Hurt So Good--fight Club Crisis Capitalism Manhood
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Hurt So Good Lynn M. Ta
Hurt So Good: Fight Club, Masculine Violence, and the Crisis of Capitalism Lynn M. Ta And if . . . a little sensual pleasure falls to my share, I feel justified in accepting it as some slight compensation for the inordinate measure of suffering . . . that has been mine for so many past years. —Freud’s Dr. Schreber in Three Case Studies [Fight Club] examines violence and the roots of frustration that are causing people to reach out for such radical solutions . . . . Because a culture that doesn’t examine its violence is a culture in denial, which is much more dangerous. —Edward Norton (qtd. in Svetky)
‘‘First rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club. Second rule of Fight Club: You do not talk about Fight Club.’’ For a movie that advocates its own silence, the critical reception of 1999’s Fight Club has exploded into an array of polarized discourse surrounding the film’s critical yet problematic portrayal of late capitalism’s obsessive push for profits and excessive consumerism, and, more importantly, the latter’s damaging effects on an American masculinity gone soft. Edward Norton plays ‘‘Jack,’’ a nameless insomniac and unfulfilled cog in the wheel of bureaucratized America who cannot seem to escape the (feminized) trappings of corporate oppression and Swedish home furnishings. In his attempt to heal
himself of his malaise, Jack encounters Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, who seduces Jack into co-founding Fight Club, an underground world of rebellion and hyper-masculinity where men can reclaim their lost manhood by stripping down and pummeling each other pulpy. The club, however, quickly turns into a highly organized paramilitary group that rebels against a seemingly impersonal and feminized dominant culture by blowing up that very world. The film continues to unravel as an adrenaline-induced joyride that ultimately leaves even Jack astounded when, in the end, corporate buildings come tumbling down. The twist at the end of the film is that Jack and Tyler are the same person, two identities inhabiting the same body; Jack is revealed as an individual who suffers from the actual medical disability, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In locating the recovery of a socially disempowered manhood in a divided subject that seeks release in brute, regressive masculinity, the film suggests that violence is not only symptomatic, but also constitutive, of this condition of dissociated identity. Critics of the movie, such as Henry Giroux, find 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
Lynn M. Ta is a PhD candidate at the University of California, San Diego, specializing in contemporary American literature. Her dissertation centers on the question of abstract, postnational citizenship in the context of globalizing cultural dynamics. Other research interests include race and gender studies, literary modernism, popular culture, and critical theory. The Journal of American Culture, 29:3 r2006, Copyright the Authors Journal compilation r2006, Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
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transformed them into cubicled automatons that serve the faceless world of corporate America. Moreover, Giroux argues that this transformation is not the product of feminized culture but, rather, is the result of a privatized understanding of agency. This understanding, as exemplified in Fight Club, does not seek to resolve personal dissatisfactions in the public sphere but instead suggests that agency is possible only through private and violent expressions. In contrast to these arguments, though, I feel it is possible to read Fight Club as a movie that attempts to satirically critique this phenomenon that links the problem of emasculative capitalism with violent solutions. As Suzanne Clark is keen to point out in her response to Giroux’s article, is it possible that this ‘‘brilliant artistic representation of violent acts,’’ in its disruptive way, is able to incite discourse about gender identity and violence and thus ‘‘leave . . . space for some public discussion’’? (419). I am inclined to agree with Clark that Fight Club is a film that attempts to open this space for us. Giroux’s scathing denunciation of the film, though valid in many respects, overlooks the use of violence as a vehicle for critiquing a culture dictated largely by consumerism and commercialism, as well as exposing the contradictions of normative gender relations. My argument is that violence in Fight Club is a necessary device in discussing gender identity, namely the production of white masculinity. Much of my contention relies on the research of David Savran whose work focuses not just on violence, but male violence directed at oneself. As Edward Norton has said about the film, ‘‘The point was to take the hit . . . it was more about the receiving.’’ Savran argues that self-violence is at the root of capitalism in particular, and male subject-formation at large. He locates this phenomenon in the figure of the masochist, namely Freud’s melancholic sadomasochist who, registering the loss of a love-object, undergoes self-division and splits into a tyrannical superego that punishes a submissive ego that in turn grows to enjoy the punishment. But rather than employ a transhistorical male masochist to account for the development of male subjectivity, Savran historicizes this figure in the context of the
birth of capitalism, and in doing so, posits white masculinity as a product of social, cultural, and historical forces. In the case of Fight Club, Jack’s melancholic sadomasochism is the product of what he perceives to be the feminization of late capitalism; as a corporate drone, he feels victimized by a culture that has stolen his manhood. In fact, Fight Club is not the first in contemporary culture to imagine white men as victims. Recent images of victimized white men include such phenomena as Norman Mailer’s ‘‘White Negro,’’ the Supreme Court overruling of affirmative action in favor of medical school-reject Allan Bakke, the bombings of a paranoid Timothy McVeigh, the angry tirade of Michael Douglas’ character in Falling Down, the Ben Folds anthem ‘‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’’ that laments being ‘‘all alone in my white-boy pain,’’ and more recently, the agitated and arguably homophobic and misogynistic rhymes of Eminem. According to Savran, white masculinity has undergone a revisioning as a result of 1960s Civil Rights, feminist, and gay and lesbian movements, causing white men to increasingly imagine themselves as victims of the system in light of these advances made by marginalized groups. Moreover, Susan Faludi argues in her book Stiffed that the aftermath of World War II saw the transition from a manufacture-based economy to an information-based market, thereby transforming white middle-class working men from a vehicle of production to a womanish receptacle of consumption. Much of my later contextualizing of Fight Club will rely on this paradigm that Faludi offers. Victimized and feminized by his culture, a melancholic Jack therefore seeks to recover what he perceives to be his lost masculinity by resorting to violent measures and in doing so, splits into a sadistic (and masculine) Tyler who criticizes and punishes a masochistic (and feminine) Jack, all the while engaging in erotic self-flagellation. Based on Savran’s framework, my argument is that violence is necessary in revealing the instability of gender identity, for in attempting to recover his manhood through Fight Club, Jack is able to take up both masculine and feminine positions, thereby allowing himself to occupy the role of victim while
