The Society of David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ Is the Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle provides an excellent lens through which to view David Fincher’s Fight Club and the society it leaves bloodied.

The Society of the Spectacle
Guy Debord
January 1995
Fight Club
David Fincher
20th Century Fox
15 October 1999 (US)

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 is 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.

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.

A Copy of a Copy

Within his own psychology, Jack has been demoted to a somnambulistic, thoughtless vessel that Tyler travels around in.

Debord stated that “The imposed image of the good envelops in its spectacle the totality of what officially exists, and is usually concentrated in one man, who is the guarantee of totalitarian cohesion” (ibid: 64), yet, according to Nietzsche: “If the character of existence should be false […] what would truth, all our truth, be then? An unconscionable falsification of the false? The false raised to a higher power?” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche (trans. Kaufmann and Hollingdale), 2011: 292). Tyler’s existence strides across both of these concerns: he is the false spectacle that is feted for knowing exactly what to do to survive in society.

Fight Club reflexively introduces Tyler’s existence as an organising principle when he appears in flashes five times in the first 20 minutes of the film, each time at a critical juncture in the narrative when Jack has a life-shaping detour. Tyler appears in the foreground when Jack talks about everything being “a copy of a copy”. When the doctor tells Jack that testicular cancer is real “pain”, Tyler rises directly behind the doctor looking amused. As Jack is at the cancer meeting Tyler becomes visible with his arm around the convenor. Upon Marla leaving the gathering, seen as a smoking silhouette in the background, Tyler surfaces in the middle distance also smoking, standing as a partition between Jack and Marla. Tyler’s final fleeting appearance is on the “welcome to the hotel” video on the far right dressed as the waiter he later becomes.

Three points become apparent with this diegesis-breaking technique. First, that Tyler is only appearing because of Jack’s actions. Were Jack to control his life with a “will to power”, Tyler would not even exist and the gun being in the narrator’s mouth at the beginning of the story would not have occurred. Second, that Fight Club is offering Tyler Durden as a product for an audience to consciously look out for, having injected him into the mise en scène as a corporation would subliminally insert codes into their images and advertisements. Third, that there is an inherent irony in the social breakdown of the individual being functionally comparable to the demands of a culturally constructed film text.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr Jackass”

Within his own psychology, Jack has been demoted to a somnambulistic, thoughtless vessel that Tyler travels around in. He has become merely body parts: “I am Jack’s medulla oblongata. Without me, Jack could not regulate his heart rate or breathing […] I am Jack’s colon”. Tyler abruptly takes the metaphor of control further and reverses it: “I get cancer. I kill Jack.” In Chuck Palahniuk’s original 1996 novel, Fight Club, the narrator is convinced that his world “is a dream. Tyler is a projection. He’s a dissociative personality disorder. A psychogenic fugue state. Tyler Durden is [an] hallucination.” He realises that Tyler is not real: “This is a dream, and I’ll wake up” (Fight Club, Palahniuk, 1997: 168). However, the narrator’s problem becomes that he cannot wake up.

In the cinematic adaptation, dreams are only alluded to as being the possible cause of Jack’s problems. Jack tells the doctor, “I nod off. I wake up in strange places. I have no idea how I got there”. His narrative is persistently inter-cut with references to sleep deprivation, ontological uncertainty, and repetition: “When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep. And you’re never really awake”; “Was I asleep? Had I slept?”; “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”; and “I was living in a state of perpetual déjà vu. Everywhere I went I’d already been there.”

Jack’s lifestyle can be considered under Debord’s theory that “The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern desire which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 21). However, this does not fully account for the violent eruption of Tyler into the diegesis. Sigmund Freud, for example, believed that “the unconscious often expresses itself in the form of dreams, since at night during sleep, the vigilance of the repressive ego in regard to unconscious desire is stilled” (‘Strangers to Ourselves: Psychoanalysis’, Rivkin and Ryan, 1998).

Furthermore, “The ‘dream work’ displaces unacceptable material onto acceptable images, condenses several different though related images into a single image, and turns drives into their opposites so that they can elude censorship” (‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’, Lacan, 1949). If Tyler were a singular and focused projection of Jack’s id — his frustrated pleasure principle — then he would gratify Jack’s desires with little concern for propriety on the field of cultural production, while maintaining the illusion of acceptability. This would partially explain the relationship between the two leading figures, as Tyler tells Jack: “You wanted a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be… that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck. I am smart, capable, and most importantly… I’m free in all the ways you are not!”

