The Society of the 'Fight Club' Is the Society of the Spectacle

by Carl Wilson

24 July 2017

All work and no play make Fight Club's Jack deconstruct life, Cinema, and his own sanity.
Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden (IMDB) 
cover art

Fight Club

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter

(Fox 2000 Pictures)
US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999

Review [17.Jan.2010]

When Jack, the lead protagonist and narrator of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), is at work, he monologues that “with insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” The camera tracks sideways, imitative of the mechanisms of the photocopier that Jack is using. A Starbucks coffee cup is shown in close up, then a computer-generated pull-out shot of a bin, bursting with disposable commodities, is verbally annotated by a denouncement of global capitalism: “The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. The Planet Starbucks.”

Functioning as a flashback, the opening scene of Fight Club implies that the macrocosmic spectacle of commercialism is to blame for Jack’s apathetic condition. This scene, and the film as a whole, I would suggest, can be usefully examined by Guy Debord’s observation that: “the more [the spectator] contemplates, the less he lives; the more he accepts recognising himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 30).

Debord’s critique of mass media, commodity fetishism, and his comparative analogies between religion and marketing in The Society of the Spectacle, are epitomised by the idea that “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (ibid: 4). Fight Club is a film in which entirely comparable tensions such as that between self-understanding and commercial acquiescence are engendered and explored by the relationship between the two central protagonists: Jack and Tyler. Both characters appear to exist within the diegetic reality of the film, but Jack has imagined Tyler – a projected image of self-worth—into being within his reality, and the audience is, at first, made complicit in this self-deception.

In Fight Club, notions of the spectacle find figurative and literal forms, driving the reflexive narrative. The formation of Tyler in relation to Jack can be understood as: “The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him” (ibid: 30). Debord saw these images as detrimental to human agency, and can be compared to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power (as the effect of economic, cultural, or social power—when it is not perceived as being such) leading to symbolic violence. However, whereas Bourdieu allows for distinction and the cultural capital of the individual to shape their understanding of their position within society, Debord saw the agent as increasingly divorced from reality as the spectacle “stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life: recovering the full range of their human powers.”

The passive worldview of Jack, the insomniac, seeps into the reality within Fight Club, and is shaped by the spectacle that Debord theorises, incarnated through the existence and actions of Tyler Durden. However, the film also consciously enables viewers to shape their own understanding of the cinematic spectacle. For example, in the opening scene of Fight Club, the metaphoric links between the photocopier and the film camera are apt, as they both provide reproductions of reality. However, whereas Jack believes that he is in control of the photocopier – a cultural competency that is later disproven as he forgets to remove the rules of Fight Club from it – the audience is afforded more credit, with reflexive ironies surrounding Cinema, as both a cultural and industrial spectacular product, more attuned to their own more sophisticated horizon of expectations.

Nothing to Be Done

That Jack is capable of theorising a submissive reality where “nothing’s real”, indicates that on some level he is complicit with his own world-weariness. Jack relates to the viewer: “Like so many others, I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct [….] What kind of dining set defines me as a person? We used to read pornography, now it was the Horchow collection.” Jack is offering his ontological musings to the viewer as though there has been a cultural shift in modern society, which he sees as emasculating. However, stepping outside of arbitrary gender roles, as Jean Baudrillard suggests: “objects are categories of objects which tyrannically induce categories of persons” (The System of Objects, Baudrillard, 1996). Fight Club then presents catalogue blurbs that ironically tease “use your IMAGINATION”, but it is apparent that Jack’s lifestyle has become cyclical and devoid of creativity within the prescribed sphere dominated by capitalism.

Jack hasn’t lost his masculine function to become feminised; he has lost a sense of his physical self in its entirety. By using Debord’s theory that “In the inverted reality of the spectacle, use value […] must now be explicitly proclaimed precisely because its factual reality is eroded by the overdeveloped commodity economy and because counterfeit life requires a pseudo-justification” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 48), Jack can be understood to be using ready-to-assemble furniture to describe himself and to consciously “assemble” his life with a culturally prescribed symbolic value in order to lend it meaning, thereby “enslaving” himself.

Because Jack believed he was “close to being complete” before his furniture was incinerated, his desire for inner harmony through social approval was not limited to the symbolic purchasing of “yin-yang” coffee tables; it extended to a fervent desire to create the spectacular out of other people. Categorised people become Jack’s social furniture.

By going to watch “the guys with testicular cancer”, and through voyeuristically engaging with other people’s attempts to deal with a physical reality that he largely wishes to negate, Jack is attempting to demonstrate that partial satisfaction can be achieved from displacing his own anxieties. Yet, this is more “pseudo-justification” as the heavy symbolism of a support group called “Remaining Men Together” for testicular cancer ridden men is evident: biological imperatives have been entirely shifted onto the field of cultural production. Therefore, the more spectacular the justification, the more Jack feels reassured by his own existence, even if he despairs in acknowledging it. 

Jack states that “Losing all hope was freedom”, but this is complicated by the appearance of Marla, the “big tourist” whose “lie reflected [Jack’s] lie”, threatening his perverse ordering of the world around him. Jack feels “nothing” and cannot sleep, because if Marla can join an exclusively male group, then Jack has to acknowledge that the boundaries and limitations of his own spectacular arrangement may not be sufficient. Marla’s honest response to Jack’s desperation to be a sole voyeur is to quip, “it’s cheaper than a movie and there’s free coffee.” In Jack’s Debordian world, the terms of his world are turned upside down; but for a viewer, a reflexive deduction might be that watching Fight Club is itself a constructed consumer spectacle, and having the capital to notice the distorted “meet cute” plot beat between the two characters only reiterates a viewer/ voyeur’s facility for trying to categorise and order culture—a point which is compounded and frequently frustrated by the ensuing dynamic and dialogue between Jack, Marla, and Tyler. 