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simultaneously retaining his virility. My reading argues that self-violence allows white men to play the oppressed, but it also goes to the source of their disillusionment—themselves; sitting at the top of the social and economic pecking order, they are the ones who have allowed masculinity to be commodified. The irony is that Fight Club, and later Project Mayhem, reproduce the same effects of capitalism by creating the illusion of freedom through demands for self-regulation and self-punishment. It is upon this contradiction that Fincher’s dark comedy hinges, for the film’s satirical edge relies on the realization that these individuals seek relief from an oppressive capitalistic order through means that are equally conforming and repressive. Hence, violence in the film is not gratuitous, but necessary so that ‘‘the [masochistic] subject, torturing himself, can prove himself a man’’ (Savran 33). Fight Club is the story of an individual who must torture himself into manhood.
A Brief Synopsis The film begins with an inside shot of Jack’s brain and tracks the movement from nerves and gray matter to the opening of his mouth where the barrel of a gun is firmly planted. Jack is being held captive by Tyler in an office of a high-rise with a panoramic view of downtown corporate buildings. The voice-over Jack then leads the viewer into a retelling of events that has led to this particular scene. Much of the first part of the film centers on Jack’s unfulfilling life as a corporate drone who has come to be defined not only by his work, but his growing collection of consumer goods. As a recall coordinator, Jack travels around the country to investigate accidents for a major auto company. Alienated from his job and any meaningful social interactions, Jack develops insomnia, which further dissociates him from reality and communal connectedness. The first part of the film establishes a critique of the rampant consumerism of late capitalism and implies the loss of
masculine individualism amidst this culture of consumption. Jack finds a cure for his insomnia by attending ‘‘Remaining Men Together,’’ a support group for men with testicular cancer. Although he himself does not actually have the disease, he feels he is able to recover his masculinity by participating in a form of male bonding that allows him to release his emotions. Finding comfort in these self-help rituals, Jack eventually becomes addicted and attends multiple support groups for ailments he does not have. But Jack’s insomnia returns when he encounters Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), an unkempt, chain-smoking imposter whose slumming in the same support groups mirrors Jack’s own phoniness. Jack is the only one who questions Marla’s attendance in ‘‘Remaining Men Together,’’ but she privately reasons her legitimacy to him by saying ‘‘Well, technically I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.’’ Marla disrupts Jack’s ability to pass because he finds emotional release difficult in the presence of another fake. Their relationship develops as a contentious one, but is also characterized by an undercurrent of sexual tension. During an airplane trip, Jack meets Tyler, a cocky soap salesman with an anarchic edge. When Jack returns from his trip, he finds his condominium has mysteriously blown up and with no one to turn to, he calls Tyler. The two meet at a local bar and Tyler offers Jack a place to stay. After Jack agrees, the pivotal moment in the film takes place: as a kind of dare, Tyler asks Jack to hit him. They start to slug at each other somewhat awkwardly, but after a while, a fight of pain and pleasure ensues between the two. After this incident, Jack and Tyler start living together in Tyler’s abandoned and dilapidated house; Jack becomes captivated by Tyler’s call to rebellion against an emasculating bourgeois culture. As the two men continue to fight repeatedly in the parking lot of the same bar, they attract a crowd of men who want to participate. Eventually, this group expands and moves to the cellar of the bar, with Tyler and Jack as the organizers of this underground Fight Club. Here, Tyler gives inspirational,
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rally-the-troops speeches against yuppie consumerism, interspersed with tirades about a disillusioned masculinity. Throughout this time, Jack is in the background observing Tyler’s leadership and plays second-in-command only to Tyler. In time, Fight Clubs start to develop in cities all over the country and Tyler takes this secret society to the next level by implementing Project Mayhem, a paramilitary organization engaged in covert terrorist operations aimed to wage war against corporate culture. At this point, Jack begins to question Tyler’s extreme methods, especially after a member of Project Mayhem is killed during a mission. Moreover, Marla has begun to sleep with Tyler, which not only fuels Jack’s jealousy, but forces him to reconsider his relationship with Tyler. In a psychic meltdown, Jack discovers that he and Tyler are the same person, and that he has been sleeping with Marla, who has already been accusing him of behaving like two different people. Every time he and Tyler had fought, he was really fighting himself. Moreover, he finds that Tyler has orchestrated a series of bombings within the city, which he (Jack) must prevent. Jack enters an evacuated corporate building where a showdown takes place between him and Tyler. Jack loses the fight and is held at gunpoint by Tyler, which is where the film begins. Jack resolves this dilemma by shooting himself in the mouth; Tyler disappears and Jack wounds his jaw but, miraculously, does not die. Instead, members of Project Mayhem drag in a kicking and screaming Marla; Jack is able to calm her down and together, they watch as the skyline of buildings erupts and tumbles down.
