The Philosophy of Fight Club – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Fight Club!
Written by: Jeanette Moreland
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Fight Club – Wisecrack Edition
Hey, Wisecrack. Jared, here. Today, we’re breaking down everyone’s favorite insomniac, his soap-salesman BFF, and their super, super secret underground club for dudes who like to beat each other senseless. That’s right, we’re talking bout the thing you’re not supposed to talk about. For most, Fight Club is about chiseled men who like to knock each other’s teeth out and destroy private property to escape the monotony of consumer culture. But there’s something about Fight Club we often overlook. Is Tyler Durden really the suave savior we thought he was? Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Fight Club. And as always, spoilers ahead. Fight Club begins with our nameless protagonist slash narrator as he tries to beat insomnia and complete his life one Ikea shelf at a time.
“Uh, yeah. I’d like to order the Erika Pekkari dust ruffles.”
His doctor suggests he see real pain at a testicular cancer support group, and our Narrator finally finds the key to sleep: crying his eyes out. But, another faker, Marla Singer, ruins it, flaunting her lack of balls to our, now again, sleepless narrator.
“Testicular cancer should be no contest, I think. Right?“ “Well, technically I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.”
All that gets put on hold when our narrator’s apartment blows up, destroying his perfectly manicured lifestyle, and forcing him to live with one Tyler Durden. He and Tyler share some drinks, go on wild and zany adventures, and convince lots of people to beat the sh*t out of each other. Also, domestic terrorism. But we’ll get to that. The most overt theme in Fight Club is the drudgery of consumer capitalism. Our narrator lives a ‘tiny life’ of tedium, working a job he hates. Throughout the film, he looks half-asleep, staring absent-mindedly into space, unable to feel anything. At one point, the narrator tells us, “When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep, and you’re never really awake,” as he watches an infomercial, suggesting that he’s not only half-conscious because of insomnia, but also consumerism.
But more importantly, Fight Club shows a world of what sociologists call ‘rationalization.’ Rationalization, in this sense, isn’t quite “using rationality” in the way you might think, but “using a certain kind of rationality to organize society.” Essentially, rationalization favors efficiency over tradition, custom, or individual desires. So, instead of getting your pies made with love made from the nice baker down the street, you get them from a factory, where they’re made on a cold, dead assembly line. Modern social life is pretty much dominated by rationalization; it’s organized to accommodate large numbers of people in the most efficient way possible. Everything in the narrator’s life is designed for a specific purpose, mass produced, and unrelentingly predictable — down to his boss’ tie. “It must’ve been Tuesday. He was wearing his cornflower-blue tie.”
He even calls his own home a “condo on the 15th floor of a filing cabinet for widows and young professionals,” describing his existence as nothing more than an efficient way to store and organize things. Fight Club shows us that efficiency has its downsides, especially in a world where “efficient” means “efficiently consuming to the point where, as Tyler Durden says “The things you own, end up owning you.” The narrator describes everything as being a “copy of a copy of a copy.” Consumer products, and consumers, are indistinguishable from each other. To drive the point home, director David Fincher even put a Starbucks cup in almost every scene of the film.
For philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, this trend of indistinguishable commodities is a direct result of rationalization. According to them, everything we’re sold comes from a standardized ‘menu’ of constructs, all designed to be as cost-effective as possible while promoting fake differences. Consider the duvet, which may or may not be different than a comforter, I don’t know — I tried to read about it, gave up.
“Do you know what a duvet is?” “A comforter…” “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now, why do guys like you and I know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we, then?” “…Consumers?” “Right!” Some good marketing might make the things we buy seem different from each other, but in reality they’re all pretty much the same – copies of copies of copies. This commodification of all things makes life pretty dull. And also kind of fascist. For Adorno and Horkheimer, and for the characters in Fight Club, living in a rationalized world can have a dehumanizing effect, turning everyone into lonely, alienated drones at the behest of consumer capitalism — living life just following orders, if you will.
Flown around the country on business trips, the narrator describes the isolation that comes with a ‘single-serving’ lifestyle. Everything is small and disposable. Even the people he meets.
“The people I meet on each flight — they’re single-serving friends. Between take-off and landing, we have our time together, and that’s all we get.”
After getting in a car accident, he muses about the dehumanizing effect of his own work, “I’d never had been in a car accident. This must have been what all those people felt like before I filed them as statistics in my reports.”
So, how do we cope with a single-serving lifestyle? One might be tempted to say “get a hobby, bro.” But for Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘amusement’ under modern day capitalism has just become a ‘prolongation of work’. Hobbies and entertainment serve to rejuvenate us, so we can go back to work the next day – but those same things that keep up sane in our off-hours are still determined by the system. This makes amusement ‘the after-images of the work process itself’. In other words,if we aren’t working, we’re buying mass-produced stuff to help us feel better about the fact that we have to go to work again the next day.
“I would flip through catalogues and wonder, what kind of dining set defines me as a person.”
Or we get the fat sucked out of us which was caused by our own decadent lifestyle.
“We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.”
The narrator’s way of coping is still just an extension of living as a consumer in a rationalized world. “I had it all, I had a stereo that was very decent, a wardrobe that was getting very respectable, I was close to being complete…” Adorno went as far as directly comparing this kind of mass consumption to fascism. For him, the mechanism of rationalization that causes people to blindly throw their money at big companies, like Starbucks, is the same mechanism that causes people to throw themselves at fascist ideology. Much like citizens of a fascist state mobilize under a totalitarian dictator, modern society has mobilized under capitalism. It isn’t until his apartment mysteriously blows up that the narrator finds a new way to resist rationalization.