Going further, Lacan states that the “formation of the I” within dream states is a “defense of the ego” which can result in “hysterical repression” then “paranoia alienation, which dates from the deflection of the specular I into the social I” (ibid). As Fight Club progresses, Jack begins to have relationship issues with the ego forming identities that he had become dependent on for guidance: “I’m all alone. My father dumped me. Tyler dumped me. I am Jack’s broken heart.” In order to be fully independent, the mentality that Jack would need to adopt is: “I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think” (‘The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud’, Lacan, 1966), because the plaything of his thoughts is Tyler, who enacts a constant performance of Jack’s dispositions.

Although Jack would not be able to consciously recognise this I of the ego (the social I), he would be able to stop defending it with the creation of Tyler (the specular I). Jack is “Dr. Jekyll and Mr Jackass,” and he does have “very serious emotional problems, deep-seated problems for which [he] should seek professional help.” It is notable that Jack is presented as the Hyde figure to Tyler’s Dr. Jekyll. To Marla, Jack appears as more of a monster than Tyler because Jack represses his emotions, and he is unable to comprehend that he has slept with Marla. It was Tyler and not Jack who opted to save Marla from suicide, while Jack is constantly trying to remove her from his (or Tyler’s) house and social sphere.

Signs of the Times

Jack is incapable of recognising the signs detailing his own willing submission to the spectacle within the diegesis of Fight Club. Yet, prior to the “big reveal” towards the end of the narrative, the film text also deploys a number of visual cues to allow viewers with a commensurate level of cultural competency to modify their own understanding of the spectacle’s presentation within Fight Club. Throughout the film there are four important motifs that consistently reoccur, potentially denoting an attitude towards capitalism and the spectacle that is not explicitly referenced by the characters in the text: telephones, flags, smiling faces, and Pepsi-Cola.

Telephones are seen in nearly every important scene. The telephone records allow Jack to track Tyler; the telephone lets Jack know he is Tyler. Jack’s boss calls for security on a telephone, just as Marla calls for help when she is attempting suicide. Several important buildings have telephones outside of them placed within shot. The police officer communicates almost entirely through the telephone, and one can be seen in the interrogation room. A telephone is in the close-up shot of the security camera screen which shows Jack flailing about on his own, and perhaps most importantly, Jack uses a public telephone to call Marla then Tyler after his condo has been blown up.

The telephone symbolises faulty communication within the social field because the telephone has an intermediatory function that distorts the reality of interpersonal communication. Dialogue exists, but most of the information given depends upon the assumption of a certain reality at the other end of the line. Whether it is Marla’s spirit talking to the spirit of Tyler, Jack’s Academy speech to the detective, or the boss finding his call counter-productive, the dependency on spectacle dictates the outcome of the situation.

This is why Jack’s call to Marla and Tyler is important. As soon as Marla replies, the footage of the condo blowing up is inserted into the sequence of events. This would suggest a possible link between Marla and the explosion, amplified through using the telephone to alter the signification of Marla’s voice from potential female sanctity to that of detonation. When Tyler calls back, the camera zooms in on the receiver to reveal a sign that reads “No incoming calls allowed.” So, Tyler could not have called Jack back, but because the telephone represents a defective personal interaction mediated through social means, the spectacle of Tyler is permitted to call, exploiting Jack’s situation – both as a man who has imagined his counterpart into existence and as a cinematic figure devoid of autonomy within the constructed diegesis.

The flags, Pepsi-Cola, and smiling face imagery all culminate in one scene, but prior to that, they are all interspersed throughout the film with varying levels of subtlety. In Fight Club, David Fincher appears to be using the strategies of advertising in order to critique a social field that has developed in part from such commercially and culturally loaded signifiers.

The American national flag appears in perfect condition in the background of the “Remaining Men Together” workshop and it can be seen in the clothes that Tyler wears when he splices pornography into children’s films (blue tank-top with stars and red trousers). Furthermore, the basic design of the flag can be seen in (commercialised) modern artform in commercial buildings: behind the reception desk at Jack’s hotel, and in his boss’s office. Pepsi is drunk by a woman watching the film that Tyler splices images into, and Pepsi machines are outside Lou’s place, Hessel’s shop, and in a hotel corridor. Prior to Fight Club, Fincher had directed adverts for Pepsi-Cola, yet the shots in which Pepsi products appear are self-consciously disruptive of commercial imperatives.

