Saturday, March 30, 2013

“Futile Fight Against Society: Factors Limiting Fight Club’s Critique” - Taylor Hochuli: Blog Revision #2, Revision of Essay #5

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 1999 movie Fight Club, a story about a narrator who breaks free from the oppressive and consumerist society he lives in. The narrator, named Jack in the movie (Edward Norton), follows in the footsteps of a masculine visionary named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) who pushes the narrator to co-found a fight club in the basement of a bar. Here, the average, middle-class man can break free from his controlled, repressed office live and engage in the primitive sport of hand-to-hand combat. The movie itself was seen as dangerous by some since fight club becomes a terrorist group, making the film, “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). The film was met with mixed reviews, having many critics both praise its points about how society controls and represses men, while others criticized it as sexist material that might promote terrorist acts and violence in general. Most academics agreed that the movie offered up at least a broad but also “daring example of social critique” on capitalist society and masculinity as a whole (Giroux 2001).

            A movie that generated such discussions about society surprisingly did not have the resounding impact predicted by the critics. Physical violence did not grow out of control after the movie’s release nor were any major terrorist events based off of the movie. Fight Club faded away into movie history while ultimately not revolutionary in a significant way. Herbert Marcuse offers up an explanation as to how Fight Club did not start any revolution of the predominantly white middle class as many feared it would. The idea is that American culture has an “absorbent power” that assimilates the “antagonistic contents” of art. Any art that can resist this power participates in the “Great Refusal” and can offer up substantial critiques that can shape a society (Marcuse 1964). Although the movie Fight Club offers up critique on capitalist, consumerist, and emasculating society that most people put up with, the escalation of the group to a terrorist organization and casting the most influential character as the antagonist allow the critique to be absorbed into society rather than make it a “Great Refusal” that can actively deal with these problems.

            The repression of the effeminate is strongly and immediately evident in the movie, leading to the fight club that releases men from their bounds while allowing them to become masculine again. The narrator, Jack, is drafted as a soft-spoken office worker who has a darker side to him. He shows his subjection to consumerism through his obsession and addiction to IKEA, using it to replace “legitimate human relationships” in his life (Lee). At one point, Jack is seen on the toilet looking at an IKEA product book in the same style as a pornographic magazine which shows a male necessity literally replaced with a more feminine, socially-acceptable practice (Fincher 1999). He demonstrates the “consumer-materialist culture defines masculinity and what men desire” now that IKEA has replaced women as the subject of desire (Lee). Even this new form of yearning is not enough for Jack since the viewer sees him as apathetic to all the furniture he has acquired and to the process of ordering the material in a very indifferent manner (Lizardo 2007). Jack also develops an addiction to group therapy, since it is the only place where he can let out his emotions about being emasculated. He does this with men who are physically emasculated since they literally no longer have male genitalia (due to Testicular Cancer). Even though Jack is admitting to these feelings, he is still releasing his emotions in an effeminate way by crying in a group with other soft-spoken, sensitive men. Both the inability of Jack to have a human relationship and a healthy place for emotional release (filled by shopping and group therapy respectively) contribute to the turn of the century idea that men needed to be controlled and channel their primal rage into their work. As the workplace became less competitive and cutthroat at the middle class level, men can no longer use their emotions in a way that is “socially useful” (Lee). Even the women in the beginning of the film feel repressed. This is mainly seen by a women dying of cancer professing her request to have sex one last time, even though she is forced off of the microphone at the group therapy meeting (Fincher 1999). However, the viewer also sees the repressed side of Jack several times before the fight club starts. He thinks up the best way to tell off a fellow female therapy-addict and is actually very rough while pulling her aside to, in a way, scares her from coming to his meetings. Jack also despises his boss and coworkers who are a “copy of a copy”, coming back to the consumerist society that is causing his life to be uneventful (Fincher 1999).