A Masochist Is Being Beaten: From Corporal Punishment to Corporate Punishment While Jack’s dissociated condition can be accounted for by Freud’s model of melancholic sadomasochism (which will be discussed in greater detail later), it is also necessary to examine the
history of the masochist as a cultural figure. Savran’s analysis of this history is useful in shedding light on the context in which not only masochism, but white male subjectivity develops. His work relies significantly on Freud’s research on masochism, but rather than argue for a universal, transhistoric figure of the male masochist, he attempts to historicize this figure as a product of social, cultural, and historical processes, and, more importantly, discusses the ways in which this history of the link between male subjectivity and violence contributes to, and articulates, the construction of white masculinity in modern times. For Savran, the historical rearing of children, namely through corporal punishment, provides a lens through which to analyze the linkage between subject-formation and violence, for ‘‘just as the beaten child may grow up to be a masochist, so may the culture of flagellation develop into a culture of masochism . . . . And perhaps sparing the rod does not so much spoil the child as prepare it to take its own self-regulating place in a self-disciplining society’’ (17). Focusing on the pedagogical treatises of John Locke, Savran outlines the emergence of this self-regulating male subject in the West during the seventeenth century. Locke denounces the flogging of children and instead advocates a new form of education rooted in the male child’s denial of ‘‘the Satisfaction of his own Desires’’ in order to become a moral and industrious bourgeois citizen, and therefore effectively participate in public, commercial, and political arenas (qtd. in Savran 25). Not only must this new subject deny himself pleasure, he must continually submit himself to self-surveillance and learn to embrace pain as an affirmation of his subjecthood. Moreover, as Savran points out, the emergence of this new subject coincided with ‘‘the development of mercantile capitalism, the breakdown of absolutism, and the emergence of liberal democracy’’ (24). The rise of liberalism and capitalism, with their emphasis on individuality, personal autonomy, private property, and an unrestricted market, posited the new subject as an agent of free will and ‘‘(mis)recognized [him] as the autonomous author of meaning and action’’ (Savran 25).
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Disillusioned by his own false sense of sovereignty, this new self-regulating subject is the masochistic subject who, perceiving himself to be solely responsible for his successes and failures, must discipline and torture himself, not only as a means of thriving, but as an assertion of self. He is the individual described by Marx who denies and represses pleasure in order to be maximally productive; he is the worker who must engage in labor from which he is alienated, and learn to embrace that alienation as a necessary means of increasing production, thereby sustaining his livelihood. As Savran writes, Living a relentless and cruel self-division, he is the new being mapped by Locke whose superego becomes increasingly tyrannical against the ego . . . . This subject—also designated the liberal humanist subject—is founded on the confounding of pleasure and pain . . . . Aspiring to freedom and reason, he must, to prosper, disavow the knowledge that his independence requires submission to an economic system in which he remains a cog, and a despotic superego that has internalized the Law, the Father, and the Word. Furthermore, Locke’s treatise demonstrates incontrovertibly that male subjectivity is founded on violence, on ‘‘root[ing] out and destroy[ing]’’ the subject’s ‘‘natural’’ indulgence. Constantly impugning his desires, this new bourgeois must tirelessly police himself and his desires while calling this submission ‘‘freedom.’’ He must work rigorously to confound pleasure and pain, and to welcome the severity of punishment. He must always be ready to discipline, that is, to scourge himself for his shortcomings and irresponsibilities . . . (24, 25, emphasis added)
The condition of the self-regulating subject is analogous to Freud’s moral masochism, whereby the individual’s internalization of authority, such as the Law or the Parents, results in the superego’s disciplining and punishment of the ego. Moreover, the rise of this new subject is consistent with Michel Foucault’s historicizing of the phenomenon of self-discipline. The shift that Foucault describes from the spectacle of the scaffold to the self-surveillance of the Panopticon is clearly the
context in which the Lockean subject emerges. From the coercive, absolutist order in which physical punishment is levied on the individual, the flogged being is replaced by the psychological inducement of the self-regulating subject who, now in the throes of liberal capitalism and humanist free will, must flog himself.
