The following is the first installment of a three-part series.
A way that can be walked is not The Way
A name that can be named is not The Name
—Tao Te Ching, Verse 1
The first rule of fight club is: you do not talk about fight club.The second rule of fight club is: you do not talk about fight club.
—Tyler Durden, Fight Club
David Fincher’s 1999 film, Fight Club, has been characterized in many ways: as a romantic comedy, an exploration of white, middle-class male angst,[v] an existentialist search for meaning amidst the moral ruins of late capitalism, an anarchist manifesto, and so on.
But common to nearly every reading of the film, critical and laudatory alike, is the assumption that Fight Club is indisputably a celebration of misogynistic, masculinist virility and violence. On its face, this assumption appears so overwhelmingly obvious as to render superfluous any argumentation in support thereof, and absurd any opposing argumentation. Consider the ubiquitous homoerotic adulation of the male body; or Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt’s) lamentation at being part of a “generation of men raised by women;” or the titular subject of the film – a self-help group for men only, founded on the principle of life-affirmation through physical pulverization; or the fact that, besides the momentary appearance of a terminally ill cancer patient, there is but one named female character in the entire film; or the obsessive fetishizing of male genitalia, coupled with anxieties over phallic substitutes and the concomitant fears of castration.
From the opening scene – the narrator kneeling with a gun barrel forced into his mouth, to the film’s crescendo – the destruction of a dozen major credit card buildings, Fight Club relentlessly assaults the viewer with visceral images of shirtless, full-throated hyper-masculinity and violence, and with the quasi-philosophical misogynistic sermons of Tyler Durden.
But in spite of all this, Fight Club’s thoughts on gender and violence are far more complex than they first appear. We should keep in mind that the film’s embodiment of hyper-masculine aggression, Tyler, is a projection of a suffering and fragmented subjectivity amidst a psychotic breakdown. His status as the film’s antagonist severely complicates any putative simple heroizing of Tyler’s character or philosophy.
We would also do well to note that despite her singularity as the only named female character in the film, Marla Singer is arguably the most interesting and admirable character in the film, with an evolving character arc that does not easily conform to traditional gender stereotypes or to standard Hollywood conceptions of feminine love or beauty. She is both strong and nurturing, brazen and uncouth but beautiful, and by turns confident and independent, vulnerable and insecure.
She is the catalyst for the narrator’s path to selfhood, without recapitulating the Western myth of the ‘eternal-feminine’[ix] – the pure, selfless, virginal ideal who, from her unattainable heights, motivates the ‘hero’s quest’. Marla does not ‘complete’ him, nor he her. She conforms to no ideal, and she is neither a prize nor a simple plot device.[x] Whatever else one might say about Fight Club, its attitudes toward gender and violence are not cut and dry.
What follows is an exploration of this complexity. In a formulation that will require elaboration and defense, we can say that Fight Club is a film about one’s passage away from the late capitalist consumer’s life of complacent passivity, and toward an exteriorizing and relational notion of selfhood based upon the principle of complementarity. This is most evident in the film’s treatment of gender, and its relations to the complementary conceptual pairing of activity and passivity.
Tyler’s externalized irruption into the world of Fincher’s Fight Club is a result of the narrator’s attempted suppression of his own outwardly directed activity, in an effort to define himself as the good and faithful servant of passive consumption. As critics George Wilson and Sam Shpall note, Marla ‘forces him to face the artificiality of his conduct…’(99) Her injection of spiritual complexity into the narrator’s world challenges the fractured and oppositional dualism that structures his life, provoking the internal confrontation that sets him on the path toward complementarity. Fight Club thus provides a depiction of selfhood that is always and essentially relational, both within the self itself, and in the self’s relations to others; and it is only by way of this realization that the narrator is able to finally begin a meaningful relationship with Marla.
Hence the interpretive lens that I shall employ is the ancient Chinese principle most commonly referred to as yin yang philosophy, and most prevalently elaborated in Taoism. With an ontology of essential complementarity at the heart of all things, yin yang philosophy posits a constitutive playful tension to account for the multiplicity of phenomena.
Before opening the discussion, I should offer a brief defense of my interpretive choices – of gender and complementarity as the key issues of the film and of yin yang philosophy as the most illuminating interpretive lens. First, the yin yang coffee table in the center of the narrator’s living room is not only visually prominent in our introduction to the narrator; it is also explicitly named as one of the material objects by which he defines ‘who he is as a person’.
The irony of this ancient and revered symbol of balance and simplicity, co-opted by capitalist marketing and contorted into a mass-produced, kitschy consumer good, is too piercing to be accidental. Then when the narrator returns to discover his condominium blown up and his possessions scattered in the rubble below, one of the most prominent and discernible possessions we see is this yin yang table, charred and broken, signifying imbalance and disharmony. In both instances the center of the symbol, to which Chuang Tzu referred as the “pivot of the Tao”, is occluded – pre-explosion by another consumer good; and post-explosion, by a char mark caused by the fire.(12)
Finally, if I take as my point of entry and primary object of analysis the question of complementarity through the dimension of gender, it is because the narrator himself advises at the film’s outset that we do so: “And suddenly, I realize that all of this – the gun, the bombs, the revolution – has got something to do with a girl named Marla Singer.” The film is framed by this signpost and by the concluding image of Marla and the narrator, holding hands as the culmination of Project Mayhem’s vision unfolds. This interpretive choice is therefore based upon the narrator’s characterization of the narrative as a ‘love’ story of sorts.
