Schwarzenegger Imagery in Mark Leyner's Et Tu, Babe

Phillip Wise
Dept of English
Canterbury University Christchurch, New Zealand

Deep South v.2. n.3. (Spring 1996)

Copyright (c) 1996 by Phillip Wise

Fred Pfeil's book White Guys (1995) is just one of a number of recent academic books addressing representations of masculinity in popular culture. In it, he expresses concern that the way white masculinity is represented serves to reinforce and validate broadly traditional and patriarchal ideas about gender roles. He shows how deeply traditional assumptions about gender and race operate within popular texts, and convincingly demonstrates the need to address popular culture with powerful, sophisticated readings. Such discussions are not new - feminist scholars have long addressed the issue of gender and culture. However, concentrated explorations and resistant readings of the role of masculinity among postmodern power relations, in a feminist setting, have become popular more recently. I hope that what follows can be seen as a part of this movement.

Mark Leyner is a New York writer who dives into this particular vortex with what seems to be irreverent disregard for the consequences. In his books he invents impossible figures: impossible because they grow from and exist among the ludicrous and contradictory expectations of hyperreal mediated cultures. In doing this he often gives the impression that his writing is as "popular" as the culture he surfs on. The truth is he remains very much a marginal figure. His first book, I Smell Esther Williams (1983), and another, Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog (c1995) are out of print and difficult to find. My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990) is a set of often surreal cartoons. But in Et Tu, Babe (1992), Leyner writes the issue of his own masculinity, its relationship to authorial power and power in general most directly. Here Leyner plays with the way popular culture both serves the interests of traditional male power structures and yet can open cracks in the validity, or even the possibility, of those structures.

Et Tu, Babe seems at first to exemplify authorial narcissism. Mark Leyner's novel is about none other than Leyner the celebrity, riding high on the success of his previous book, My Cousin My Gastroenterologist. That book propelled Leyner to literary superstardom; he is, according to social chronicler Martha Stewart (lovingly quoted in Et Tu, Babe) "...the writer who single handedly brought a generation of young people flocking back to the book stores after they had purportedly abandoned literature for good" (Leyner 1992, 103). Harold Pinter holds Leyner in similar regard: "....First of all, his work - stunning, magnificent! His play Varicose Moon is achingly beautiful. I think it will be unnecessary for playwrights to write any new plays for some time now..."(161). Leyner is never slow to remind his readers of his authorial prowess. The Washington Post foolishly reviewed My Cousin My Gastroenterologist thus: "Leyner is the most intense and, in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America....". This statement can be found on the back cover of Harmony's edition of the book.

In the opening two pages of Et Tu, Babe's first chapter, Leyner describes his appalling childhood, racked with "dyslexia, depression, excessive anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, alcoholism, illicit drug abuse, obesity, eating disorders, exhibitionism, persistent aggressive and violent behaviour, and hyperactivity combined with severe attention deficits" (14). He also suffered from an unfortunate propensity to turn into a rabbit. But the young Leyner never gave up hope: "Yet there was a voice within me that said: Someday you will be considered the most intense and, in a certain sense, the most significant young prose writer in America. And I listened" (14).

However it is not just Leyner's literary boasting that exemplifies narcissism in this novel, it is the way Leyner's ego is subsumed by his body. And because his body is written so large in the text, his authorial and personal narcissism converge. Leyner's body in Et Tu, Babe is a response to the continued intrusion of "other" people and objects; he is constantly under a threat of some kind. His nemesis, Iron Man Wang, for example, is running for the governorship of Hong Kong - his election slogan reads "I'm Iron Man Wang. How are you this evening?" (22). One day a group of sexually obsessed Latin American killers attempt to assassinate Leyner, trapping him as he arrests them for "Public Lewdness". "[They] looked at me and began to speak. But they didn't use words. A soft crackling sound, a kind of modulated static, issued from their mouths....The female Hispanic proffered me a stick of fluorescent chewing gum. I chewed it..." (38). He wakes up three days later in hospital. Here Wang, later identified as the man who hired these assassins, constitutes a named threat. However, it is the implication of the static that issues from the Hispanics' mouths which serves as a symbol for the less specific threats to Leyner's stable selfhood in the novel. Static is a block in communication; it is something which interferes with the message's stability, creating the potential for lost or alternative meaning. Throughout, Leyner desperately tries to get his story to cohere, basing it around the only figure he feels he can trust, himself. Leyner the writer is trying to stand in for the rush of static in his world: the world presented in the novel is a world totally mediated electronically or textually.