Going Nuts: Masculine Anxiety and the Fear of Castration While the birth of capitalism gave rise to the self-flagellating male subject, the figure of the masochist continues to be historically contingent. The white male subject’s response to his social conditions illuminates in part the relations that contribute to the construction of masculinity. The self-regulating masochist who grows disillusioned by the demands of his self-disciplining society eventually gives way to the white male rebel. According to Savran, the white male rebel (and masochistic victim) of late capitalism is in particular a product of post-1960s identity politics. He writes: [A] new masculinity became hegemonic in the 1970s because it represents an attempt by white men to respond to and regroup in the face of particular social and economic challenges: the reemergence of the feminist movement; the limited success of the civil rights movement in redressing gross historical inequities . . .; the rise of the lesbian and gay rights movements; the failure of America’s most disastrous imperialistic adventure, the Vietnam War; and, perhaps most important, the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the resultant steady decline in the income of white working- and lowermiddle-class men. (5)
Setting himself apart from the masochistic subject that remains a slave to the economic system, the white male rebel must revolt against a dominant culture that has ostensibly pushed his masculinity to the margins. In the face of this social and economic disempowerment, he seeks recourse
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in victimhood, becoming the divided self who at once laments his victimization but also depends on it as a point of protest and identification. (The social and historical context of this late-twentiethcentury white, middle-class male victimhood will be discussed in relation to Faludi’s argument in greater detail later.) In Fight Club, Jack is the white male rebel who must revolt against an encroaching feminization that is slowly turning him ‘‘soft.’’ He lives in a world saturated with emasculative tension where everything poses a threat to his phallic power. This anxiety about masculinity is evident in the fear of castration that runs throughout the film. From the outset, Jack attempts to cure his insomnia by attending the testicular cancer support group ‘‘Remaining Men Together.’’ Here, he is able to find comfort among other men who have also experienced a sense of masculine loss, but for the men in the group, their emasculation is a physiological one while Jack’s is psychological. Therefore, Jack’s fear of castration is alleviated in the presence of men who have undergone actual castration. Moreover, Jack finds the most cathartic release in Bob (played by Meat Loaf Aday), a former body builder whose excessive use of steroids caused the removal of his testicles. To balance out the steroids, Bob received estrogen injections that have resulted in the development of large, womanly breasts. During the group sessions, Jack cries and cuddles into Bob’s ‘‘bitch tits.’’ As a stand-in for Jack’s mother figure, Bob allows Jack to return to an Oedipal state where he can reconstitute his masculinity and regain phallic signification. The fear of castration is also evident in the many images, both visual and spoken, literal and figurative, of dismembered penises. In the diner scene, when Jack and Tyler first meet for drinks after the condominium has blown up, Tyler tries to console Jack by making a Lorena Bobbitt reference. He says, ‘‘You know man it could be worse. A woman could cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out the window of a moving car.’’ For Tyler, the only thing worse than losing all material possessions is to lose one’s masculinity at the hands of a woman. His citing of
Lorena Bobbitt is ironic, considering that, as a moonlighting movie projectionist, Tyler splices shots of penises into family films. In the scene where Jack explains Tyler’s many night jobs, Tyler is grafting close-up frames of penises into movie reels so that parents and their children, as they watch their G-rated movie, can get a flash of ‘‘a nice, big cock.’’ In a sense, Tyler, who later talks about his estranged father and bemoans his ‘‘generation raised by women,’’ figuratively cuts off his own penis and inserts it into the family unit as a means of reasserting patriarchal authority in an otherwise matriarchal society. Later, when Tyler goes to Marla’s place, he notices a dildo on her dresser. He looks at it and shakes the dresser, making the dildo sway. Marla, noticing Tyler’s uneasiness, says, ‘‘Oh don’t worry, it’s not a threat to you.’’ In this instance, Tyler’s fear of castration stems from a prosthetic phallus that threatens to be emasculative by outperforming him in the bedroom. Toward the end of the film, Jack, discovering the destruction that Tyler has planned, attempts to turn himself in to the police, only to find that the officers are members of Project Mayhem and were given orders by Tyler to cut off Jack’s testicles should he try to stop the bombings. He is able to escape them, but what is interesting is that Jack (as Tyler) sets himself up to be castrated should he try to reject or undo the work of Tyler. In this way, Jack equates masculinity with the hyper-masculine world of Tyler, and the choice to escape this world is the choice of castration.
DID and Freud’s Melancholic Subject The white male rebel, who despises the corporate masochist that endures self-inflicted punishment by participating in a feminized society, must therefore resist a castrating culture and recover what he perceives to be his lost masculinity. He is not, however, without his own sadomasochistic impulses. It is here that Freud’s theory of melancholia provides a viable framework for explaining Jack’s dissociated identity and why he
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derives sadistic power and masochistic pleasure from the transfer of violence. Before engaging in this discussion, though, it is important to note that what Jack really suffers from is DID. DID (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder—MPD) is a psychological condition often found to be the result of severe childhood trauma and/or extreme and repeated physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse. During the process of mental dissociation, the individual does not properly associate her/his thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity with reality, and therefore fails to make ‘‘normal’’ mental connections.1 According to a publication by the Sidran Foundation, dissociation is a ‘‘highly creative survival technique because [it] allow[s] individuals enduring ‘hopeless’ circumstances to preserve some areas of healthy functioning.’’ In the case of Fight Club, Jack resorts to this survival mechanism, but his pathological condition is not revealed until the end. Hence, most of the film serves a Freudian reading where Jack expresses the melancholic loss of his ‘‘manhood’’ by repressing his libidinal identity and creating the alter-ego of Tyler. In ‘‘Mourning And Melancholia,’’ Freud discusses these two conditions. Mourning is the state in which an individual reacts to the loss of ‘‘a loved person, or . . . the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as fatherland, liberty, an ideal, and so on’’ (153). In this instance, the individual experiences a real loss and must undergo a period of grieving; the understanding, though, is that after this period of time has passed, the individual will overcome this mourning and return to her/his ‘‘normal’’ condition before the loss. The melancholic subject, however, faces a loss of a more ideal nature. Freud writes, The object has not perhaps actually died, but has become lost as an object of love. In yet other cases one feels justified in concluding that a loss of the kind has been experienced, but one cannot see clearly what has been lost, and may the more readily suppose that the patient too cannot consciously perceive what it is he has lost . . . . This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an
