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)

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.

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