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Fight Club

In the course of writing about other things, Amanda remarks:

The struggle of the individual man against the dictates of a conformist society is hardly a new story, but what’s really alarming about it as of late is that the conformist society is characterized as a nagging (but pretty) woman and the individual straining against this is characterized as a man whose individuality is just a juvenile affectation. The reason Fight Club had any resonance at all was that it broke the mold some and cast the individual vs. conformist society not as a men vs. women thing but, more realistically, men vs. the corporate conformist machine. And therefore it wasn’t a matter of giving up on your personality in order to obtain a woman’s affections. But, distressingly, it was still characterized as a struggle against emasculation. (The book is probably deeper, but I’ve only seen the movie.)
I haven't seen Fight Club in a while now, but I think this is wrong. What's interesting about it is that it's a rare explicitly anti-individualist work. "Self-improvement is masturbation," remarks Tyler after looking at a Calvin Klein ad (quotes here), while Jack earlier observes that he "had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct." The general idea of this is that "individualism" is a marketing ploy, designed to convince people to buy things like "the clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green ying and an orange yang" in order to express and create their identities.

The mere observation that individuality can be coopted by the corporate machine isn't unique -- see, e.g., Commodify Your Dissent -- but Fight Club takes this in an unusual direction. Rather then exhorting people to abjure fake, commercialized individuality in favor of a higher, truer individualism it exhorts people to abandon individualism. While doing something or other, the members of Project Mayhem are told: "You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake." Rather, "You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else." The ever-repeated theme is that what you need to do is not find yourself, but face The Truth: "This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time." Or, to put it another way, "First, you have to know that someday, you are going to die."

June 1, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

Matt -

I think you're muddling various levels of Fight Club (whether book or movie). The social malaise that drives men to Fight Club, Fight Club itself, and Project Mayhem aren't all meant to be seen on the same level - I'd venture to say that Palahniuk's authorial opinion is that the first is a real thing, the second is perhaps unhealthy but not bad, and the third is bad bad bad.

So: (one) part of the malaise is the corporate assimilation of some vague ideal of "individualism". That doesn't mean that it's truly individualism, or that individualism is bad, just that the sort of homogenized and co-opted "individualism" is pernicious. Part of the point is that "Jack" *isn't* an "individual" - he doesn't even get a name - the IKEA catalog hasn't allowed him to truly express himself and meaningfully differentiate him from his peers, it's served to homogenize him. I think "individualism" can be turned into a shallow idea (although I don't think it necessarily is one), but consider Tyler as we first meet him, compared to "Jack": an unusual guy, unusually dressed (in the movie; in the book he's nude, right?) who has an unusual job (selling soap he makes himself, although it's something else in the book) - indeed, an unusual string of jobs. What is Tyler, especially compared to "Jack", but an "individual"?

The Project Mayhem stuff exists on a different level than this - it's an evolution of the ideas we start from, it's not a necessary evolution, and as I said before, whereas I think the author wants us to ID positively w/his attitude towards corporate culture and maybe ID positively w/our first impressions of Tyler, what ends up happening is supposed to be a Bad Thing - Tyler's rhetoric w/Project Mayhem can't be seen as Palahniuk's (or Fincher's, or the screenwriter's) voice, IMO.

Posted by: Quarterican | Jun 1, 2006 5:20:26 PM

Amanda writes: "The reason Fight Club had any resonance at all was that it broke the mold some and cast the individual vs. conformist society not as a men vs. women thing but, more realistically, men vs. the corporate conformist machine."

This is basically correct.

Matt writes: "I haven't seen Fight Club in a while now, but I think this is wrong. What's interesting about it is that it's a rare explicitly anti-individualist work."

This is also basically correct.

Amanda is slightly wrong when she writes that it "cast the individual vs. conformist society", but completely correct when she writes that it cast "men vs. the corporate conformist machine".

Matthew is sorta correct about it being an anti-individualist work, but wrong about that being rare. Lotsa stories are about these themes, notably, but not exclusively, war stories.

And Matthew is sorta incorrect about it really being an anti-individualist work, as like many war movies, it's about the loss of individuality in becoming part of a group, followed by a coming of age in rejecting the group out of individual conscience.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2006 5:32:40 PM

Matt, not everything Tyler says at the beginning of the movie is supposed to be correct. Anti-individualism turns out to be a bigger trap for Unnamed Narrator than the previous fake individualism was.

If there's one thing that's supposed to be right in the fucked-up world of Fight Club, it's Marla. Tyler, in the end, is an elaborate way of running away from Marla (and getting to sleep with her at the same time).

Posted by: Cisco | Jun 1, 2006 6:34:02 PM

"Anti-individualism turns out to be a bigger trap for Unnamed Narrator than the previous fake individualism was."

