“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, July 29, 2011

I am Jack’s Raging Insomnia: The Tragically Overlooked Moral Dilemma at the Heart of Fight Club

If you were to ask one of the millions of guys who love the movie Fight Club what the story is about, his answer would most likely emphasize the violence. He might say something like, “It’s about men returning to their primal nature and getting carried away when they find out how good it feels.” Actually, this is an answer I would expect from a guy with exceptional insight. A majority would probably just say it’s about a bunch of guys who get together to beat the crap out of each other and pull a bunch pranks. Some might remember all the talk about IKEA and other consumerist products. Our insightful guy may even connect the dots and explain that consumerism somehow made the characters in the movie feel emasculated, and so they had to resort to fighting and vandalism to reassert their manhood. But, aside from ensuring they would know what a duvet is—“It’s a fucking blanket”—what is it exactly about shopping for household décor and modern conveniences that makes men less manly?

Maybe Fight Club is just supposed to be fun, with all the violence and the weird sex scene with Marla and all the crazy mischief the guys get in, but also with a few interesting monologues and voiceovers to hint at deeper meanings. And of course there’s Tyler Durden—fearless, clever, charismatic, and did you see those shredded abs? Not only does he not take shit from anyone, he gets a whole army to follow his lead, loyal to the death. On the other hand, there’s no shortage of characters like this in movies, and if that’s all men liked about Fight Club they wouldn’t sit through all the plane flights, support groups, and soap-making. It just may be that, despite the rarity of fans who can articulate what they are, the movie actually does have profound and important resonances.

And guys who can’t put their finger on what’s so good about the movie shouldn’t feel too bad. I recommend anyone interested in film or literary criticism go to the Wikipedia site devoted to academic interpretations of Fight Club because it’s a good indication of just how far critics have gotten up the asses of the handful of ascendant naked emperors in the field. This pseudo-scholarship is so stupid and yet so common in humanities departments that it’s past the time when we should’ve started holding these so-called theorists accountable. It takes a certain kind of person, though, to confront people who are behaving improperly or acting to the detriment of others, in this case of trusting undergraduates in departments under the sway of poststructuralism or new historicism. It’s safer and more comfortable just to accept what your teachers say. And why should we care what other people are being taught? It’s none of our business, right? If we think it sounds like hogswoggle then we can simply look the other way.

If you recall, the Edward Norton character, whom I’ll call Jack (following the convention of the script), decides that his story should begin with the advent of his insomnia. He goes to the doctor but is told nothing is wrong with him. His first night’s sleep comes only after he goes to a support group and meets Bob, he of the “bitch tits,” and cries a smiley face onto his t-shirt. But along comes Marla who like Jack is visiting support groups but is not in fact recovering, sick, or dying. She is another tourist. As long as she's around, he can’t cry and so can’t sleep. Soon after Jack and Marla make a deal to divide the group meetings and avoid each other, Tyler Durden shows up and we’re on our way to Fight Clubs and Project Mayhem. Now, why the hell would we accept these bizarre premises and continue watching the movie unless at some level Jack’s difficulties, as well as their solutions, make sense to us?

So why exactly was it that Jack couldn’t sleep at night? The simple answer, the one that Tyler gives later in the movie, is that he’s unhappy with his life. He hates his job. Something about his “filing cabinet” apartment rankles him. And he’s alone. Jack’s job is to fly all over the country to investigate accidents involving his company’s vehicles and to apply “the formula.” I’m going to quote from Chuck Palahniuk’s book so I don’t have to dick around with the DVD player:
“You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).
"A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don’t initiate a recall.
“If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt.
“If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don’t recall” (30).
Palahniuk's inspiration for Jack's job was an actual case involving the Ford Pinto.
What this means is that Jack goes around trying to protect his company's bottom line to the detriment of people who drive his company's cars. You can imagine the husband or wife or child or parent of one of these accident victims hearing about this job and asking Jack, "How do you sleep at night?"

Going to support groups makes life seem pointless, short, and horrible. Ultimately, we all have little control over our fates, so there's no good reason to take responsibility for anything. When Jack burst into tears as Bob pulls his face into his enlarged breasts, he's relinquishing all accountability; he's, in a sense, becoming a child again. Accordingly, he's able to sleep like a baby. When Marla shows up, not only is he forced to confront the fact that he's healthy and perfectly able to behave responsibly, but he is also provided with an incentive to grow up because, as his fatuous grin informs us, he likes her. And, even though the support groups eventually fail to assuage his guilt, they do inspire him with the idea of hitting bottom, losing all control, losing all hope.