The novel's "narrative", picaresque at the best of times, always threatens to fall apart: it is held together by its one stable presence, its author. He has surrounded himself with cronies and flunkies, but they just cause him more narcissistic crises: Joe Casale, for example, his right hand man, is half human, half dolphin. And Desiree Buttcake, who gave up her job as Attorney General of the United States to become a supreme court justice, and then gave that up to become a formula-one motor racing driver (winning the Monaco Grand Prix three times) also claims that "For a period of time I was the Vatican" (48). Leyner asks her: "Did you mean the building?". "Yeah, the building", she said (64). Leyner's world is one in which everybody can be something else; a world in which categories are continually exploded. But the category of Leyner the man and the writer are to stay is they are: as Leyner says at a board meeting of Team Leyner, "We play hardball. If anyone attempts to impede the fulfilment of our destiny, we fuck with them big time" (81).

This destiny is the deification of Mark Leyner. To become omnipotent is the only way he can find to control the fragmenting world he lives in. His desire is to become the only man worth knowing, and the only writer the world needs. Hence he quotes Pinter above; Leyner also has a policy of kidnapping and "re-educating" any of his creative writing pupils who dare to believe they might emulate his literary achievements. He resists his boundaries being traversed: so whereas Joe Casale can be both a man and a dolphin, when Leyner discovers "a deceased rodent impacted between my prostate gland and urethra", he needs to perform a "radical gerbilectomy" (26).

Everything about Leyner betrays his strength. References to his pumped up body become tedious: he has washboard abs and calves that "make you realise for the first time just how beautiful the human calf can be..." (28). Leyner is aware of the function of his bodybuilding: "Winning your place on the hierarchy is a basic part of primate life and every day is a savage, pitiless battle for dominance, so....I have the body of a grotesquely swollen steroid freak. Yet I have many enemies..." (16). Leyner's headquarters are fortified, designed to keep those enemies out; his body is a fortress, designed to keep out the non-Leyner. His sexual partners, he says, fixate on the size of his genitals and on his muscles. His technique for attracting women involves taking his clothes off.

These things, however, don't uncover the Leyner phallus. The reason, according to Susan Bordo, that representations of penises are uncommon in popular culture is that the penis can never live up to its expectations as a phallic signifier, and the phallus must remain hidden in order to be an effective signification of power (Bordo 1993, 698). Leyner's muscles deflect attention away from his genitals onto his body as a whole, while his penis is only talked about and not seen, although he boasts of its extraordinary size and potency: "Today farmers let their land lie fallow after having visions of his semen raining down from the sky and fecundating their fields" (Leyner 1992, 131). These boasts are a hiding place as well, a mythology, a mystification.

Leyner eventually drives his friends away because nobody can become close to him. He is "destined for greatness and possess[es] the fortitude and inner focus to fulfil that destiny" (90), to the extent that he has "no real friends, no real family. People look at you with awe, with fear, with lust, with suspicion, with envy...but not with affection" (90). Leyner achieves his god-like status by book's end: an institute is set up to scientifically prove a re-evaluation of evolution "from the big bang through the Cretaceous demise of the dinosaurs to the present moment as one continuous teleological process leading inevitably to the birth of Mark Leyner and to the propagation of his genetic lineage through sexual intercourse and auxiliary methods..." (168).

