Thursday, August 24, 2006

Is "Fight Club" philosophy masquerading as a thrill ride?

I am a fan of Fight Club, a book I re-read only ten months after first picking it up because my eager anticipation for the film version needed a fix. The movie was a bit of a let down--I'm not sure what I expected--but it did several things brilliantly, and it got more interesting with the second and third viewings. So I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what was going on with the story.

Then I read a paper on Fight Club by the political philosopher Eduardo Velásquez. His argument and insights blew me away and opened my eyes to elements of the story that I'd not noticed. The paper went on to win the critical admiration of the professor's academic peers.

Here is an adapted version of Professor Velásquez's essay:

According to Roger Ebert, “‘Fight Club’ is the most frankly and cheerfully fascist big-star movie since ‘Death Wish,’ a celebration of violence in which the heroes write themselves a license to drink, smoke, screw and beat one another up.” It is “macho-porn—the sex movie Hollywood has been moving toward for years, in which eroticism between the sexes is replaced by all-guy locker-room fights.” Regarding one of the main protagonists (played by Brad Pitt), Ebert asks: “Is Tyler Durden in fact a leader with a useful philosophy?” Durden’s philosophy is succinctly captured in the claim that “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” which, according to Ebert, sounds “like a man who tripped over the Nietzsche display on his way to the coffee bar in Borders. In my opinion, he has no useful truths. He’s a bully—Werner Erhard plus S&M, a leather club operator without the décor.” At the end of the day, “None of the Fight Club members grows stronger and freer because of his membership; they’re reduced to pathetic cultists. Issue them black shirts and sign them up as skinheads.”

It is not the plot alone against which Ebert rails. The Chicago Sun-Times critic protests against the “numbing effects of movies like this,” which “cause people to go a little crazy.” School shootings and a proliferation of Fight Club-type activities give credence to Ebert’s concerns. And to those of us in the Academy, he warns: “Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that [the] audience will like the behavior but not the argument. Certainly they’ll buy tickets because they can see Pitt and [Edward] Norton [another main protagonist] pounding each other; a lot more people will leave this movie and get in fights than leave it discussing Tyler Durden’s moral philosophy. The images in movies like this argue for themselves, and it takes a lot of narration (or Narration) to argue against them.” Ebert concludes his review as unequivocally as he began. “‘Fight Club’ is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy—the kind of ride where some people puke and others can’t wait to get it on again.”

Ebert provides a commendable response to Fight Club: dismissal with a touch of ridicule. I am not of the opinion that art is without effects or consequences, though not all find their source in the artifact itself. But one may rightly wonder if Ebert provides a sufficient and adequate response. To begin, the tone and scope of Ebert’s review is likely to speak only to those who feel indignation and revulsion at all things “popular,” that is, to those not likely to see the movie in the first place. Second, for all the animadversions of the likes of Ebert, such indignation seems to have little effect on the growing popularity of Fight Club, discernible to anyone who spends but a few minutes on the Web. To suggest that Fight Club entices cultists is now true in a way even Ebert seems not to have anticipated. Discussion of this book and movie, and books and movies like them abound, and not just among the “demos.” An “academic conference” devoted to Palahniuk’s novels was organized at Edinboro University in April 2001. Sophisticates and cultists alike are intrigued by this book and movie, and not in a manner Ebert would find edifying. Fight Club’s brand of eroticized violence fits very well with various themes of “Liberation,” which among numerous “sophisticates” in the Academy for whom it is the sine qua non to “enlightenment.” To rebel against convention, or to deconstruct it, is to know.

Indignation should not take the place of argument. More importantly, indignation alone will not get us to the hard, pressing, and vexing question, namely, What is it about Palahniuk’s novel and the Fincher/Uhls movie that resonates in the souls of so many? If indignation is the right response to the movie and book, our indignation ought to be informed by our understanding. The tremendous appeal of this movie and book is precisely in its capacity to go beyond the simple-minded characterizations critics such as Ebert ascribe to them. These are not stories about “boys being boys,” yet another episode in Hollywood’s misogynistic history. The protagonists in Fight Club are not reducible to a band of malcontents, whose depravity and remoteness from the “main stream” concerns us only to the extent that their message translates into acts of violence. Fight Club presents us with a host of themes and questions that resonate deeply with the ills of our time. Palahniuk goes further. Fight Club is a serious and very clever meditation on the human condition. A few examples will serve as introduction.