The smiling face can be seen above the telephone in Jack/Tyler’s house, and while it has an innocuous presence, it is repeated on the DVD after Tyler’s direct warning to the viewer. The most prominent use of the smiling face is in the sequence in which all of Fight Club‘s overt symbolism is brought together: the defacement of the Parker Morris building.

Jack enters his house and there is a faded, tattered American flag in the background. Then there is an advert on the television for “The same great taste, Pepsi.” The news headline that follows is about an “act of vandalism in the city somehow related to underground boxing clubs”, where a massive smiling face which has flaming eyes has been painted onto the side of a building on Franklin Street. This war is called “Project Mayhem”. A police conference follows in which an American Flag is in the background and the speaker declares, “The victory in the war against crime will not come overnight.” This side of the war is called “Project Hope”. The American flag, itself symbolically denotative of a homogenisation of heterogeneous states, has been abandoned by Mayhem’s followers but it is promoted by a government institution.

By this point in the narrative of Fight Club, the flag has become depleted of its original signification through its successive cultural uses. For example, the Pepsi advert features the colours of the now drained American flag, suggesting an almost total transference of culturally defining values into the commercially defined public domain, where the collective effervescence of commercialism has replicated and repackaged patriotism. Furthermore, the smiling face has been presented negatively by the media in the news report, which is a direct contrast to the Pepsi advert, yet the imposing omniscient smile ironically shares many similarities with the “face” of the media or the countless model-strewn billboards, making it appear to be an equally loaded, antonymic gesture in the social field.

This Heading Is Not Sponsored by Gucci Men (or Women)

If we consider Fight Club in the context of Debord’s hypothesis that “Anarchism remains a merely ideological negation of the State and of classes […] It is the ideology of pure liberty which equalises everything” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 92), then the anarchism within the diegesis can be perceived to be different from the potential for “pure liberty” afforded to a viewer of the film itself. For example, at one point in the narrative, Jack and Tyler systematically take baseball bats to a Range Rover, BMW, then a Volkswagen Beetle: all physical and symbolic acts of violence as a denouncement of capitalism.

On the DVD commentary track, Norton offers that the reason the Volkswagen gets beaten is because the older model used to symbolise the “democratic car” – literally “car of the people” — where the new model is a symbol of the repackaged ’60s generation “everyman” at prices the modern everyman cannot afford. The specific foregrounding of capitalistic symbolism as a product of a constructed spectacle ironically intertwines with the fact that the cars are also within the film as part of the cinematic convention of product placement. For a viewer, meaning in the field of cultural production is not negated through the presentation of anarchy, rather it becomes all the more prominent and potentially “equalised” through allowing a viewer’s cultural competency to reflexively engage with the spectacle from within.

Another example of product placement would be in the several Gucci adverts that litter the city. Yet where Fight Club appears to initially denounce culturally normative conceptions of the fetishized body, they complicate the presentation of the Fight Club itself. Jack states that a positive aspect of Fight Club is that it creates men whose bodies are “carved out of wood”, which would seem to be at odds with Jack feeling “sorry for guys packed into gyms, trying to look like how Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger said they should.” Jack derides a bus advert for Gucci, scoffing, “Is that what a man looks like?” Tyler agrees, suggesting that “self-improvement is masturbation.”

Not only does this speech seem to contradict Jack’s pride in being “carved out of wood”, but in the following scene the audience witnesses Tyler, topless and in perfect physical form, like a Gucci model, punching a man in the genitals: a violent image of communal, self-improving masturbation and explicitly comparative to the “remaining men together” group. Consistently, Fight Club does not suggest that altering the terms of the spectacle can allow social agents to stand outside of the cultural field and its various sites of contention, but rather that it is impossible to avoid a physical presence in such cultural debates.

