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)

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.

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