Taking It IS Dishing It Out: The Late Modern Logic of Fight Club

Taking It IS Dishing It Out: The Late Modern Logic of Fight Club

1999-12-30

Linda Brigham breaks the first rule of Fight Club and talks about what the movie industry keeps secret - not male masochism, anti-corporate terrorism, self-help, or even heterosexual anxiety, but how best to deliver a commodity that doesn’t act like one.

Fight Club: The first rule is, don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is, don’t talk about Fight Club.

This contract, enunciated by Fight Club founder Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, makes writing a review somewhat tricky. First, because the movie has a twist it would ill-become a reviewer to give away. Second, because there is a contemporary truth here about “talk” and commodification; what better advertising is there than the anti-advertising of a secret? Fight Club ‘s hush inflames pugilistic desire far more precipitously than the pedestrian exclusiveness of Pay-Per-View. How to deliver a secret as a commodity, specifically as a Hollywood movie, might in fact constitute the heart of David Fincher’s unexpected pathway through the defiles of masculinity - a topic of obsessive cinematic concern. And the question how can a commodity not act like a commodity is also, arguably, the crucial question for criticism in late capitalism - and a question of what we keep secret from ourselves.

There is nothing particularly novel about the initial phase of Fight Club ‘s plot. Like the overacclaimed American Beauty, Fight Club begins with a bout of mid-life crisis. The Edward Norton character (never named, but we’ll just call him “Jack,” short for Jack-his-medulla oblongata), despite apparently secure white-collar work and an apartment carefully appointed with catalog purchases chosen to maximize lifestyle expression, not least an Ikea yin/yang coffee table, cannot sleep. The strangeness begins when his doctor refuses to prescribe brand-name pharmaceuticals upon demand. Instead, doc sends Jack off to a room in a Methodist church to observe “real” suffering: a self-help group for men with testicular cancer, a meeting at which Jack circulates “incognito,” garnering an emotional high at the bountiful unbound breasts of Bob (Meat Loaf), whose injury bore the added insult of an overdose of testosterone - producing, as a result, too much estrogen (or the other way around).

Soon addicted to a variety of recovery groups for a medley of fatal diseases he does not have, Jack sleeps “like a baby.” Until - another “tourist” shows up, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Jack knows instinctively, with the clairvoyant intimacy of an evil twin, that Marla, like himself, has no life-threatening, mutilating disease. Especially since she first appears at the testicular cancer group. Jack is sleepless again.

Until - he is suddenly, catastrophically homeless, a mysterious explosion having blown all his thoughtfully selected furniture out of his something-teenth floor apartment while he is off on another business trip. Coincidentally, he has just met someone “interesting” on the flight, Durden, and of course they’ve exchanged business cards. After dialing Marla, Jack hangs up in a panic before speaking - and calls Durden. The two guys drink, bond (sort of); Jack, with some coaching, asks Durden for a place to stay. And then he complies with Durden’s request to hit him. That is, Durden asks Jack to hit him, and Jack does. And that’s the beginning of Fight Club.

Fight Club consists of fights among guys who probably do not otherwise fight. They fight shirtless - skinny, fat, out-of-shape (except for Pitt, of course). They do not fight to win. They fight to - in Durden’s self-help lingo - “hit bottom.” The loser stops the winner with a safe-word or gesture. The club develops. Jack’s and Durden’s relationship develops. Marla hovers: involved somehow. But how? The whole thing culminates in a massive terrorist venture to reset the debt of the common man back to zero in the Enchanted Book of the corporate multinationals.

What is the connection between a secret club for male masochism, anti-corporate terrorism, self-help, and heterosexual anxiety? Jack himself provides the equation early in the movie, explaining his job to an airline seatmate. Jack, it turns out, works for a “very big” auto manufacturer. His job is to investigate car crashes resulting from vehicular design flaws - not in order to assess whether the design flaw is at fault, but instead, whether the damage and frequency of flaw-related crashes produce a liability cost greater than the cost of a recall. Jack, in other words, assesses corporate “risk.”

Risk - life-threatening risk, concealed like a black marble in the lottery of consumer purchase - is also an incurable, perhaps ultimately fatal byproduct of global capitalism. According to Risk Society author Ulrich Beck, it signals the entry of a radical new phase of modernity. While the challenge to society under industrial capitalism concerned the distribution of “goods,” late capitalism is more and more inflected by the problem of the distribution of “bads” - most significantly, infiltrative, invisible, non-localizable toxic risks - that threaten the whole system of commodities by threatening the basis for desire itself: the body. Risk eludes the consoling logic of exchange; one purchases risk only unwittingly, as dictated by the probability function of corporate risk assessors like Jack. Risk is invisibly imposed by the seller, an unwanted by-product. When the seller makes off not only with your money, but with your life, the spell of shopping is broken.

