Here’s a fierce and pyrotechnic little diversion on the subjects of capitalism, masculinity, violence, movies, Space Monkeys, Tyler Durden, and Fight Club, movie and novel, from Brianna Berbenuik, a 20-something misanthropist and student of Slavic Studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Brianna is an avid fan of kitschy pop-culture, terrible Nic Cage movies, the philosophy of Slavoj Zizek, and Freud. You can find her at Love & Darkness & My Side-Arm. She is no mean hand with an AK47, and her last contribution to Numéro Cinq went viral, as they say, when Bret Easton Ellis read it, liked it and tweeted it around the world (it was about, um, Bret Easton Ellis).
We’re the All-Singing, All-Dancing Crap of the World, or:
You’re Doing It Wrong – The Fight Club Identity Crisis
By Brianna Berbenuik
Missing the point is pretty standard fare in life. People tend to get so pumped up about Fight Club that they miss a lot about the movie. Mainly that the “Space Monkeys” are the worst fucking part.
(Although I will admit that watching Jared Leto get his face beat to pulp is kind of excellent. Maybe even better than watching Christian Bale axe him to death in the film adaptation of American Psycho.)
Fight Club is one of those movies that pretty much everyone in the Western world has seen, and a novel that most people have read (and claimed to have read prior to the film — PRO TIP: Fight Club the novel is exactly like the movie, except for alterations to like, two scenes. So no, having “read the novel” doesn’t give you any fucking cred).
So most people think that is what is being criticized, and overlook the inherent satire within the bounds of Fight Club and Project Mayhem – it is set up within the film to look like a legitimate alternative to the capitalist machine, but it is being skewered just as much as capitalism is.
Thing is, people get really fixated on the ideology of the movie, and fail to distinguish that there are two separate things going on:
1) The obvious critique and satirization of a Capitalist society, and how it is inherently repressive and one must find solace ‘outside the system’ and
2) The satirization of masculinity, and critique of masculine violence as a “positive” venue or positive manifestation of nihilist philosophy.
There are a lot of people who genuinely believe that starting violent all-male “clubs” and committing acts of terrorism are actually being touted as a solution in the Fight Club world. A hell of a lot of fight clubs began springing up after the release of the movie – a cult phenomenon. Cult is a descriptor here for a reason. The “inside joke” about Fight Club is that if you worship the general philosophy and take it legitimately seriously, you’ve entirely bypassed the point and become exactly what the movie is satirizing. Quoting Fight Club excessively does not make you edgy or intelligent (“Sticking feathers up your ass does not make you a chicken”), it just proves that you’ll fall for anything that seems remotely cool and anti-establishment. Plus, Fight Club quotes are so quippy and simple – they really elucidate nothing deeper. Durden’s one-liners (and they are abundant) are like easy-to-digest commandments that everyone clings to as profound. Funny thing about profound stuff – once it saturates the mainstream, it tends to lose its kick.
We’re all grappling for ways to define ourselves outside the status quo. At the end of that day that’s what Fight Club is really about – considering the things we cling to. Nihilism and rebellion are still laced potently with self-definition and ideology. We put ourselves in box after box until the day we die – then it’s just one last box.
And like us, the Space Monkeys feel “free” because they are told they do – the framework of the entire ideology they are following suggests freedom, suggests bringing down the “system” that trapped them in jobs they didn’t want to buy shit they didn’t need – things that ended up owning them. But what have they traded in that entrapment for? Just another set of rules tailored to play up their egotistical, douchey attitudes. Tailored to exaggerate the “underdog” and machismo mentality of the stereotypical men of the lower-middle class. Created to specifically appeal to a sense of helplessness and impotence in order to gain credential. Although Tyler’s one-liners and incredibly quote-able dialogue has much truth to it, the enactment of the ideas within the film suggests another form of brainwashing going on. All these men are willing to become something else and to follow rules in order to gain the coveted label of “space monkey.” To be part of Project Mayhem. To no longer have an identity. Which is just as restrictive as the capitalist society they so loathed in the first place.
The thing is, Palahnuik is not lamenting the loss of masculinity in the sense that he is showing us how Capitalism has made the modern man more effeminate, and therefore the solution is to beat each other up then get all bro over each other after. Or blow shit up. See, the institution that men can only touch each other without being gay is by being violent is pretty fucked up. I’d like to highlight some key moments of the film (and novel) that illustrate why Palahnuik is actually tearing “traditional” views of acceptable masculinity (and by extension, Capitalism) a new one, along with the “modern” masculinity of Calvin Klein models and suave businessmen.
