Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fight Club, Consumer Psychology, and Redemption


The movie Fight Club was one of those unique films that help define a generation. The movie was preceded by the novel from Chuck Palahniuk, who created such a stir with the book and later the movie that people began to treat Chuck himself like Tyler Durden, often offering to "take care of" people at his request. So what was it about his movie that struck such a cord with people? Many were simply engaged by the movies entertaining elements, but upon deeper examination the movie had a much deeper meaning that this analysis will attempt to explore. Although we start with the idea of an analysis of Tyler Durden, his alter-ego, referred to in the movie as "Jack" is also highly relevant to this discussion.

The narrator "Jack" begins the movie with a raging case of insomnia that is brought on by existential crisis. Much like the character of Meursault in Albert Camus' novel The Stranger, who commented that "life had begun stalking him" Jack has reached a point in his life that is also utterly devoid of meaning as evidenced by his quote, "this is your life and its ending one minute at a time." Finally Jack seems to embrace the Buddhist idea that meaning in life can be achieved by actively meditating on one's own death. He joins a number of survivor's groups where he can see people at the very end of life, and this seems to bring him a great deal of peace. Perhaps a part of him is taking solace in the fact that fate has been cruel to others while it continues to spare him, and this gives him a sense of peace where he can finally get some sleep.

Everything changes when Jack meets Marla who is suffering through a similar existential crisis. Marla, although every bit as lost as Jack, does not have a place in mainstream consumer America and is essentially a bottom feeder in society. All the same, Marla and Jack are kindred souls, and there is an immediate attraction that Jack is unable to act on, until his subconscious creates Tyler Durden.

So Jack's spilt into Tyler can be partially explained by looking at the fundamentals of dissociation. This occurs when someone's thoughts become too uncomfortable to consciously process, and they go into another state as a psychological defense against these painful feelings. The question therefore becomes what was so uncomfortable in Jack's life that he needed to create an alter ego? The answer can be found in looking at our greater American society and how consumerism creates a sense of the empty self.

In Adam Curtis's documentary entitled The Century of the Self, the roots of American consumerism are explored by following the trail of Sigmund Freud's nephew named Edward Bernays. Bernays had studied his uncle's works extensively, and became convinced that people could be manipulated into buying products based on their instinctual drives towards aggressiveness and sexuality.

To back up a second, Freud posited that our subconscious is made up of three separate functions known as the id, ego, and superego. The superego takes the function of what we consider to be the "conscience" which urges us towards moral and just behavior. The id on the other hand is our drive towards destruction and sexuality which Freud thought was inherent in human nature. The ego acts as a kind of referee between these two forces to create a balance where people can successfully function in line with the rules of the society.

Freud believed we were all inherently aggressive and that the id is the dominant force in our lives, and is only curtailed by society's conventions. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud stated "men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him."

So to return to Edward Bernays, he felt his uncle's ideas could be used to exploit the American public into buying things they didn't need if he could make them feel that these things would make them more sexually powerful or perceived as more aggressive. Consider Tyler's comment; "God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need" in this regard.

A part of Jack has begun to understand that constantly acquiring furniture and other things for his condo is a meaningless pursuit totally devoid of purpose and fulfillment, and he feels a strong impulse to act on this feeling. Much of Jack's dissociation has to do with this empty sense of self that he realizes he has for years been filling up by buying things, i.e. "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" Tyler also makes a comment that, "We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war, and our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won't. We're slowly learning that fact, and we're very, very pissed off." Jack has begun to reject the consumerism he has become a kind of slave to, also evidenced by his comment that "the things you own end up owning you."

Tyler's comment has a great deal of validity and can be historically supported. Prior to industrialization in this country, most people lived in rural communities where there was a shared sense of community and values of hard work and self-reliance were emphasized. With the coming of industrialization people began flocking to the cities, and with this migration, many of the core values of the rural way of life were also left behind. As people began living in close proximity in the US, a desire to "keep up with the Joneses" soon developed where people wanted to acquire as many possessions as their neighbors to keep up appearances. This mentality was soon exploited by people like Bernays, who worked with business to create adverting campaigns that capitalized on this idea.

World War 2 interrupted the county however, and the "sense of purpose" Tyler refers to came from taking on Adolph Hitler and protecting the world from the spread of fascism. Following World War 2, the consumer machine kicked back in however, and we soon returned to the idea of buying newer and better things in accordance with our deeply rooted subconscious desires. The next generation partially rejected this idea however, and in the 60's a number of social causes such as the Women's Movement, Civil Rights, and brining an end to Vietnam War energized people, and once again created a sense of unified purpose.

The children born after this generation are Tyler's "middle children of history". With more media outlets than ever constantly bombarding them, and no political or social causes to get behind, "Generation X" became one of the most restless and unfulfilled in history, and this is where we pick up the story of Jack.

One interesting piece of Jack's story comes from analyzing his ideas about women and sex. At the beginning of the movie we see him holding a catalog likes it's a porno magazine and we see instead it's an Ikea advertisement. Jack, through filling up his psychological desires by purchasing things, has suppressed his sexual urges and become celibate. When he does create Tyler, he is able to finally release his pent up sexual frustration and release the desires of his id. But when Jack lets this genie out of the bottle, sexual conquest is not the least of Tyler's desires. Freud also believed our drive towards destruction would emerge when society's conventions are stripped away, and this is exactly what happens in the case of Tyler, who wished to destroy the consumerism that has prevented Jack from acting on his natural primitive urges.

Tyler's actions suggest that destruction can also be evolutionary, as evidenced by his comment that "only when we lose everything do we have the power do to anything." By destroying Jack's possessions he feels he has set him free, but it is also important to understand what Jack is now free to do. "Tyler's advice that "self-improvement is masturbation, but self-destruction is where its at" is interesting to consider. In setting himself free has Jack found redemption? This returns us to his comment at the end of his journey, where he remarks "all of this has something to do with a woman named Marla Singer."

So, is love Jack's salvation? This is certainly one hypothesis. At the end of the film, when Jack destroys Tyler, we see two things. One, the towers of consumerism crumbling to the ground, and two, him joining hands with Marla in perhaps their first moment of real intimacy. Perhaps this suggests that Jack has destroyed the power of his addiction to consumerism while also understanding there was a drive in the human instinct more powerful than simply sex.

So is that the message of Fight Club? That love can be the redemptive force that sets us free from our shackles? I think this is a likely explanation. Although as a viewer I particularly enjoyed watching Tyler/Jack free themselves from the bondage of consumer addiction, we still have Jack's comment that "all of this has something to do with a woman named Marla Singer." The nature of the psyche is such, that the ego's defenses aren't stripped away without being replaced by another force to protect the ego. In Jack's case by killing Tyler he has freed himself from his disassociation and unified the forces inside of him into a single front. Bringing down the towers exorcises the demon forces of consumerism that have been filling up Jack's empty self, and he is now free to live through the redemptive powers of love.

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