Fight Club and Revolution Fantasy

“A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilisation..” (Marcuse, 1967 p19)

In 1947 the leading exponents of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Theory, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, published a critique of culture in advanced industrial society in which they contest that the effect of capitalism and industrialisation on the production of art has been the homogenisation of cultural styles and forms, the loss of art’s power to transcend and transform, and the creation and promotion by the Culture Industry of an illusory gratification that promises sublimity but in fact only reinforces the monotony and routine of modern life. Adorno and Horkheimer contemplate an industrialised society in grim relief, in which the individual becomes a unit of labour and an object of production.

Most people living today in the societies of the West have since birth been under the rational influence of the industrial and economic forces the Frankfurt School warned against. We’re inside their hypothesis: the inheritors and product of the cultural universe that they predicted and described. Seventy years on many of the effects and symptoms described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment are evident in Western societies. New technologies and their modes of use represent an evolution of the Culture Industry into new paradigms of influence over communities and individuals.

Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein’s analyses of the 1990s advance further theories on the methodology and evolution of a cultural production machine which reifies and homogenises art of all forms, subsumes opposition, reflects the ideology of the incumbents, and perpetually maps out new physical and conceptual territories for conquest.

The characteristics of the Culture Industry of the twenty-first century are most directly represented in texts of the present day. Fight Club, produced in 2000 by 20th Century Fox, a News Corporation subsidiary, is adapted for the screen by Jim Uhls from the first novel of Chuck Palachutuk. The film concerns the consumer “unfreedom” (Marcuse, 1967 p19) manufactured and reinforced by capitalist society’s Culture Industry, and human reactions to identity-design and the ideology of production.

Fight Club’s narrative, and its themes of alienation, liberation and revolution fantasy attest the truth of the Frankfurt School’s hypotheses for the present day – that capitalism and industrialisation erode the intrinsic value of cultural objects and their appreciation, and perpetuate the status quo by adapting the individual to the production-consumption cycle. However, the film is itself a mainstream cultural product, produced and promoted by a major global entertainment group. This conundrum juxtaposes an image of a contained cultural landscape with a conception of a civilisation which remains aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally capable of resistance, and of higher artistic ground, in part as a result of the influence of the theorists of the Frankfurt school on the culture which was their subject.

In the essay The Culture Industry Adorno and Horkheimer describe a bleak world in which the highest attainments of human culture and art are sacrificed to the machine, and the semblance of the machine which society has become. Distinctions between different forms of art and different styles tend be denuded. All arts, all of culture, will follow principles intrinsic in the production and economic paradigms, resulting in a levelling of different genres and forms. (Adorno and Horheimer, 1947)

Under these conditions, say Adorno and Horkheimer, cultural products become stylistically formulaic and repetitive, with technology and the production and distribution processes infusing and overshadowing narrative or thematic content, and undermining the potential for transcendent expression. The formula “replaces the work.” The new criteria of merit are simply the quantity and efficiency of production. Any differences remaining between works of art are based on the labelling and categorisation of consumers, rather than any innate characteristics of the works themselves. In a follow-up 1967 essay Adorno wrote: “The cultural commodities of the industry are governed … by the principle of their realization as value, and not by their own specific content and harmonious formation. The … Culture Industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms,” (Adorno, 1967, p2)

Ultimately the bright, marketed promise of the Culture Industry and its reified product is illusory: “in front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape.” (Adorno, 1967, p4) Commodified culture provides only vicarious gratification: “Celebrity magazines, TV with 500 channels.” (Fight Club, 2000) And the recipients, while not deceived , accept the material comforts proffered.

