Thursday, February 28, 2013

“Absorbing the Antagonist: Society’s Refusal of Nihilism in Fight Club” – Taylor Hochuli: Blog Essay #5, Prompt #2

WARNING: Major Plot Points and Ending Spoiled for Analysis.

                I am officially breaking the first and second rule of fight club: “You do not talk about fight club.” This is a rule set down by the book and subsequent popular 1999 movie Fight Club, a story about a narrator who breaks free from the oppression of society. He follows in the footsteps of a manipulative visionary named Tyler Durden who pushes the narrator to co-found a fight club in their basement. Here, the men of the town can break free from their controlled, repressed office lives and engage in the primitive sport of hand-to-hand combat. The movie itself was seen as dangerous by some when the fight club escalated to become a terrorist group within the United States seeing the film as, “pedagogically irresponsible because it ostensibly encourages a male revolt against a constraining feminized culture that has hijacked men of their rugged individualism and instead has transformed them into cubicled automatons that serve the faceless world of corporate America” (Ta, 2006). Yet, the film engages in the “Great Refusal” by sporting the revolutionary figure as the antagonist and a psychopath that is ultimately taken down to keep the established order. The movie Fight Club participates in “the Great Refusal” outlined by Marcuse through its controversial antagonist and portrayal of the actual club.

                The main antagonist of the story starts out as the ultimate teacher and visionary leading the narrator to his enlightenment in the repressive society they live in. Tyler Durden makes his living selling soap “to department stores at $20 a bar” that he makes from the fat thrown out at liposuction clinics. The narrator comments that Tyler was, “selling rich women their own fat asses back to them” (Fight Club). He also works in a film projection room and spends his time splicing single frames of porno movies into children’s movies for his own entertainment (Fight Club). This immediately paints Tyler Durden as an old style antagonist as defined by Marcuse as, “those who don’t earn a living, at least not in an orderly and normal way” (Marcuse, Chapter 3). Tyler’s work is far from “orderly” seeing as he abuses his theatre job and cheats modern culture with his soap scheme. Marcuse also comments that the old style enemy in literature is, “irreconcilably antagonistic to the order of business, indicting it and denying it” (Marcuse, Chapter 3). The comments and speeches Tyler gives throughout the movie follow this criticism of business extending into the 21st century. One of Tyler Durden’s first comments to the narrator is one a plane, noting that, “Oxygen gets you high. In a catastrophic emergency, you're taking giant panicked breaths. Suddenly you become euphoric, docile. You accept your fate. It's all right here. Emergency water landing - 600 miles an hour. Blank faces, calm as Hindu cows” (Fight Club). He is explaining the false sense of security provided by the society so that people are okay with flying. The oxygen doesn’t really increase your chances of living according to Tyler Durden, it only acts like hiding under ones desk to shield atomic radiation from a nuclear device; a simple calming tactic.

               Not only does Tyler Durden attack the airplane industry, but he goes after all the corporate job holders and “enlightens” them through the fight club he establishes. Durden has a speech to the fight club that exactly states his beliefs:

“Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.” (Fight Club)

He directly confronts the system that represses these men and tries to defy it with his fight club where the “slaves with white collars” can be free to prove their worth. This, “tirade…condemns the capitalist cycle to which [the men are] enslaved, “ and,  “attacks the democratic principle of individual agency, as it is disseminated through the media” (Ta,2006). Tyler Durden even preaches about consumerism noting that these men are, “by-products of a lifestyle obsession,” who’s only cares anymore are “celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, [and] Olestra” (Fight Club). Toward the end of the movie, Tyler Durden also organizes a direct attack against business, finalizing the idea that he is Marcuse’s “disruptive character” in society (Marcuse, Chapter 3). He plans to destroy a large section of banks in New York in order to wipe out records of debt to achieve “economic equilibrium” in modern society (Fight Club). This final act causes the narrator to fully turn against his former mentor who he adored for most of the movie. The strange nature of Tyler Durden’s work that goes against modern societies rules and his attacks against business and its structure in society show him as a revolutionary in the movie trying to change the oppression he sees around him.