Leyner's body resembles that of the male body-god of the 1980s, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who haunts this book. Schwarzenegger is the archetypical pumped-up man, and the violence this implies reveals itself in the violent nature of the characters he plays in films. In Leyner's novel, potentially everybody dies: his megalomania and paranoia reach the level that he believes (and this is confirmed by Stephen Hawkins) that he can destroy entire solar systems just by "clenching my jaw and visualising an explosion" (77). And by the end of the book, the F.B.I have discovered that "Leyner was probably two to five years away from producing a crude nuclear weapon" (165). His love of self, narcissism, at the expense of that which is constructed as his "other" lies at the heart of this violence. His need to abject the other leads to barriers and borders being set up, designed to keep it out: it is the muscular body that implicitly hardens against this other. This tendency is spread throughout the culture, according to the Leyner narrative. A record store he is in contains equipment that can "take any movie and insert Arnold Schwarzenegger as the actor in the lead role" (50). He overhears a woman ordering some "Schwarzeneggerised movies":

"OK. I'd like My Fair Lady with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Professor Henry Higgins, Amadeus with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Salieri instead of F. Murray Abraham, The Diary of Anne Frank with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Anne Frank, West Side Story with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Tony, It's a Wonderful Life with Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of Jimmy Stewart, Ghandi with Arnold Schwarzenegger instead of Ben Kingsley, Bird with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Charlie Parker instead of Forest Whitaker....There's a documentary called Imagine about John Lennon....It'll be Schwarzenegger playing with the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Schwarzenegger doing those peace things in bed with Yoko Ono and everything..." (51).

If Leyner's persona in Et Tu, Babe can be said to establish totalities - in Leyner's case the total author and total man, then Schwarzenegger's presence signals both how those totalities might be established and how they might unravel. Like "Leyner" (60), Schwarzenegger has professed right-wing political viewpoints: he was apparently a firm supporter of both Reagan and Bush, and is an aspirant to the U.S. presidency. Although I realise that the right/left dichotomy fails to contain moral certainty when it comes to totalising politics, the narcissistic tendencies of both Schwarzenegger's characters and Leyner can be seen as a continuation of the Nazi impulse for a race of super-men, men (specifically) who were hard enough to resemble machines, who could dam in evidence of their "soft" inside, and who could keep their "other" at bay.

Klaus Theweleit theorised that the German Fascists recognised two distinct types of body: the hard exterior of the warrior male, and the soft body of women, the masses, the Jews, everything constituted as "other" to the warrior (Theweleit 1987 a&b). The body of the "other" constitutes a threat to the fascist's ego, threatening to dissolve his hard body, to overrun it. Masculine armour is thus a misogynistic and racist armour, one which partakes in the hegemonic impulses of patriarchal culture, and which seeks to continually reinscribe such rigid oppositions as self and other. Theweleit is not alone in this belief. Nazism, to theorists like Theweleit and Susan Buck-Morss (1992), is defined by a rigid adherence to the self in the classic self/other dichotomy, and by extension to a rigid adherence to metaphysics of presence. Both theorists do not isolate this tendency in Nazi Germany, either: they see milder, but potentially destructive examples of fascist tendencies in various masculinist traits and behaviours today.

In The Terminator (1983), Schwarzenegger's stony expression and muscular, statue-like physique, as well as his mid-European accent, recall the Fascist body. In "Deconstructing The Terminator", Margaret Goscilo (1987-1988) repudiates the notion that because the character Sarah Conner defeats this Schwarzenegger persona in the climax of the film, therefore the film represents a break from the conventional Hollywood representations of woman-as-victim, as a passive component in a dichotomy against privileged, male activity. While admitting that "any popular action film featuring the demise of an Arnold Schwarzenegger character at the hands of a woman merits attention" (37), she shows how the film is in fact utterly traditional in terms of the sci-fi/slasher genre because Conner is for much of the film a territory over which The Terminator and her saviour, Kyle Reese, fight.

Schwarzenegger plays the bad guy, first rendering Conner the targeted victim, and then when "knight in shining armour" Reese arrives, the "damsel in distress" (39). Further, her status as a target depends upon her and Reese's "historical" act, seen in the film, in which John Conner is conceived. In the future that both the Terminator and Reese come from, her son will lead the humans to victory in their war against the machines. Thus Sarah Conner's role in life becomes simply to produce a male child - she remains forever caught between men.