Yup.

"If there's one thing that's supposed to be right in the fucked-up world of Fight Club, it's Marla. Tyler, in the end, is an elaborate way of running away from Marla (and getting to sleep with her at the same time)."

Yup, again.

It's significant that the third act is all about Jack rejecting Tyler Durden. It's why the movie isn't really anti-individualistic.

Structurally, it's much like a lefty war/anti-war movie. The hero submerges his individuality into the group, and then comes of age by asserting his individuality against the group. It's done in a much more interesting way in Fight Club, but the underlying structure is similar.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2006 7:23:18 PM

Matt, I basically exempted "Fight Club" from that. I guess my post could have held together better. I was examining the way pressures to conform are read as emasculating. They are in Fight Club, but for once, women aren't blamed. It's a throwback to the 50s-60s era when the blame was placed firmly on management.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 1, 2006 9:19:46 PM

Oh wait. Misread you. My bad. I blame my cat for stomping in front of the screen. Good points all around.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Jun 1, 2006 9:21:14 PM

The book is not deeper and is on my short list "movie is clearly better than the book."

Posted by: washerdreyer | Jun 1, 2006 10:42:47 PM

Cisco and Petey have it right. The story is about someone rejecting commercialized individualism (as something decadent and emasculating) and replacing it with (violent, hyper-masculine, conformist) fascism. It satirizes how legitimate grievances with the status quo can be twisted into something far more frightening when informed by our more cynical prejudices.

Posted by: tps12 | Jun 2, 2006 9:55:04 AM

one of my favorite movies, but not easy to analyze because (i) you want to say that our (anti)hero is easily sucked into conformity/being a follower (first ikea, then FC), but (ii) he's the leader of FC, only following the other half of his split personality, and then (iii) he tries to reject following his crazy half but still had trouble keeping his better half from acting and can't stop what his better/other half has wrought in any event. so it would be like a war movie where our hero runs away from the world to enter the military to fight in a war, except it's a war he started and he's the general, and then he decides he doesn't want to be a general and the war should end, but it's too late because the war now has momentum aside from his leadership.

so he's really more like bodi in point break or somesuch than the hero in any war movie i've ever seen (perhaps if charlie sheen had woken up to discover he was actually berenger? or martin sheen had woken up to discover he was duvall (or would it be brando?)?).

all that said, old school is my favorite knod to/commentary on fight club.

Posted by: dj superflat | Jun 2, 2006 12:41:14 PM

Fight Club ~ Platoon ?

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 2, 2006 1:22:49 PM


I've only seen the movie, but it had an insane narrator. That's going to make derivation of a normative perspective pointless.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Jun 3, 2006 5:33:17 PM

"Anti-individualism turns out to be a bigger trap for Unnamed Narrator than the previous fake individualism was."

I completely agree with this insight Cisco:) A case of getting to far in a hole that you cant get out of. Once individualism turns into a sick co-dependent leech of oneself, one should conclude that it was just not worth the end result. Unless of course a person just gets off on destroying oneself, perhaps too common of an affliction:)

Posted by: Car MovieGuy | Jun 4, 2006 10:39:22 PM

You're right. But there's a shorter way to say it: it's a classic boy movie. :-) Manly men doing manly things together and apart, apartness is togetherness.

Petey caught it here:

"Matthew is sorta correct about it being an anti-individualist work, but wrong about that being rare. Lotsa stories are about these themes, notably, but not exclusively, war stories."

Yes, lots. Oh, off the top of my head, try some ancient Greek vases. :-)

Posted by: artappraiser | Jun 6, 2006 5:02:31 AM

Something not so ancient? Try your average teenage Wahhabi wannabe jihadi or Tim McVeigh wandering the gun show circuit looking for comrades. Actually, now that I think on it, Andrew Sullivan did a good piece on this, his feelings when he was taking testosterone for aids treatment. :-)

Posted by: artappraiser | Jun 6, 2006 5:10:50 AM

FIGHT CLUB has been coveted by manliness fetishists who think the solution is to read MAXIM. The movie is macho white frat male bullshit, subversive moments aside, and the film's director, David Fincher, is a hypocrite -- a guy who made his bucks whoring ads for Nike doesn't have the gravitas to condemn consumer society.

Oh and I'm a man.

Posted by: christian | Jun 7, 2006 11:58:06 AM

Heidegger

Posted by: martin | Jun 8, 2006 10:18:38 PM

The book "White Male Privilege" might really help the fight against racism. It is on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk has a synopsis.

Posted by: Mark Rosenkranz4@sbcglobal.net | Jun 10, 2006 4:11:16 PM

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