unconscious loss of a love-object, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing unconscious about the loss. (155)
In other words, the object of the melancholic subject’s desire does not suffer an actual demise, but is lost as a love-object. Moreover, in the case of mourning, the loss of the love-object is apparent to both the subject and to those around her/ him; the melancholic subject, however, is not always aware of her/his loss. As a result of this unconscious loss, the melancholic also experiences a multitude of possible symptoms. In addition to sleeplessness and refusal of nourishment, s/he becomes profoundly disheartened, loses interest in the outside world, is incapable of love, refrains from all activity, and undergoes a lowering of self-esteem and starts to belittle, scold, and punish her/himself. But more importantly, the primary feature of the melancholic subject is that s/he experiences a splitting of the self. When the subject’s desire for the loveobject is damaged or disappointed somehow, rather than transferring the libido from the loveobject to a new object, the melancholic subject internalizes the libido so that it is withdrawn into the ego. Freud writes, Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, so that the latter could henceforth be criticized by a special mental faculty like . . . the forsaken object. In this way the loss of the object became transformed into a loss in the ego, and the conflict between the ego and the loved person transformed into a cleavage between the criticizing faculty of the ego and the ego as altered by the identification. (159)
Because the loss now takes place internally, the desire and tension between the ego and the loveobject causes a cleavage so that the self splits into a ‘‘criticizing faculty’’ that punishes the ego, ‘‘railing at it, depreciating it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic gratification from its suffering’’ (162). Hence, as a result of the internalizing of the libido, the relationship between the ego and its criticizing faculty is characterized by a sadomasochistic impulse, where both identities at once desire and resent each other.
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‘‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’’: Self-Division, Self-Punishment, and the Eroticization of Violence Given this understanding, it becomes obvious that the character of Jack embodies Freud’s description of the melancholic condition. For one, Jack cannot fall asleep, and his insomnia sets in motion the plot of the film, for it is his quest to cure his ailment that eventually leads to the creation of Tyler. Tyler, then, represents the divided melancholic self; he is the ‘‘criticizing faculty’’ invented to punish the ego of Jack. For Jack, the original love-object that is lost is what he perceives to be normative masculinity, and he displaces this loss onto the imaginary Tyler. When Jack discovers that he and Tyler are the same person, Tyler explains to Jack, ‘‘All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you want to look, I fuck like you want to fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.’’ A melancholic Jack must project his desire for masculinity onto Tyler, who is the hypermasculine embodiment of Jack’s lost ‘‘manhood.’’ Moreover, Jack’s splitting of himself into Tyler represents the postmodern idea of simulacra where, as an insomniac Jack says, ‘‘everything is a copy of a copy.’’ Before meeting Tyler, Jack makes this observation at the office copy machine. Jack’s search for truth in a culture run by imitation will only result in futility, for there is no original, no distinction between the real and the imaginary. As the green lights of the machine flicker, flashes of Tyler appear in the office. The creation of Tyler himself is a product of this anxiety about representation, because Tyler is just a copy of a copy of a ‘‘real’’ Jack. Moreover, this conflation of the real and the imaginary is further illustrated in Jack’s lack of identification. While slumming in the support groups, Jack performs the roles of ‘‘Rupert’’ or ‘‘Cornelius.’’ Throughout the film, the viewer never finds out what Jack’s real name is; in the voice-over, he refers to himself as the organs of a third-person ‘‘Jack,’’ a narrative format he adopted after reading articles that used the same technique. So as ‘‘Jack’s colon’’ or ‘‘Jack’s
inflamed sense of rejection,’’ the narrator ‘‘Jack’’ is able to displace his identity, which further contributes to his deferment of reality. Jack’s perceived loss of normative masculinity as a love-object, and his melancholic creation of Tyler as a result of it, also takes the form of selfpunishment. Jack punishes himself by developing the ‘‘criticizing faculty’’ of Tyler with whom he engages in literal self-flagellation. However, because the libido is withdrawn into the ego of the melancholic subject, self-punishment is a sexually gratifying experience. Jack essentially desires Tyler, the substitute love-object, and their fights function as a sadomasochistic fulfillment of pleasure; Fight Club, then, becomes a (homo)erotically charged space. This homoeroticism figures prominently throughout the film. In the very first scene, Tyler stands over Jack, holding a gun that is placed firmly in Jack’s mouth. The gun, as an instrument of pain and violence, comes to signify the surrogate phallus, thereby immediately framing the film in a homosexually suggestive position. In the same diner scene mentioned earlier, Jack and Tyler exit the bar and hang out in the parking lot. Tyler insists that what Jack really wants is to stay with Tyler since his condominium blew up. When Jack politely refuses, Tyler says, ‘‘Cut the foreplay and just ask man.’’ After Jack gives in, Tyler asks Jack to hit him and the two have their first fight in the parking lot. After the fight, Jack and Tyler sit on the curb; Tyler is smoking and Jack, drinking his beer, says, ‘‘We should do this again sometime.’’ This sequence of scenes plays out like a romantic date between the two: the evening begins with drinks at the bar, culminates in a fight that functions as the first sex/consummation scene, and is followed by the postcoital smoke/drink. Hence, the ‘‘sadistic gratification’’ that Freud discusses takes the form of fighting in the film. In a bus scene, Jack looks at a half-clothed male model in an underwear print ad. He turns to Tyler and says, ‘‘Is that what a man looks like?’’ Tyler responds with, ‘‘Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction . . .’’ He trails off and does not complete the sentence, but it is clear that the implication is that attempts to improve the body and comply with commercial standards
