Fight Club as a popular culture artifact worth studying
The 1999 film Fight Club and the 1996 novel of the same name were produced in a pivotal period in the history of the world’s economic systems. The early 1990s played host to what seemed like the unquestionable dominance of the Western capitalism over the Marxist ideologies of the East: the Marxist Soviet Union was clearly falling and Maoist socialism seemed to be in a definite decline. However, Marxist and neo-Marxist intellectual criticisms were shown to be alive and well in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club which itself was well-received and continues to garner wide readership having been re-released in five and 10-year anniversaries editions. This paper, will focus on David Fincher’s 1999 film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton because it effectively illustrates and augments Palahniuk’s original arguments.
Overtly, the film is rich in critiques of consumerism and materialism. More covertly, as this paper will argue, Fight Club also constructs a complex argument regarding the relationship between American consumerism/materialism and the altered perception of the white male’s masculinity in the late 20th century. Although not a commercial hit, quickly developed a “cult film” status in its home video releases. In fact, the film has maintained a place in IMDb’s “Top 500” movies list since the film has been catalogued on the site; further, the internet review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes illustrates that 96% of viewers appreciate the novelty of film’s ideas. In critical circles, the concepts presented in the film continue to be debated by film critiques and popular culture academics alike. When considering the intertwined nature of Flight Club’s argument and the films continued popular appeal, without a doubt, David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club is a popular culture artifact worth studying.
Relevance of the social issue presented in Fight Club
Fight Club follows the story of an insomniac office worker (known to us only as “The Narrator”) who finds solace and sleep only by coming to tears to the confessions of others in the support groups for those suffering from life-threatening illnesses. After The Narrator’s apartment explodes, causing him to lose all his worldly possessions, he befriends Tyler Durden, a brash and anti-conventional character who foils The Narrator in every possible way. Soon, Tyler Durden alongside The Narrator, form an underground fighting club based on the principals of a minimalist living and, eventually, the carrying out of anarchist activities in Project Mayhem; a growing anarchist grand-plan which culminates in a plan to destroy credit card companies debt records, thus bringing America’s society back to ground-zero to reconstruct itself in a minimalist, non-consumer-oriented culture. Immediately preceding the execution of this plan, The Narrator discovers that he himself is Tyler Durden having suffered from a massive multiple-personality disorder. Despite a desperate attempt to get his mindless fight club members to avert the plans of Project Mayhem, The Narrator stands witness as his city’s crowning credit institutions are brought to the ground.
The current academic discussion
Most mainstream academic discussion of the film is centered around a traditional Marxist analysis of the film and novel. Some of these papers such as “America’s Proletariat: Fight Club through a Marxist Lens” describe Fight Club in terms of a class struggle as a Marxist perspective would indicate; In fact, most papers in this field analyze this film as a Marxist criticism of American society. Other academics discuss gender constructs and the development of masculine and feminine characteristics throughout the film while attempting to tie in their analysis with a Marxist analysis as in Tori Godfree’s paper “A Generation of Men Raised by Women: Gender Constructs in ‘Fight Club.’” However, most academic work on Fight Club is found within film circles where scholars debate the merits of artistic style used within the film as an adaptation of the novel (see Kyle Bishop’s “Artistic Schizophrenia”). This paper will take another angle upon the film Fight Club and will instead discuss, through a neo-Marxist perspective, how the film criticizes how we construct our own self-image and identity based on our material possessions.
What this paper will argue
Throughout the film, we see that Tyler Durden is engaged in a constant criticism of the American consumerist culture. The film then argues that this consumerism-oriented society has feminized promotional perceptions of male masculinity in late 20th century American society and has also altered the way in which we value ourselves. In this paper we will ask:
how does Fight Club establishes a relationship between America’s consumerist/materialist culture and images of masculinity conveyed through promotional materials? how does Fight Club illustrate how we have come to value ourselves based on our possessions? These lines of inquiry are relevant to our own 21th century where the internet and ubiquitous advertising continue to expand in their in their scope and subconscious power. Thus, understanding social criticisms of our current economic system is vital to understand how our macro-scale economic structures can influence the way in which promotion can alter the way we perceive ourselves as a departure or entrenching of past ideologies. In this way, the social issues and challenge to the dominant consumerist ideology presented in Fight Club is still relevant today and worthy of study. Similarly, we will also find that the neo-Marxist perspective is apt to study and understand this film.