“People desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. … they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.” (Adorno, 1967, p4)

Dehumanisation and disempowerment is central to Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique. They propose a destruction of the inner self by the Culture Industry machine – as a result ” amusement itself becomes an ideal,” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944, p31) As the object of the Culture Industry, the consumer, the citizen, is subsumed by the economic/industrial regime into a homogenised production-based cultural system, to the extent that life resembles and consists of both the facade presented and promoted by the Culture Industry, and the underlying reality of production and consumption which it conceals. Under the influence of such a cultural system, even leisure activities are characterised by their adherence to the dominant paradigm. “The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations.” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947 p12)

Adorno and Horkheimer draw attention to the deprivation of the experience of the copy of a cultural work: a recording, a photograph, a film, which they suggest contributes to an intellectualisation of art’s apprehension. The reduction of human beings to stereotypes, and the deployment of these types through mass media channels render the perception of ourselves or others as distinct from these stereotypes impossible. An illusion of choice is placed before the consumer, masking an underlying “eternal sameness.” (Adorno, 1967, p2)

In a designed world, the normal processing of data is replaced with information already formatted for a late stage in the cognitive process. The human function of associating sensory data with fundamental concepts existing in the mind is usurped:”There is nothing left for the consumer to classify.” (p4) The Culture Industry’s audience is degraded by the consumption of its products, which are aesthetically and emotionally hollow. Laughter has been appropriated by the Culture Industry as a replacement for contentment, the spiritual, and the sublime. “The pleasure industry.. makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practised on happiness.” p14

(Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947 p12)

Fight Club depicts a world in which alienation, abstraction, and mechanisation are the norm – the characters are essentially dissatisfied with a prefabricated, assembly line existence, and seek one or another mode of identity reconstruction beyond the consumer-worker paradigm. Isolation and routine are only banished by the diversions and negations available in abandoned corners of the regime.

In the opening minutes the narrator describes his thoroughly corporatised, and troubled, lifestyle – a mention of insomnia is followed by a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup “With insomnia nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy..” (Fight Club, 2000) His apartment is impeccable. He works in automobile product recall assessment, rationalising horrific accidents in abstract, economic terms. He describes his daily life as a functionary of the corporate dominated worker-consumer society. “I had succumbed to the Ikea nesting instinct.” (Fight Club, 2000)

An unhealthy obsession is revealed: the narrator attends support groups indiscriminately, where he finds comfort and humanity – “freedom” (Fight Club, 2000) At Remaining Men Together, for sufferers of testicular cancer, he is dosed with plenitude when hugged by a man with enormous breasts arising from a hormone imbalance. After seeing a woman on several occasions at different groups He accuses another support group fetishist – another illegal identity-hopper – of tourism. (Fight Club, 2000)

In one scene, the narrator finds medical text books with titles like “I am Jack’s medula oblongata.,” “I am Jill’s nipple” (Fight Club, 2000), and the formula becomes the character’s tag: “I am Jack’s inflamed sense of rejection,” (Fight Club, 2000). The device highlights the character’s splintered identity, an adverse reaction to a dehumanising, disempowering, and dissatisfying reality, in which the effects of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Culture Industry are endemic.
In the twenty-first century the possibilities for the orthodoxy’s encroachment into the cultural milieu with the suggestive symbols of its enticements and messages for the reinforcement of prevailing ideology are radically more advanced than in the time of the Frankfurt School’s prominence, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Progress now puts screens in every Western home: countless new channels for the dissemination of cultural products, and global reach for corporations which now focus more keenly on identity and branding than manufacturing the product lines their self-image has superseded.

In Manufacturing Consent, published in 1994, Herman and Chomsky, propose a mass media propaganda model for a modern Western liberal democratic society, in which cultural mechanisms for the maintenance of the status quo are less overt, but not less effective, than in systems such as totalitarian dictatorships.

-“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of larger society.” ( Herman and Chomsky, , 1994, p 1)

Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model is based on media ‘filters’, through which information must pass before it can reach the public. The first filter, limitation of media ownership, is the result of a process of consolidation that began in the nineteenth century, ( Herman and Chomsky, , 1994, p 2) By 2000, there were ten major players in the global entertainment and media industries: Disney, General Electric, AOL-Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, ATandT, and Liberty Media. (Robert W McChesney November 2000) Though not all of these are dedicated media companies, all develop, produce and distribute of plethora of disparate cultural products in many countries through countless corporate entities.