We now turn to our discussion of Fight Club. First, I shall briefly lay out the elements of Taoist thought most central to the reading I here proffer.
Letting Now the Dark, Now the Light Appear
In ancient Chinese thought, the Tao is synonymous with the absolute or supreme reality. But the Tao bears almost nothing in common with Western anthropomorphic conceptions of divinity, “in the sense of the ruler, monarch, commander, architect, and maker of the universe.”(40)
The Tao is not a person, and hence it does not think, know, plan, will, or love. It neither gives nor obeys any law; and Taoism on the whole is resistant to rigid codes of propriety and law. Finally, while the Tao is understood as eternal, its eternality is conceivable only as process and fluctuation, as opposed to the Western conception of unchanging, timeless, enduring self-presence. In this sense, it bears more in common with Heraclitean fire than with traditional monotheistic conceptions of God.
Its one similarity with Western notions of the divine is that the Tao is the ultimate ground of being, its origin and its end, as well as its ordering and guiding impetus. But the significance of this grounding and ordering is unique. “Tao” is most commonly rendered in English as “the way”, in the sense of the way of nature or the way of the universe. Lao Tzu claims that it “guides without forcing… serves without seeking… brings forth and sustains life,’ but ‘does not own or possess it.”(Verse 10) It “does not act / yet it is the root of all action…”, “does not move / yet it is the source of all creation.” (37)
Breaking down the ideogrammatic components of the sign for the Tao, consisting of signs for “head” and “movement,” Alan Watts characterizes the Tao as “intelligent rhythm.”(40) It is that by which the manifold of existence manifests and fluctuates, but the Tao is not an “agent”, nor is it ontologically distinct from its manifestations or from the material on which the activity of creation is performed. The way of nature is not distinct from nature: “Tao and this world seem different / but in truth they are one and the same / the only difference is in what we call them.”(Verse 1) It is the immanent principle of rhythmic organization that eternally guides and shapes the operations of the cosmos, from which it is not distinct.
The expressive generation of beings themselves takes place by way of an ontological complementarity of cosmic forces, the yin and the yang. In the strictest sense, the ideograms for “yin” and “yang” signify, respectively, “the shadowed and the light side of a mountain or a river,” as Helmut and Richard Wilhelm point out.(297) They are, for Watts, the complementary aspects of the same, singular reality, or as Watts claims, “an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.”(26)
The yin force is understood as the negative, the dark, the passive, the feminine, the still, and the weak, while the yang force is conceived as the positive, the light, the active, the male, the moving, and the strong. But this immediately provokes concerns. As it relates to sex/gender categories, the ‘feminine’ in the yin yang duality is grouped on the same side of the pairings as the ‘weak’ and the ‘passive.’ To the Western eye, attuned to a hierarchical privileging of strength, power, and activity, this placement of the feminine on the side of the passive and the weak smacks of the patriarchal relegation of the feminine to a subordinate and inferior position.
There are a few things we must keep in mind. First, it cannot be overstated that in Taoism, this binarity truly is an essential, non-hierarchical, creative complementarity. Just as electricity is not possible without the play of the positive and negative, so too the myriad expressions of the cosmos would not arise without the dance of yin and yang, passive and active. Second, the feminine and the masculine on the Taoist understanding are understood as natural principles, not as defining or essential characteristics of individual human beings.
They are forces expressing a cosmic complementarity that also expresses itself in the biological world as the anatomical binarity of male and female, and we need think of the feminine as passive and the masculine as active in no sense other than the sheer, anatomical fact of the concavity and convexity of their respective sex organs.
Moreover, every human being for the Taoist is and ought to be a multiplicity of activities and passivities. Lao Tzu writes, “All beings support yin and embrace yang / and the interplay of these two forces / fills the universe.”(Verse 42) Insofar as this complementarity goes all the way down, Taoist thought appears entirely inconsistent with gender essentialism, and nothing in the thought of yin and yang prohibits a wide array of gender combinations and expressions.
We can also say that if there were a privileging of one or the other, it would almost certainly fall on the side of the feminine rather than the masculine. The Tao itself is understood as both the all and the nothing, respectively as t’ai chi and wu chi. As the all, the Tao is the expressed totality of individuated beings in relation to one another – the differentiation in motion.
But insofar as these individuated beings are themselves in constant fluctuation, there is nothing ontologically abiding or unchanging about them, nothing that would constitute them as ‘things’ independent of each other. They are in constant negotiation and relation with all other things. Hence the Tao is also the nothing, the undifferentiated stillness serving as the materiality upon which the Tao as active operates. And in this pairing of the all and the nothing, there is a sense in which the nothing of the Tao ontologically precedes its manifestations and differentiations.