Examining Fight Club
Outlining the neo-Marxist rhetorical perspective
Sellnow establishes that the neo-Marxist perspective helps “expose how material conditions and economic practices shape dominant ideology regarding taken-for granted assumptions about who ‘ought to be’ and ‘ought not to be’ empowered” (Sellnow 115). In other words, neo-Marxist readings help us understand how popular culture “reinforces or rejects the status quo” power structures of “socioeconomic status and materials as normal or common sense” or as a given in our society (Sellnow 115). An element of studies known as critical rhetoric, neo-Marxism allows us to examine how texts “create and sustain the social practices which control the dominated” (Mckerrow “Critical Rhetoric”). The aim of this form of rhetorical criticism is to empower people to free themselves from the oppression allowing them to understand how rhetoric perpetuates the hegemony. The neo-Marxist perspective is often thought of as a prolonged discussion of the works of Max Weber (Burris, “Neo-Marxist Synthesis”, 68); a developer of sociology who is often thought of being in a prolonged “dialogue with the ghost of Marx” (Burris, “Neo-Marxist Synthesis”, 69). Renowned philosopher Karl Marx himself laid the foundation of this perspective in his own writings where he wrote that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (Marx, 172). In addition, the neo-Marxist perspective draws on various philosophers such as Italian Marxist Antonia Gramsci and cultural theorist Stuart Hall regarding ideology and hegemony. Further, we will see how the main characters of Fight Club, who anti-models in the neo-Marxist sense, challenge the hegemony by fighting the preferred reading. Within this perspective, texts are seen as sites of struggle wherein the mass media reinforces or questions the dominant ideology. In summary, we can see that neo-Marxist perspective examines the text for any and all ideas, rules, laws, norms or other elements that are based off of anything related to material possessions or wealth that can reflect and/or serve to further perpetuate the hegemony.
Conducting/operationalizing a neo-Marxist analysis
Conducting a neo-Marxist analysis calls to attention the subtle ways hegemony is embedded in popular culture with the end goal of empowering us to become free from oppression. From Sellnow, we are provided the following operational framework for a neo-Marxist analysis (Sellnow, 123-126):
After we select a text that overtly or occultly challenges the status quo, we are instructed to examine the text and evaluate our conclusions’ implications on the target audience of the text. When examining the text, the neo-Marxist perspective commands that we begin to describe the text in terms of the economic metaphors embodied in the character presented as models (who we “ought to be like”) and anti-models (who we “ought not be like”); as we will see, this dichotomy is clearly presented between The Narrator and Steven Durden in Fight Club. Next, we the model’s and anti-model’s material possessions, statuses, and the interaction between the characters; in doing so, we consider what is conveyed as positive and negative in each character.
Finally, we seek to understand the potential implications of the text analyzed and the implications of the analysis we present in terms of their effect on the target audience. In the following section, we shall look critically at Fight Club in terms of the ideas presented above; in doing so, we will support our conclusion that Fincher’s 1996 film Fight Club criticizes American consumerism and materialism to extent of demonstrating that such consumerism has led to establishing a status quo (i.e. hegemonic) ideology encompassing feminized images of and domesticated behavior of men in late 20th century American society.
Examining Fight Club – the dominant ideology, models, and
In our analysis of the film, in keeping with the neo-Marxist perspective, we will first establish the model and anti-model characters in relation to the defined dominant ideology. Next, we will discuss the characters’ statuses, roles in society, and their material possessions. Finally, we will consider the interactions between the characters, the development of their relationship and their material possessions, and finally how their actions are deemed as positive or negative in light of the dominant ideology.
In the first few minutes of the film, Fincher establishes dominate ideology regarding materialism and consumerism. First we hear The Narrator commenting the following:
“When deep space exploration ramps up, it will be corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.” (Fight Club 04:20)
As we hear The Narrator saying this, the camera zooms out of a trash can containing various popular consumer brands such as “Krispy Kreme”, “Sprite soda”, and many others. With the rhetoric of The Narrator’s comments itself, we see anti-materialist language with the negatively-positioned word “corporations” and the monotone conveyance of “IBM,” “Microsoft,” and “Starbucks” indicates a disinterest and indifferent attitude to consumerist state of The Narrator’s society.
Earlier on, Fight Club more definitively establishes the dominant ideology regarding materialism in the opening moments of the film. In the beginning of the film, the narrator suffers from insomnia, a condition that doesn’t offer him any sleep for months on end. While The Narrator is discussing his boring, repetitive office work, he comments that
“With insomnia, nothing is real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” (Fight Club 00:04)
In this quote, The Narrator is encompassing the consumer goods like in the “Everything’s a copy of a copy” commenting. Thus, Fight Club is also commenting on how continued purchase of consumer goods is repetitive, and worthless, in nature. This scene clearly demonstrates that the culture of mindless and repetitive office work and consumerism.
