The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revisiting Fight Club

Watching the film Fight Club for the first time as a fourteen year old boy I was enthralled with the sense of purpose, of masculinity, of the possibility for personal and societal change; generally, I felt empowered by what I interpreted to be a message that I could change society, and for whatever reason I was compelled to think that Fight Club held some key of how to do it.

I couldn't put my finger on it but something was wrong with society. It would not be until years later that I recognized this not as the fault of personal, individual choices, of ideology, but of the material base which dictates societal norms. Still, the raw nature of Fight Club, it's advancement of a method of personal liberation through what I vaguely understood as counter-hegemonic (without the benefit of being able to articulate it as such) means.

Immediately afterwords, me and the friend who introduced me to the film found an old pair of shabby boxing gloves in the garage and emulated, in the most juvenile manner I'm sure, the scene where Tyler requests the unnamed narrator to hit him. Needless to say, neither of us could hit very hard or take a punch, but for that moment we were thrilled at the prospects opened up to us. For those ten minutes, I felt powerful, like we were actually doing something.

I bring this up because, although at the time I was more concerned with escaping into a world of video game entertainment than understanding and internalizing the conditions of the world around me, let alone seriously desiring to change them, I felt that somehow, someway, something had to be done. It was a very primitive urge to change myself, to change society. And it was because I sat down for a couple hours to watch this very provocative film.

At the time I didn't read much, at least not anything of importance, so it would not be for close to seven years before I actually picked up the novel version of Fight Club.

Initially, I simply wanted to juxtapose the book and the novel, rather simplistically, and draw out a few key quotations from the novel that, I believe, are sorely lacking in the film. But, as I went on, I began to wonder, as how many other people I'm sure, what exactly in this film captured my attention so intensely.

Undoubtedly, when I was younger, surrounded by a culture of masculinity where proving yourself, your manhood, was associated with particular practices, Fight Club touched upon all those symbolic gestures. In a society where no real sense of community exists the words of the author of Fight Club, although I was unaware of them at the time, may provide a clue: "[The theme of] all my books are about a lonely person looking for some way to connect with other people.

This absolute necessity of community is something that I believe the left sorely lacks. We systematically fail to reflect upon the need for such a community and do not take nearly enough action toward developing it; this, in my opinion, is detrimental to the growth of radicalism in our society.

A whole array of literature has been written analyzing Fight Club, so I won't go into that here, nor will I pretend to have seriously studied and read most of it beyond some brief summaries.

First, allow me to say that I come to this topic as a fan, as someone who, even minutely, has felt himself influenced by this film and, now, by the novel. Reading the book for the first time recently, with a completely new ideological perspective and understanding of reality than I had previously harbored, I also find myself quite disappointed with what I had previously thought to be some enlightened tomb, a guide towards personal salvation. The critique below applies to both versions of Fight Club, film and book.

Strike one: The entire motif presented throughout the film of a "generation of men raised by women."It was especially prevalent throughout the book and felt like nothing more than a call for primitive patriarchy. Rather than seriously tackling how gender roles are developed under the conditions of modern society, there was this reactionary urge to simply transform males into survival mode as a means of liberating ourselves. The whole "hate our father" because he wasn't there is rather tiring and, more than anything else, is a cliche battered into the heads of society to place the blame of society's failures onto the breakdown of the nuclear family unit, of individual actions taken by dead-beat dads, etc. It is, in it's essence, quite a reactionary fallback position, often laced with racism when directed at certain populations. Aside from that, it completely ignores the fact that human nature, especially gender roles, are not instinctual, fixed things inherent to human beings but are malleable entities inevitably molded by the material base of reality, the social relations of society, and the ideological currents sustaining them.

Strike two: The incessant rambling about destruction destroying beautiful things. "I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see." This nihilistic streak runs all throughout Fight Club, and is never really, as far as I can tell, confronted. Again, it's rather reactionary in it's orientation and almost counters the sense of empowerment expressed in other sections of the film/novel.

Strike three: The plan, it sucks. Now, as this is a form of entertainment, and not a political tract intended to organize and mobilize the masses to overthrow their oppressors, perhaps this strike is overzealous. However, the whole idea that "Project Mayhem is going to save the world" by "creating a cultural ice age" that "forces humanity to go dormant or into recession long enough for the Earth to recover" is perhaps the most reactionary postulation throughout the novel. Those words are explicit stated in the book, but the ideas are expressed in the film as well. Maybe this is some sort of chaotic twist to Walter Bejamin's comment when he posited the idea that "Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite different. Perhaps revolutions are the grasp for the emergency brake by the human race traveling on the train.” Maybe this nostalgic, yet reactionary hope of emulating the past is Palahniuk's pull on the brake.

It is possible that the motive was not to seriously suggest this as a means for societal change, but to emphasize that such desires for a regressive transformation to an archaic past are unsustainable and unworkable, if so, this strike becomes a plus.