According to Lao Tzu, “The existent world is born of the nothingness of Tao.” (Verse 40) Stillness is the condition of motion, materiality the condition of activity, and the all cannot move unless its empty spaces enable that movement.
Prior to its being imaged in the famous t’ai chi symbol (Figure 1), the Tao was first represented in ancient Chinese thought by an empty circle, signifying nothing. In his commentary on the I Ching, Richard Wilhelm writes of the t’ai chi as signifying the ‘primal beginning”. But he goes on to say, “A still earlier beginning, wu chi, was represented by the symbol of a circle.”(lv)
The cosmic nothingness is older in Chinese thought than even the “primal beginning.” Moreover, even as the symbol for the t’ai chi supplanted that of the empty circle, the emptiness was retained in ‘the pivot of the Tao,’ the center point of the t’ai chi, between the light and the dark, remaining perfectly still as the condition of the Tao’s rotations.
Chuang Tzu claims that the “pivot provides the center of the circle, which is without end, for it can react equally to that which is and to that which is not.”(12) Lao Tzu also compares the nothing to the center of a circle:Thirty spokes of a wheel all join at a common hub / yet only the hole at the center / allows the wheel to spin.”(Verse 11) Prior to the activity of the t’ai chi, there is the passivity of the wu chi: as Saldanha writes, “de is the masculine vitality borne from the feminine nonbeing of the Dao.” So if there were to be a privileging in Taoist thought, it would fall on the side of the feminine. It is perhaps for this reason that, when Taoist texts refer to the Tao in a personified form, it is almost always feminine: “She is called the Hidden Creator”,(Verse 6) “the Mother of the world.” (Verse 52)
Finally, given that the Tao is the guiding principle of nature, its rhythmic direction is uncircumventable. Watts refers to the Tao as the “Watercourse Way”, conceiving of it both as the oceanic source and destination of being, as well as the differentiated rivers and streams feeding into it. Chuang Tzu refers to “… the Great Ocean… Ten thousand rivers flow into it, and it has never been known to stop, but it never fills.”(137-8)
And like the river, the Tao cannot be forced against its nature, nor are we capable of swimming against its currents; the more effort that human beings exert to constrain it, the more determinedly it will rebound with a counterforce, like a spring after being tightly compressed: “that which is forced is likely to return…”(Verse 30) Thus, given that the yin and the yang are the creative complementarity of the Tao, it follows that an effort to constrain one of its aspects will result in a violent and unexpected irruption of the same. With that, we turn to our reading of Fight Club.
The Ikea Nesting Instinct
We are given a tremendous amount of information in the film’s opening minutes, learning much of what we need in order to understand who the narrator is. He has no name, lives in a nameless city, and works for a nameless automobile manufacturer. He is everyone, and no one in particular. His life has become one of unmitigated passivity, inwardly directed energy, by his own admission defined entirely in accordance with his consumption choices. As he says, “Like so many others I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct… I’d flip through catalogs and wonder, what kind of dining set defines me as a person?”
Lynn Ta writes, “This scene mimics the image of a masturbating man, sitting in the privacy of his bathroom, looking at pornography, and participating in phone sex.”(274) We learn, however, that he is holding a furniture catalog, from which he is placing an order, after which he disaffectedly tosses the catalog onto a stack of others, (again hearkening toward while subverting a stereotypical image of a single man’s bathroom).
A few moments later in his own self-introduction, the narrator says, “We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow collection.” This image is revelatory for two reasons. First, it disrupts our expectations about what an image like this would typically suggest, and in so doing, it reverses the directionality of the energies that these two different activities would involve. From the expectation of a masturbatory experience with another human being on the phone, which would at least have some characteristics of an interpersonal experience (however cheaply commodified), the reality is reversed.
The narrator is not reaching outwardly, he is consuming – taking in. Yet, second, he is in the process of putting something out into the world – he is, after all, defecating, outputting the byproducts of his consumption choices. The narrator thus embodies in this momentary image the cycle of consumption and waste. He is not an outwardly directed and active conduit of the Tao, but an inwardly directed conduit of passive consumption.
As this conduit, he is living the life of an empty shell. We learn that he is suffering from his passive emptiness, and this suffering manifests in his six-month bout with insomnia, a losing battle that has begun to blur the lines between the real and the imagined. As he says, “With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy… of a copy… of a copy.”
He is never really awake and never really asleep, neither truly alive nor truly dead. Initially, his strategy for dealing with this suffering involves the hope of yet another consumption choice – he begs his doctor to prescribe him a pill: a consumer solution for a consumer problem. The doctor instead suggests natural alternatives, denying the narrator the easy, consumer fix.
Vernon Cisney is Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Deleuze and Derrida: Difference and the Power of the Negative (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) as well as Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon: An Edinburgh Philosophical Guide (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
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