“.. the dominant media firms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces.” ( Herman and Chomsky, , 1994, p 12)

In free market societies cultural products are also likely to pass through the advertising filter, which links the entertainment industry players with other sectors. Through their public association with media producers, advertisers gain an interest in the company’s content:

“advertisers will want, more generally, to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the “buying mood”. ( Herman and Chomsky, , 1994, p 17)

This influence commonly functions pre-emptively: the sensibilities of the advertiser are taken into consideration by the media company prior to the screening of contentious material.

In Michael Moore’s book Adventures in a TV Nation, which concerns Moore’s experiences producing a television programme for the NBC and Fox networks in the United States in the mid-1990s, he records an example of network micro-management: the only incident in which he was forced to change a segment for the show. Intending to highlight the relative merits of public health systems in the United States, Cuba, and Canada, TV Nation staged a segment with a spoof game show format in which the three health systems competed against one another in dealing with a patient with a broken leg. In the original version, Cuba was shown to have the most effective health care of the three countries shown. However, NBC put it’s corporate foot down: Cuba could not be represented as winning such a contest on the network. The segment was altered in Canada’s favour. (Moore, 1995)

For Naomi Klein, advertising is a starting point for the branding phenomenon central to Western culture in recent decades. In No Logo, Klein discusses the history and contestation of corporatism and the heterodox anti-corporate movement. She suggests a fundamental shift occurred with the advent of mass production: since different producers’ goods had become very much alike, advertising was no longer predominantly concerned with announcing a product’s existence, but with promoting points of difference between the identical commodities of different manufacturers. (Klein, 2000, p27)

“Cultural entities typical of the Culture Industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through. This quantitative shift is so great that it calls forth entirely new phenomena.” (Adorno, 1967, p2)

Having realised the power of brand marketing over product marketing, corporations moved to expand the prominence of their brands in society: through the capture of culture and lifestyle for processing by marketers; through the intrusion of corporates and brands into every feasible space a logo can be painted; and through the rush to swallow and regurgitate emergent cultural phenomena as part of an endless search for new created material to feed the engines of the production machine.

By the mid-1990s, Klein says, companies were “not only branding their own products, but branding the outside culture as well.. (Klein, 2000, p31) Through branding, corporate organisms have disassociated themselves from, and transcended, their origins as mere producers, distributors, marketers, or vendors of goods and service. There is a mythological, narrative, even spiritual component at play, as corporations reinvent themselves as super-identities – legal entities, political players, and cultural stars – through a drama conducted in sound and imagery and projected on every wall.
Klein, and Herman and Chomsky, present a portrait of a Culture Industry which is capable of creating enclosed, self-contained environments for its consumers, in which all needed commodities are manufactured and delivered by monolithic corporations, and culture functions as an efficacious totalitarian entertainment machine. Society increasingly becomes a construct, a thing designed. .Branded environments replace branded products: shiny, pre-fabricated mini-universes replete with lowest common denominator gratifications. And there is a prospect that the system could become so effective that any competing or contentious idea or movement could be effortlessly undermined or appropriated. In this case escape from the status quo, from technological progress and the ideology of production, would becomes forever impossible – or even, as theorist Herbert Marcuse suggests in One-Dimensional Man, unthinkable:

“The more rational, productive, technical, and total the repressive administration of society becomes, the more unimaginable the means and ways by which the administered individuals might break their servitude and seize their own liberation..” (Marcuse, 1967, p23)

On a cathartic night, Fight Club’s narrator begins a process of liberation from the manufactured world he inhabits, when his condo blows up with all his Scandinavian furniture, and he meets Tyler Durden on a plane. He moves in with Durden, on the same night. Durden is the narrator’s alter ego – “We have the exact same briefcase!” (Fight Club, 2000)

The narrator is enslaved by the corporate machinery; Durden is free – of social mores or limitations of conscience and conditioning. He can do anything, go anywhere – he is confident ,brash, and unaffected, nihilistic, charismatic, sexually capable, a disruptive force. He is a projectionist – a creator of images – he slips single frames of pornography into family films (shot of young girl in tears in cinema). He steals human fat from liposuction clinic dumpsters to make soap for sale to department stores: “Fat of the land.” (Fight Club, 2000).

