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In David Fincher’s film adaptation of the novel Fight Club, the Narrator Jack works as a traveling sales agent for a car company though it’s easy to see that his job is insignificant to him and thus, it is insignificant to the viewer. What’s more important is that Jack is an insomniac. He is incredibly bored with his life, disconnected from everything, and “Never truly asleep. Never truly awake” (Fincher). He comforts himself from this Hell he lives in by constantly purchasing name-brand consumer goods for his condominium constantly searching for perfection.
But since perfection can never be attained, he remains in submission to consumer culture, never satisfied, and with the same lingering monotony and melancholy.
Eventually, Jack finds solace in trauma support groups: safe havens where he can immerse himself in a tear-jerking atmosphere, unload his veiled emotions, and finally experience the human connection that he has been missing. But when that remedy is interfered with, Jack is again left empty and miserable – entrenched in his self-debilitating consumerism.
With seemingly no escape to this abyss, it becomes apparent that Jack longs for a change in his life, and then, Tyler Durden is born. “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 that you are not.” (Fincher) Presented as an additional character in the film, Tyler Durden appears as Jack’s alter-ego who embodies exactly what Jack longs for, namely, masculinity and freedom.
The “fight club,” Tyler’s solution to divert society from consumerism, finally provides a sustainable alleviation to Jack’s dejection. Fight clubs are underground cult-like gatherings where all kinds of men, later addressed as “space monkeys,” come and channel their primal male aggression into a new product, a new therapy, a new addiction: fighting. The clubs appear to be a great solution at first, even being called by Jack, “mine and Tyler’s gift […] to the world” (Fincher). But just like with any addiction, the fight clubs quickly spin out of control and in the end, a member dies, Jack kills his alter-ego, and the space monkeys decimate the city of Miami.
The product that is initially perceived so highly as an emotional therapy ends up becoming essentially a weapon of mass destruction. This stark contradiction between liberation and destruction caused by fight clubs leads to a central question that cannot be left unanswered: How do fight clubs truly affect the space monkeys? And moreover, how does their influence allow the film to comment on the importance of freedom and truth in American consumer culture? It is the answers to these questions that will demonstrate to us how Fincher uses Fight Club to nuance modern-day consumerism. In recent years, different scholars have disputed the primary effect that fight clubs have on their members in the film. Many scholars center their arguments around liberation.
For example, Jeanne Wolff Bernstein writes in his Film Review Essay “Fight Club,” that “Fight Club is at first a film about […] men finding self-liberation in beating one another to a pulp. Instead of breeding a lust for revenge, the men embroiled in the physical fights feel more alive and connected to one another, finding a kind of catharsis through their physical pain” (Bernstein 1191). Bernstein suggests that fight clubs are initially depicted as a form of liberation for the space monkeys. This idea of “finding self-liberation [and] catharsis” through physical fighting is particularly significant, considering that fight clubs give characters such as Jack and Bob even more relief than trauma support groups did.
But Bernstein quickly adapts his argument past this “at first” interpretation. Shifting his focus, Bernstein argues that “[m]en of all ages and class backgrounds are depicted, disillusioned with and disenfranchised from their laminated existence, seeking a new meaning to their lives through the bloody bonding with other men.” Although they find this new meaning in fight clubs with Jack giving them a human connection and a purpose to fill their previously meaningless existences, Bernstein suggests that “[b]y imposing strict dress codes and behaviours, (Tyler) turns his ‘space monkeys’ into the same mindless followers he criticizes consumer society for producing” (1192). In this sense, Bernstein argues that fight clubs do not liberate people at all; rather, they keep people ensnared, just by a different means. Although Bernstein offers sound evidence and reasoning, there is too much evidence to prove the opposite—that fight clubs do indeed liberate the space monkeys in the film—to just leave it at that.
In order to accurately position this argument, we must first define what it means to be liberated in the context of the film. We can get a better understanding of liberation with respect to consumer culture by looking at a quote from Tyler Durden. In a conversation with Jack, Tyler explains: “Things you own end up owning you” (Fincher). In other words, the consumer goods that Jack and so many other people purchase eventually take over their lives because they become infatuated with name-brands and begin to center their lives around these products. This metaphor that Fincher uses, placing consumer goods ironically in control of the consumer, emphasizes the captivity of the consumer in this relationship. Since the consumer can no longer live without the products, he is essentially confined to a life of consumerism; his only hope for liberation being an outside entity disrupting the relationship by destroying the consumer goods.