Further, Goscilo argues, the film mentions that the Terminator's mission, to kill Conner before his birth, is seen as a "kind of retroactive abortion" (48), and the aborter is constructed as a Nazi. Meanwhile, the child is associated with the Annunciation through his initials - J.C. - and his future role as a saviour. Hence The Terminator can be read as a document of the anti-abortion right. She points out, too, that it is not Arnold Schwarzenegger that Sarah Conner kills at the end of the movie - Reese kills him - but the robotic skeleton that he is reduced to once his organic exterior has been stripped from him by fire. Further, it is a bigger (industrial) machine that actually stops him in the end, even if Conner is at the controls at the time. Her empowerment is thus constantly undermined.

This reading of the movie, and of Schwarzenegger, makes sense in the light of Schwarzenegger's political conservatism and the conservatism one might expect of a Hollywood in the hey-days of Reagan. However, the film can also operate as a critique of patriarchy. The Terminator himself is specifically gendered male. While in The Terminator the one frontally nude shot of Schwarzenegger has his genitals obscured with shadow, the sequel shows the naked Terminator entering a barroom to an admiring female gaze. He is also literally an armoured subject - bullets cannot penetrate him, and he is revealed to have a metal skeletal structure. During the film, this armoured, masculine monster relentlessly pursues a feminine and fallibly human character.

The inhumanly efficient superman is unquestionably on a mission to destroy his "other". This "other" happens also to be "other" to masculinity in general. While Schwarzenegger is obviously an armoured subject, Reese, the other "active" masculine figure, shares some affinities with him. For instance, Reese's body is a shadow of Schwarzenegger's, and both "men" are capable of blocking out pain ("So much pain", Sarah says to him; "You learn to shut it out," Reese replies). Also, Reese's purpose is as singular as the machine's - the Terminator's purpose is to destroy John Conner, while Reese's is to father and protect him. The fact that organic man and machine-man converge like this reveals the film to be a demystification of masculinist ideology.

The ideology of the active, powerful male, usually seen as a "natural" gender role, is here an ideology of violent exclusion and repression. The woman disappears in the larger picture. The structures of this ideology, literalised in this case in Schwarzenegger's skeleton, will continue the repressive impulse even when the individual, Schwarzenegger's body, dies. The frame of the machine will function even without its human, corporeal, element. The Terminator in the movie's last few minutes may here represent the idea of a pure self (the Nazi dream of the mechanical human), the self that is invulnerable to its other. Sarah Conner thus is a victim in the patriarchal culture that renders her "other", creating the need for "heroes" like Reese. She is a victim of a culture which will not allow her any role other than the role of victim and passive breeding object. What's more, there are historical affinities between this and the official role of women in the Third Reich.

Here, unfortunately still, women remain victims in a male structure of domination. Hence, this remains only a starting point for a critique. It is a necessary starting point, though, because a point of complaint has to be reached before the need for action becomes recognised. The question of empowerment remains to be addressed. Such empowerment could take a number of forms. The one I'll pursue here is in a sense negativeóit attacks the assumptions, of the masculinist ideology that is operating, that masculinity has a stable, natural validity. By concentrating on the male roles in The Terminator I don't wish to negate Sarah Conner's importance to "progressive" readings of the film. This reading will merely try to demonstrate how excessive masculine imperatives trouble stable gender categories and can open aporias which bring relations of power between the masculine and feminine back under negotiation. This space is one possible location for an empowered feminine imperative to assert itself. Because by Goscilo's strong reading The Terminator, the cultural artefact, is itself part of a masculine imperative, this seems a useful approach.

My reading of the film's critique fails to take into account the erotics of its violence. Goscilo argues that part of The Terminator's conservatism lies in the way it eroticises violence. While acknowledging the point that Sarah Conner is one of the few sci-fi or slasher heroines who are not punished for acknowledging their sexuality (indeed, her victory over the machine serves as a "repudiation" of that punishment [47]), she argues that this punishment is displaced onto a substitute, her flatmate Ginger, who is brutally gunned down by the Terminator after having just had sex with her boyfriend. The Terminator's worst acts of violence are presented in slow motion; his murders of women are the only times such filmic technique is used, with one exception. That exception is when Reese and Sarah are making love, the act that conceives John Conner, and the act that the Terminator's violent imperative makes possible. After the slow motion love making, the action cuts immediately to the Terminator riding inexorably toward them, his violence and their eroticism irretrievably associated.

