Matt Yglesias was talking about Fight Club today:
Second, and perhaps more to the point, though I would hardly call Fight Club a “feminist” movie (barely any women in it), it’s definitely a critique of a patriarchal values. The basic idea is to describe the existence of people who attempt to actually perform the kind of masculinity that’s nominally valorized in our culture and portray that performance as a form of mental illness. I think it’s true that not every Fight Club fan necessarily understands it that way, but that’s what it’s about.
In 2008 I did a course called Contemporary American Media . Part of the assessment for this course was to, in essence, blog about the set texts each week. The above prompted me to go looking around for something I wrote about Fight Club at the time, and, discovering that my lecturer deleted the Livejournal page that hosted my response, I decided I should put it here. And then I decided to go one better and put up my original rambling critique of the film, rather than the ~600 word post I turned in. I hate being edited, don’t you know? The Szeman and Giroux reading I refer to, incidentally, is an essay titled “Ikea Boy Fights Back: Fight Club, Consumerism, and the Political Limits of Nineties Cinema” (2001, in Lewis J. (Ed.) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University: New York).
 Media as in cultural product, the plural of medium; not journalism.
So. For the sake of good record-keeping:
Oh my. Fight Club. I fear I could write 400 000 words on this thing and still not properly capture the inconsistencies and contradictions in its tangle of confused ideology and stylish set pieces. So as a preface to the 400 words I am to write on this film, I will note that Fight Club’s philosophy is inconsistent, and much of it can only be properly understood as spectacle valued for its own sake. The film is not only an American film; it is a late ’90s American film (1999, specifically), and it reflects the curious historical time in which it was made.
It occurs after what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history.” America had won the cold war and existed as the world’s sole superpower. The economy was strong, powered by speculative investment in Internet start-ups and other new industries created in the so called “tech boom.” The most pressing political issue in the media related to the sexual transgressions of President Bill Clinton. Times were relatively peaceful, particularly in a prosperous first world country like the United States, and people were so sure of their nation’s security that a film at least partially celebrating a character responsible for the explosive destruction of a set of skyscrapers symbolising the nation’s wealth (here, credit card companies) can be an overwhelming financial and cultural success. Fight Club is a film for and about a world untouched by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the attendant loss of certainty, and about lack of economic hardship. The film’s Narrator, played by Edward Norton, would likely be far less concerned about the impact his attachment to his Ikea furniture was having on his soul if he were in danger of losing the expensive condo that housed it to a sub-prime fuelled housing crisis. He would likely be less troubled by his unfulfilling employment if he were in danger of losing that job in a looming recession. Fitting for a late ’90s film, Fight Club is ambivalent about neoliberal capitalism; in a world where there is no serious challenge to that prevailing economic system, it can afford to be.
David Fincher’s direction draws on his music video background; many of the most striking sequences are computer generated, extreme close-up tracking shots. For instance, the opening credits have the camera pull out from the Narrator’s cellular structure to eventually reveal a gun inserted into his mouth, while elsewhere, a macro shot of the workings of the gas stove and refrigerator accompany an explanation of how these devices were responsible for the explosion in the Narrator’s apartment. The film contains split-second, gratuitous and self-reflexive male nudity (it refers to Durden’s practice of inserting single frames of pornography into family films), and equally gratuitous violence. The soundtrack is by the hip-hop production duo the Dust Brothers, who at the time had the cultural cache of producing critically acclaimed records by the Chemical Brothers and Beck.
The film, with the character of Tyler Durden, flirts with Nietschzean nihilism before backing off in horror when faced with the full implications of a commitment to self-destruction (the Narrator, with whom our sympathies are clearly meant to lie, is at first seduced by his “imaginary friend” Durden, but becomes aghast when that alter ego projects that philosophy into the organised militia Project Mayhem). Even so, the movie ends with the catharsis of an exploding cityscape, though the film has explicitly rejected nihilism. In short, much of the film must be recognised as spectacle for the sake of spectacle, even, or especially, some of its philosophy. This is nihilism and ultra violence as lifestyle accessory, not as concerted rebellion.