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of beauty is masturbatory; the only ‘‘real’’ form of sex is to destroy oneself, essentially what Jack and Tyler engage in every time they fight. To engage in self-violence is to participate in a form of sadomasochistic sexual gratification. Therefore, Jack’s melancholic loss of masculinity manifests itself in erotic self-flagellation with Tyler. What is interesting about the solution of fighting, though, is that it feminizes Jack even as he seeks to reassert his masculinity. By fighting himself or deriving pleasure from taking a hit, he enjoys a masochistic satisfaction that has been traditionally associated with the feminine, for to be the aggressor is to be masculine and to receive is to be female. But through self-violence, Jack is able to play both these roles, demonstrating that ‘‘modern white masculinities are deeply contradictory, eroticizing submission and victimization while trying to retain a certain aggressively virile edge, offering subjects positions that have been marked historically as being both masculine and feminine’’ (Savran 9). This serves to illustrate the instability of gender identity and underscores Judith Butler’s argument that ‘‘there is no . . . inner gender core’’ (31). More importantly, the performance of both masculinity and femininity makes violence, and self-division, in Fight Club not only integral, but necessary, because the fighting allows disempowered white men to take up the position of victim while simultaneously asserting their virility. Jack’s self-division is important because it is the vehicle that enables the creation of his sadistic and masochistic identities. In a culture inundated by encroaching victimized groups, Jack must essentially ‘‘Other’’ himself to become a victim as well.
Material Boy As Savran emphasizes the importance of historicizing the figure of the male masochist, it is critical to examine the historical and social context from which the film emerges, and how this context accounts for Jack’s threatened masculinity and his subsequent melancholic sadomasochistic vic-
timization. It is here that Faludi’s work provides a viable framework for understanding the malaise that men in Fight Club experience. Faludi argues that the crisis of white masculinity is rooted in the development of an ornamental culture that has stripped men of any real sense of utility and has instead replaced traditional male values with ‘‘commercial values that revolve around who has the most, the best, the fastest’’2 (599). She writes, Nonetheless the [ornamental] culture reshapes [man’s] most basic sense of manhood by telling him . . . that masculinity is something to drape over the body, not draw from inner resources; that it is personal, not societal; that manhood is displayed, not demonstrated. The internal qualities once said to embody manhood—surefootedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose—are merchandised to men to enhance their manliness. (35)
According to Faludi, post-World War II manhood held the promise of new frontiers for their sons to conquer and a culture in which traditional internal qualities of masculinity could be exercised. But in their rush to embrace the good life after the torments of a Great Depression and World Wars, these fathers bequeathed to their sons not a utilitarian world, but a commercial-ruled, image-based culture that has essentially reduced masculinity to a mere accessory that can increase a man’s manliness as long as he literally buys into that market. Fight Club functions as a cinematic tirade against this ornamental culture, exhibiting an anxiety about masturbatory commercialism by locating the cause of Jack’s seeming loss of masculinity in the proliferation of consumer culture, thereby making participation in capitalism, once considered an entrepreneurial and male endeavor, a feminine activity. After all, as Faludi writes, ‘‘Cast into the gladiatorial arena of ornament, men sense their own diminishment in women’s strength’’ (599). Throughout the film, Jack and Tyler are compelled to revolt against all things feminine and to blow up the (feminized) corporate world, as it is represented by Jack’s condominium and the credit card buildings. In an early scene of the interior of the condominium, Jack is sitting on the toilet, looking at the
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centerfold of a magazine while he is talking on the phone. As the camera moves in, it becomes obvious that Jack is looking at an Ikea catalogue and he is ordering furniture on the phone. This scene mimics the image of a masturbating man, sitting in the privacy of his bathroom, looking at pornography, and participating in phone sex. But by having Jack engage in consumerism instead of pornography, the film suggests that commercialism has replaced normative sexual stimulators and has reduced the male sex drive to furniture, traditionally an article of the domestic, and therefore feminine, sphere. Later, Jack continues to order furniture and walk around his condominium. The various rooms are first shown as empty but slowly, home furnishings appear one by one, filling up the room. Moreover, with each item that appears, its name and a description of it pop up next to it, until the condominium starts to resemble a furniture spread in a catalogue. This scene suggests that Jack’s domestic space has been overwritten by commodity and advertisement, and that consumerism has become the new pornography. Jack himself says, ‘‘We use to read pornography, now it’s the Horcha collection.’’ In stark contrast to Jack’s consumer-friendly condominium, Tyler’s abandoned house reflects the regressive masculinity embodied in its owner. In this space, Jack and Tyler are able to engage in brute male bonding and discuss the damaging effects of women. In a bathroom scene that foils the previous one, Tyler is taking a bath while Jack sits nearby, cleaning a wound. In this intimate space, they discuss their fathers. Tyler says, ‘‘My dad never went to college so it was real important that I go. So I graduate and call him up long distance and I say, ‘Dad, now what?’ And he says, ‘Get a job.’ Now I’m twenty-five. Make my yearly call again and say, ‘Dad, now what?’ He says, ‘I don’t know, get married.’ We’re a generation raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.’’ Despite the delinquency of his father, Tyler still consults him for advice and, moreover, denounces the necessity of women in his life, lamenting a ‘‘generation raised by women.’’ Later, Tyler continues to express his frustration with his emasculated generation of men. During a
Fight Club session, he gives an inspirational speech and practically channels Faludi, saying, Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves of the white collars . . . . 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 is 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.