There are other problems as well, for instance, the charge that Fight Club does not take up the issue of race, while perhaps beyond the scope of such a limited vision, stands true.

Now, there are a variety of things I liked. Here, however, we will have differentiate between what was expressed in the book, and what was expressed on film. Quotes like "Our culture has made us all the same. No one is truly white or black or rich, anymore. We all want the same. Individually, we are nothing" do nothing but reinforce that charge, as crude "post-racial" assertions, often touted by the right, are implicitly laced throughout the novel.

On film, it is obvious that anti-corporate invectives are rightfully rampant. The distaste for the idea that planets will be named after big multinationals is an example of this. Likewise, an the anti-consumerism challenges a fundamental basis by which capitalism functions: to constantly expand it's markets and sell more things to us, regardless of whether we need them or not. I believe, however, that this ultra anti-consumerism stems from the regressive tendencies towards evoking past methods of organization for the future and is, ultimately, yet another reactionary streak. However, this is a subjective interpretation and I believe is quite open to debate. Still, something rings piercingly true of consumer culture when, after the narrators apartment is blown up, he explains how he lost "Everything, including your set of hand-blown green glad dishes with the tiny bubbles and imperfections, little bits of sand, proof they were crafted by the honest, simply, hard-working indigenous aboriginal peoples of wherever..."

The film is sorely lacking in many regards, though. There are some vital nuggets, especially of working class resistance that, that were unfortunately left out of the film.

The narrator, in my opinion, does right to displace the blame of environmental catastrophe from himself personally: "For thousands of years, human beings had screwed up and trashed and crapped on this planet, and now history expected me to clean up after everyone. I have to wash out and flatten my soup cans. And account for every drop of used motor oil. And I have to foot he bill for nuclear waste and buried gasoline tanks and landfilled toxic sludge dumped a generation before I was born."

This can even be interpreted as a critique of the whole idea of "green capitalism" or saving the world through our individual choices as consumers. Rather than fundamentally reworking how society is organized to structure it on a sustainable basis, we should instead spend the few dollars we have and the precious free time we are given from the workweek by recycling and buying special light bulbs. This is not to say that individual life choices are not important, personally, but they fall far short oft he drastic measures we need to take collectively to save Earth. I find that this idea resonates throughout the novel.

The explicit call for working class resistance and the humanization of working people through their own activity is a prominent theme in the novel. Unfortunately, the film mysteriously leaves much of this out. I will not take time to anaylze each particular phrase but, to highlight a few key examples of vital quotes in the book that are removed from the film:

A HAIKU he writes:

"Worker bees can leave
Even drones can fly away
The queen is their slave"

[After Tyler gets the narrator a job that he claims will "stir his class hatred" he explains] At cockroach level, we can hear the captive harpist make music as the titans lift forks of butterflied lamb chop, each bite the size of a whole pig, each mouth a tearing Stonehenge of ivory.

“Getting fired,” Tyler says, “is the best thing that could happen to any of us. That way, we’d quite reading water and do something with our lives.”

[Tyler was a] Guerilla waiter. Minimum-wage despoiler.

[Calling about the random bodily liquids he desposited in rich peoples' meals at the hotel job] "Hello, I said, I’ve committed a terrible crime against humanity as part of a political protest. My protest is over the exploitation of workers in the service industry."

[This is the only one, to my knowledge, that actually appears in the film, when they kidnap the police commissioner who is leading the charge against Fight Club] “Remember this,” Tyler said, “The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people we do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life.”

"What Tyler says about being the crap and the salves of history, that’s how I felt."

“Remember this,” Tyler said, “The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people we do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life.”

"Every planet will take on the corporate identity of whoever rapes it first."

However, out of all these, perhaps the most fundamental quote is this: "Imagine, when we call a strike and everyone refuses to work until we redistribute the wealth of the world."

How much stronger of a call to worker's power can you get than that?

The most promising theme, I believe, no matter how misguided the actual plan becomes, is the fact that the novel presents the idea that people have to take history into their own hands, they are not simply idle consumers: "When Tyler invented Project Mayhem, Tyler said the goal of Project Mayhem had nothing to do with other people. Tyler didn’t care if other people got hurt or not. The goal was to teach each man in the project that he had the power to control history. We, each of us, can take control of the world."

Fight Club is a mixed bag, there is no doubt about it. However, if there is one thing you take away from it, and especially if you get the chance to read the novel, is that we have the power to control history. Let's take it into our hands.
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This blog is a personal blog written and edited by me. For questions about this blog, please contact Derek Ide (ruminyauee@hotmail.com). Anything on this blog may be used, circulated, disseminated, by readers in any setting except where profit it to be made from it. Feel free to use the work presented here in educational settings, activist work, etc. All I ask is that the blog be cited. I write for my own purposes. This writings presented here will be influenced by my background, occupation, and political affiliation or other experiences.

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Derek Ide 2011

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