            The savior of all these repressed men is Tyler Durden and his fight club. The club starts out with just Jack and Tyler beating each other up outside of a bar, but slowly escalates as the movie progresses. In order to join, the men must leave behind their worries back in their feminine, consumerist lives and regain their masculinity through intense violence. At one point, a man in a suit who requests to fight only has to do one thing according to Durden; “Lose the tie” (Fincher 1999). To even get into the fight club held in the basement, one must follow the rules and fight their first night. This process causes men to leave behind their old lives and shed their feminine outlook to receive both the physical abuse they desire. Even after being initiated, the men turn away from this old way of living as seen by the narrators comment, “After fighting, everything else in your life got the volume turned down” (Fincher 1999). The men along with Jack trade in their suits and IKEA-filled apartments for shirtless, shoeless fighting in a plain, cold basement. This sacrifice is barely a sacrifice for the adrenaline and worth their lives gain by testing their power in a fight. Jack explains that his co-worker Ricky in the fight club was a “God for ten minutes when he trounced the maître d’ of a local food court” (Fincher 1999). It also allows the men to have a community bond that is stronger than any relationship in the actual world. The club allows them to “beat their sufferings out of each other”, thereby removing the feminine repression and, over time, making them more and more masculine as the fighter begins to win instead of being beaten into a “pile of cookie dough” (Fincher 1999, Giroux 2001). Fight club now replaces the emotional and physical release that consumerism and therapy were poor substitutes for. It affirms their masculinity in an “enlightening” way that paves the way for a “violent quest for self-redemption” after being controlled for so long by a female-controlled society (Lee , Fincher 1999).

            The fight club progresses and evolves until it becomes a terrorist cell across the nation called Project Mayhem. This transformation from small time fight club to committing large scale acts of destruction ultimately leaves viewers against the fight club that is seen by the men as masculine therapy. The fight club is just fighting until Durden decides to take things further. The fighters get “homework assignments” to first fight someone in the outside world and lose, showing how much people will do to avoid violence despite what it has done for these men. Then, the assignments become more like vandalism creating local headlines from “Police seize Excrement Catapult” to “Missing Monkey’s Found Shaved.” Most of these acts are random, but most of the projects shown involve destroying things that promote consumerism from blowing up stores to damaging cars at a dealership. These acts then culminate in Tyler Durden’s new organization, Project Mayhem, which commits similar acts, but on a large enough scale that they are branded terrorists (Fincher 1999). The word terrorist immediately sparked hatred even when the movie came out before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Showing the fight club become evil so quickly relates the message that even slightly defying the emasculating society turns you into a full-blown anarchist against every part of society. If the goal was to relate to the therapeutic effect of violence in such a restricted environment, showing it develop into terrorism makes the environment seem much safer than risking potential lethality as a terrorist. Such is seen in the case of Bob (Meat Loaf) who is a core part of the movie. Bob’s life falls apart after Testicular Cancer requires that he lose his testicles due to using steroids. He is given estrogen to counter the steroids, giving him what Jack calls “bitch tits.” Bob finds solace in group therapy sessions where he meets Jack. Bob then becomes entangled in the fight club and subsequently Project Mayhem. Due to his large breasts, feminine voice, and lack of male genitalia, Bob represents the most repressed man since he is so physically like a woman where Jack is only psychologically feminine due to society. Bob is killed during a project to “destroy a piece of corporate art” and a coffee shop after being shot by the police (Fincher 1999). Having such an important and “quasi-maternal presence in Jack’s life” killed turns the viewer against Project Mayhem once the reality of how dangerous their rebellion is sets in (Lizardo 2007). Associating the once liberating and enlightening fight club with terrorism and death allows the viewer to pass over the messages about consumerism and the emasculating life of middle class men.  Writing off the fight club as just a bunch of anarchists allows this antagonistic material to be consumed by society rather than actually offer a proper criticism on actual issues brought up.
               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 acts as the “isolated, dauntless anti-hero” that is idolized by men due to his un-failing masculinity that directly contrasts Jack’s more feminine and subdued character. 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” making him more of an idol for “[refusing] the seductions of consumerism”(Fincher 1999, Giroux 2001). 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 (Fincher 1999). 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 1964). 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 1964).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” (Fincher 1999). 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.” (Fincher 1999)

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” (Fincher 1999). 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 1964). 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 a society obsessed by consumerism (Fincher 1999). 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 1964). 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. Durden holds 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” (Fincher 1999). He also crashes a car on purpose to 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. The ideals of Tyler Durden also come across as flawed when examined in-depth. The main people being addressed by Durden are the white middle class, creating a “vision of liberation and politics relies on gendered and sexist hierarchies that flow directly from the consumer culture it claims to be criticizing” (Giroux 2001). 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” (Fincher 1999). 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 upheaval.

               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 1964). 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 1964). 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. Tyler becomes just a tool by Jack to “re-establish equilibrium in [his] psyche” after a series of people push him around (Lee). 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 must be destroyed by the society the movie is actively trying to criticize (Fincher 1999). He is destroyed by the Jack 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 1964).