With no great war or depression, Tyler registers the lack of purpose his generation experiences, and his tirade not only condemns the capitalist cycle to which they are enslaved, he attacks the democratic principle of individual agency, as it is disseminated through the media. According to Tyler, it is this ideal of liberalism that has disillusioned men into thinking that masculinity and success are attainable through personal effort. A culture of ornament has replaced the prewar world where masochistic self-denial and self-discipline constituted masculinity, and where these attributes were rewarded by economic and social success. Eclipsing the prewar promise of individual meritocracy, an ornamental culture renders white men of late capitalism the ‘‘middle children of history,’’ leaving masculinity available only in retail stores. This is not to suggest, however, that masculinity is a fixed, stable, and contained entity. The flaw in Faludi’s argument is that she seems to privilege a prewar rugged masculinity that men should return to, and in doing so, implies that an essential masculine identity exists. If anything, the tensions in Fight Club reveal the instability of gender identity and underscores Butler’s idea of gender as performance. Nevertheless, Faludi’s work is important in registering the contextual and perceptual shifts that have impacted the conceptualization of white masculinity.
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In addition to consumer culture, the increasing strength and visibility of minority groups has ostensibly contributed to the diminishing power of white men. In the face of this perceived encroachment, with their masculinity already commodified, white men seek recourse in victimhood. Faludi writes, Men have no clearly defined enemy who is oppressing them. How can men be oppressed when the culture has already identified them as the oppressors, and when they see themselves that way? . . . In an attempt to employ the old paradigm, men have invented antagonists to make their problems visible, but with the passage of time, these culprits—scheming feminists, affirmative-action proponents, jobgrabbing illegal aliens . . .—have come to seem increasingly unconvincing as explanations for their situation . . . . Nor do men have a clear frontier on which to challenge their intangible enemies. What new realms should they be gaining—the media, entertainment, and image-making institutions of corporate America? But these are institutions, they are told, that are already run by men; how can men invade their own territory? (604, 605)
The option to occupy the role of the oppressed is a contradictory one, for, as Faludi points out, they are the ones responsible for their own oppression. Having exhausted the range of shapeshifting enemies to blame for their lot, it is difficult for white men to rage against the machine when they themselves are the creators of that very machine. It is no surprise then, that Fight Club employs self-violence as an expression of that rage. Ornament has deprived white men of Savran’s model of capitalistic masochism where masculinity could be asserted through hard work and self-denial; subjectivity must now be constituted through a different form of masochism, one that both expresses their victimization by the system, as well as one that takes aim at themselves as the oppressors and creators of that system. Fight Club functions as that form of masochism. In a pivotal scene in the film, Tyler hands out homework assignments to members of Fight Club. One of the assignments is to start a fight
with someone in the ‘‘outside world’’; Jack decides to pick a fight with his boss. Jack sits in his boss’ office and blackmails his boss by threatening to reveal the company’s safety violations, unless he is given a raise without having to come to work anymore. As the scene unfolds, it seems the perfect scenario for Jack to finally confront his boss who represents corporate America and the source of his malaise. His boss quickly turns down the offer and calls security, and Jack starts to get angry. But what is interesting is that Jack, instead of fighting his boss, ends up fighting himself. Crashing through glass tables and glass shelves, he beats himself into a pulpy mess. This scene is particularly telling because as Jack attempts to lash out against his boss, the corporations, and commodity culture, he ends up attacking himself.
Thelma and Louise for Guys?: Masculinity, Consumerism, and Possible Solutions In a magazine review, Faludi offers a very generous reading of Fight Club, calling it ‘‘a Goth Thelma and Louise’’ (‘‘It’s Thelma’’ 89). She argues that the film is keen to diagnose the contemporary dilemma of white men, and that Jack and Marla (whose hand-holding at the end of the movie is not dissimilar to Thelma and Louise’s suicidal hand-holding off the edge of the Grand Canyon) represent the possibility of ‘‘mutual redemption’’ between the sexes; it is no longer just about empowering women through unity, it is now about women and men joining forces. While this reading is valid, the ending of Fight Club is far more problematic than the neat summation that Faludi offers. In the final scene, the camera zooms in on Jack and Marla as they grasp hands and watch corporate buildings blow up. As this scene fades into the credits, an image of the penis Tyler had spliced into family films flickers in the same fashion across the screen. The film up to this point has indeed provided a sophisticated and critical
