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«JOURNAL FOR CULTURAL RESEARCH VOLUME 11 NUMBER 3 (JULY 2007) Fight Club, or the Cultural Contradictions of Late Capitalism 5 Omar Lizardo OmarLizardo ...»

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Fight Club, or the Cultural

Contradictions of Late

Capitalism 5

Omar Lizardo



Originalfor Cultural

1479-7585 Francis Research




Taylor and (print)/1740-1666 (online)

Francis Most critical engagement with the film Fight Club tends to emphasize its relevance for the study of contemporary representations of gender and masculinity.

These readings tend to primarily highlight the “reactionary” aspects of the film, which are seen as response to structural sources of feminization experienced by men as they are embedded in the consumerist machine of the service-oriented economy. In this paper I argue that these takes on Fight Club, while enlightening and indeed capturing a key aspect, miss what I think is its most essential contribution: its attempt to craft a transcendental “counter-myth” capable with dealing with the cultural and societal contradictions of post-industrial capitalism in the context of the transition to a service oriented economy. I draw on the work of Daniel Bell in order to offer a neo-Weberian reading of Fight Club which makes sense of various aspects of the film which are rendered meaningless by the gender-focused reading. I argue that Fight Club can be seen as an attempt to deal with the evacuation and exhaustion of the original form of value-rationality from the realm of production in service work — grounded in the older ethic of ascetic Protestantism — as well as the failure of ideological interpellation in the consumer society — grounded in a domesticated version of the experience-based counter-Bourgeious ethic associated with aesthetic modernism — to provide an

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David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) has received a fair amount of critical attention by analysts of popular culture, who have noticed the film’s (and Chuck Palahniuk’s novel’s) obvious relevance to issues of gender and masculinity (see for instance, Tuss 2004; Clark 2002; Lee 2002; Tripp 2005; Gallagher 2004; Friday 2003). The majority of these interpretations of the film have examined Fight Club as an ode to the crisis of traditional conceptions of manhood in the post-industrial society, or as a crypto-reactionary response against the disempowerment of men in the

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late capitalist situation. This line of analysis zeroes in on the “structural feminization” of the traditional (working class) masculine figure as men become part of the contemporary service society and its attendant consumerist machine. From this point of view the film’s unabashed glorification of violence and concomitant 5 exaltation of virile resistance to pain and punishment as an ultimate value are seen as a desperate attempt to re-conquer a space and recuperate an activity that is purely masculine, that is, as masculinity is traditionally conceived and premised on the radical exclusion of women. The film is in this manner interpreted as a portrayal of an essentialist gender-coded rebellion against the effeminizing 10 and emasculating influences of the culture industry and attendant advertising complex, and the white-collar pencil-pushing rut of modern bureaucratic labor.

This reading is bolstered by the fact that images of literally feminized men abound in the film. The primary example in this regard is anchored by the tragic– comic portrayal of the character Robert “Bob” Paulson who, endowed with 15 “bitch tits” and literally deprived of his testicles (he suffers from testicular cancer and has enlarged breasts due to chemotherapy) goes during the course of the film from over-sensitive cry-baby to hard-nosed soldier/martyr. His death towards the end of the film can be interpreted as a displaced symbolic effacement of what Paulson represents: the sensitive “new man” that was made so 20 much of in the mid 1990s; one deprived of “his substance” and who is consequently nothing but a soft, effeminized and castrated version of the traditional working class “breadwinner” archetype inherited from the 1950s. In this sense, Paulson’s character is nothing but a parody of the “touchy-feely” version of the new masculinity, endowed with ability to cry and express his feelings, and even 25 to serve as an odd quasi-maternal presence in Jack’s (the focal character and voice-over narrator throughout the film) life, as in the support group scene in which we see Paulson embrace Jack while he seems to almost fall asleep nestled in his bosom.