The self-help groups featured at the beginning of Jack’s journey are biological and psychological products of risk society: people with mysterious untreatable cancers caused by unlocatable toxins crowded with cofactors that render them without legal recourse or medical reprieve. Fight Club realizes the radical potential of “self-help.” It repairs the faulty contract of commercial exchange by substituting a masochistic one - for men. By leaving the terms of the contract in the hands of the “bottom,” Fight Club both repeats the relation of producer to consumer and preempts the one-sidedness of the deal. Resistance is not about beating the seller - every consumer’s idle dream. It is not about collaborating with the seller - the bad conscience of mid-level management - hoping things will even out in the long term. Instead, Fight Club arrests the masculine seesaw of rivalry and identification with authority by bringing the decision to get fucked to the surface as such: a rejection of the Law of the Father, a refusal to take the threat of castration - testicular cancer - seriously.

Whither gender, then? It’s a bit hard to say. In Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of masochism, rejecting the father occurs by means of an idealized mother - the cold, authoritarian, phallic-mother fantasy, a Venus-in-Furs who carries a whip. Deep into the movie, Tyler Durden is at his charismatic, beautiful best in furs - and undeniably phallic. But as long as there’s a Pitt-like Hollywood hot-commodity around, Jack cannot “hit bottom;” he’ll always want to “be” Brad Pitt (rather than “have” him?), and Marla’s furriness goes unnoticed. But why all the rivalrous misogynistic disgust at Marla in the first place, before the randy Durden takes off? Possibly - although the status of women in the film stays murky - because the rigors of the masochistic contract so resemble the abject condition of women in patriarchy; women have always been there before, and to “hit bottom” means to “become woman,” to recognize female priority, rather than to achieve any spiritual distinction. At one point, early in the movie when Marla’s appearance at self help meetings is driving Jack into fits of rage, he imagines her as his “power animal” in a guided meditation with the lung cancer group (at which she, as always, smokes like a chimney).

Fight Club presents in many ways a further development of Fincher’s vision of the problem of women for homosocial community in Alien3, featuring a prison colony nearly wrecked by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) before being devoured by exasperatingly fertile and gooey monsters. And, arguably, Fight Club probes deeper. In Alien3, feminists applauded Ripley’s reply to the patriarch of the prison population’s authoritarian quasi-Christian cult, Dillon, when the latter tries to shock her with a litany of the sex-and-violence crimes of his band of double-Ys; “I must make you nervous,” says Ripley, getting the upper hand. She ultimately prevails over hearts and minds as well as table talk; Dillon ends up joining Ripley to engage the common alien enemy. But Alien3, with its extraterrestrial diversion, only begs the question of the hypermasculine hatred of women.

The conflict in Fight Club has a different structure. Although corporate transnationals take the place of oversalivating multiple mandibled creatures, they don’t form the same kind of enemy. The short-circuiting of politics by self-help/self-hurt acknowledges, in a fuzzy way, crucial changes in the structure of social antagonism, and thwarts a simple repetition of the disavowal of embodiment inherent in liberal subjectivity - the disavowal of difference that allows men of different classes and races to join with a woman in Alien3, for example, but puts off interrogating their pre-monster misogyny. It seems that the version of resistance offered in Fight Club depends on realizing that identity is inherently split, that its consolidation in the face of an enemy is an illusion of fullness that denies the secret that really holds the self together. So instead, we get a kind of identity-through-contract. We’ve seen this before, even before AA demanded its members turn themselves over to a “higher power.” It’s the kind of identity Odysseus was forced to take up in the land of the Sirens. Warned by a witch, Odysseus knew in advance the Sirens’ power to lure ships to disaster with their songs, and instructed his men to bind him to the mast before they entered Siren territory - and on no account to unbind him, no matter how vehement his command to do so. Likewise, Jack subjects himself to, and in effect, secrets himself in, a contract made on his own authority, and his integrity depends on setting in motion the forces that will, for a time, tear him apart, and indeed nearly cost him his balls. In any case, when Jack cannot be Jack (or Tyler), Fight Club will be him for him. He has willingly distributed his subjectivity, preempting the mutilation of self and collective by corporate capitalism, and, eventually, he no longer needs a phantasmatic antagonist (Marla, woman) to be something or other that never does get a name.

So what does he need her for? That’s still hard to say, and it’s not at all clear what Marla’s stake is in all of this. Still, Fight Club, although it certainly does not explain how men and women might have a sexual relation, poses a solution where there are only problems, that is, where every solution is a problem. This is the very essence of perversion. I can’t help thinking that’s a good thing.