In discourse with Tyler the narrator is encouraged to explore his limited application of his own underlying comprehension of the world. Discussing the destruction his material possessions, the narrator laments: “I was very close to being complete..” Tyler says “Well, you did lose a lot of versatile solutions for modern living.” “We are biproducts of the lifestyle obsession,” he tells the narrator “… I say never be complete.” (Fight Club, 2000).

Frankfurt School theorist, Herbert Marcuse, employs the term “introjection” to describe a process by which external social content, natural or manufactured, is internalised. By inference, “introjection implies the existence of an inner dimension … an individual consciousness and an individual unconsciousness apart from public opinion and behaviour.” Marcuse says “The idea of “inner freedom” here has its reality: it designates the private space in which man may become and remain “himself”” Tyler Durden is a creature of the narrator’s inner dimension – an alternate identity; a creation capable of navigating industrialised capitalist civilisation and retaining a healthy sense of self. He is also capable of organising resistance: through Fight Club, which begins as a radical, underground, ground-breaking self-help alternative.

The first Fight Club is born when Durden asks the narrator to hit him. The narrator obliges, and he and his alter ego discover a nihilistic pleasure in punishing one another: “we should do this again some time.” (Fight Club, 2000) When they fight again, others express an interest in joining in. A venue is found and the Fight Club rules are written.

Adorno and Horkheimer attest that “The enjoyment of the violence suffered by the movie character turns into violence against the spectator.” ( Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, p13) In Fight Club, brutal violence appears to generate an emotional release which overwhelms suffering, and validates it. Inflicting and incurring physical pain in a struggle with another human being, Fight Club’s members experience sense of reality, of fulfilment. It is the hard touch of truth in a world of safe, manufactured banalities.

The Fight Club’s appeal could be considered in a masculine romantic context: a return to the natural state through bestial contest. But in a broader (though not contradictory) sense, the phenomenon represents a negation of all modernity and post-modernity; of aesthetics; of social restraint; of corporate servitude; of adherence to moral and legal codes. Particularly, it is a rejection of the false plenitude offered in the cradle of capitalist culture – infantile entertainments with no praxis of rebellion or contestation. It’s a process of self-discovery through self-destruction; liberation in pugilism. The narrator says: “It used to be when I came home angry and depressed I just cleaned my condo and polished my Scandinavian furniture.. (Fight Club, 2000) If all the constructions of civilisation, the family, and the individual have been appropriated, subsumed by the system of production, then freedom is achieved only by discarding the society and the self in a ritual of physical demolition and deconstruction.

-“Contemporary industrial civilisation … has reached the stage at which “the free society” can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties. New modes of realisation are needed corresponding to the new capabilities of society. Such new modes can be indicated only in negative terms because they would amount to the negation of the prevailing modes.” ( Marcuse, 1967, p21)

Marcuse concurs with Adorno and Horkheimer in the understanding that if basic material needs are met, and material comforts constantly improved upon, any form of resistance to advanced industrialised civilisation is discouraged: “the very idea of qualitative change recedes before the realistic notion of a non-explosive evolution” ( Marcuse, 1967 p11-12)

In contemplating the future of a technologically advanced Western civilisation, Marcuse posits two contradictory hypotheses: (1) that advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative change for the foreseeable future; (2) that forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society.” ( Marcuse, 1967 p12)

In Fight Club, the revolution is called Project Mayhem “I am Jack’s smirking revenge.” (Fight Club, 2000). Tyler Durden recruits an army of operatives through the Fight Clubs, which now operate in population centres across the United States. A campaign of pointed anti-corporate vandalism is begun: in one instance a piece of ‘corporate art’, a 15-foot golden sphere, is rolled into a franchised coffee shop, destroying it utterly. These dalliances are the precursor to a plan to blow up six buildings housing central computers of the finance industries, thereby resetting all credit everywhere to zero. (Great works!)

Durden’s revolution, Project Mayhem, has some appeal. It is terrorism with a sense of irony, and is expressly designed to hurt as few people as possible. Project Mayhem is directed at the symbols of corporate culture, and the denouement, the gunpowder plot aimed at deleting global credit data, is an intelligent attack on a symbolic abstraction, rather than an act of empty revenge against the establishment.