We will consider two more scenes that further illustrates the dominant ideology of mindless consumerism that Fight Club eventually fights against this status quo. When describing his home in the opening scenes of the film, The Narrator describes his purchasing habits as “Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.” (Fight Club 04:40) He proceeds to disinterestedly list out the numerous Ikea items he has mindlessly purchased as a “slave to the IKEA nesting instinct.”
Finally, one more scene will illustrate how the dominant ideology shapes individuals’ behavior. To conclude his narration of his insomnia condition near the beginning of Fight Club and while The Narrator is laying down and watching the Home Shopping Network on TV, he comments that:
When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep and you’re never really awake. (Fight Club 13:00)
In this quote, The Narrator parallel his own inability to rest with that of the consumerist/materialist world surrounding him. In doing so, Fight Club establishes the main tenants of what we can observe to be the dominant ideology of society Fight Club takes place in:
rampant and thoughtless/mindless consumerism, and a restless obsession with materialism and possession of all things wanted Now that we have established the dominant ideology (or hegemony), we can proceed to describe the model and anti-model characters in relation to this ideology.
In relation to the aforementioned dominant ideology, The Narrator in the opening half-hour of the film is considered the model character. As seen in his work place, he is highly conformist and engages in mindless activities. In his own work, his responsibilities are driven by economic interests as the neo-Marxist perspective would have us observe: The Narrator’s occupation is a recall analyst in a major car company; he assesses life and death choices by weighing the cost of a recall with the cost of out-of-court settlements (Fight Club 21:00).
Prior to this scene, Fight Club further illustrates the monotonous nature of The Narrator’s job with a montage of The Narrator being jarred awake upon landing at various cities across the country where he is tasked with assessing the potential of a recall. Through these two scenes and many others through the film, we see that The Narrator character we are initially introduced to is non-aggressive, reserved, content, and lives out society’s expectations for a person in his role. Effectively, these scenes and personality traits illustrate how The Narrator is a model character of what “ought to be” within the dominant ideology of mindless actions and materialism. Because The Narrator plays the role of a model, he would be considered positively in the dominant ideology.
A foil to The Narrator in every way possible, Tyler Durden serves as the anti-model. From his very first line in the film, spoken to The Narrator as he is jarred awake during on a business flight, we see Tyler Durden’s anti-conventional thoughts that challenge the hegemony. When discussing the purpose of oxygen masks with The Narrator, Tyler comments that
The oxygen gets you high. You’re taking in giant, panicked breaths and, suddenly, you become euphoric and docile, and you accept your fate. (Fight Club 22:00)
These anti-conventional thoughts continue a few moments later when Tyler Durden says:
There are three ways to make napalm. One, mix equal parts of gasoline and frozen orange juice. Two, mix equal parts of gasoline and diet cola. Three, dissolve crumbled cat litter in gasoline until the mixture is thick. (Fight Club 22:00)
We further see how this anti-model further challenges the expectations of the hegemony that the model readily adopts; Tyler Durden, Fight Club’s society’s anti-model, adopts a non-conventional career that defines its own hours and expectations: producing soap. Soap production is the only Later on in the film, we see that Tyler Durden challenges the hegemony’s idea of non-aggressive behaviors when he instigates The Narrator into a fight behind a bar (Fight Club 32:20). These three scenes clearly illustrate the anti-model nature of Tyler Durden. Because Tyler Durden plays the role of anti-model, he would be considered negatively in the dominant ideology.
Understanding characters’ material possessions and their
relationship to one another
Since we have already established who is the model and anti-model and their respective roles in their society, we will next consider their material possessions and their developing relationship as ascribed in the neo-Marxist analysis steps outlined by Sellnow (125).
Our model, The Narrator, has many possessions. We see elements of his materialist life outlined in the beginning of the film. The Narrator himself comments that he would:
I’d flip through catalogues and wonder, “what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” (Fight Club 05:30)
Here we see that The Narrator initially defined himself by his own material possessions, tying his self-worth and values to the products that he bought. Essentially, he is ‘enslaving’ his own thoughts and values to the ideals conveyed in consumerist messages and his materialist lifestyle. Such a statement supports Fight Club’s that the hegemony promoted by consumerism has led to individual’s valuing themselves based on their possessions. However, The Narrator’s material possessions don’t remain static through the film. After returning from a business trip, he finds that his home has exploded leading to the total destruction of all of his personal property (Fight Club 28:20). Such an event represents the forced abandonment of all of The Narrator’s personal property and material possessions. With nowhere left to turn, and nothing left to live with, The Narrator turns to Tyler Durden, the acquaintance he had just met on a flight.
