I was talking in a thread over at r/skeptic about something or other and found myself doing an explanation of Fight Club (as I read it) and thought, why not put this on the blog? I’ve taught it in at least two classes at this point, so here you go: Fight Club as Warning Against Extremism.
Fight Club is not about how cool it is to fight. It’s not about reclaiming masculinity. It’s not about finding your identity through casting off the shackles of your consumeristic life.
Fight Club is about how easy it is to become an extremist.
Fight Club is not a movie about how awesome it is to “reclaim” masculinity, but rather about how absurd and terrifying a naturalistic imagining of what masculinity entails really is. Think about it: what does it mean to be a man in Fight Club? They don’t care about appearances (they mock a Calvin Klein ad on a bus, scoffing at his abs and saying “is that what a man looks like?”) or even about how well you fight (losing is very important to Tyler Durden). What they care about is returning to a mythologized state of nature:
“In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
Self-sufficiency is their ideal of masculinity. The ability to fight — to get hurt, lose, get back up again, and fight again — is only a reflection of it. Where in that definition of masculinity is there room for family? There is none: Tyler Durden was abandoned by his father and resents being raised by his mother, citing it as a potential cause of his loss of masculinity. Where is the room for taking care of fellow humans? Where is there room for reason?
Fight Club isn’t about reclaiming masculinity, it’s about how easy it is to use the mythology of the disaffected to generate extremism.
The things Project Mayhem actually aims to achieve — a return to “zero,” going back to a literal hunter-gatherer society — are extremism cloaked in the iconography of fighting against consumerism. Sure, we’d all like to buy less, need less “stuff.” Anti-consumerism is the cuddly message their extremism is wrapped up in. Destroying everyone’s credit records, for example (through massive acts of terrorism or otherwise) wouldn’t do much more than throw the US into a recession, causing pointless suffering and creating further opportunities for those in power to exploit. This is the naturalistic fallacy in a nutshell: we’d all be better off without modern society. I can’t help but fail to see the chemotherapy taking place on the abandoned superhighway; maybe they do it next to the guy with the venison in the carpool lane.
But the artistry of the book (and then the film after it) is that the reader or viewer feels attracted to the ideology of Fight Club, even sympathizes with it. I can’t tell you the number of kids I knew (all male, of course) that thought starting a fight club of their own would be awesome. It spoke to something about our generation, the amorphous, ill-defined feeling of something lost.
And replaced it with something violent and dangerous with no real plan to alleviate the problem it cited as its reason for being.
Fight Club is about how easy it is to become swept up in extremism. Its comforting, fight-the-man anti-consumerism is just the vehicle.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.