So, does this mean I agree with Szeman and Giroux’s critique? I must admit, on re-reading the chapter, I was surprised at how closely some of their ideas matched my own. I would argue, however, that while Szeman and Giroux effectively diagnose the contradictions of Fight Club, their critique misunderstands them. They are concerned that the film reinforces the ideology of “neo-liberal capitalism” by accentuating the importance of the individual and celebrating traditional gender roles. I won’t touch the gender issue, because it is far too complex an issue for me to get sidetracked into exploring right now, but the notion that a critique of capitalist consumer culture must necessarily be from the author’s collectivist perspective is deeply misguided. Indeed, Fight Club explores, in Project Mayhem, a collectivist response to capitalism and finds it as stifling as the system it is rebelling against.
It is true, as the text says, that “Fight Club has nothing substantive to say about the structural violence of unemployment, job insecurity, cuts in public spending, and the destruction of institutions capable of defending social provisions and the public good.” I would also assert that Fight Club has nothing to say about South Pacific anthropology, fly fishing, astrophysics or any number of other situations that have no bearing on the film. Simply, Fight Club’s critique of capitalism is of the effect it has on the individual, not on society. Why, it asks, is a system based on individualism so hostile to the individual? The response the film gives, although confused, relates to how individuals can negotiate that system on their own terms. Since the problems the film addresses are the problems of individuals, its response does not concern itself with public policy. It is rather disturbing that Szeman and Giroux can only understand a defence of the individual as being “Republican Party” oriented. It is true that Fight Club does exhibit a conservative streak, but the film’s assertion that individuals want to retain an individual identity even while part of a capitalist system is something surely equally at home in the Democratic Party, perhaps more so. The film does not try to create an alternative to capitalism because its critique cautions against destroying the system. It is concerned with making the system work for the people within it, rather than having the people create a new system.That does not mean the film endorses that which it is ostensibly critiquing; indeed, encouraging people to engage with capitalism on their own terms is far more useful to the viewer than propagating some silly fantasy of destroying the system entirely.
Szeman and Giroux assert that the scene with the convenience store clerk is representative of the film’s Republican ideology, but they do so on a false basis. They say the clerk, Raymond, “had to drop out of school for lack of money.” In the film, Raymond says nothing of the sort. He simply says becoming a veterinarian, as was his expressed desire, involved “too much school.” The correct dialogue gives no indication as to what compelled the clerk to cease his schooling, and suggests that Raymond’s problem is indeed that he didn’t know how to relate to the system on his own terms. Ambition was too much of a challenge for the clerk, not too expensive, so he abandoned himself to an unsatisfying, dead-end job. Of course, there may well be institutional challenges hindering the clerk from achieving his ambitions, but Fight Club is concerned what is within the individual’s power to change, not what is not.
Fight Club is an American film. It is about global consumption (or more specifically, it’s about American consumption), but its concern is how consumption affects the ability of Americans to retain their individuality. The crisis in the film relates to individuals adrift in an uncertain society. It asks: How do you be a man in an America losing its traditional family structures? How do you retain your individuality in a system that wants you to be a machine and you to treat others as statistics? How do you find meaning in a society that no longer has the structures that used to provide meaning? The film is not about undermining capitalism, but about negotiating with it, about being an individual in an American society that has won the battles of the last fifty years, and is now asking the same question Durden says he asked his father after graduating from college: What now? Individuals, the film argues, should be aware of the pressures placed on them by capitalist society. They will find little fulfilment in either futile rebellion or mindless consumerism. The solution the film provides, meagre as it is, is in the Narrator’s last words to Tyler: “My eyes are open.”
