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Fight Club: An Expose of the Societal System

Self-improvement is masturbation. Self destruction now theres something

(Fincher). In the movie Fight Club the audience sees the narrators life through an
interesting perspective: his own view of himself and surroundings. The film places an
emphasis on the narrators view of himself, or more specifically his dissatisfaction with
his current life. The narrator is a part of societys system just like any other. Irony is
present from the first instance of the narrators internal characterization and narration.
He is complacent with his present life, yet lacks the motivation, as do the countless others
dissatisfied with their roles in the system to make a real change in their life and person.
The film begins by observing the bland, working class life of a narrator and soon
introduces another character a charismatic individual that has qualities that seem to go
against the grain of societal roles. This man, Tyler Durden, craves violence. He craves
pain. He craves feeling.
But feeling and pain arent a part of the metanarrative that encompasses
society. Instead, people are conditioned to work jobs they dont like, buy things they
dont truly want, and live their lives for the sake of existing. There is scene in which
Tyler Durden is encouraging his newly recruited minions to destroy and wreak havoc on
their surroundings on the people and business that are a part of the societal system that
is in place. He says, We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place.
Weve been raised on television to believe that one day well all be rock stars and movie
gods but we wont. And we are slowly learning this fact. And we are very, very pissed
off (Fincher). The societal system in place this structure composed of the
metanarrative that encompasses society is seemingly designed for one type of living

and this structure limits individuality. It punishes those who strive to break away. All
the mechanisms of power which, even today, are disposed around the abnormal
individual, to brand him and to alter him, are composed of those two forms from which
they distantly derive (Foucault 554). The abnormal individual, or one who breaks away
from the mainstream, is designated different. He is designated as someone who is not
like others. The social stigma of this branding is designed to invoke change in the
behavior of the individual so he can get back into the system and into the comfort he once
This is not intended to be negative, but rather a mere symptom of the system.
The system is no longer controllable or volatile and the structure of our society is beyond
individual effect. Lyotard says that the structure self-grounds itself and legislators are
subject to the law themselves therefore making the people making the laws the same as
those who are controlled by them (357). For this reason, the people in society are not
seen as forced to follow the law, but rather desire it. The problem with this relates back
to the metanarrative issues that society is increasingly facing. Life becomes stagnant.
Individuality is seen as counter cultural rather than constructive.
More so, as technology advances as a result of our rampant consumerism and
push for progress, our views become more homogenized. Like Tyler Durdan says,
Weve been raised on television (Fincher). The television among other
advancements allows for mass programming, mass cultural transitions, and mass
generalized opinion within society. The people, however and for the most part, are
satisfied with a homogenous society making no effort to truly break free from the
grasps of the current system which is in place instead opting to behave in a way that

guarantees comfort yet minimal ideological progression. It is for this reason that those
who doubt the mainstream beliefs of society are seen as threats. There are many
instances where this can occur ranging from dressing differently to even making a
claim that the world is round. Society so often looks back at radically freethinking
individuals and commends their progress, but this happens many years later. Fight Club
fits so well with this concept (not necessarily the beneficial aspects) because its
protagonist is not a normal individual. He challenges the rules of the system of
society and the audience gets to see something many of them have never experienced: a
perspective inconsistent with mainstream beliefs. Consider how many cubicle workers
watched the film, how many subordinated individuals watched what could happen if they
let go of the consumerism life of working to live and living to work. With a mass
movement of Fight Club-esque change the societal system people are familiar with has
the potential to crumble.
However people are not comfortable with change and for that reason the culture
industry remains static. It doesnt advance because it is merely a deception to further the
consumerism-crazed behavior that so many people are completely absorbed in. Having
ceased to be anything but style (the culture industry), it reveals the latters secret:
obedience to the social hierarchy (Adorno 1245). Adorno and Horkehimer claim that
people do not want out of this stagnant cycle of cultural industry. The culture industry is
not just a part of being human and interacting with others; it has its own agenda. To
speak of culture was always contrary to culture. Culture as a common denominator
already contains an embryo that schematization and process of cataloging and
classification which bring culture within the sphere of administration (Adorno 1245).

The aforementioned obedience to the social hierarchy is not a result of intentional
consumer behavior, but rather an engineered facet of culture to ensure the consumers will
perpetually remain in their ignorance and continue working, consuming, and repeating.
Culture provides separation in society and these separations, no matter how recognizable,
inherently shape the views of society. The upper class can only see society from its own
perspective even when attempting to gain more perspective; they will never truly
understand the views of those beneath them. Similarly, the middle class remains in vast
complacency living comfortably and in safety, yet appeasing those above them in the
hierarchy. The system perpetuates itself. People of the same class continue to give birth
to people of the same class and their perspectives and lives are shaped from the same
perspective generation after generation.
While Fight Club can be seen as a revolutionary movie that challenges the
constructs of society, free will, and individuality, it is important to recognize the
extraordinary amount of irony that is not even hidden, but blatantly present.