While this attention to the gendered context and content of the film does in 30 fact capture a large portion of the relevance that Fight Club has for the contemporary situation, a closer reading suggests that this exclusive attention to the gendered and (homo)sexual dynamics present in the film may obscure as much as they reveal. In particular such a reading shrouds the extent to which other social forces that cross-cut gender — especially those related to class position 35 and work in the postmodern service society — serve as the primary referent and organizing coordinates of the film’s symbolic world. Further, this reading does not let us appreciate the extent to which the film is attempting to craft a “socio-cosmological” myth for the late-modern age that attempts to assuage the socio-structural discords produced by the contemporary organization of labor. In 40 order to explore these issues, in this paper I will attempt to explore how Fight Club can be reinterpreted as a poignant allegory of the cultural and social contradictions brought about by the capitalist socio-economic system in late modernity. The major goal of this paper is thus to fill the void produced by the current lack of any “totalizing” reading of Fight Club, one that puts it in the 45 context of the antinomies produced at the level of the system and by the RCUV_A_276369.fm Page 223 Wednesday, November 7, 2007 9:21 AM

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One of the key insights to be gleaned from Contradictions concerns Bell’s analysis 30 of the fate of the old ethic of discipline and restraint identified by Weber (1958,

1993) as the cultural basis which (in his imagery of possible “elective affinities” between economy and culture) in association with certain innovations in technology, political institutions and the organization of production was responsible for the meteoric rise of capitalism in Northern Europe and England (Weber 1958). 35 Weber’s basic argument is that the institutionalization of a secular version of the rational ethic which governed everyday practices sponsored by the Protestant break with medieval Catholicism (especially in its most radical Calvinist form) was responsible for the creation of a set of cultural, ontological and moral precepts which served as the basis for the development of the classical Bourgeois 40

1. This is not to imply that a totalizing reading — one that captures the ‘essential’ or the meaning of the film in its entirety — is in fact possible. In fact the attempt to capture or imagine the system in its totality, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, is, especially in the context of multinational capitalism, bound to be a failure. However, this does not imply that the very failure of this operation cannot itself be productive. For more elaboration on this point, see Jameson (1993, pp. 1–72).

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ideology that was consolidated in Anglo-Saxon societies (in particular England and the United States) in the eighteenth century. This included an inveterate distrust of traditional institutions (the “radical” universalizing ethic and antinomian posture of Protestant Christianity which dates back to Paul’s own sweeping 5 rupture from Jewish traditionalism), the desacralization of nature and the expulsion of divinity from the physical world (Zizek 2001). This led to the Protestant obsession with eliminating every trace of the old “pagan” remnants of medieval Roman Catholic culture and worship, and the constant policing of women’s bodies and sexuality that were the basis of many Pagan fertility cults. This leaves 10 open “dead” nature to modification, usage, extraction and human manipulation by way of technology (Marcuse 1974).2 This dynamic process of the “rationalization” of the social and natural cosmos manifested itself in private life with the imposition of an internalized ethic of control, calculation and planning at the level of the character structure (Adorno AQ1 15 & Horkheimer 1972; Lukács 1972; Marcuse 1974). Add to this the Protestant rejection of the traditional aristocratic forms of material distinction and ostentation and an encouragement of the “virtues” of thrift, discipline and hard work, to produce the perfect social type to occupy the role of capitalist (with its taste for “ceaseless accumulation”, itself a remnant of the old Calvinist prohibition 20 against taking any measure of success as a sign of divine providence, lest human hubris is mistaken for God’s actual, but ultimately impenetrable, will).3 For Weber, the key intellectual break does not occur with the Lutheran revolt against medieval Catholicism (which remains steeped in a subjectivist mysticism), but has to wait until John Calvin’s theoretical rationalization of Lutheran 25 theology. In Calvin’s view, the key consequence of a true acceptance of the absolute omnipotence, omniscience and transcendence of God, is the idea of predestination. Because the temporal and spatial limitations of embodied beings do not affect God, any attempt to even think that salvation may be “up in the air” is a blasphemous denial of God’s supreme power and timelessness. Thus the previous 30 Catholic Church-sponsored game of trying to gain God’s favor through work and prayer is a meaningless and sacrilegious denial of God’s absolute prerogative to have decreed the fate of each worldly creature since the beginning of time. Thus no more time should be lost attempting to garner God’s favor or to “guess” one’s status as saved or damned.