Existence, Non-Existence

Tyler pouring lye over the narrator’s hands is one of the most visceral images in Fight Club. The sequence is an attempt by Tyler (the spectacle), to overwhelm Jack into realising that spectacular overtures towards nihilistic acts are the true way to proceed in denouncing the spectacle of capitalism. Jack is wrong when he says “meditation worked for cancer, it could work now,” because he never had cancer: it was presented to him as a spectacle that did not directly correspond with his physical reality. Tyler is instead trying to demonstrate that through using (physically) real methods, the illusory outlook and existential safety that Jack seeks, does not exist: “Fuck damnation, fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children? So be it! [….] First you have to know, not fear, know that someday, you’re gonna die.”

Yet, this allegedly ameliorative concern is complicated by the fact that Tyler selfishly wants Jack to renounce organised spectacles, such as religion, and embrace death because Jack’s useless existence also draws attention away from Tyler’s own non-existence, creating another form of “self-improvement” that along with the quasi-religious Fight Club, is both paradoxical in its formulation and largely unfulfilling in its ability to help Jack better understand himself.

Nietzsche suggested that “Man projects his drive to truth, his ‘goal’ in a certain sense, outside himself as a world that has being, as a metaphysical world, as a ‘thing-in-itself'” (The Will to Power, Nietzsche (trans. Kaufmann and Hollingdale), 2011: 292). If Tyler is a projection of Jack’s “drive to truth”, as a “thing-in-itself”, then Tyler exists only to show Jack the truth: not that Tyler is correct in his assertions and improvised social constructions, but that the spectacle of society will always argue for its own authenticity through manipulating and feeding on the impulses of the individual.

In the lye scene, Tyler wears urban clothes that resemble the foliage Jack meditates upon. This is done precisely to compare the similarity of the two competing spectacles while simultaneously showing their contrasting differences: Tyler ironically argues for a return to his reality (“Congratulations, you’re one step closer to hitting bottom”) while the fantasy – tantamount to those sold by the numerous self-help books that are always on sale in airport lounges — tries to push Jack further into his own alternate-reality cave where he can pathetically displace his feelings onto a “power animal”.

As with his interactions with Tyler, stripping away all of the symbolism and convoluted misdirection from Jack’s preoccupation with the spectacle in meaning-making yields missed truths that are more apparent to the viewer. It is ironic that Jack’s power animal turns out to be Marla, the only real person he has already unknowingly achieved his “goal” with. Should Jack decide to focus on real interpersonal relationships on the social field, it is suggested, one would imagine that life might actually be easier for him to decipher and come to terms with.

Lost in Space

When asked about the characters’ actions in Fight Club, Fincher stated: “it seems more responsible than bottling up all their rage about how unfulfilled their lives are. I think the movie is moral and responsible.” (‘So Good it Hurts’, Taubin, 1999) One of the film’s most striking moral metaphors in Fight Club is delivered via an ordinary household object: soap. Tyler, as the “personification of untamed capitalism” creates the choicest soap from the choicest source: “Fat of the land” sourced from the liposuctioned patients that are the only ones rich enough to be able to buy the soap.

Soap, as “The yardstick of civilisation” can be used to cleanse the wealthy that provide the raw ingredients through a product of their own over consumerism and self-indulgence. Indeed, Fight Club revels in offering counterpoints that are not solutions but derivations and perversions of the original commercial and cultural impulses, and as such, Fight Club demonstrates that when added to other household items, soap can become an explosive weapon that could “rock the foundations of the very capitalist enterprises his soap business would otherwise appear to epitomise.”

As the narrative of Fight Club progresses, Tyler becomes increasingly volatile but he still operates within the social field in terms that can be culturally understood. For example, the objectives of “Project Mayhem” are acts of Debordian détournement, “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” ( Cultural Strategy Using Innovative Ideologies to Build Breakthrough Brands, Holt, 2010: 252), and/or counteridentificational, which is the Postmodern “mode of the trouble maker who stays within a governing structure of ideas, but reverses its terms” ( Postmodernist Culture: Second Edition, Connor, 1997: 268).

During the last third of Fight Club, anti-social acts of terrorism increase in their frequency. Newspaper clippings reveal that Project Mayhem has probably been behind “excrement catapults”, the molestation of performance artists, “befouled” fountains, and the “missing monkeys” that are “found shaved”. Although Tyler says, “Like a monkey ready to be shot into space. Space monkey. Ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good,” the audience is invited to wonder what the “greater good” is if it is to constitute little more than misinformed acts of juvenile delinquency.

