Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Politics of Fight Club

What seems like a thousand years ago, I was gulled by the hype into reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

I ultimately found it incoherent and frustrating and dismissed it, eventually deciding that it was yet another piece of postmodernism in the worst sense of that term--shallow, muddled, pushing lots of buttons but not actually saying anything, which was a common enough experience back then, when I still paid attention to such things as "independent film." And I was annoyed by how unlike so many pop cultural "phenomena" Fight Club didn't seem to go away--how year after year, decade after decade, people kept on talking about it, getting excited about it.

In hindsight, it seems something much more insidious. Tyler Durden and company's smugly willful irrationality and anti-rationality, their exultation in violent action for its own sake, their contempt for egalitarianism (from here we get the current, unfortunate usage of "snowflake"), their leader-worship, their fascination with the idea of an all-male pseudo-community intent on mayhem . . . they seems to pretty much cover any laundry list of traits of fascism one cares to name.

Of course, defining an ideology simply by a list of traits is not entirely satisfying. And so I find myself thinking of characterizations of fascism which attempt to get at its essence, with two such attempts standing out in my memory. One is of fascism as a politics that organizes people around self-expression, around theatrical display rather than self-interest (think of the Nazis serving up the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies instead of making good on their promises of a higher living standard for the German people). The other is that fascism is a combination of rebellious feeling with reactionary thinking. The book's principals fit on both counts, of course--because self-expression rather than self-interest is what is at issue for them, because their rebellious feeling is combined with that worship of inegalitarianism, anti-humanism, violence, leader-cult and the rest that by any reasonable measure is reactionary.

Of course, having established that Tyler Durden and company are a pack of fascists, one is left with the question of what to make of the book itself. To depict a thing is not necessarily to advocate that thing--and like any other postmodernist Palahniuk surrounds his work with such a freight of irony that one can never be sure what he really thinks about anything, or even if he has any awareness of what he is presenting. (Given the intellectual shallowness on display, one cannot take that much self-awareness for granted.) However, whatever his intent, the attraction of what he presented for a certain demographic makes it clear that it did appeal specifically because of its fascism. Looking back it appears that this should have received more, and more critical attention--our cultural commentators fallen asleep on the job again.

My Posts on Postmodernism


Fin O'Reilly said...

You're right – I don't remember much discussion of the book as concerning proto-/neo-fascism at the time it was published, but there has been some since, e.g.:


Is it one of those 'once seen, is is impossible to unsee' type of things, perhaps?

Either way, from what I've read of Pahlaniuk, he was probably in on the joke. And while the fascism undoubtedly did appeal to a certain demographic, how do you balance that with the fact that the very necessary satirising of those people appeals to another?

Does not every satire run the risk of somebody missing the joke and taking a text seriously (thinking of books like The Forever War)?

Nader said...

Dear Mr. O'Reilly. Thanks for writing--and for the Guardian link, which I would have included had I remembered it.

Of course that's been a major occupational hazard for the satirist ever since satire began. But what I did point out here is that given the prevalence of postmodernism (virtually obligatory now not just for highbrow, literary writing, but so pervasive in pop culture that it made a mess of the last Star Wars film), not only is there more of the ambiguity that causes such confusion, but we have a situation where writers are prone to exploit that confusion so that they can avoid committing to a position on a social or political issue that might expose them to criticism or backlash. It is even common for them to think themselves very clever when they're simply not sure that they're saying anything at all. (I hesitate to present examples here, but there seems rather a lot of this out there, more than people generally seem to appreciate.)

My impression is also that far from being a satirist, with a clear target and a clear attitude toward it, the author was merely being what postmodernists call "playful." My impression's also that (as the way people use the word "snowflake" shows) the appeal of the toxic elements was a very big part of the phenomenon, far bigger than those who enjoy the book as a satire of that sort of person. In fact, I wonder if we don't look at it as satire now because of recent developments in our cultural life, or at least, the associated tendencies having become more apparent, rather than it's having been a deliberate satire then. (After all, did we talk about fight clubs until after the book came out? To some extent, it may have created what they think of it as satirizing.)

Again, thank you for your feedback.

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