35 However, the Calvinist subject was primarily constituted by “his calling”:

a Lutheran invention primarily aimed to delegitimatize the “other-worldly”

2. On this theme see the famous Weberian reinterpretation of the British ‘scientific revolution’ in Merton (1938). An allegorical representation of technology — represented by iron crafted weapons — as a tool to ‘kill the gods’ (Weber’s entazauberung or ‘demagicalization’) and thus render the 40 natural ‘environment’ rationalized in the Weberian sense is given allegorical expression in Hayao Miazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1999).

3. This valuation of the ‘work ethic’ is still a powerful determinant of political opinion and actual policy in the United States and Britain, as exemplified by the enthusiastic dismantling of the welfare state by a coalition of big business and middle class social conservatives, who see the ‘welfare queen’ as the ultimate agency responsible for all newly defined social problems such as crime, 45 drugs, sexual disease and teen pregnancy.

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asceticism of the Catholic monks and priests and legitimize the “this-worldly” asceticism of the layman engaged in mundane work, thus destroying the special status of the “celibate” classes of the medieval Catholic order (Weber 1958). It was in this Althusserian hail by an external, transcendental, God supposed to be able to penetrate the deepest kernel of one’s being that the never ending 5 subjection (in the sense constitutive of the bourgeois individual) to an ethic of discipline and “rationalization” of everyday existence was accomplished (Althusser 1971).

For Daniel Bell, while Weber’s argument was essentially correct when it came to a diagnosis of the origins of the “spirit” of modernity (Berman 1982), the 10 techno-economic changes in the organizational core of capitalism, in particular the move from a competitive, to a monopoly to now a multinational stage, have resulted in structural modifications in the workings of the system that are incompatible and which undermine the basis of the “classic” Bourgeois culture of capitalism. These changes are best represented by the rise of the credit system 15 (initially represented by the early twentieth century move to “installment payments” in American capitalism), which facilitates unhindered consumption and leads to a partial dissolution of the old ethic of restraint and delay of gratification (Bell 1996, pp. 66–70). For Weber, it was this combination of “unbridled” acquisitiveness and restraints on consumption which were the key components of 20

the capitalist spirit:

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Why Jack is not a Pervert: Late Capitalism and Psychosis One way to summarize this shift at the level of subjectivity that Bell’s updating of the Weber thesis is trying to isolate is to mark the old couple modern/ postmodern, or capitalist/late-capitalist, as strictly correlative to the dyad of hysteria/psychosis. While many commentators (drawing on Marcuse’s [1974] classic Eros and Civilization with its wonderfully oxymoronic conception of “repressive 35 desublimation”), see the move toward modern consumerist capitalism as a descent into perversion, or a return to paganism and a dismantling of the Protestant break with the hedonism of antiquity (this has for example been a recurrent theme in Zizek’s [2001, 2003] later work and a motivation for his return to the ethics of Christianity as codified by St Paul and Chesterton), I contend that this is simply 40 not an accurate characterization; for as Bell notes in Contradictions, the Protestant ethic is far from dead but continues to haunt us (like the “dead ghosts” that Weber referred to in the famous Chapter 5 of his classic work). Thus, instead of speaking of a simple replacement of bourgeois asceticism with consumerist perversion, it is more accurate to speak of an advent of a split subject caught 45 RCUV_A_276369.fm Page 226 Wednesday, November 7, 2007 9:21 AM


between hysteria and perversion. This split subject therefore is more accurately characterized as psychotic.

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