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.