Our anti-model, Tyler Durden, signifies the polar opposite lifestyle of The Narrator’s. He lives in an abandoned and rundown house near a factory (Fight Club 36:00). Durden lives without proper running water and intermittent flooding that shorts out whatever power he has running the lights. Durden also comments on how he has no TV, car, any form of modern newspaper/magazine, or electronics. He makes his own living as a food service worker for his city’s wealthiest (Fight Club 33:00). In short, Durden lives a minimalist life absent of property, consumerist or materialist tendencies; he is the pure embodiment of this society’s anti-model.
In terms of their interaction, Tyler Durden effectively makes The Narrator more aggressive and pushes The Narrator towards a more minimalist life. Together, they establish and grow an underground fighting ring and training house that eventually develops into full-fledged anarchist endeavor that The Narrator ends up protesting. It is important to note that Tyler Durden also reinforces his status as an anti-model when he directs Project Mayhem to attack credit card companies; acknowledging that these institutions act as a neo-Marxist economic metaphor that convey his culture’s hegemonic ideas; these ideas that Durden are rebelling against include the debt cycle of credit card consumers and the materialist spending habits of consumers promoted by credit card companies. Durden’s idea of liberating people from their debt is reflected in an excerpt from The Narrator’s monologue as he confesses the objective of Project Mayhem to the police:
If you erase the debt record, we all go back to zero. It’ll create total chaos. (Fight Club 121:00)
The very development of The Narrator into a more aggressive and non-materialist through the underground fight club further intertwines the relationship between aggression and materialism. Through the movie, we see that The Narrator’s departure from consumerism allows him to regain what Fincher portrays as a more natural state of man. In this illustration, Fincher and Palhuick argue that consumerism has led to a domestication of man and his naturally aggressive tendencies. This notion is further demonstrated in a dialogue on a bus advertisement between The Narrator and Durden:
The Narrator: I started seeing things differently. Everywhere I was going, I was sizing things up. I felt sorry for the guys packing into gyms, trying to look like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger said they should.
Tyler Durden (indicating the ad): Is that how a man looks like? (scoffs) (Fight Club 45:00)
Such a scene effectively demonstrates what seems to be Fight Club’s thesis: American materialism and consumerism has led to establishing a status quo (i.e. hegemonic) ideology encompassing feminized promotional images of and domesticated behavior of men in late 20th century American society.
As illustrated through various examples in the film, Fight Club argues against materialism and consumerism because it has altered the way that promotion views us and thus the way we see ourselves.
Evaluating potential implications of Fight Club
We will now consider the effect of Fight Club on the viewer and the implications of this analysis. As previously mentioned, the film conveys a strong anti-consumerist message tied in with what appears to be a promotion of anarchist activities. Thus, viewers may feel empowered to carry out their own anarchist activities that have the strong potential of harming others. However, if viewers to be inspired by the film, they would in fact consider the message that is at the heart of the film: you are not what you own.
The reading of the film presented in this paper serves as a subverted oppositional reading because it challenges the status quo presented both in the film and in our 21st century American society. As such, this analysis would have the potential implication of compelling others to alter their consumerist habits or at least be cognizant of the effect that materialism has on our self-perception and self-worth. As Tyler Durden himself put it:
You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f**-ing khakis. (Fight Club* 84:30)
“America’s Proletariat: Fight Club through a Marxist Lens.” Personal Blog. N.p., 09 Dec. 2012. Web. 10 May 2015. https://mypotatofamine.wordpress.com/fight-club-literay-analysis/americas-proletariat-fight-club-through-a-marxist-lens/.
Bishop, Kyle. “Artistic Schizophrenia: How Fight Club’s Message Is Subverted by Its Own Nature.” PCASACAS, Oct. 2006. Web. 10 May 2015. http://pcasacas.org.seanic11.net/SiPC/29.1/Bishop.pdf.
Burris, Val. “Chapter 3: The Neo-Marxist Synthesis of Marx and Weber on Class.” The Marx-Weber Debate. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1987. 67-90. Print.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter. 20th Century Fox, 1999. DVD.
Godfree, Tori E. “A Generation of Men Raised by Women: Gender Constructs in ‘Fight Club’” Student Pulse. N.p., 2010. Web. 10 May 2015. http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/227/a-generation-of-men-raised-by-women-gender-constructs-in-fight-club.
Mckerrow, Raymie E. “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis.” Communication Monographs 56.2 (1989): 91-111. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 10 May 2015. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03637758909390253
Sellnow, Deanna D. The Rhetorical Power of Popular Culture: Considering Mediated Texts. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2010. Print.
Tucker, Robert C., Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1978. Print.
© Pramod Kotipalli 2015
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