Sunday, 29 March 2009

In Tyler we Trust. In Fight Club we Bleed.

"I wanted to destroy something beautiful I'd never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn't afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I'd never see. I wanted the whole world to hit bottom. Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn't screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground." - The Narrator

It could be said, Fight Club is the story of a man depressed by the banal materialism of his life and his meaningless job, who descends into insomnia and eventually madness. He engages in civil disobedience against consumer culture, and ultimately commits an act of terrorism. This is the shallowest interpretation, that the story is simply about a man and his arc is guided by his dissociative identity disorder, which is true to an extent and should not be overlooked, but there is so much more to Fight Club than merely mental illness. In fact, if you accept such a view you are underestimating the film, as much as I did when I first held the DVD and read it's title. Though, when you really think about it, it is difficult to sum up what Fight Club actually is about, without negating some viewpoint or interpretation, since Fight Club is wonderfully polysemic. This is true of the film, but even more true of the novel. Therefore, this article is not about pin-pointing all of the themes and possible interpretations of Fight Club.

The novel Fight Club was written in 1996 by Chuck Palahniuk, the first of many wonderfully transgressive and satirical novels in his career. Palahniuk is best known for his
unique style, darkly comic subject matter and somewhat "cultish" fan base. His most well known books are Fight Club and Choke. Palahniuk was heavily influenced by minimalists such as Tom Spanbauer and Amy Hempel, as well as postmodernists like Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis. His writing has also been influenced by Continental philosophy, specifically existentialism and post-structuralism. As a writer, Chuck specialises in transgressive fiction, satire and horror. There seems to be nothing that is out of bounds for Palahniuk. In the past his writing has featured fist-fighting, terrorism, pornography, plastic surgery, death cults, nihilism and masturbation-gone-wrong. The characters of his books, tend to be philosophical and misanthropic to some extent, usually present alternative views and theories about life. So far, two of his books have been made into films, Fight Club in 1999 and Choke in 2008, and it looks likely that some of his other novels may be adapted for film one day.

The time of which the book and film were made are of significance as the 1990s were a strange time in America and the world in a way. The Cold War had just ended, leaving the US without an enemy that would provide sufficient justification for their bloated defence budget. The limbo between the age of the "Red Terror" and the "War on Terror". Francis Fukuyama declared it the "end of history" and that capitalism, in the liberal democratic variant, had triumphed. As theoconservatives became increasingly prominent in the GOP and began campaigning against abortion, the 12 years of Republican rule came to an end in 1993 with the rise of Bill Clinton and the 'New Democrats'. The US seemed to be under threat more so from domestic terrorists in the form of white angry men living in the woods. The year before Fight Club was published, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, damaging or destroying over 300 buildings, killing 168 people and injuring 680. Until 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing was the most horrific terrorist attack committed in the US. The attack was a reaction against the Waco Siege and the Ruby Ridge incident of the early 90s. The prospect of domestic terrorism in the US became more plausible after Oklahoma.

"You know, the condom is the glass slipper of our generation. You slip it on when you meet a stranger. You dance all night then you throw it away. The condom, I mean. Not the stranger." - Marla Singer

Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, has been referred to as the "torchbearer for the nihilistic generation" and he continues to be associated with nihilism today. Yet he insists he is a romantic and it could be said that this romanticism bleeds into his work.
"My novels are all romantic comedies, but they're just romantic comedies that are done with very dysfunctional, dark characters." At the core of most of Palahniuk's work, there is a romantic element, which often goes unnoticed by his readers, overshadowed by his unique blend of dark satire and transgressive minimalism. "Actually, my characters are still playing in a very classic sort of boy-gets-girl scenario, or girl-gets-boy scenario." In Fight Club, the love story is obviously centred around the narrator, also known as Jack, and Marla Singer. It could be said, he has reconstructed the genre of romantic comedy in his work, it is a combination of romance with dark humour that go so well together.

The relationship between Marla and Jack, and by extension Tyler Durden, has a Freudian quality, in the novel it is even described as a love triangle. The Oedipal overtones are even more overt in the novel, in which the narrator often compares Marla and Tyler to his parents. The narrator's father set up a new family every 6 years, Tyler described this as "setting up franchises", the way in which Durden later set up cells of Project Mayhem across America almost imitates this attitude. Jack's father embodies consumer culture and Tyler is the subversion of that embodiment. In "killing" Tyler, his father, his model of God, Jack rids himself of the qualities in him which reflect those individuals. It is these qualities that stand in the way of him and Marla. Palahniuk once pointed out that traditional literature is anti-passivity and anti-rebellion, but advocates a sort of moderation of passivity and rebellion in individuals. Traditionally, the passive character destroy themselves, the rebel is destroyed by society, but the moderate character survives and lives on as the witness. In Fight Club, Palahniuk collapsed these character archetypes into the narrator. Jack is initially the passive character that kills himself and Tyler is the rebel crushed by society. Subsequently, Jack emerges as the third character archetype, the moderate witness which walks off into mist.