In this sense, in the context of consumer culture and of the movie Fight Club, liberation is the disruption of the consumerist lifestyle. With this definition in place, we can look to Jennifer Barker’s article, “A Hero Will Rise”: The Myth of the Fascist Man in “Fight Club” and “Gladiator,” for a more profound description of the fight clubs’ effects. In this article, Barker discusses how the fight club system embodies a “freedom through submission.” She introduces this by discussing Jack’s mental journey throughout the film:
[Jack] becomes addicted to submission, first finding freedom of ‘losing all hope with self-help groups and then replacing this with the freedom of losing all control with Tyler. He […] submits completely to the meaning Tyler creates. This experience, not only of submission, but the feeling of freedom through submission… (Barker 180)
Here, Barker explains that Jack must submit to Tyler’s fight clubs in order to find freedom. Moreover, he ends up in submission due to his search for freedom, and yet, he finds freedom in his submission. This is ironic, as submission is generally perceived in opposition to freedom, but it all suggests that liberation from consumerism requires a sacrifice of free will. In addition, it is only after the space monkeys also surrender their free will that they are able to find liberation from consumerism. Therefore, by looking at the effects of fight clubs on their members through the lens of Barker’s “freedom through submission,” we can see that although the space monkeys appear to be trapped in the same state before and after engaging in fight clubs, they are in fact liberated from the snare of consumerism because they have lost the will to purchase meaningless goods.
This liberation reveals to us what society would be like in the absence of consumerism and how American consumer culture constrains people from truth. To truly understand the liberating effect of fight clubs, it is important to first understand the relationship that the common man has with consumerism within the film. Early in the movie, when Tyler is criticizing Jack’s materialistic life and the materialistic society, he states, “We are consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra” (Fincher).
Tyler sees materialist, contemporary society as the source of emptiness. Since luxurious consumer goods are not essential to survival, he thinks that the pursuit of these things is meaningless and even deteriorates humanity. When Tyler calls the common man a “by-product of a lifestyle obsession,” the film demonstrates that the consumer becomes the product in consumerist societies. Consumers are supposed to control what they buy, so if the product controls the consumer, then the relationship is reversed. Hence, once people are no longer concerned with important things in life like murder, crime, and poverty, and instead infatuated with name-brands and consumer goods, they actually become the products of the goods that they are purchasing.
Tyler continues: “You are not your job. You are not the money in your bank account. You are not your fucking khakis. You are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. […] We are all part of the same compost heap.” (Fincher) In other words, none of the items that people crave and spend so much money on actually change who they are. Regardless of the quantity or quality of their possessions, they are still just one measly body out of the trillions of people on Earth. All this to say that possessions do not make people special and should not provide satisfaction; rather, every person is equally insignificant, “part of the same compost heap,” and thus, they should not waste their life trying to possess wealth, fame, or class.
Tyler takes it as his mission to break apart the common man’s meaningless craving for consumerism. He believes that if he can show people what it means to be defined by who they really are instead of just their possessions, they will be freed from the chains of consumerism. And since Jack and Tyler discover that fighting reveals the truth in the individual, fight clubs become Tyler’s solution to liberate the imprisoned society. We can see how fighting reveals truth and thus, liberation in people by focusing on particular moments within the film.
Before the first fight of the movie, Tyler asks Jack, “How much can you know about yourself without ever being in a fight?” – a rhetorical question, implying that people do not know anything about themselves until they test themselves by endangering their lives. As mentioned above, Tyler suggests that possessions and positions are just a way for people to disguise themselves as what they wish they could be. This is very apparent in Jack’s case, as Tyler is the epitome of how he wants to look and how he wants to act. But in a fight, possessions and positions become meaningless. It’s almost as if time is reversed to the stone age, before man was so sophisticated and advanced. Pitting one person’s true nature against another’s reveals exactly who those people are behind their day jobs and the brands they wear.