After losing all of his precious Ikea furniture, he trades in alienating capitalism for a place in Tyler Durden’s crumbling mansion on Paper Street. Paper Street is the exact opposite of his former apartment. While the other one was small, efficient, and well decorated, Paper Street is needlessly large, disorganized and dirty. If his apartment was rational, Paper street is irrational. In his new home, he joins Tyler Durden in his fight against consumer culture.
Tyler, the charming, charismatic leader of Fight Club, champions a resistance against oppressive consumerism, offering the narrator an escape and a way to reclaim his identity. But what does escaping rationalization have to do with punching people in the face? Tyler’s resistance takes things a bit further than your run-of-the-mill critique of capitalism. He frames consumerism as an assault on masculinity. The men in Fight Club basically fear that society is turning them into women. They feel degraded by their jobs. The Narrator, in this sense, is the perfect image of an emasculated consumer. He’s weak and goes to support groups where he hugs people and cries – You know, girl stuff. At the testicular cancer support group, some of them have literally become emasculated. One of the participants laments he’s been cuckolded, as his wife has had the child they could never have had with a new man. “She had her first child last week, a girl, with her, uh… with her new husband.”
The film really drives this symbolism home with the character of Bob. Once a bodybuilder, Bob literally loses his balls to testicular cancer and grows ‘bitch tits,’ as a result of hormone therapy. “We’re still men.” “Yes, we’re men. Men is what we are.” His loss of masculinity results in estrangement from his family, and he feels completely dehumanized. “And now I’m bankrupt. I’m divorced. My two grown kids … won’t even return my phone calls.” The narrator and Tyler also discuss their absentee fathers, wondering what the role of being raised by women has played in their lives “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” And Tyler tells the narrator, “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.”
Seriously. This whole movie is about losing your balls and/or dick. Given the emasculation of modern consumer society, Fight club is appealing because it allows members to express themselves by acting in a way they can’t in everyday life – being really, really violent, which is something they associate with being men with a capital “M.” Masculinity through aggression provides a way for the men to cope with their girly day jobs and domestic consumer behavior. But while Tyler Durden laments the fake kind of masculinity sold to us by Hollywood, he sells them another kind of manliness. The second half of Fight Club is all about how Tyler Durden has taken all the things Project Mayhem is supposed to rebel against, repackaged it, and sold it to his Project Mayhem stooges. The members of fight club just become copies of copies of each other. They shave their heads, call each other “maggots,” they even lose their names.
“In project mayhem we have no names.” Rebelling against a system that’s made them faceless drones, they become… well, faceless drones. And remember all that stuff about losing your balls? Well, testicles under the reign of Tyler aren’t faring much better either. The movie gives us an early glimpse of what’s to come as Tyler Durden just repeatedly punches this guy in the dick. Project Mayhem later threatens to cut everyone else’s balls off. “You’re going to publicly state that there is no underground group, or these guys are gonna take your balls.” Even its own founder: “You said that if anyone ever interferes with Project Mayhem, even you, we gotta get his balls.”
For Bob and the narrator, Fight Club has simply replaced the support groups in their lives, and they chat about their “Fight Club days” like one might hear about weekly support group schedules. “I go Tuesdays and Thursdays.” “I go Saturday.” Tyler acts like a strong father figure for the narrator and the rest of Project Mayhem. “I will carry you, kicking and screaming, and in the end, you will thank me.” But, like the narrator’s shitty father — “He left when I was, like, six years old. Married this other woman, had some other kids. And he, like, did this every six years. He goes to a new city and starts a new family—“ “Fucker’s setting up franchises.” — Tyler abandons him.
The most devoted members of Fight Club and are put through intense hazing to become members of Project Mayhem. Before they can join, prospective members have to stand outside the Paper Street mansion for 3 days without food or shelter, and are verbally and physically abused. Those who tough it out are allowed inside the house and become part of a well-oiled machine that blows up computer stores, terrorizes politicians, and sends corporate sculptures rolling into coffee shops. As Tyler’s movement gains momentum, it transforms from an after-school activity into a fascist cult that might just be as bad as the capitalism they rebelled against in the first place.
“You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” “Tyler built himself an army.” “We are the all singing all dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap.”
Project Mayhem operates through strict rules and systematic efficiency. They even rely on capital to run properly, and fund their activities by making and selling soap out of human fat stolen from a liposuction clinic. The difference is that now instead of reporting to the demands of their corporate bosses, members report to their patriarchal, authoritarian leader: Tyler Durden. “Sooner or later we all became what Tyler wanted us to be.”
Chapters begin springing up all over the United States. The narrator even calls them franchises. “Tyler had been busy, setting up franchises all over the country.” The entire time, Project Mayhem has been plotting toward a master plan: blowing up the offices of credit card companies. The narrator discovers this plan, — “Oh my god.” — and also discovers that he and Tyler Durden are the same person. “Is that a pretty accurate description of our relationship, Tyler?” “We have just lost cabin pressure.”
Tyler Durden was the manly, virile complement to the narrator’s emasculated helplessness. And, if we recall, when the narrator says early on that “and suddenly I realize that all of this, the guns, the bombs, the revolution, has got something to something to do with a girl named Marla Singer,” he probably means his spiral into psychosis began when he needed to create an alter ego to be with her.
“You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look. I fuck like you wanna fuck. I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways you are not.”
He is able to get rid of Durden by shooting himself in the face, but the damage is already done – the buildings collapse, supposedly to reset society’s debt, although I’m not sure how that actually works. Just like Tyler and the narrator are two sides of the same person, for Adorno and Horkheimer, fascism and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. They argued that both fascism and capitalism see human beings as numbers instead of individuals – alienated objects to be used and controlled. So, what do you guys think? What’s worse? Succumbing to the allure of Ikea catalogues and coffee chains, or following orders of a fascist soap-salesman offering promises of humanity? Let us know what you think. Or don’t.