It has been said often that Tyler Durden is the contemporary version of Nietzsche's Ubermensch. But after looking at the way in which Chuck Palahniuk collapsed the three character archetypes into one protagonist, one could conclude that by the film's climax, and the book's conclusion, that Jack is closer to the Ubermensch than Tyler. This theory, reduces the importance of Durden to a mere liminal being in the transition taking place in the life of Jack. Interestingly, the narrator only kills Tyler after the scene in which Durden deliberately crashes a car and has to drag Jack out of the wreckage, which is aesthetically very similar to a birth of a child. If we view the scene as one of rebirth, the narrator has been in a dormant, perhaps foetal, state up to now and has been brought into the world by accident. Only after leaving behind his dormant past can Jack replace Tyler as Marla's lover. It is fitting that Tyler, the subversion of father and God, is the one to drag Jack out of the wrecked car and into the world. The narrator began as the passive foetus and had to be "reborn" with the help of Tyler Durden. But ultimately Jack had to destroy Tyler in order to overcome the rebellious tendencies which had usurped his formerly passive nature.

Where does Marla fit into all of this, is she just a play-thing for Jack? There is an interesting theory going around on the web, that Marla Singer is just like Tyler - an extension of Jack's subconscious. After the shocking revelation that Tyler and Jack are the same person, it is easy to view the entire story sceptically. From such a point-of-view, it could be that the entire project is all in Jack's head. However, in Palahniuk's fiction there is a consistent pattern of strong female characters, in many ways stronger than the males. Marla shares some of Jack's characteristics, she attends group therapy and is somewhat nihilistic, but unlike him she does not have the need for a person to improve herself. To say that woman does not exist, is the lowest male mythology. This originates in the Adam and Eve story, in which woman is essentially man's desire realised. As pointed out in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a radical anti-feminist might even go further to say that woman is man's guilt realised. If man "cleanses" his desire, ridding himself of fantasies, woman ceases to exist. But it is Tyler who is the fantasy which the narrator "rids" himself of. Woman exists regardless of man's desire, as emphasised in Marla's refusal to leave the groups and forcing Jack to compromise.

"He was born in a mental institution and he sleeps only one hour a night. He's a great man. Have you heard about Tyler Durden?" - Robert "Bob" Paulson

Jack our anti-hero, the unlikeliest of proletariat revolutionaries, is the consummate member of Generation X. Cynical and nihilistic, lost to passive consumption. He's a white male, between the ages of 24 and 49, he should be at the tip of the American patriarchy. But he's not and he's very angry about it. An anger reminiscent of the common rage of white working-class Americans in the mid 1990s. In his early 30s, Jack is one of many children, all related to each other by one father, in his family that have been largely raised by women and neglected by their mutual father. He made yearly phone calls to his father asking advice about life, his father advised him to go to college after he's finished high school, once Jack finished college his father advised him to get a job. As a man, born in the late 1960s, old enough by the 1980s to receive a high school and college education, he was old enough to suffer through Reaganomics and the massive wage cuts they resulted in by the late 1980s (the second biggest cut in "labour costs" in the world, second only to those made by Margaret Thatcher).

In other words, Jack was old enough to endure the emasculating and humiliating chore of work in the service sector, without having enjoyed the glory of big muscles and a sense of community derived from unions that his working class forefathers took pride in. The workforce the narrator had to join in the early 90s had been virtually castrated by Reagan for the benefit of big business. He works as a recall coordinator for a major automobile company, the company is responsible for producing defective vehicles to cut costs, his job is to limit liability for this negligence and bad publicity. He only initiates a recall, if the cost is less than that of an out-of-court settlement, which the company is more than able to make. The words "How does he sleep at night?" come to mind. Jack is ultimately a tool for cost cutting, he is a service to the bourgeoisie, with "no special purpose or place". He is guilty, in his complicity with corporate criminals, of all the elites are guilty of. But he is still oppressed in his role as recall coordinator.

The narrator literally has no rightful place amongst the elites or the oppressed masses, he is one of "God's middle children" as Tyler once said. Many Americans consider themselves middle-class, and the middle-class is frequently referred to in US politics for this reason. In the novel the phrase is applied much more widely and accurately, because the first club formed by Durden consist mostly of middle-class Americans. This phrase seems to refer to the recurrent themes of fatherhood and consumerism, and the way in which the narrator equates them with each other. It is clear from other phrases like "If you could be God's worst enemy or nothing, which would you choose?" that Jack feels his role in the world as one of many middle children is one of insignificance. To the characters, consumer capitalism is almost God-like, the main difference being that capitalism can be escaped. Bu for Jack and the Space Monkeys there is only one way out, through violence.