            With a flawed antagonist and a message against defecting from a flawed society, the genuine criticisms of the suppressed masculinity and consumerism become muddled and do not have any weight in the real world. So what effect did the movie have in reality? Fight clubs were indeed organized after the movie based off of the promising release of fighting portrayed in the movie, but on a much smaller scale. One specifically in San Francisco was led by a character similar to Tyler Durden going by the name of “Bloody Knuckles” who lead men to fight underground in 2004 (Bezaitis 2004). Another report of a fight club in 2006 saw techies “getting in touch with reality” through a fight club considering most of their lives were online ("Fight Club Draws Techies for Bloody Underground Beatdowns”) One of the more frightening stories is that a high-school graduate tried his own version of “Project Mayhem” by detonating an explosive outside of Starbucks ("Starbucks Bombing Blamed on ‘Fight Club’ Fancy."). However, this is much smaller in scale then the destruction of several buildings in the actual movies. Marcuse’s ideals reign true when the scarcity of actual fight clubs and actual social critique of society as a whole are at a minimum. Despite these limited destructive influences of the movie, it does serve some positive functions through its criticism. The movie’s comments and criticisms, “in its disruptive way, is able to incite discourse about gender identity and violence and thus ‘leave . . . space for some public discussion’” (Ta 2006). In this way, it at least gets the ball rolling on conversation, as seen by many academic papers on the movie. Another suggested benefit of having this movie is the possibility of using it as a, “surrogate mentor, as a surrogate wise man” that is able to separate men from the violent impulses the film talks about. Just watching the violence and masculine characters allow men to “live” this experience vicariously through the characters without going out and forming their own fight club (Lee). It goes to show that a film with even slight criticisms of society that resonate with audiences at least have their root in truth and can be beneficial despite being “absorbed” into society as pointed out by Marcuse.

Works Cited
American Culture 29.3 (2006): 265-77. Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 15 Aug. 2006. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <>.

Bezaitis, Athan. "At a Secret S.F. Fight Club, an Amateur with a Primal Urge to Test His Mettle Finds Himself in a Basement Ring with No Room to Run." SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle, 19 Jan. 2004. Web. 26 Mar. 2013. <>.

Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999. DVD.

"Fight Club Draws Techies for Bloody Underground Beatdowns -" USA Today, 29 May 2006. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <>.

Giroux, Henry A. "Brutalized Bodies." Third Text 14.53 (2001): 31-41. Web.

Lee, Terry. "Virtual Violence in Fight Club: This Is What Transformation of Masculine Ego Feels Like." The Journal of American Culture 25.3-4 (2002): 418-23. Web.

Lizardo, Omar. "Fight Club, or the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism." Journal for Cultural Research 11.3 (2007): 221-43. Web.

Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. Print.

"Starbucks Bombing Blamed on ‘Fight Club’ Fancy." The Washingtion Times. The Washington Times, 16 July 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2013. <>.

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. <>.

1 comment:

Adam said...

# Taylor

I like your opening paragraphs a lot. Fight Club *is* a critique, or at least an attempt at one; I think that especially people who have read the book would need to agree. And yet it does not function as one: people jokingly/admiringly refer to it when talking between and among cubicles. That is, the people who Tyler Durden despises love the thing. I think you're using Marcuse to address that fascinating difficulty.

The third paragraph has lots of useful material, but it's also an inflated mess. Cutting it down to about half this length would have helped to clarify what you're trying to do with it. This is very much a less-is-more situation.

The 4th paragraph is better than the 3rd, and less unfocused, but your direction is still less clear than it might be.

The discussion of Meat Loaf is both relevant and excessive.

I liked the discussion of Tyler Durden & calming. What I think you're trying to do - and I think it's a good idea - is get at how, in a perverse and unexpected way, *Fight Club* itself is calming, because it both portrays and then attacks (as ultimately undesirable) a masculinist revolt. The argument is developing, but I think that you often & repeatedly get lost somewhat in the details - the argument itself deserves to be more foregrounded.

Question (at least elliptically related to your argument): is the real problem with Tyler Durden that he uses violent means? Or is it that his actual goal is unclear? Is he violent toward a coherent end? Is protest for the sake of protest a goal? I'm trying to suggest that within *Fight Club* there is a failure to envision an actual alterative, which is exactly what Marcuse would predict. You discuss Durden's wild anarchism in the closing paragraphs. Why is his anarchism so undirected? Does he envision the future men as a return the past (perhaps to being hunter-gatherers?)? Does he envision agricultural communes? A radical libertarian capitalism? Your closing paragraphs do a good job of explaining *how* Tyler Durden fails. But I think you could push farther by asking why he fails, or why he must fail, or (most ambitiously) what it would take for him to succeed. My own thought is that revolutionaries need an intellectual agenda (Lenin; Mao; Oliver Cromwell; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson & co.), not only rage against the existing order. But that's only one way of extending your analysis of the *how* into the even more interesting *why*.