First, and most importantly:
Violent Masculinity is Masochistic, Sadistic and essentially eats you alive.
Everyone is content to ignore, or gloss over, or say it’s just funny, or “not get” the fact that Edward Norton is fucking beating himself up. In his desperate search for a remedy against his “single serving life”, he has created an alter ego who physically and mentally destroys him. He has a psychological breakdown. Tyler looks like the Narrator wants to look, acts like the Narrator wants to act, and fucks like the Narrator wants to fuck. He also pours lye on the Narrator’s hand after affectionately kissing it, giving him the nastiest chemical burn of his life. Tyler/Narrator are both suicidal and self-harming. In and of itself, sure, this is viable and not necessarily negative. Many philosophers and intellectuals have touted nihilism, absurdism and/or suicide as a means solving crises, but that’s not exactly what is going on in Fight Club.
Tyler has an audience in two ways: firstly, the guys who will later comprise Fight Club, and if they’re lucky, Project Mayhem, and secondly, the actual audience (that’d be us) outside the film. Here’s the thing – all the secondary characters who regard Tyler as a great leader, all the “space monkeys”, they’re supposed to be idiots. In the film, they blindly follow the orders of a dude with a split personality who shit-kicks himself on the regular. Jared Leto’s extreme blonde character is laughable. Meatloaf’s Robert Paulson is pathetically comical (although with his ‘bitch tits’ and lack of testicles, he is meant to be the ultimate showcase of failed masculinity – and yet he is the kindest character in the story. Who doesn’t like Bob? You’d go for a beer with him, I know it). Yet audience members who think this is really cool and endeavour to start their own, for real and serious Fight Club, don’t think twice that they are the space monkeys. They are willing to blindly follow whatever awesome model of being a man is put forth to them, and this is just as bad as the men who follow the capitalist model of masculinity and success – once again, exactly what the movie is critiquing so harshly.
But things get complicated because Palahnuik is pretty intricate in his interlaced critiques. See, he is actually saying that capitalism is shitty, and corporations really do have a vice grip on the genitals of humanity, and that this has forced people to desire shit they don’t need, and become pathetic, needy creatures. It’s a different kind of self-destruction. (And this is where his critique is obvious and apt, and the portion of the movie (and novel) people tend to quote fucking endlessly. Everyone knows this movie. Nobody needs to get in a dick-waving, tit-size-comparing contest over who can quote more Fight Club. And Merlin fucking Mann agrees). But because the alternative that Palahnuik is offering seems to be far more productive and positive, people automatically tend to assume that this is what they should be doing in order to subvert the capitalist machine. Once again – they ignore something crucial and revealing in the plot:
Once the Narrator realizes he has had a psychological split, he tries to stop Project Mayhem.
Edward Norton as our Narrator is just as trapped by Tyler as he was by capitalism. The narrator ends up going head-to-head with Durden in an attempt to subvert their act of terrorism – the bombing of several large credit card company headquarters. In the movie, the Narrator wins . . . by shoving a gun in his mouth (Tyler’s phallus; well, their shared phallus), and pulling the trigger. It’s pretty fucking clear: this model of masculinity will eat you alive. It will force a suicide. It is all consuming and entirely narcissistic, just as much as the Capitalist model is. The narrator pretty much gives himself a metaphorical blowjob in the end, and his ejaculation is so intense it nearly blows his fucking head off – it is a closed-loop system of self-destruction. So in this case, no, self-fellatio is sadly not the most awesome thing you can possibly do. But at the moment of “ejaculation”, the Narrator is purged of Durden. He lets go of his bizarre, macho pretences and shares an affectionate (post-coital?) moment with Marla as skyscrapers topple down around them (yeah, all the dicks go flaccid at the end of it all). So the end of the movie is tied up in a pretty neat package: capitalism is brought down, the Narrator gets the girl, and Tyler gets a bullet to the head.
But once again things get conflated – the critique of Capitalism and the call for its downfall is not one and the same as Tyler’s offered model of masculinity/nihilism. Tyler’s masochistic ideology is not feasible – he gets fucked in the end because he is just another damaging ideology that traps you in a sick cycle. So in this manner, Tyler isn’t always an opposition to capitalism, but a parallel to it.