The philosophic proponents of our liberal, enlightened modernity advanced a variety of teachings intended to tame the transcendent aspirations of the soul, or at least to make them compatible with wealth and the satisfaction of basic pleasures and needs, in short, what Hobbes called “commodious living.” This is not a “project” devoid of strong arguments in its favor, liberty chief among them. But, as Palahniuk himself shows, there are good reasons to question the objectives of the modern, liberal, commercial experiment. However, Palahniuk’s critique of (what several thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth century thinkers called) “commercial republicanism” is, in my estimation, something of a ruse. Commentators are mistaken to focus their attention there. The ills of commercial life are only one part of a massive genetic defect we as children of the “Western Tradition” inherit. This inheritance finds its source in the biblical God, “the Great and Powerful . . . God and father.” Palahniuk invites us to think about our origins, how we understand those origins, and, not least, whether our origins bear on who and what we are now. His book is a serious meditation on the problematic relationship between human freedom and the extent to which “history” and various other kinds of “inheritances” determine who we are. He demonstrates a sensitive awareness of the various kinds of thinking that seek to provide an answer to the question “What is human,” among them science, psychoanalysis, the Bible, and the combination of Eastern and Western religions and philosophies that now take shape within the peculiar amalgamation we call America.

Palahniuk does not stop there. Less than ten pages into the book, the author of Fight Club extends his reflections to the problem of human attachment. The movement to attachment from “history” is not accidental. “History” is not merely about who we are, or how we are constituted. It sheds light on the influence that other human beings have upon us. How we are nurtured or “cultivated” has a decisive bearing on who we are, and, in turn, on our capacity to engage our fellow human beings. Readers are mistaken if they assume in advance that what we get from Palahniuk is some easygoing sentimentalism, or its opposite. As readers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s great invective against the Enlightenment (his Discourse on the Science and Arts or First Discourse) know, the commercial regime sanctioned by the Enlightenment is supposedly the source of the emasculation, reification, and alienation of “man.” Rousseau invites us to think seriously about the relationship between enlightenment and virtue, science and goodness, citizenship and martial virtue. His psychological portrait of modernity takes us to the problems of fragmentation, anger, love, and despair in the context of our devotion to wealth-getting. His writings invite us to think back to the classical authors who shared similar reservations, though on different terms. Commerce and sentiment are intimately linked. Rousseau’s invective stands in sharp contrast to the Enlighteners across the channel, Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. The Scottish thinkers in particular argued that commercial life could be elevated, perhaps ennobled, by the proper cultivation and channeling of moral sensibility, a relationship that finds its most elaborate expression in Adam Smith’s two great works, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To put this differently, the proponents of our modern arrangements, institutions, and virtues argue that commerce is connected to, and may be the condition for the right kind of “civilization.” The possibility of “civilization” is intimately connected to the biblical God, or gods we worship, the means by which we are constituted as a “people,” the conclusions we draw about who we are, our “nature,” the hopes we share about our present and future happiness, the obligations we incur from our debts to the past. Palahniuk strikes me as a thinker of a sophistication and depth sufficient to engage his modern predecessors. He sees the intimate connections between God, nature, human nature, commerce, virtue, and civilization. He contemplates the relative merit and the inherent goodness of our modern inheritance.

