FIGHT CLUB REVISITED
A Retroactive Review
by John David Ebert
David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club–his fourth–is a kind of thematic sequel to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver. Both films, that is to say, are studies of alienated individuals who turn hostile to their own societies, but in the case of Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s film was prescient of the violent acts of such disaffected loners as Mark David Chapman (who shot John Lennon in 1980), and John Hinckley Jr. who, just a few months later, attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan (Hinckley’s favorite film was Taxi Driver, as is well known), whereas Fincher’s Fight Club–based on the 1996 first novel by author Chuck Palahniuk–was already pregnant with the events of the subsequent decade, a decade, that is, of falling skyscrapers, crashing economies, and the detonation of terrorist bombs around the world from Madrid to Boston.
The narrator of the film–played by Ed Norton–is a man who is living inside of a capitalist terrarium, a global Crystal Palace that is composed of two-dimensional signifiers–corporate logos, billboard advertisements and Ikea catalogues–which have compressed the existence of the human individual into a flattened entity void of affect. The capitalist imaginary has replaced the Real with a symbolic order of its own, one that has effaced the traditional symbolic order of language–which, as Heidegger pointed out, is in a state of complete erosion–and replaced it with an imaginal order of fantasies and advertisements that are designed to hollow out the individual by plugging him into circuits of desire that leave no time or space for the development of the Self.
The narrator can’t sleep–naturally–and begins attending support groups as a way of attempting to disconnect his desiring assemblages from the order of capital and to graft them onto emotions, but the emotional order remains inaccessible to him. He meets a man with the interesting name of “Tyler Durden” while on a flight between cities, a man who specializes in making bars of soap and selling them to department stores (in other words, he has a means for “cleansing” one’s life). When the narrator’s skyrise apartment mysteriously blows up, he is forced to move in with Tyler, played by Brad Pitt, who, however, lives in a crumbling and possibly condemned house in an industrial district of the city.
As though by accident, Tyler and the narrator one night, after a round of drinking in a bar called Lou’s Tavern, begin punching each other, and discover, to their delight, that they enjoy it. They soon form a “fight club” in the basement of the Tavern (without the owner’s permission) the rules of which specify, just like the ancient Mystery Cults, that one does not talk about Fight Club to outsiders.
Eventually, the Fight Club begins spilling out into the city, spawning multiple copies of itself like a viral meme that spreads from one city to the next. And soon, the activities ramify from mano a mano fights, to random acts of vandalism and then, eventually, terrorist assaults on corporate buildings. The film’s final image is that of a series of bombs that go off spreading from one corporate skyscraper to the next, as each building implodes in on itself and collapses.
Tyler Durden turns out, however, to be a fiction in the mind of the narrator which he has concocted as a kind of schizoid dissociative split from his personality that serves to unplug him from the two-dimensional order of capital and to reterritorialize him onto the plane of an underground war machine that has spontaneously self-organized by splitting away from the state apparatus.
Capital, in other words, thinks that by flattening emotions into mere affects, and unplugging the individual from the “natural order” and surrounding him with shopping malls and Ikea catalogues that it can somehow build a wall between himself and the “nightmare of history,” as Joyce called it. The Anthropological Type of the capitalist imaginary, as Cornelius Castoriadis put it, is the Shopper, a man who covers up his primordial self and paves it over with the instant gratifications of purchases and circulating electronic data.
But the imaginary figure of Tyler Durden is, of course, not the anthropological type of the Shopper, but the five million year old Primordial Man of Violence that learned how to survive and outwit other competing hominids precisely by destroying them with his own bare hands. The Primordial Man, in other words, has been retrieved from the depths of the narrator’s personality–his actual name, we discover, is Tyler Durden–and used as a means of unplugging him from the capitalist imaginary of flattened affects and tracing a line of flight out onto the plane of Maximal Stress so beloved by the agonistic ceremonies of the Greeks from Achilles to the Olympics. Violence, in other words, is the best psychotherapy there is, and it liberates and “cleanses” the psyche in a way that no other form of therapy can. That is Palahniuk’s rather uncomfortable point.
Primordial Man is that anthropological type which is never going to go away because hominid evolution spent five million years concentrating on bringing him into existence. He can’t be magicked away by the incantatory spells of capitalist billboards and he can’t be “cleansed” from the psyche by any “talking cures.” Indeed, he resurfaces constantly in the form of today’s spree killers, terrorists and ghetto drive-by shootings as the “dirt” that capitalism is never going to be able to wash away, precisely because its offered solutions to the human condition are so shallow.
Primordial Man, the five million year old man within us, cannot be gotten rid of, for precisely what is most unsettling about him is that he is, actually, creative of new social formations, social formations that often begin as war machines which enter into societies either from without–as barbarian war bands–or spontaneously self-organize from within, like slave revolts. Such Boundary Acts–the Maccabean Revolt, for instance, or the Battle of Marathon–are maximal stress acts of violence that cleanse a society with metaphysical creativity that results in the creation of new and stable social formations such as the Greek polis that emerged in the Athens of the fifth century, after the victories over the Persians, or the Hasmonean Dynasty that emerged after the war against the Seleucids.
It’s not a comfortable thought: Primordial Man is so effective precisely because violence “cleanses” a society through the rule formations that it makes possible after a maximal stress event is positively evaluated, to put it in the words of Heiner Muhlmann. It’s that old pairing again–of Metaphysics with Violence–that we are now slowly having to admit to ourselves–and which both Fincher and Pahlaniuk as creative artists are pointing out for us–is not going to go away in the supposedly “soft truths” of the post-metaphysical age.
Violence is like a bar of soap precisely because it “cleanses.” War machines that break off from state apparatuses, or else enter into them from without, set up new Clearings for Ereignis Events in which new cultural rules form precedents that create stable social formations, sometimes stateless, sometimes not, that are metaphysically self-certain and above all, creative.
The state apparatus of ancient Mesopotamia was the Sumerian city-state that was gobbled up by the external war machine of the Kingdom of Sargon of Akkad, which created the world’s first Universal State by absorbing all the Sumerian city-states into a giant, overcoding kingdom of such states. The Babylonians copied the model and bequeathed it, via the Assyrians, to the Persians, who then tried to use it to swallow up the Greek city state apparatus which, however, responded with a Universal State of its own that was first organized by Alexander the Great.
To which the Maccabees responded with a revolt and then, when the Romans dismantled their Dynasty, and eventually the city-state of Jerusalem, with a brand new social formation that could be loosely termed a “diasporic consensus community,” that is to say, a community spread out geographically but yet bound together by a consensus of shared beliefs.
Today’s state apparatus is the transnational corporation. Its primary antagonist is the internal proletariat of the urban guerilla cell pioneered, perhaps, by the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang in the 1960s, which has served as the model for urban guerilla warfare ever since. These spontaneously self-organizing undergrounds–the AUM Shinrikyo cult being a classic example–are violent and dangerous, but their very existence is proof that something has gone wrong with the social order, which is in need of “cleansing.”
As far as Fight Club is concerned, what has gone wrong is that the capitalist imaginary has flattened out all our affects into simple units that are thought to be manageable with psycho-pharmaceuticals, support groups and a little shopping, none of which, however, satisfies or appeals to the five million year old Primordial Man named Tyler Durden that sleeps within us all, waiting for his moment, to seize the day.
Something has gone wrong, according to Pahlaniuk and Fincher.
And it is a problem that can only be fixed with violence.
Not a welcome thought, but then, as the cliche goes, the Truth always hurts.