What I Think about the Story of ‘Fight Club’

I’m not particularly interested in the story of Fight Club. After I had seen the film the first time, I still had no interest at all. The first time was in the theatre on a date; we almost walked out. The second time I watched it was at home and I noted that the dialog in the first part was engaging, but as a whole the movie could not keep me focused. My original post about the film was written as a reply to a friend and was aimed at answering a very direct question from her. I had no idea there was any interest in the story or film outside our discussion. The reams and reams of writing I find myself doing now have really been extracted by a huge struggle between outside forces, my better judgment, and internal demons. I still don’t find the story interesting or attractive and would not recommend reading it to anyone concerned with how they spend the minutes of their life. However I do find that my thoughts about the story have changed significantly since I started this odyssey.

Fight Club very clearly has a powerful message to many of its readers and viewers. But it’s hardly original. Chuck Palanhuik is hardly the first person to notice the alienating nature of modern consumer society. So what is it about his story that makes it better than previous versions? Some readers have told me it’s a message with particular appeal to the young who are not yet jaded by consumerism and career. Is Fight Club then just adolescent literature for college students? What makes Fight Club different from The Hardy Boys or Conan Comic Books or the Priest Kings of Gor?

Fight Club as Commentary on Modernity

What is it that this ‘Fight Club journey’ has taught me about the story? To be honest, until I had it explained to me, I had no idea it was a protest against consumerism. Even though I was aware of the interesting dialog that opened the story, I became lost in the bloody imagery and cheesiness of using Brad Pitt as a macho protagonist. That’s why I genuinely appreciate the comments left to my previous posts. This very interesting comment from someone claiming to be Rory Sweeney highlights my point,

While we [humans] have long argued that doing so will free us to achieve higher goals, such as jetpacks and hover-cars, what society has shown is that we enjoy the simplicity of appealing to our base instincts. For examples, I give you the rise of professional sport to the devotion of a religion, and the pervasiveness of pornography that you disdain so conceitedly. Despite our advances technologically, the very principles of consumerism have kept us from attaining any higher purpose. We create advanced communication devices so that we can interact over vast distances, increase our productivity and free ourselves to explore the mysteries of the universe. Then we design, produce market and buy products to fill the devices with millions of diversions to distract us from the hard work of advancing humanity beyond its current state. Along with helping us expand our horizons, technology has created more distractions and allowed us to live insular lives to compensate for the aggravation that we have no focus, no guidance no plan and no objective to obtain in particular.

This was a very thoughtful remark and I learned a lot about Rory from reading it. I have no problem with the anti-consumerist message he is trying to communicate. Where he and I disagree is that we need Fight Club to think of this. Rory thinks it’s crucial and concludes the above quotation with the remark

[above quote]…That, to me, is what Fight Club is about.

I think this is ridiculous. There’s been more than a hundred million billion words written about this aspect of modern life. Starting at the turn of the last century, some of the greatest minds of our time have reflected on the question. It’s a crucial aspect of the neo-Marxist philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Emile Durkheim, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell all wrote about this. It’s one of the main themes of counterculture since the 1960s. It’s the message that shaped the music of Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics, as well as the greatest band that neither you nor anyone else has ever heard of, The Saints (and here). It’s become so central to popular culture it appears on the websites of bands whose main income is derived from the performance of sound tracks for pornographic movies. A questioning of this is in part what gave rationale to the regime of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and fuels the neo-fascist government in the People’s Republic of China. It is the central question of modernity in our life time, having given birth to entire academic disciplines and fields of study. So I agree with Rory that this is an important question and one that deserves a great deal of thought. My problem is with Chuck Palahnuik’s version and its cinematic interpretation. I have never needed a shirtless Brad Pitt beating someone bloody to come to agreement with Rory.

This is why I keep asking about deeper analysis. Why would I now need Chuck? I have never needed to read Fight Club or watch Brad Pitt to be asking questions about the meaning of life, material wealth, and human needs in the late 20th century. My guess is that Rory didn’t either. He knew all this and probably even wrote about it long before he ever came across Fight Club. The real question is not what message Rory and his Fight Club friends get from the story, but why they think they need Chuck Palahnuik’s version of this story to give the concept meaning. What is it about the way Chuck tells us the story that Aldous Huxley’s version lacks? Certainly there seems to be a great deal of attachment to this explanation of alienation and anomie, rather than to Durkheim or Marx.