"The liberator who destroys my property, is fighting to save my spirit. The teacher who clears all possessions from my path will set me free." - Tyler Durden

When we first meet him, the narrator is trapped by his desires for perfection through the consumption of goods, his "Ikea nesting instinct", and the earning of money is required to temporarily satisfy such desires. Of course, a permanent end to the desires which hold him hostage, thus his nihilism, is unattainable to achieve and he is trapped in a vicious circle, constantly seeking temporary release and constantly striving. The Ancient Greeks had a word for this, pleonexia, and Karl Marx had another term for it, commodity fetishism. If you live merely to pursue the accumulation of wealth, you are not free, you become a slave to that wealth. In the words of Tyler Durden "The things you own end up owning you." The self-harm and consensual violence is a way for him, and the Space Monkeys, to beat these fetishistic tendencies into submission. It is the severely indoctrinated qualities which become the object of horrific violence.

Breaking free of indoctrination hurts and letting go of commodities hurts, the revolution is a process of pain. Just as Fanon thought, the violence of the revolution is a liberation of individuals from the dominant deology, inducing pleonexia. Fight Club captures this notion in the violence that serves as escapism from the mind-numbing ennui of what commonly passes for life. Fanon felt this justified violence and even acts of terrorism. In the words of Tyler Durden: "I'm breaking my attachment to physical power and possessions, because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit." Though, the narrator is not a proletarian striving towards revolution, if anything he is the embodiment of the Western petty bourgeoisie or as Tyler labels them "[the] slaves with white collars." The point of the self-inflicted violence is that it cleanses the individual of indoctrinated qualities, that seem inescapable, in order to let go of the goods/services that possess you and to truly pursue a liberating revolution. Such qualities, Jack recognises in himself through Tyler, are the source of the narrator's self-hatred and self-destruction.

Violence is not just a tool to achieve political and ideological goals, for Fanon, it is cathartic and awaken the people, from the insidious hegemony of ideology, transforming them into "new men". This is particularly significant, as masculinity is another theme in Fight Club. The indoctrinated qualities, Jack and the Space Monkeys are desperately attempting to "punch out" with the guidance of Tyler Durden, are often emphasised as feminine or emasculate. The blond character, which the narrator notes as pretty and girlish looking, is the unfortunate subject of a particularly brutal beating from Jack. The fact that effeminate aspects of society are despised and treated with violence could be interpreted as misogynistic. However, it could also be said that the characters believe they are trapped in a similar situation, as women were prior to the Feminist Movement, that they are trapped and forced into subserviency. The subservient role the Space Monkeys have been forced into, is that of a wage slave, whereas the submissive role women were trapped in is that of the housewife.

Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave.

This is the only Haiku poem, from the others in the book, to also feature in the film. Notice that it highlights the roles of "worker bees" and "drones" as freer than the "queen bee". One could theorise that this poem, is an expression by the character's urge to turn the tables on the capitalist structures they so despise, reducing such structures to a subservient role. But due to the fact that the feeling of castration, seems to be a result of engaging with capitalism on such a devoted level, which may in fact be the reason that the individuals could grow to hate the femininity they associate with consumer culture, after it reduced them to "queens". One could say that the Space Monkeys and the Feminists both despise the subservient roles people are forced into, against their will and provided with no way out. Thus, Bob's "bitch tits" are not just literally the result of his role in society - promoting a chest-expansion program - but the result of the system which drove him to use steroids to such excessive lengths.

Some liberal film critics accused Fight Club of promoting nihilism and fascism. This is unsurprising in a way, Fight Club was released to a post-Columbine American audience, if the film had been released to a post-9/11 audience it would've probably been banned because of it's apocalyptic finale. Though, there are definitely aspects of nihilism and quasi-fascism in the film it is not a promotion of those "values", this is definitely a reactionary misinterpretation. The aspects of nihilism in Fight Club are a satirical reflection of the "anti-values" espoused by the American consumer democracy "You do the little job you're trained to do. Pull a lever. Push a button. You don't understand any of it, and then you just die." The narrator is referring to the truth of wage slavery and the role the public plays in elections, we're just here to rent ourselves out and to push a button every 4 or 5 years that allows the bourgeoisie to justify their status as our rulers.

The narrator's arc tunnels backwards through late capitalism and liberal democracy, showing us all the ugliness and brutality of "consumer democracy" along the way. He transgresses from what should be blissful passive consumption to the nihilistic nature of wage slavery and after that where else is there to head, except fascism? The quasi-fascist values present in Project Mayhem and it's progenitor, dictatorial rule and violent repression of all opposition, are the creation of Tyler Durden, who replaced the free market as the signifier for Americans who have become "Space Monkeys"; like Hitler becoming the signifier for Germans who became National Socialists. The fascism and nihilism of Fight Club is an exaggeration, that mocks the strange way in which capitalism and democracy stand together today.

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