                Despite the overturning of societal norms by the protagonist turned antagonist in Fight Club, Tyler Durden is ultimately “absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs” that promotes society by how he is depicted in the movie (Marcuse, Chapter 3). The revolutionary ideas of Durden are swept away as his ideas become more and more insane. This is alluded to by Durden’s management of life and his ideas about it. He forces the narrator to hold a man at gunpoint, justifying the act by saying, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel's life [the man at gunpoint]. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted” (Fight Club). He also crashes a car on purpose to try and show the narrator that only by risking his life can he find out why life is worth living. This extreme treatment of life and death alienates the audience from the character and labels him as non-reliable. Durden is also portrayed as an anarchist who wants to reduce the world to its most primal form by wiping out the existing society. This world has animals “around the ruins of Rockefeller Center” and “wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower” (Fight Club). He even attempts to try and create this reality with destruction of the business district in New York City at the end of the movie. Such suggestions of complete anarchy rather than a true way to solve the problems in society that Tyler Durden points out diminish his revolutionary ideals. It alienates the audience since no ordinary citizen is that intense about their ideals to the point of complete historical reversal.

               The most defining element of Tyler Durden that makes his “antagonistic contents” exist in indifference in society is that he is a figment of a sick man’s imagination and is destroyed to make way for the social order that the movie questions in the first place (Marcuse, Chapter 3). As Marcuse suggests, Durden is the past antagonist “essentially transformed” into a group of “freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than the negation of the established order” (Marcuse, Chapter 3). Tyler Durden turns out to be nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination, created by his need to break free of societal control. By casting Tyler Durden as an illusion of an insane man, he loses all credibility and all his ideas are labeled as crazy too. His marketing of the “collapse of financial history” is redefined as a terrorist act while Durden is branded the villain of the movie who is overcome by society (Fight Club). He is destroyed by the narrator who shoots himself in the mouth to break this illusion he has created. Literally, the person who challenges society is violently blown out of the mind of the normal citizen so that he can return to the oppression he was in at the beginning of the movie. The prevailing message of the movie becomes that the existing society survives over the anarchistic ideals of terrorists once again. Even the slightest bit of betrayal to society will lead to a full on terrorist organization just like the Project Mayhem that evolves from Durden’s fight club. The reveal and demise of the antagonist Tyler Durden assimilates his comments on society into the whole as explained by Herbert Marcuse and the “deterioration of higher culture into mass culture” (Marcuse, Chapter 3).

Works Cited
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999. DVD.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.
Ta, Lynn M. "Hurt So Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence, and the Crisis of Capitalism." The Journal of
American Culture 29.3 (2006): 265-77. Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 15 Aug. 2006. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <>.


Roger Sepich said...


Like all of your essays I've read this semester, you do a great job of taking the object - in this case "Fight Club" - and relating it to our reading in a very detailed manner. I really liked your analysis of how the antagonist in "Fight Club" shows how that movie does indeed participate in Marcuse's "Great Refusal", and I found it to be a believable and well-rounded argument.

The only thing I think could've been pushed forward more is the overall "So What?" factor. A few questions came to my mind when reading your essay that might be of use to you if you would decide to use this for your next revision: Does "Fight Club" portray any overwhelming themes that existed in society when the movie was released? Would these themes tend to support and participate in Marcuse's "Great Refusal"? Just overall, what does this movie say on a larger scale about movies, cultures, and the relationship between the two in relation to Marcuse? (I hope that make sense.)

But this is a really good start and you thoroughly answered the original essay question, and I think there's even more you could uncover if you revised this to look at the subject on a broader scale.

Adam said...

Your introduction is awkward. I read the whole thing under the illusion that you thought the book and movie ultimately successfully engage in the Great Refusal - but really what you think (although you don't use all the language from Marcuse that you could) is that the book/movie, despite attempting to refuse consumerism, ultimately find themselves re-integrated into one dimensional thought.

One idle question: is your critique of the authenticity of Tyler Durden's rebellion applicable to the Joker?

A more pointed question: RJ wants to ask "so what"? This is fairly a question we might ask of Marcuse - in the face of one-dimensionality, and the strength of one-dimensionality, what do we do? So are you attempting to simply illustrate our ability to articulate a Great Refusal, even at our ostensibly most radical moments? Or are you interested in some *particular* deficiency of Fight Club itself? Or are you beginning to formulate an idea of what the better (more authentic) version of Fight Club might look like?

This is a very good response both to Fight Club and to Marcuse, with excellent use of details, and ample opportunities for expansion/development.