In the concluding moments of the film, Project Mayhem’s ultimate objective is ostensibly successfully realised. However, the audience has been confined throughout to the narrator’s perspective: as the character’s psychosis develops, trust in the veracity of what is unfolding evaporates. With the revelation that the narrator and Durden are one person, all previous events are cast into doubt and ambiguity as well: the explosions and high tension of the film’s crescendo could be a trick of the narrator’s delusory mind: a fantasy of revolution, rather than the real thing.

In Fight Club’s universe, escape from a totalitarian production-based society is found in plenitude, psychosis, or negation and self-destruction. In our world, though, constructive contestation continues. While new orthodox industries and institutions, such as the PR industry and the think-tank have evolved for the manipulation of new technological and cultural landscapes, so too have sophisticated heterodox organisations, founded on conceptual and ethical common ground, and mobilised via networked media environments and public fora developed by the establishment.

A recent Greenpeace action, in which the HMAS Sydney was delayed in its departure from Sydney Harbour on its way to the Gulf through the expert co-ordination of climbers on the ship’s side, boats in the water, and information flow to media and authorities provides a real world counterpoint to Project Mayhem’s anarchic designs.

As MTV snaps up cultural negations and turns them into affirmations of the super-identity of the logo, the corporate mainstream’s formats, icons, and delivery vehicles are themselves appropriated. The activities of non-profit organisations such as Greenpeace, phenomena such as culture-jamming, hactivism, independent media, and internet scrutiny and lampoonery of the corporate sphere, together with the work of counter-culture activists such as Naomi Klein and Michael Moore stand as other examples of a thriving heterodoxy, advancing an alternative praxis to dominant ideology. One US website currently promotes: “Sean Kirby’s Second Annual Warbloggers Stupid Poetry Contest – this year, petrarchan sonnet in trochaic heptameter” – a cultural melange that both confirms and confounds the Frankfurt School’s thesis of cultural homogenisation and reification.

The anti-corporate movement is popular, and therefore actively courted by the mainstream entertainment industry. After Moore used the 2003 Academy Awards to comment on the United States’ invasion of Iraq (“..we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where fictitious election results give us a fictitious president. We are now fighting a war for fictitious reasons..”) the box office take for the documentary that won the award rose 73%, his book, Stupid White Men returned to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and hits on his web-site rose above 10 million per day. (Moore, 2003) An almost symbiotic relationship between the Culture Industry and its adversaries is demonstrated by the fact that various subsidiaries of just one of the top tier media entities, News Corporation, produced Fight Club, screened TV Nation and has published the books of both Moore and Klein.

” I want to counteract a message that is told to us all the time — that, if you take a chance to speak out politically, you will live to regret it.” (Moore, 2003)

The prominence of these antagonists, and the existence of texts such as Fight Club are not necessarily a refutation of the Frankfurt’s School’s hypotheses: another interpretation positions the antagonists as grist to the culture mill. Not only do they serve as an advertisement for the liberalism and tolerance of the overarching capitalist system, they are farmed for fresh cultural iconography and the style and content of emergent discourse the industry is itself incapable of creating. Opposition, obstacles, and conflicts are all woven into the epic narrative the branded corporations are constructing around themselves. (Klein, 2000)

In this alternate context, Fight Club as a narrative of liberation becomes the revolution fantasy of the audience – hamartia – a cathartic but vicarious experience of uprising, and of the suffering of a tragically flawed protagonist that precludes and expunges the actual urge to rebellion: “amusement carries out that purgation of the emotions which Aristotle once attributed to tragedy.” ( Adorno and Horkheimer, 1947, p15)

The projections of the Frankfurt School are more nearly reflected in Fight Club’s dire vision of a lost, mechanised civilisation than in our own society. Fight Club is a dark film dealing in ugly realities and ugly fantasies, in which revolution is the refuge of the mentally ill. It depicts a society in which people are damaged by the Culture Industry, and can only escape by damaging themselves further: in negation. But the film confirms that the critiques presented by the Frankfurt School are alive in current social discourse, and that the ubiquity and strength of the industrialised Culture Industry remain a catalyst and an inspiration to the political and cultural agents of its opposition

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