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)

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.

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