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diagnosis of male disillusionment, but at the end, heteronormativity and phallic power are once again reinforced. While the crumbling of the phallic-shaped skyscrapers might imply that corporations and consumerism, as they have been erected by men, need to be the new enemies to take down in the battle for masculinity, the reinsertion of the penis at the very end suggests that the phallus, the heteronormative phallus, will continue to overwrite any meaningful gender relations. Moreover, throughout the film, self-violence is consistently emphasized as a way of managing anxieties about normative masculinity, and it is when self-violence turns to outward violence that Jack begins to question Project Mayhem. Ironically, the film concludes with outward violence levied upon the buildings and Project Mayhem at last reaches fruition. Giroux provides a useful reading of the end: ‘‘The message is . . . that . . . violence is the ultimate language, referent, and state of affairs through which to understand all human events and there is no way of stopping it’’ (8). Here, violence is somehow inevitable, especially considering Jack no longer has his imaginary friend on which to take his aggressions out. The end of Fight Club suggests that with the return of violence and outward destruction is the return of all things ‘‘normal,’’ and all Jack needed to do in the first place was to take Marla’s hand and unite with her against corporate culture, and in the process of doing so, reclaim his masculinity. As Savran says, ‘‘masochism functions precisely as a kind of decoy and . . . cultural texts constructing masochistic masculinities characteristically conclude with an almost magical restitution of phallic power’’ (37). The resolution that seems to be communicated, then, is that it is up to the isolated heteronormative couple to take on the culture of ornamentation and consumerism themselves. But in the current age of neoliberal discourse, it is this very understanding of agency that is deficient. As Giroux argues, ‘‘Totalitarianism now resides in a thorough dislike for all things social, public, and collective’’ (1). Dissatisfactions are increasingly handled in the private realm as
social responsibility becomes less and less of a public, collective duty. Fight Club illustrates the potential disaster that can happen when agency is privatized, and personal dissatisfactions are resolved through private means such as vigilante paramilitary groups. Members of Fight Club must take aim at an enemy culture that has crippled their masculinity, but the recourse they choose literally self-destructs. Men have diagnosed the problem, and perhaps the solution, as the film suggests, is to establish meaningful and personal heteronormative relations to confront the enemy. But this too is problematic. Faludi argues that the traditional male paradigm of confrontation ‘‘in which an enemy could be identified, contested, and defeated’’ has proved to be defeating and rightfully insists that ‘‘other paradigms are needed’’ (604). The paradigm Fight Club offers at the end restores phallic authority, and the crisis of late capitalism is resolved, for the most part, through outward violence, not collective social bonds. Indeed, other paradigms are needed. As Michael Clark is keen to point out, the solution is not to reinvigorate the patriarchal paradigm of confrontation by setting consumerism up to be the new enemy to conquer. Instead, he writes that the solution is perhaps ‘‘not to battle consumerism, but to abandon it, to begin increasingly making (individually, nationally, and globally) other, nonconsumerist kinds of choices, within the web of relationships that constitute our. . . . communities of life’’ (74). The action that indeed needs to be taken against the globalizing market ideology of consumerism is to seek resolution in public, communal spaces. These spaces include neither the private realms of the corporate world nor the underground basements of paramilitary vigilantes. They are, instead, spaces that take into account individual and collective needs, and not just the needs of global capital or a disgruntled masculinity that seeks recourse in violence. In this space, maybe Jack and Marla can turn away from the destruction, and perhaps it will be more than just Marla who joins hands with Jack to renegotiate the terms of masculinity and map out new alternatives that will impact
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the collective good. Perhaps members of the defunct Fight Club can now also join Jack in the mission to reignite and reconstitute a sense of social utility as a redemptive quality of neither masculinity nor femininity, but of humanity. Faludi says it best when she writes, ‘‘Social responsibility is not the special province of masculinity; it’s the lifelong work of all citizens in a community where people are knit together by meaningful and mutual concerns’’ (607). In this collective and public space, social responsibility and social concerns are shared; in this space, the rules of Fight Club do not apply.
Works Cited Butler, Judith. ‘‘Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification.’’ Constructing Masculinity. Eds. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon. Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995. 21-36. Clark, J. Michael. ‘‘Faludi, Fight Club, and Phallic Masculinity: Exploring the Emasculating Economics of Patriarchy.’’ Journal of Men’s Studies 11.1 (2002): 65-76. Clark, Suzanne. ‘‘Fight Club: Historicizing the Rhetoric of Masculinity, Violence, and Sentimentality.’’ Journal of Advanced Composition 21.2 (25 April 2001): 411-20. Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1999. ———. ‘‘It’s Thelma And Louise for Guys.’’ Newsweek 134.17 (25 Oct. 1999): 89.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. New York: Random House Inc., 1995. Freud, Sigmund. ‘‘Mourning and Melancholia.’’ Collected Papers, Volume 4. London: Hogarth Press Ltd., 1925. 152-70.
1. Theorists such as Foucault and Georges Canguilhem critique the idea of medical normativity that illness can be measured against. See Foucault’s Mental Illness and Psychology and Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological for an in-depth examination of the historical and discursive practices that construct the concept of ‘‘illness.’’ 2. Faludi fails to provide a clear racial qualification for the categories of ‘‘man’’ and ‘‘masculinity.’’ Nevertheless, her examples in her research are in reference largely to white men, so my argument will be based on this assumption.
Giroux, Henry. ‘‘Private Satisfactions and Public Disorders: Fight Club, Patriarchy, and the Politics of Masculine Violence.’’ Henry A. Giroux: Global Television Network Chair in Communication Studies. 3 July 2003 hhttp://www.henryagiroux.com/online_ articles/fight_club.htmi. Savran, David. Taking It Like a Man. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998. Sidran Foundation. Dec. 10, 2003 hhttp://www.sidran.org/didbr.htmli. Svetkey, Benjamin. ‘‘Blood, Sweat, and Fears.’’ Entertainment Weekly, 507 (Oct. 15, 1999): 24-31.