Jonathan Goldberg, in his article "Recalling Totalities: The Mirrored Stages of Arnold Schwarzenegger" (1992) has suggested how the erotics of the Schwarzenegger persona can instead explode the boundaries the film initially seems to inscribe. It is within the exaggeration of the Terminator, and of the Schwarzenegger body, that the borders such bodies set up begin to unravel. Locating the bodybuilding trend of the 1970's from which Schwarzenegger emerged as being a gay subculture, with its implications of men inviting, and being constituted by, the male gaze, he suggests that already Schwarzenegger contains a more ambivalent relation to gender boundaries than initially seemed apparent.

However, it is in the way that the Terminator stands in for the figure of the bodybuilder that deconstructs the film most effectively. Schwarzenegger is described as the shy boy made good, the boy who defined him self in opposition to his Nazi father by bodybuilding. In an early film, Pumping Iron, Schwarzenegger, as the king of the bodybuilder culture the film documents, has become a kind of surrogate father to the other competitors, effacing his own father's place by being father to his contemporaries. Further to this, when he is filmed standing at a mirror "pumping" his muscles, he describes the sensation as like having orgasms all over his body (175). The muscles disperse the phallic signifier, suggesting the inadequacy of the penis as a phallic signifier. The"Pump" thus "disconnects the phallus and the penis" (176); the body of the bodybuilder partaking in something analogous to female orgasm. By aspiring to hypermasculinity, a state other to its bodily limits, this body fails to secure a stable gender category. It exceeds its gender boundaries.

As Goldberg points out, "The everywhere, no longer sutured to gender or identity, but to the artificial built body, monstrously, unnaturally always coming" (176). Thus by its artificiality, the body seeks immortality; as the person ages, his body becomes younger, a state analogous to time travel. The bodybuilder is a cyborg, and "the excesses....defuse the heterosexual imperative even as an attempt is made to install it forever" (179). This is because "the phallus is the symbolic totum of a failed and impossible heterosexuality" (179), as "hypermasculinity always transgresses, refuses, and exceeds the phallic measure" (179).

Both the machine and the immortal replaces the paternal, and this is the originary impulse of the Schwarzenegger persona. The cyborg is doppelganger for this Schwarzenegger in that both are thus linked to technologies that exceed the body. The Terminator is a machine that is determinedly anti-reproduction: indeed its sole purpose is the destruction of the human race, for without John Conner, humanity cannot be saved. Just as in Donna Haraway's argument that the figure of the cyborg represents a new and potentially liberating subjectivity, Goldberg suggests that the Terminator represents the gleeful undoing of the repressive humanism that leads to rigid inscriptions of boundaries and pathological investment in the metaphysics of presence. As a further example, he points out that the Terminator is resolutely anti-police: at one point he massacres the occupants of an entire police station. Goldberg admits that this fact may make one think of right-wing fringe groups. However, he suggests Schwarzenegger's persona here "is (or can be) inflected in quite other directions" (188).

Because Schwarzenegger is dressed entirely in leather, Goldberg suggests that he represents the "Leatherman", sado-masochistic subculture which fetishises pain, breaking the boundaries between pleasure and pain. For Goldberg, the leathermen recognise that the phallus is only powerful when concealed. They seek to reclaim or re-eroticise power relations: to expose the phallus: "As the relentless refusal of heterosexual imperatives, [the Terminator] embodies, - or bears the image of - displaying machismo with a difference" (189). Leather sex is not about orgasm and closure, but rather "about boundaries and their transgressions" (190).

The tendency of Leyner to totalise in his novel is the site of a similar undoing. He continually exposes his artificial body, built up with "Winstrol, the steroid that got sprinter Ben Johnson disqualified from the 1988 Olympic Games" (Leyner 1992, 10); altered using "penile enhancement" technology (142), a hormone called "phallotropin" (115); and his extensive use of the "Hyatt Self Surgery Clinic" (25). His body parts are soon revealed to be objects which he can move about at will. As a bodybuilder and cyborg, he is haunted by the shadow of Schwarzenegger. In both cases they write their own body - their body is a cultural or fictional creation. Here, writing is seen to precede reality. This is at its clearest in Leyner's battle with the F.B.I. Caught stealing a vial of "Lincoln's Morning Breath" (63), Leyner is sentenced to "Weekly Punitive confiscation" (87), in which one item per week will be confiscated from his home. If he fails to comply with this, or if he replaces any of the confiscated goods, he will suffer the second level of punishment, "removal of the nasal septum, leaving offender with one large nostril" (87).