Tyler Durden’s doctrine of being a “man” is a doctrine of self-harm, and ultimately feeds into the same close-loop system as capitalism. In a way, it becomes the same all-consuming ideology it rebels against. There is a point in the film (and book) when Fight Club transforms into Project Mayhem where it becomes something perverse. When followers are gained and ego intervenes, things change very quickly. It never is every man for himself, it’s every man for Tyler Durden. When it is just the narrator and Tyler, it actually is appealing in a way and makes sense. But as soon as it becomes popularized and gains followers who want to be drones but in a different way than they already are, the ideology becomes unsustainable and morphs into its own small culture.
Which means Palahnuik is also up to something else: critiquing pop culture and people who blindly “buy into” shit because it’s “cool.” Like Edward Norton in the beginning of the movie, with his ikea catalogs and single serving life. Everyone wants to escape, but what to? Perhaps ultimately, people need to be told what to do in order to be fulfilled. It certainly makes things much easier and frees us from the shackles of responsibility – which actually isn’t faithful to nihilism at all. In a philosophy that is marketed as being all about profound meaninglessness, we search for meaning. We grapple for a point, for something that can help us define the self and guide us. Even having no self (as the Space Monkeys supposedly don’t) is a form of identity – being free of the self is only what it is in contrast to having a concept of “self.” Both are illusory in their extremes.
And Fight Club is self-aware in this sense. In both novel and movie form, the zeitgeist of Fight Club knows it’s the shit, and that it’s going to attract followers who are unaware of the ridiculous eventuality of the ideology.
Palahnuik’s response to capitalism and the masculinity model it perpetuates is essentially a toxic alternative to an already cancerous existence. The Narrator goes to disease support groups in the beginning, and it’s funny because he isn’t diseased – at least not physically. He’s infected with this empty notion that he needs to somehow ‘man up.’ There’s no support group for men who don’t feel like they measure up, or are trying too hard to measure up and failing to meet the unattainable standard. The Narrator’s constant displacement and fakery are simply more symptoms of a world that offers men nothing emotionally fulfilling. When the Narrator is emotional (when he cries into Bob’s bitch tits), he is placated and can sleep. Yet the only place he is able to achieve this is in a support group for men who have no balls (Seriously?). It’s a powerful overriding notion in society – men can only be emotional when they are emasculated, and even then it is shameful. How sad. The rest of the time? The expectation is barbaric sado-masochism.
This can be seen as slightly allegorical of something, too. Masculinity Studies (it exists, I’m not making it up) is a fledgling field, akin to Women’s studies. But it hasn’t taken off. Why? Men don’t want to talk about what it feels like to be men. So far the central point of this arena of academia is solving that crucial problem.
In an era where God has widely been proclaimed dead and non-existent, and that this fact should make people feel free, the cold hard truth is that it has made people feel helpless and search for meaning elsewhere. Apparently a lot of people have found it in the philosophy of Fight Club. The easy, digestible, single-serving quotes that are so very easy to spew up in response to, well, almost anything. Quotes that make you supposedly sound badass, that are supposed to conceal yet instead reveal innate inexperience and total lack of independent thought. People who actually have cause to be nihilistic and hate capitalist culture usually don’t rely on movie quotes to elaborately craft their don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. The irony is, of course, people who quote Fight Club as if they are some kind of revolutionary underground genius are the beautiful and unique snowflakes that Durden rallies against.
The first rule of Fight Club? Come on, we all know this…
All together now:
You do not talk about Fight Club.
Yet nobody can seem to shut the fuck up about it.
Fight Club offers a little shot of a power-high. Which is why people can’t stop quoting it to death – they want to share what they know because it makes them feel so badass. Just like buying that slick new car does in Capitalist society — it’s a show of power, just in a different way.
Fight Club is a cult phenomenon that people still cling to as a flag post of identity definition. The cult of Durden is just as bad as the Cult of Masculinity, the Cult of Personality, the Capitalist Machine. Which is what is so highly intelligent and scathing about the film/novel.
Listen: Fight Club is a great film. It remains one of my favourites, and something I can watch over and over despite the sickening number of times I’ve seen it. It is intelligent and eviscerating in the skewering it gives capitalism, masculinity and the viewers themselves. It is successful because it appeals to different levels of thought and engagement, and it has become a cult phenomenon to space monkeys everywhere who believe that Fight Club is an alternative lifestyle that offers fulfillment and an answer to capitalist masculinity. And in a way, perhaps, it does offer an answer – because Fight Club/Project Mayhem is a very familiar structured identity.
Just like your single serving self is used to.