lies the rub: a blurred image of Muhammad favored by so many news organizations is just as much a representation of Muhammad as a non-blurred one in the same way that YHVH, G-d, or a silence is a referent to God, and the upside-down image of Muhammad, while distorted and less discernable as a signifier, is equally a representation of Muhammad as is the preceding text. The series of lines that comprise the symbol are no different, with respect to its objecthood, from the series of lines that comprise the text Muhammad or the vocalized sounds that produce the spoken “Muhammad.” As objects, as lines, they may be no different from those lines that Patrick Bateman carves into the backs of women with an ice pick, but as signifiers they are entirely different from Bateman’s ice-picked carvings, at least with respect to the women who respond to them. This is because the women who scream in pain are not responding to the meaning of the words that Bateman is writing into their backs—they are not responding to these lines’ signified referents but rather the pain induced by the ice pick being dragged across their skin. She is not reading the words, if she even knows that they are words at all (they are after all on her back) and Bateman may just as well be carving a likeness of Muhammad into her back for all she knows or would likely care.
The lines that constitute the prohibited image of Muhammad, then, produce their effect precisely because they are being read: they are interpreted as an assemblage representing a non-present referent, in this case the Islamic prophet Muhammad. And because they comprise a signified referent that is revealed only through the act of interpretation, the act of perceiving the lines and thereafter connecting them to a non-present referent, they are indistinguishable from the text Muhammad and the speech “Muhammad,” which both constitute a similar if not identical act of interpretation.
Therefore, while the above image that accompanies this piece may appear to somehow mollify fundamentalist Islamists by its distorted features, it is in fact no different from the right-side-up, non-blurred image insofar as most readers familiar with Charlie Hebdo’s cover will perform an act of interpretation that connects it to a concept of Muhammad. And so while news outlets may attempt to eschew controversy and avoid transgressing the prohibition by showing blurred images of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they yet transgress that prohibition because the blurred image, when everyone understands to what it refers, is as much a representation of Muhammad as the non-blurred one, and the banner text referring to Muhammad and repeated utterances of “Muhammad” during those same news segments are equally representative of the Islamic prophet as the blurred or non-blurred visual one.
This is why the Charlie Hebdo tragedy (and triumph, insofar as they defiantly persist in the face of that tragedy) is not a matter of free speech versus censorship but rather a difference between understanding what constitutes a speech act and what does not. And inasmuch as speech acts are a process of representation and interpretation eliciting a meaningful response, Patrick Bateman’s lines carved into the backs of prostrate women are not speech acts, at least for the women who respond to them, because their responses are not interpretations of signifiers. Drawings, writings, and utterances, meanwhile, are all equally acts of speech because they are composed of signifiers requiring interpretation, making the proclamation “Our prophet is avenged” no less a representation, no less a speech act than the drawings that will yet continue to adorn the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Because inasmuch as they may refuse to admit it, visual representations of Muhammad abound in textual representations, and representations, being equal, cannot be distinguished from visual ones.
Lastly, your taking offense—which is an emotional response—to a representation is your problem. Because inasmuch as representations signify non-present referents, non-present ideas, they can never be the equivalent of Patrick Bateman’s ice pick. Furthermore, insofar as your offense is an emotional response, your offense alone does not constitute a position predicated upon an argument, just as Patrick Bateman’s women do not respond to the arguments that he may write into their backs, and emotions, while they may be shared, are not translatable (reading this or American Psycho, you do not actually feel Bateman’s ice pick) and not predicated upon an idea that they are right—emotions, like objects, simply are, and like faith, they cannot constitute the basis of an argument between right versus wrong but only yours versus mine. This is perhaps why offended parties in this case take to guns and violence rather than reasoned debate in response to that which offends them: insofar as emotions are bodily reactions, the response to them is therefore a clash of bodies, not of right versus wrong but rather of one force against another. However, their offense is, at its core, only a result of a misunderstanding of the nature of representation and the function of speech acts, making not just the reaction to it but the entire basis of theirs and anyone else’s offense irrelevant and uninteresting because it is only emotional and not a site of disagreement.