The Space Monkeys “were supposed to kill two birds with one stone. Destroy a piece of corporate art and trash a franchise coffee bar.” They are Tyler’s army of stooges, with a fanatical devotion one might expect from a brainwashed, totalitarian state army; but despite the amusing methods of their destruction, not only is the operation fatal (“They shot [Bob] in the head”) but the ridiculousness of their method is also highlighted as a critique of revolution from within the system: “You morons! You’re running around in ski masks trying to blow things up? What did you think was gonna happen?”

Critics such as Anita M. Busch failed to realise the deeply ironic, reflexive thread running throughout Fight Club when she declared: “The film is exactly the kind of product that lawmakers should target for being socially irresponsible in a nation that has deteriorated to the point of Columbine.” Fight Club is a critique of unthinking “Monkeys” that carry out their commands and create a logic that supports their actions without questioning it. Jack’s problem at the outset of Fight Club was that he had replaced an understanding of his own desires in life with the “dominant images of need” provided by the spectacle of consumerism.

Yet, when a Monkey declares: “I understand. In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name. His name is Robert Paulsen,” the other Monkeys chant along. They have become “a copy of a copy of a copy”; they all look the same, they all have the same name in death, and Tyler expects them all to think the same, confirming their similar, unthinking, and submissive position on the social field.

While the Space Monkeys are willing to blindly follow Tyler into action, Jack becomes more apprehensive, handing himself over to the police as “the leader of a terrorist organisation.” According to John Orr: “The power of doubling relates not to the threatening Other outside the bourgeois-liberal frame of discourse but to the Other within who debilitates [….] The image of the double is the hope and lure of a multivalent desire which cannot congeal into a market price or a social stereotype stamping upon the weak and fearful ego its own death-sentence” (Cinema and Modernity, Orr, 1993: 37).

Consistently throughout Fight Club, Tyler has represented an allegedly anti-capitalist “multivalent desire” that has threatened to squash Jack’s “weak and fearful ego” under the auspices of help. Tyler has attempted to control the spectacle of Jack’s life, and when that bond begins to finally dissolve, the site of contention shifts once more from the cultural field to the physical reality of the body.

As Tyler’s specular existence is threatened, Tyler is willing to let Jack have his “balls” removed (in the novel they succeed) and is more than happy to beat him up in a basement car park, throwing him down a flight of stairs. In the final scene, Tyler has equally escalated his assault on the society of the spectacle, telling Jack that out of the window he can “view the collapse of financial history” and that they will become “one step closer to economic equilibrium”. In this scene, the two types of spectacular violence (on the physical and state bodies) are close to becoming synchronised by Tyler.

Throughout Fight Club, Tyler has placed himself in a position that replaces the traditional centres of control with himself, while simultaneously undercutting the necessity for those spectacular and hollow structures. In telling Jack “you is meaningless now. We have to forget about you,” he still requires his subject to retain enough illusions about the autonomy of his constructed situation to follow him in the social field: “You need me. You created me. I didn’t create some loser alter-ego to make me feel better. Take some responsibility.” When Jack tells Tyler “I don’t want this,” Tyler responds “What do you want? Your shit job back? Fucking Condo World, watching sitcoms? Fuck you! I want to do it!” It is at this moment that Jack, the narrator, has a crucial epiphany about Fight Club‘s society of the spectacle; one which the audience has been more encouraged to develop throughout the duration of the film.

Jack can avoid being a subject to the spectacle; not because he accepts that it is a social construction, but because he takes full responsibility for his actions as a social agent with the full knowledge of how the field of cultural production operates.

Jack might not want his “shit job back”, but he also doesn’t want to do what Tyler demands. In performing the one negational act that Tyler has persistently tried to avoid Jack committing throughout the entire narrative, Jack attempts suicide to demonstrate that he is an individual that can perform acts by his own volition. Jack does not need to meditate, nor find mediation; he finally has control over his internal desires, resolved his crisis of identity, and comparable to Neo at the end of The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999), his “eyes are open”.

Jack has achieved the will to power, and has treated his body not as an abstract site for violence, but one in which the spectacle of death has been replaced by the actual, concrete threat of it. This is why at the end of the story, Tyler, the spectacle, dies when Jack lives — even if he is afforded a Hollywood styled big-bang ending as the narrative offers one more reflexive reminder to the audience about who is really behind the spectacular film text.