After fighting for their first time, Jack and Tyler discover a true source of exhilaration and an authentic human experience without meaningless, manufactured facades. Jack says that their emotions “[aren’t] alive anywhere like they [are) there” (Fincher). “Fight club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. The hysterical shouting was in tongues, like at a Pentecostal Church. When the fight was over, nothing was solved. But nothing mattered. Afterwards, we all felt saved.” (Fincher) After weeks of engaging in the fight club lifestyle, Jack realizes that everything that he originally cared so much about does not actually matter. All possessions and positions were forgotten in a fight, and time was figuratively reverted back to a time when life was simple, without consumerism chaining people to needless desires.
With these chains broken, there was a lingering feeling of being saved liberated—that attracted so many people to the fight clubs. People would crowd around fighters and after the fights, they’d ask, “Can I be next?” The intensity, euphoria, and authenticity that fighters emitted after seemingly struggling for their lives was tempting for anyone who needed stimulation in their life. People who once worked monotonous white-collar jobs found complete invigoration and satisfaction in the underground blood brawls. And once anyone came to a fight club, they always came back, further ingratiated and captivated by the freedoms of that new way of life.
As a result, fight clubs left people enlightened. At one point, Jack said, “[they] all started seeing things differently. […] Everything [was quieter” (Fincher). In other words, fight clubs caused people to stop sensationalizing consumer goods. Jack implies that people who experienced fight clubs saw life as bigger than just obtaining wealth and status; instead, the new goal was to test their limits and discover what they really were without their possessions.
Furthermore, the quietness that Jack refers to in that quote is further evidence of the fight clubs’ liberation, as the struggles and worries of daily life fizzled out for those who came to fight club. We can look at quietness in the sound aspect, but this quote holds more significance if we see “quiet” as simple and stress-free. The fight clubs eliminated concerns and thus alleviated the stresses of daily life. Again, “nothing mattered.” The appeal and the liberating effects of fight clubs could be seen especially in Bob, a prostate cancer support group regular attendee who was going through hard times due to the emotional trauma caused by his disease. After a few weeks in fight clubs, Bob proclaimed to Jack, “I’m better than I’ve ever been in my whole life. I got something so much better (than support groups] now” (Fincher). This emphasizes just how powerful the liberating effect of fight clubs are for all kinds of people in the film, not just Jack and Tyler.
So although fight clubs evidently have a strong liberating effect in both a consumerist sense and a therapeutic sense, they also share a strong resemblance to the philosophy behind fascism. In Jennifer Barker’s article that I discussed earlier, Barker cites Benito Mussolini, stating that “fascism’aims at refashioning not only the forms of life, but their content’ and realizing this requires ‘entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway’ (qtd. in Mussolini 18)” (181). In the fight club system, people’s lives change in two ways. Initially, their forms change: they do not lose their possessions nor are they ever shown quitting their jobs, but they think differently and act differently. They even begin to walk around with bruises and cuts on their faces from the fights.
Hence, their forms are refashioned. Then, the content of their lives change. This is evident when the space monkeys come to live with Jack and Tyler as a part of “Project Mayhem,” a series of terrorists acts to eliminate consumerist society. The space monkeys don’t just look and act different with their skinned heads and bruised bodies; the structure and content of their lives have changed. Instead of working desk jobs, they spend their time plotting and executing terrorist attacks. Instead of valuing name-brands and wealth, they value the destruction of those very ideas.
This restructuring of form and content aligns directly to Mussolini’s vision of fascism. But further increasing the fascist resemblance is Tyler’s “ruling with undisputed sway.” Throughout the film, Tyler is never questioned by the space monkeys. He tells them to fight, and they fight. He tells them to rob stores, and they rob stores. It is difficult to believe that Tyler can so easily manipulate hundreds of people to commit such heinous crimes, but another look at fascism reveals how this is possible. Barker says in her article, “[T]he ‘Fascist State is wide awake and has a will of its own’ (qtd. in Mussolini 38). But the men it inhabits must keep their own wills asleep…” (180). So essentially, the fascist system of fight clubs compels the space monkeys to sacrifice their wills, liberating themselves from consumerism, but according to Barker, they adopt the strongest will amongst them: Tyler Durden’s (180).