The Lecturer responded:
I don’t disagree that the ideology of FC is inconsistent, but one of the things I’ve always wondered about that is whether it’s not partly associated with the importance of the inside of the narrator’s head. I mean, *people* are ideologically inconsistent and so much of thie film’s action happens inside his head.
“Fight Club is a film for and about a world untouched by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the attendant loss of certainty, and lacking in economic hardship.” But at the same time, as you say later, it’s for and about an America marked by other kinds of uncertainty.
Your one weak point would be this: “I would also assert that Fight Club has nothing to say about South Pacific anthropology, fly fishing, astrophysics or any number of other subjects that have no bearing on the film.” That’s a bit glib, isn’t it? FC claims to talk about capitalism and ideology in a really specific way.
I think you are agreeing with S&G in a fundamental way, by seeing the film as coming down to individuality. I agree in a way, but individuality is so fraught in this film about its fracturing that I think I do see more things going on in FC than you do.
To which I said:
I like the notion that the film’s ideological inconsistency reflects that of the Narrator, but I find it difficult to reconcile that with you saying that the film talks about capitalism and ideology in a really specific way. Your explanation makes dramaturgical sense, and in that regard is a good one, but it doesn’t really do much to explain the opacity of the themes.
Certainly, my list of things Fight Club has nothing to do with is glib, but that’s because I think Fight Club’s engagement with society and economics *is* glib. It gives more extensive consideration to - and truly succeeds as a film when it talks about - individuals (perhaps I depart from S&G in that I don’t see that as a weakness). The only real interesting thing it seems to say about consumer culture and capitalism is that it fails to emotionally and spiritually satisfy individuals, but again, that is fretting about the plight of individuals, not the worth of the system.
Of course a discussion about how individuals relate to a system does involve engaging with the system itself. I just think in FightClub’s case, the engagement with the former is the point of the movie, while the engagement with the latter is minimal.
Fight Club’s politics is little more than appropriated rebel chic. It isn’t political opinion so much as fantastic spectacle dressed in the clothes of late ’90s activism (and now I fear I really am starting to sound like S&G!) I’m more comfortable saying that the film is about uncertain indidivduality than embarking on the hopeless task of discerning its manifesto from its fashion sense.
Finally, I did sort of broach the gender thing in a comment on another student’s post:
To simply use these as examples would miss Fincher’s point, which I believe is to outline the failure of the American story. It is as if the Hollywood constructed American man was a false image all along. Tyler Durden is still this Hollywood hypermasculine cowboy, who has gone wild at the fact that the American man, (Jack) cannot survive living like the fictional character that Tyler portrays.
This is a really interesting idea, and the first defense of the film’s take on masculinity I’ve seen that seems even remotely plausible. The film can’t possibly be seen as a complete endorsement of Tyler’s views, considering the ending, and I like the notion that this is because Tyler is as false an image as the consumerist etc. ones he encourages the Narrator to rebel against.
Still, I’m not completely convinced. The film takes too seriously the quasi-misogynistic idea that femininity is a threat to a man’s masculinity (it does seem to endorse, for instance, Tyler and the Narrator’s conversation about another woman not being the answer), even though it acknowledges that Tyler is not a solution.
But I can’t work out where the character of Marla fits in to that, either! She’s basically the only woman in the entire movie, and she seems to be the only character who is able to negotiate a consumer-driven society without succumbing to it. She achieves this through her own variation on Tyler’s nihilism, but she seems to not care for her own self-preservation, while Tyler encourages active self-destruction. But the movie doesn’t seem to be saying that another woman actually is the answer to the Narrator’s problems.
Also, as far as the movie’s relationship with the female is concerned, it seems interesting that apart from Marla, there are absolutely no women in this society! Project Mayhem derives its power from having members in all the institutions that run society, but Project Mayhem is made up entirely of men. Surely the Narrator, when he wanted to turn himself into the police, could have asked to see a female officer, someone he would know would not be a part of Project Mayhem! It’s as if the film so disregards the worth of women that they’re not even considered as offering anything to the running of society.