In rethinking the Christian God, Palahniuk shows Him to be “Beyond Good and Evil.” Ebert is correct to discern that Palahniuk is a nihilist. Unlike Ebert, however, I am persuaded there are many good reasons for us to engage the meaning of nihilism, especially of Palahniuk’s variety. Of special concern to us is the manner in which Palahniuk links nihilism to religion. He plays on religion’s call to “nothing,” that is, to a kind of death, for which there is a corresponding “rebirth” or “resurrection.” His apparent impiety comes to us in the shape of pious hopes and possibilities. We are therefore compelled to ask: Is Palahniuk’s work another iteration in the long history of nihilism that calls on us to the “eternal” recurrence of the same, a “history” without direction or end, a “history” without narcotic “Providence” or “Progress?” Do we shed pious illusions in order to embrace a dark god of chaotic urgings, whom we simultaneously acknowledge and conceal in various acts of self-creation, self-forgetting, and willful affirmation? Or does Palahniuk return us to a different kind of “nothing,” to a new Genesis, from which Light, Word, and Life emerge? Fight Club finds a way of appealing to our ever-present longings, to our basic sentiments, to our highest aspirations, earthly and transcendent. We must ask if Palahniuk’s efforts to stoke these fires provide the kind of light and heat we need, or whether our new pyrotechnics threaten to consume us.

In an interview given to Spin magazine, Palahniuk claims to “hate books where people contemplate things.” More importantly, we are told, “I don’t write them.” Instead, so the story goes, “I write books where things are always happening to up the ante." Why does Palahniuk “hate” books that contemplate things, or, if you give me some license, why does Palahniuk hate philosophy? As students of political philosophy know, some strands of modern political theory try to collapse the distinction between theory and practice, to render theory in the service of action. In Marx’s (in)famous phrase, the aim of philosophy is not to interpret the world but to change it. Wisdom is power. Philosophy is ideology. It could very well be that Palahniuk’s thought falls within the orbit of our modern distain for philosophy. We will only know that by mustering arguments that explain why this is so. Further reasons are needed to make an adequate judgment about the merits and demerits of this view. Is philosophy at an “end”? Why should we believe this? Is Palahniuk’s novel a plausible illustration of this “end”? Is his book an example of “creative work” that eclipses Logos? That Palahniuk hates books that “contemplate things” does not mean that his book does not lend itself to contemplation, or that his book is devoid of contemplation.

Many intelligent men and women have put their good minds to the question of why a piece of literature, poetry, music, or film appeals to us immediately, why unadulterated “philosophy” (if there is such a thing) does not affect us as immediately. To recognize this may concede much to Palahniuk and the philosophers of late modernity who give primacy to the arational parts of the soul. “Man” may be decisively alogon. “Philosophy” may thus be an ineffective, even pernicious way of tapping into and trying to govern our primal and chaotic stirrings. Perhaps, then, we ought to yield to the ministering effects of music and stories. Let us make this concession, since it is animated by much truth. But let us also add that to “represent” the chaos that is around and within us is still to re-present it in some way, which is to say, to subject it to speech and thus to logos. Palahniuk’s novel is far from “non-sense.” It makes more than “sense” if seen in light of those enduring problems and questions Palahniuk engages, which precede him in the long history of religious and political thought. Again, by this I do not mean to assert the superiority of philosophy over Palahniuk’s poetic art. Art does indeed possess its unique power as art, and Palahniuk knows very well how to protect his art and its power over us. He is a master storyteller, who with the rarest talent, disguises his deepest and most disturbing insights. He knows that excessive contemplation is damaging to his art, and may even diminish its influence. But it we are to embrace or to reject it properly, we have to move beyond art. This is what I propose here. Ebert says that “‘Fight Club’ is a thrill ride masquerading as philosophy.” Without collapsing philosophy into poetry, or poetry into philosophy, I am tempted to suggest (with qualification and some exaggeration) that Fight Club is philosophy masquerading as a thrill ride.

--adapted from, “‘Where the Wild Things Are’: Re-Creation, Fall, Re- and In-surrection in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club,” in Love and Friendship: Rethinking Politics and Affection in Modern Times (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), pp. 575-616, Eduardo Velásquez, contributing editor.

Eduardo Velásquez, Associate Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University, is the author of the forthcoming, A Student’s Guide to the Apocalypse.

Many thanks to Eduardo for sharing his essay.

--Marshal Zeringue