The film

ultimately serves as a critique on the system of society on the structure crafted from the
tendency towards metanarratives, as a Lyotard would say. The concept of selfdestruction seems so avant garde and irregular. People may wonder if the film promotes
self-harm, if it promotes a reinvention of the self through self-destruction rather than
improvement. The film, however, becomes a expose of what happens when a person
outsteps their boundaries when a person attempts to break away from the system. The
bloody fighting, the acid burning, and the shift from comfortable living arrangements
seem so radical and thought provoking. However, these self-destructive tendencies end
up providing no real positive change. In fact they provide a negative change. After

fighting and breaking from the confines of society the narrator ultimately returns to an
eerily similar master-slave relationship scenario except this relationship is with himself.
The irony in the narrators attempt to break free from the system of
consumerism and society among other facets of the overarching structure in place which
governs all behavior in totality through self self-destruction lies in the delusion of the self
that self-destruction is completely unique from self-improvement. The narrators push
towards self-destruction as a means to completely change his life is internalized by his
desire for self-improvement. Saying self-improvement is masturbation and selfdestruction is where true value lies is ironic in that both situations involve the selfimposing actions on the self for reasons that the self imposes. Tyler Durden and the
narrator are the same person.
The irony is further produced because both characters are contrasted in the movie
almost as binaries and as a juxtaposition of two different lives one life that strives to
break away from the imposed structure of society yet hidden from the outside realm and
one that fits in place with society and is exposed. The narrator actualizing his internal
beliefs is, in itself, a form of self-improvement. Just because it is done through self-harm
and destruction does not mean that it is radically different or groundbreaking. Tyler
Durdens brash action and provocative language is a mere self-delusion that being
counter-cultural is the right way to live.
Rather, the narrator is still a piece of the Panopticon. Society is a system
developed on surveillance. The overarching structure of interaction and behavior which
postmodern theory would say is independent of value is statically unchangeable because
surveillance is everywhere - especially in the self. Foucaults Panopticon provides a

archetypal structure to view this concept of constant surveillance. Hence the major
effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent
visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power (Foucault 554). People are
constantly being observed. This would not necessarily be a powerful force on its own,
but the consciousness of being observed is what directs behavior. It is what controls
people, their actions, and ultimately society. People act in certain ways that are
societally normal rather than individually desired because of this constant conscious
state of observation. Society depends on self-improvement; people depend on the
validation of others - for relationships, for safety, and for comfort among countless other
reasons. This is what Foucault refers to in his historical explanation of the Panopticon
through the imposed rules and isolation imposed on a plagued town in the seventeenth
century (Foucault 553). By providing a sense of safety and order, society can be
disciplined under their own will. The narrator is constantly being observed, and his
internal beliefs that self-destruction is the correct way to break free could are most
likely is a result of the consciousness of being observed. This self-surveillance innately
causes the self to desire to improve itself. The narrator is, in fact, self-improving
through self-destruction. It is this contradiction that Fight Club brings to light. The film
allows us to view the structures that are unchangeable and ever-present and exposes the
unseen force that compels us to behave in certain ways every day. And it is an expose of
why attempting to exit this system through whatever means possible will always be futile.
Before exploring postmodern theory, I always saw fight club as a thoughtprovoking movie: one that veered away from the status quo and embraced refreshing
subject matter. However, I didnt have an appreciation for the hidden sentiments

expressed throughout the movie and I really didnt see the true critiques on society made
by the movie. However, with my knowledge postmodern theory among others, I have a
better understanding of how the film examines society and the system that governs the
behavior people. By viewing the film through a postmodern lens, I see the points it is
trying to make, but I also see it as more of an analysis of our current society rather than a
strong criticism of it. From the first time Tyler and the narrator sloppily brawl outside of
a bar to self-harm through acid exposure, the movie is consistently brutal. Instead of
being consistent with cultural views of normal self improvement or normal (in a
societal sense) progression of life, the characters move to extreme measures of violence
and mutual self-destruction to break away from predetermined paths of life. The narrator
allows consumerism to fill the voids of his life to make him feel emotion and
satisfaction in his life choices. This feeling and realization through pain, violence, and
destruction suggests that a numbed society must be exposed to visceral images and
feelings in order to see the faults in their own life the life that falls under the realm of
the constructed system that is in place.

The film, while it does critique some parts such

as our rampant consumerism, is more of a vivid ride through the perspective of a

societally typical individual and a portrayal of what can occur when someone deviates
from the status quo. Instead of continuing his unhappy consumerism filled life, he rebels
against the system, but in doing so, he rebels against himself. Seeing the film with a
postmodern theory based perspective allowed me to see the futility of trying to escape the
system that is in place today.
However, most crucial to my understanding was the paradox of attempting to be
counter-cultural. Choice is only an illusion. By embracing the ideals of Tyler Durden

(his internal and hidden identity), the narrator considers himself as free because he
makes decisions to cut ties with the consumerism laden world he once was a part of and
lives in a world, which is in his eyes separated from the system he was a part of. He
vows to embrace self-destruction as a part of leaving the system as a way to change him.
However, the movie made me realize that resistance to the system is futile because the
narrators ends up moving from a battle between himself and societal norms for behavior
to a strictly internal battle that leads to a struggle within the self. Foucaults Panopticonbased theory emphasizes that constant surveillance through others and also the self
ensures the system will remain unchanged for the most part. By applying the theory I
learned this semester, Im now realizing that many works of art, film, and literature also
follow suit with fight club. I now find it more thought provoking to view creative works
through the lens of various theories and especially postmodernism to see them as
enlightening portrayals of our societal systems and examinations of the behaviors of
those who both stray away from conforming to the system and those who knowingly and
unknowingly participate in the constructed reality of which we reside.

Works Cited
Fincher, David, Arnon Milchan, Jim Uhls, Art Linson, Cen Chaffin, Ross

G. Bell, Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Carter H. Bonham, Loaf Meat,
Jared Leto, Zach Grenier, Holt McCallany, Eion Bailey, Michael
Kaplan, James Haygood, Alex McDowell, and Jeff Cronenweth.
Fight Club. Beverly Hills, Calif: Twentieth Century Fox Home
Entertainment, 2002.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. "The Postmodern Condition: Lyotard."
Literary Theory, an Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. N. pag. Print.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as
Mass Deception: Adorno and Horkheimer." Literary Theory, an
Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. N. pag. Print.
Rivkin, Julie, and Michael Ryan. "Discipline and Punish: Foucault." Literary
Theory, an Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. N. pag. Print