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Jack’s addiction to “versatile solutions to modern living” is a drug-like negation of the reality of his situation; he acknowledges that he has a problem and he realises that he is a consumer. Within the diegesis of Fight Club, Jack subconsciously requires Tyler to rehabilitate him with lectures and action on his behalf. Jack becomes increasingly reliant upon his friend for answers to reality, which ironically is a further negation of his “real life” within the diegesis because Tyler is not real. Tyler represents a spectacular perversion of the notion that self-mediation within the social field can only come from “within”, even if it is through a fictional projection. Within Fight Club, through his proverbs and actions, Tyler appears to represent anti-consumerism through anarchy and rebellion, but he still plays by the rules of the social construction he is entrenched within.

When Tyler’s voice-over instructs the audience, “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank [….] You are the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world,” he is still peddling a constructed, non-naturalistic image of the world as he reflexively attempts to justify his existence while the camera tracks in on Tyler Durden/Brad Pitt’s face, and the shot violently begins to shake, blurring his face to show either side of the cinematic film frame. This destabilising moment demonstrates not only that Tyler himself is a spectacle within the narrative – which is compounded later on as the scene is re-shot with Jack—but also, by the additional deconstruction of the cinematic process, Fight Club itself is once again foregrounded as a commodified, subjective spectacle.

Consequently, the spectacle of reality is not defeated but perpetuated by the setting up of the cathartic Fight Club by Tyler: “Fight Club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. The hysterical shouting was in tongues like at a Pentecostal church [….] Afterwards, we all felt saved.” If Fight Club is a spectacle created by Tyler (who in turn has been created by Jack’s desperate attempt to mobilise himself and escape from the shackles of his position within society), it only demonstrates that it “has not dispelled the religious clouds where men had placed their own powers detached from themselves; it has only tied them to an earthly base” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 20).

Metaphysical, but Mostly Physical

According to Debord, the opposite of “The consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness” is “the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world it has created” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 53). In Fight Club this idea finds its clearest form in the ironic, self-constructing laws that are repeated throughout the film: “The first rule about Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.” In a Tyler Durden lecture, sentiments about the prevailing society are also expressed: “I see all this potential and I see it squandered [….] Slaves with white collars [….] We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

Brad Pitt, the actor who plays Tyler, could himself be defined as a modern-day millionaire “movie god”, so in Fight Club, a viewer is presented with a satirical irony on the commodification of the Hollywood movie-star. While in opposition to Debord, the audience may become “conscious” by this sarcastic and contemplative reproof by the commodified object/spectacle; crucially, the members of Fight Club are not allowed this opportunity.

They join a commune led by Tyler, which is funded by the “corporate sponsorship” Jack obtains from acting like a “crazy little shit” at work.  When Jack beats himself up, it is as a parody of the symbolic commodification of “slaves with white collars” through a physically transgressional, social spectacle that is to his financial gain. In contrast, the gangster figure that owns the location where the Fight Club is held, has Tyler pummelled in an attempt to control through force. By encouraging violence against his body in a masochistic orgy of blows, Tyler is similar to Jack in that they are both able to challenge a site of contention (and have access to the basement) by suggesting that violence against the body as a discourse of control can be repudiated and manipulated, allowing the subjugated to gain power in society. It is debatable whether Tyler actually feels any pain because he is in Jack’s body (although this is only revealed later), showing that Jack, and to some extent the audience, are still being manipulated by social forces; they just don’t have the capacity to understand at that moment that they are being distracted by a superior sleight of hand trick.

Tyler cannot be strictly blamed for his existence as the intellectual leader of the disillusioned because he was created for that very purpose. However, a viewer might consider whether Jack internally created Tyler from his own psychology as an attempt to deal with the failings within his own life, or whether the dominating (diegetic) field of cultural production produced him as a spectacular antithesis against which both itself and Jack can be compared.

As the Art Gallery on the DVD demonstrates, the opening CGI spectacle of Fight Club begins in Jack’s amygdala, a part of the temporal lobe which is the centre of fearful and aggressive behaviour and emotion, and could be considered the starting point of the film, both visually and as a thematic precursor to Tyler’s existence. Tyler literally takes the “Brain Ride” into being. 

The first dialogue between Jack and Tyler is equally suggestive that there is a psychological link between the characters. Tyler reads aloud: “If you are seated in an emergency exit row and would be unable or unwilling to perform the duties listed on the safety card, please ask a flight attendant to re-seat you.” Jack responds, “It’s a lot of responsibility,” to which Durden asks if he wants to “switch seats”. Jack, defining his character for the narrative to follow, refuses: “No, I’m not sure I’m the man for that particular job.” Aside from the remarkable coincidence that they have the same briefcase, this conversation is essentially the moment when Jack makes permanent the split of his life into two. Refusing to take responsibility for his life and putting it in somebody else’s hands instead of switching seats for self-empowerment, Jack creates Tyler to manage his life for him directly within his own diegetic reality. Having an “exit-door procedure at thirty thousand feet” only provides “The illusion of safety,” but then Tyler himself is only an “illusion”, demonstrating Jack’s equally ineffectual attempt at displacing his fears.

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