Since Tyler is the embodiment of everything that Jack wishes that he had attractiveness, dominance, and charm—he is easily the strongest will out of all the people in the fight club system and therefore as Jack admits, “[they] all became what Tyler wanted [them) to be” (Fincher). This fascist model, although it has negative connotations, it actually helps to explain the liberating effect of fight clubs. In Mussolini’s Doctrine of Fascism, he details fascism as thus: “Fascism stands for liberty, and for the only liberty worth having, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State” (Mussolini 14). If we apply this lens to Fight Club, the fight clubs would be the state while the space monkeys would be the individuals within. According to the fascist model, liberation is only important for the fight club itself and the members. If we look at fight clubs, we can confirm that they are indeed free from consumerism.
In fact, they are one of the few popular activities that society has not yet made into a commodity. Therefore, it is liberated and represents a refusal to play into consumerism. The space monkeys have also been liberated from consumerism, as fight clubs have replaced their previous addictions to the consumerist lifestyle. Mussolini states that “[t]he Fascist conception of the state is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value” (14). In other words, consumerism has absolutely no value since it lies outside of human and spiritual values. All that matters is the truth, which can only be perceived upon breaking free of the chains of a consumerist society. All that matters is the truth, which can only be perceived through engagement in fight clubs within the film. It’s also important to understand that although Tyler is the figurehead behind the fight club movement, he is simply tapping into the feelings that are already within the people.
Early in the movie, Tyler calls for Jack to “never be complete. [To] stop being perfect. [To] evolve” (Fincher). Jack is reluctant at first, still holding on to his past consumerist life, but the command clearly speaks to him. He begins to question whether his lifestyle is worth the struggle. Tyler is able to influence him so quickly only because similar sentiments already lurk in his mind. He is already unsatisfied with his life and wants a change. And most, if not all of the fellow white collar workers in the film appear to have a similar discontentment with their lives. Fight clubs are then not actually the change, but the platform for people to change their own lives, the opportunity for people to forget about the extras and subtleties of life, the chance for people to “[s]top trying to control everything and just let go” (Fincher).
Although the members of fight clubs change their own mindsets, it is indeed Tyler, who impels them to take action, and to bring their revolution to the world. Tyler gives people homework assignments as a part of “Project Mayhem” to go around the city and cause all types of chaotic disasters. Again, even though it seems incredibly impressive that Tyler is able to drive so many people to commit ridiculous crimes all around the city, it is only possible because this rage already lies dormant in the space monkeys. We can see this in Jack’s claim that the rage driving fight clubs was already within the people. He states, “It was right in everyone’s face. [We) just made it visible. It was at the tip of everyone’s tongue. [We) just gave it a name.” (Fincher) In other words, people already were enraged about meaningless consumerism. In saying that Jack and Tyler simply made the rage visible, the film suggests that the only reason people did not fight previously is because they did not know that others felt the same way. Therefore, they just needed to see that others shared similar sentiments to initiate their revolts against the consumerist society.
So in essence, Jack and Tyler only had to draw out enough rage from people so that it was visible, and then it actually channeled itself into violence and revolt, thus liberating the people from materialistic constrictions. Through quoted evidence from the film and through a variety of external texts, it is clear that fight clubs provide liberation to the chains of consumerism that confine Jack and so many others to a life of monotony. Not just that, but the clubs show their members the truth of who they really are underneath their possessions and working positions. It is interesting to consider that Tyler is born out of Jack’s desire to change his life, yet he ends up changing the lives of so many more people as a result of his alter-ego’s actions. If his alter-ego is able to do these great things, then perhaps Jack had the capability to change himself all along. This conclusion would open some interesting questions: Does Jack really need Tyler to free himself from consumerism?
Is it possible that the space monkeys are actually nighttime alter-egos of the white collar workers who we see during the day? After Tyler’s death at the end of the film, does Jack maintain his freedom from consumerism? These questions could surely serve as pathways for further research. And their answers could serve as even greater insights into the consumer culture represented in the movie Fight Club.
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