If Jack didn't have to worry about losing his apartment, or losing all his IKEA products, or losing his job, or falling out of favor with his boss, well, then he would be free to confront that same boss and tell him what he really thinks of the operation that has supported and enriched them both. Enter Tyler Durden, who systematically turns all these conditionals into realities. In game theory terms, Jack is both a 1st order and a 2nd order free rider because he both gains at the expense of others and knowingly allows others to gain in the same way. He carries on like this because he's more motivated by comfort and safety than he is by any assurance that he's doing right by other people.

This is where Jack being of "a generation of men raised by women" becomes important (50). Fathers and mothers tend to treat children differently. (It should go without saying--but feminist critics tend to be agenda- as opposed to truth-driven--this research is descriptive and not prescriptive; no one is interested in enforcing these statistical differences.) A study that functions well symbolically in this context examined the ways moms and dads tend to hold their babies in pools. Moms hold them facing themselves. Dads hold them facing away. Think of the way Bob's embrace of Jack changes between the support group and the fight club. When picked up by moms, babies breathing and heart-rates slow. Just the opposite happens when dads pick them up--they get excited. And if you inventory the types of interactions that go on between the two parents it's easy to see why.

Not only do dads engage children in more rough-and-tumble play; they are also far more likely to encourage children to take risks. In one study, fathers told they'd have to observe their child climbing a slope from a distance making any kind of rescue impossible in the event of a fall set the slopes at a much steeper angle than mothers in the same setup. Contrary to theory-addled critics, Fight Club isn't about dominance or triumphalism or white males' reaction to losing control; it's about men learning that they can't really live if they're always playing it safe. Jack actually says at one point that winning or losing doesn't much matter. Indeed, one of homework assignments Tyler gives everyone is to start a fight and lose. The point is to be willing to risk a fight when it's necessary--i.e. when someone attempts to exploit or seduce you based on the assumption that you'll always act according to your rational self-interest.

And the disturbing truth is that we are all lulled into hypocrisy and moral complacency by the allures of consumerism. We may not be "recall campaign coordinators" like Jack. But do we know or care where our food comes from? Do we know or care how our soap is made? Do we bother to ask why Disney movies are so devoid of the gross mechanics of life? We would do just about anything for comfort and safety. And that is precisely how material goods and material security have emasculated us. It's easy to imagine Jack's mother soothing him to sleep some night, saying, "Now, the best thing to do, dear, is to sit down and talk this out with your boss."

There are two scenes in Fight Club that I can't think of any other word to describe but sublime. The first is when Jack finally confronts his boss, threatening to expose the company's practices if he is not allowed to leave with full salary. At first, his boss reasons that Jack's threat is not credible, because bringing his crimes to light would hurt Jack just as much. But the key element to altruistic punishment is that the punisher is willing to incur risks or costs to mete it out. Jack, having been well-fathered, as it were, by Tyler, proceeds to engage in costly signaling of his willingness to harm himself by beating himself up, literally. In game theory terms, he's being rationally irrational, making his threat credible by demonstrating he can't be counted on to pursue his own rational self-interest. The money he gets through this maneuver goes, of course, not into anything for Jack, but into Fight Club and Project Mayhem.

The second sublime scene, and for me the best in the movie, is the one in which Jack is himself punished for his complicity in the crimes of his company. How can a guy with stitches in his face and broken teeth, a guy with a chemical burn on his hand, be punished? Fittingly, he lets Tyler get them both in a car accident. At this point, Jack is in control of his life, he's no longer emasculated. And Tyler flees.

One of the confusing things about the movie is that it has two overlapping plots. The first, which I've been exploring up to this point, centers on Jack's struggle to man up and become an altruistic punisher. The second is about the danger of violent reactions to the murder machine of consumerism. The male ethic of justice through violence can all too easily morph into fascism. And so once Jack has created this father figure and been initiated into manhood by him he then has to reign him in--specifically, he has to keep him from killing Marla. This second plot entails what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls a "domination episode," in which an otherwise egalitarian group gets taken over by a despot who must then be defeated. Interestingly, only Jack knows for sure how much authority Tyler has, because Tyler seemingly undermines that authority by giving contradictory orders. But by now Jack is well schooled on how to beat Tyler--pretty much the same way he beat his boss.

It's interesting to think about possible parallels between the way Fight Club ends and what happened a couple years later on 9/11. The violent reaction to the criminal excesses of consumerism and capitalism wasn't, as it actually occurred, homegrown. And it wasn't inspired by any primal notion of manhood but by religious fanaticism. Still, in the minds of the terrorists, the attacks were certainly a punishment, and there's no denying the cost to the punishers.

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