FIGHT CLUB (1999) 

IMDB Synopsis: An insomniac office worker, looking for a way to change  his life, crosses paths with a devil-may-care soapmaker, forming an under ground fight club that evolves into something much, much more.

Director: David Fincher 

Writers: Chuck Palahniuk (novel), Jim Uhls (screenplay) 

Stars: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Meat Loaf (RIP)  

I saw a bumper sticker on a pickup truck the other day. It was surround ed by a bunch of pro Trump stickers.  Everybody Wants To Be Offended 

This sentiment is part of the “snowflake” democrat, unmotivated Millennial, PC police, man-up, chest pounding beliefs of the modern gorilla. It  also sounded exactly like something Tyler Durden would say. 

And, in a way, Fight Club seems to have offended cultural critics  Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman who, in “Ikea Boy Fights Back: Fight  Club, Consumerism, and the Political Limits of Nineties Cinema,”  describe Fight Club as having ”nothing substantive to say about the  structural violence of unemployment, job insecurity, cuts in public spending, and the destruction of institutions capable of defending social  provisions and the public good.” They say that the movie, “tells us very  little… about the real circumstances and causes of our discontent, which  lie in a very different place than in the seeming emasculation of that  social group that wields perhaps the most concentrated power the world  has ever seen—urban, upper-middle class, white, male technocrats.”  For Giroux and Szeman, Fight Club is an offensive failure. 

But, Fight Club is important since it is about the importance of corruption. Not corporate greed corruption, though it uses that as a false  target, it’s more of an old recipe for corruption as part of the process of  progress. Chairman Mao said “destroy to build.” Chuck Palahniuk, the  author of Fight Club the novel and the subsequent comic series of the  same name is a modern cultural critic on the caliber of Giroux and Szemen, if not infinitely more accessible or at least entertaining and bloody.  Corruption – even of his own text – IS the point, and here we might be  able to learn a bit about a possible path forward towards greater  sustainability in American culture. 

Fight Club uses an existential search for self as a set of guide rails to  explore this. To use a Zizek term, our narrator (Ed Norton) is “nicely  alienated.” The insomniac narrator moves through the text as a “tourist”  in his own city looking for something to help define him as he attends  death and dying self-help groups each designed to make the transition  to death less lonely. He want’s to feel. Anything. 

Tuesday nights is testicular cancer (Remaining Men Together), Thurs days is brain parasites, and so on. Bitch-Tits Bob (Meat Loaf), who the  narrator meets on a Tuesday night sets up one of the important tropes  in the film – that of a neutering of masculinity. Porn doesn’t cut it  anymore, so the narrator resorts to shopping therapy. Point blank, he  says, “…even the Rislampa wired lamp of environmentally-friendly un bleached paper. I flip through catalogues wondering what kind of dining  set defines me as a person.” The narrator’s alter-ego, Tyler Durden,  follows this line of thought throughout the movie. 

“The things you own end up owning you.” 

You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You  are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not  your fucking khakis.” 

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can  buy shit we don’t need.” 

After porn therapy and then shopping therapy fail, all that is left is  violence therapy. I’m afraid this is where we are culturally with the  sustainability movement. All that is left is to fight each other. This feels  very real today. Real men, don’t talk about it, they punch it out. Durden  says, “self improvement is masturbation….now, self destruction…”  Shopping-as-therapy-as-sex giving way to destruction is this current  moment.  

We are ready to move from sustainability as fetish, to sustainability as  corrupting force. Let’s follow the Durden’s logic. 

PHASE 1: Therapy (acknowledgement and acceptance). Much of the  raising of the environmental consciousness of the 50’s and 60’s was  informed by education of earth sciences. Its goal was to open eyes.  

Think about Carson’s Silent Spring as a siren call. And it worked. It was  responsible for curbing visible environmental pollution and priming  massive regulatory reform. This was our self-help phase. Let’s come  together, sing Kumbaya, and think globally and act locally.  

As we now know “think global act locally” is pablum. Ecological catastrophe can only be reversed with mega decisions. To think that  saving a single stream is part of the solution is part of the problem.  

Sampling Marx, Zizek called this kind of ecology a new “”opium for the  masses.” This phase established limits for pollution and was a kind of  eco-democracy in action. The next phase would be one of action of one  kind or another. 

PHASE 2: Shopping to save the planet. Capitalism always adapts to  save itself, like a virus. And it’s recent adaptation is as savior of the  planet. You cannot buy a cup of coffee these days without feeding a  hungry child. You cannot rent a car without also planting a tree. Every  load of laundry now saves water. This is not the solution; this is the  problem repackaged. Like our narrator, in order to escape our pain, we  need to participate in the problem in a way that feels like a solution – to  shop our way out of Climate Change. This is Bono and Bobby Shriver’s  (RED) campaign. The critique isn’t that (RED) doesn’t do the good it  says it does. It does. The critique that it is a capitalist tool that encour ages the activity that creates the need for Tyler Durden’s plot to corrupt  the system. Brands hate this concept for good reason. You rarely get  this conversation at sustainability conferences because, well, we all  know the first rule of Fight Club. Don’t talk about Fight Club. 

PHASE 3: Mayhem. Durden’s plot to reboot the system starts innocently  as monkey-wrenching. They change billboards to reflect an anti message from the Environmental Protection Agency “Did you know? You  can use old motor oil to fertilize your lawn?” We’ve seen this approach  to consumerism before in naturalistic writer Ed Abbey, who famously  encouraged all of us to “Grow a beard, take a bath, burn a billboard.”  

Durden’s Project Mayhem destroyed corporate art, and corrupted  children’s films by splicing single frames of pornography into the film.  It started as awareness and education and soft confrontation through  deviant art. But of course, like our approach to sustainability, things  must escalate. To reclaim manliness, the culturally neutered men move  from porn to shopping to violence: the Fight Club. When beating on  each other no longer does it, they scale up. Project Mayhem will even tually blow up buildings and bring down the financial infrastructure.  Its target is largely the banking industry – as an icon of the problem of  consumerism.  

This is the opposite of Zizek’s “Don’t Act, Think.” moment. He says  “when we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa, with a call for  us to do something to help them, the underlying message is something  like: Don’t Think, Don’t Politicize, forget about the true cause of their  poverty, just act, contribute money so that you will not have to this.”   

De(con)struction, of the self, the city, the culture, the banks, is the  solution for Palahniuk. He’s committed to it to the point of corrupting  his own text. At the end of Fight Club, as our narrator reassures the  viewer “trust me, everything is going to be fine” there is a single frame of  porn spliced into Fight Club itself. It’s almost too clever. And then the  cityscape blows up and collapses around him. 

Of course it will not be fine. Project Mayhem doesn’t change the system.  It just blows up some buildings. It doesn’t stop climate change, it just  cleans up some streams. 

“Remember, the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the  system. Beware not only of the enemies, but also of false friends who are  already working to dilute this process in the same way that we get coffee  without caffeine, beer without alcohol, [or] ice cream without fat. They will  try to make this into a harmless moral protest.” (Zizek in an Open Forum  for Occupy Wall Street). 

I am offended. We should all be offended. We should feel a little like  Tyler Durden:  “I don’t wanna die without any scars. So come on; hit me before I lose  my nerve.” 

Welcome to sustainability Fight Club.7  


7  It is not a coincidence that the consulting firm I founded in 2003 was called The SOAP  Group. Tyler Durden was a soap maker too.