Within weeks of this sentence, his life is falling apart: his staff is disintegrating, his home has been violated, his wife has left him, rumours abound about him in the popular press. As his "other" engulfs him, he builds his walls up to a more and more ridiculous level, his megalomania inspiring book titles such as One Monster, Many Mommies: Whose fault is Mark Leyner? (154) and When Telling Your Husband that He's "A Delusional Narcissistic Sadist with Deep-Seated, Unresolved Issues about His Mother" Just Isn't Enough Anymore: My Seven Turbulent Years as the Wife of Cult Author Mark Leyner (138). Before long, the text has to admit that:

"On September 24, 1994, federal operatives, acting under the authority of the Punitive Confiscation Act, seized Chapter Five manuscript entries for the letters B, E, H, J, K, L, N, O, P, Q, R, U, and X. Team Leyner deeply regrets the impossibility of including these sections in what the author had intended to be a complete abecedarian series" (128).

A text, already utterly fragmented, is fragmented further still. However, it is when they take his word processor, the author desperately working as if to remain alive, that he disappears. He is an entirely fictional creation. Although various "real" people claim to have been with Leyner, the contradictions in their testimony suggest that he is everywhere and nowhere, that his body exceeds all boundaries and is dissolved into a textual and media whirl. Like the Terminator, who's sole mission is destruction, Leyner needs to be the only figure of his novel: anything else is a threat to his self. So he has evacuated his book of all content except for him. And he is not there either: the signifier "Schwarzenegger" is overflowed, and so is the signifier "Leyner".

Although this is just a suggestion at this point, I believe that the figures might meet in the figure of the cartoon. At the conclusion of The Terminator, Schwarzenegger falls into his metal skeleton. Owing in great part to the technology available in 1983, this robot is obviously, if skilfully, animated and superimposed. Ultimately Schwarzenegger, the desperate masculine boundary setter, appears human but in fact is an animation. Leyner is a cartoon as well. Aside from the cartoonised representation of him (in the ruse of his "logo") on the cover, he at one point admits as such. He asks: "can I be enthralling to women today by obsessively projecting a cartoon version of my adolescent-fantasy self?" (126).

Like the hypermasculine self, the cartoon figure represents a double bind: it contains both trying, in the face of fragmenting environments, to keep the self stable. And through the desperation of those efforts, it represents the undoing of that impulse: it represents both the fragmented and the stable subject. The cartoon is both outline and nothing more - like Theweleit's Nazis - and liquid, malleable, able to participate in freeplay. In a sense the narcissistic self is a cartoon that denies its cartoon status, based as it is on a misrecognition: it is forced to protect its outline and its borders. A cartoon that accepts its cartooninity, however, has no need to be so paranoid. It may even be a healthy being.

Works Cited

Bordo, Susan (1993). "Reading the Male Body". Michigan Quarterly Review 32:4, Fall 1993. 696-737.

Buck-Morss, Susan (1992). "Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin's Artwork Essay Reconsidered". October 62, Fall. 3-41.

Cameron, James (1983). The Terminator

Goldberg, Jonathan (1992). "Recalling Totalities: The Mirrored Stages of Arnold Schwarzenegger". Differences 4:1. 172-204.

Goscilo, Margaret (1987-1988). "Deconstructing The Terminator". Film Criticism 12:2, Winter. 37-52.

Haraway, Donna (1991). "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century". Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. 149-181.

Leyner, Mark (1990). My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. New York: Vintage. Leyner, Mark (1992). Et Tu, Babe. London: Flamingo.

Pfeil, Fred (1995). White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference. New York: Verso.

Theweleit, Klaus (1989a). Male Fantasies Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. Tr. Stephen Conway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

-----(1989b). Male Fantasies Volume 2: Psychoanalysing the White Terror. Tr. Erica Carter and Chris Turner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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