The Truly Conservative Message of Fight Club

I can understand that some explanations are more appealing than others. This doesn’t make anyone’s answers more or less accurate. It just means there are symbolic aspects of the explanation that make them ‘interesting’. It’s these psychological aspects of expression that have given birth to the myriad forms of analysis Rory mistook me for stating. I had thought I had avoided this by pointing out Fight Club seems almost a plagiarized version of works of great literature and that only readers unfamiliar with this could find the story original and daring. But I’ve changed my mind on this point. Or at least I’ve come to a slightly different interpretation of why someone could find profound a basically plagiarized version of great literature copied to explain a concept that has functioned as the backbone for much of Western intellectual discourse.

So who is Fight Club a meaningful and profound message for? And why do these people keep getting upset at me for pointing out that it’s their message? Why aren’t they embracing my identification of them as a tribe? Because in my pointing out that Fight Club is a special message for them, I am also pointing out that it is not a message for everyone.

University of Manitoba professor Kenneth MacKendrick referred me to this article from the Huffington Post addressing why “dudes don’t read”. Despite the headline, the article has little to do with men reading and is more about men writing. Where are the “badass young male writers” of today. It asks us, would Hunter S. Thompson or Kurt Vonnegut or Brett Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney or Alex Garland or Chuck Palahniuk even get book deals if their debut novels were written today?

But this is an incredibly conservative message. I am in no sense well-read in the works of these authors but I have read something from each of them, except for Alex Garland. While some of them are still writing, they are all my age or older. They started writing in a time when writing was physically a different thing from what it is now. There was only paper to write on. You had a choice of using pens or typewriters, but it all looked pretty much the same when it got into the hands of a reader.

So what would Hunter S. Thompson be writing if he starting writing today? Would he be writing books? Would he have had to start his writing career as a journalist? Thompson wrote non-fiction. It was sold in books by stores because that’s pretty much the only way large essays could be distributed. There’s a whole new world out there and as such, there’s a whole new way of packaging print. And my reading of this is that it’s these new ways that men like to read and write (or see here). Would Thompson’s writing career have started in news and then lead to writing books? It might have, but my guess is that he would have been writing in the same place you are reading right now.

The idea that reading and writing habits haven’t changed in decades despite unimaginable changes in print media seems very strange to me. Newspapers have adapted to this fact. Libraries are now on-line. But there’s some out there who hearken for the good old days when people had to spend money to get a hold of print. I can understand that bookstores and publishing companies would think fondly of the past, but I can’t understand why some segment of readership would reject a technology that has given us the power to publish directly and for readers to find our stuff without paying.

My point is that if Hunter S. Thompson were writing today, he would be blogging or something else on the Net. He sure wouldn’t be writing books that are sold in bookstores. The idea that he needed a publishing house to make him into a great ‘badass’ writer is really strange given the hundred and one ways of disseminating print that the Internet has created.

But more than anything, this message about bookstores and publishing companies is an intensely conservative image of writing and of society. Of course it’s a conservative message. The whole Fight Club thing is an intensely conservative message. And that’s what I mean with my Fight Club as the White Man’s message-thing. Fight Club is for people who expected a whole lot more from life than they think they’ll ever really be getting. So who is it that’s listening to this message of Fight Club as revolutionary literature? Is it Third World authours? Is it minority writers in the USA? No, it’s a bunch of young White boys from the suburbs whining about how the ladies are now crowding them out of the bookstores and the chance to become print media celebrity millionaires. I guess this is just the politically correct way to be a red neck now that women are filling the boardrooms and management offices. Is It any coincidence that Fight Club’s become the new hip theme for cool young Christians? After all, who’s more nostalgic for the good old days when men were fathers and women didn’t make millions writing books or control publishing companies?

So in the End..?

So in the end, where am I with all this Fight Club stuff? It’s not that I disagree with the message. Of course I agree with Rory and his Fight Club friends. How could I disagree with all these voices crying out about consumerism and corporate control? How could I? It’s just that in all of this I keep hearing another voice that I can’t quite make out so clearly. The last time I heard it was on the website of that broken down rock and roll band inviting fans to join then in their battle against consumerism while boasting of their exploits making soundtracks for pornographic movies. I just can’t shake the feeling it’s not so much the cry of victims that I’m hearing as it is their whining that getting all that stuff was so much harder than they ever thought it would be.

And that’s what I hear in all the responses to my lack of enthusiasm with the story of Fight Club. It’s a bunch of middle-class kids from the ‘burbs who’ve stumbled upon a watered-down version of the central problem with modern capitalist life. Maybe they really are calling for a revolutionary change in the way we live. But then again, maybe they really do believe they are a unique snowflake and getting all that crap from the store should have been a lot easier than it’s been.

Fight Club isn’t their battle cry for a world where production and labour serve human needs. It’s their symbol for a world where they should have been special and unique, but somewhere along the way it all got stolen.

Check out this link about the print industry lobby group Printing Industries of America.

Why Chuck Palahnuik is Irrelevant.


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