ADORNIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE MOVIE ‘FIGHT CLUB’

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ADORNIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE MOVIE ‘FIGHT CLUB’

Introduction

The has gone through many important stages before coming to its present situation; the Age of Exploration, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment and French Revolution are just some of these stages. The last major stage was the Industrial Revolution and the introduction and the settlement of the modern capitalist system. Industrialization and capitalism played a crucial role in changing attitudes and characteristics of individuals, societies and countries as well as the societal conflicts over the last two centuries. This paper is an attempt to illuminate the actions of various characters -especially the character of Tyler Durden- in David Fincher’s cult movie “Fight Club”, by examining the causes and consequences of problems arising with the capitalist system’s consumption oriented individuals. This will be undertaken with regard to the famous philosopher Theodor Adorno’s conceptions of “commodity fetishism” and “standardization” from his book The Culture Industry: Selected Essays On Mass Culture[1].

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Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club: Summary

Fight Club is based on the sensational debut novel of Chuck Palahniuk about a confused young man living in our modern world, in USA. David Fincher is the director and the narrator (Edward Norton), Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), Robert “Bob” Paulsen (Meat Loaf) are the leading characters in the film which was released in 1999. The film does not belong to a certain genre but we can say that it is a deep psychological action film, which also includes dramatic and thriller elements. In Imdb.com, the movie is rated 8.8/10 and is considered as the tenth best movie ever made by the votes of people around the world.[2] Fight Club is not a simple film and it forces audience to think. It is full of ideas, ideologies and symbols. Despite its huge success in the counter and its popularity, its critical stance towards the modern American society brought Fight Club only a single Oscar nomination in the “Best Effects, Sound Effects” category. We can say that Fight Club is a rare film that challenges the viewer to come up with his own interpretations.

In the movie, our protagonist, the narrator (Edward Norton) has an easy, well-paid desk job but an empty and meaningless life with no family, friends or aims. In addition, he suffers from insomnia and the empty consumer culture that his generation has been doomed to inherit. He frequents cancer and disease groups in order to bond with others and get rid of his insomnia. At the beginning, these support groups help him to get rid of his insomnia and he starts to sleep like a baby. However, when he realizes that there is another “faker tourist” called Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who participates in these groups in order to have fun and drink free coffee, he loses his concentration and insomnia starts to disturb him again. One day, on a plane he meets a charismatic stranger called Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and he becomes an admirer of him. After an explosion in the narrator’s house, the narrator moves to Tyler’s house and they become very good friends. With the leadership of Tyler, they form their own secret society called Fight Club, where young and middle-age males fight with each other and feel relieved of their frustrations. The popularity of the club grows incredibly and soon new Fight Club groups are founded everywhere. Tyler Durden becomes a cult hero and he is successful in impressing hopeless people with his ideological speeches. Tyler rails, “Our generation has no Great Depression, no Great War. Our war is spiritual war. Our depression is our lives”. He criticizes the capitalist system and consumerism. “You are not your job. You are not your money in your bank account”. Also, Tyler, the narrator and Marla get involved in a love triangle. Tyler and his followers (members of Project Mayhem) prepare a big plan called “Project Mayhem” in order to destroy all banks, financial sector buildings and to make people free and equal by resetting all bank accounts. While all these events are happening the narrator always stands aside from Tyler and we finally understand that Tyler Durden is the unconscious side, the shadow of the narrator that takes control of the narrator’s conscious. After realizing this, the whole movie makes more sense for the audience and we better understand the situation of the schizophrenic protagonist of the movie played brilliantly by Edward Norton. The narrator in the final scene kills Tyler in his mind but he cannot save the banks and credit card companies to be exploded.

adorno

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno (September 11, 1903 – August 6, 1969) was a German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist and composer. He was a member of the Frankfurt School along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and many others. Theodor Adorno was no doubt one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Affected by Walter Benjamin’s application of Karl Marx’s thought, he argued that capitalism fed people with the products of a culture industry (the opposite of true art) to keep them passively satisfied and politically apathetic. Adorno thought that the capitalist system had not become close to collapse, as the famous German philosopher Karl Marx had predicted. Instead, he saw that capitalism had seemingly become more powerful and widespread. He was pretty negative about our chances of breaking out of this system. Adorno mostly dealt with the cultural aspects (superstructure) of capitalism. He identified popular culture as the reason for people’s passive satisfaction and the lack of interest in overthrowing the capitalist system. He claimed that the capitalist system brings problems such as taking away individual “true” needs like freedom, full expression of human potential and creativity, genuine creative happiness and replacing them with false ones like commodity fetishism, popular culture and standardization.

Adorno also discussed “use value” and “exchange value”. “Use value” refers to the contingent qualities of a thing that are useful to human beings. Adorno also profits from Marx’s ideas. “Marx defines the fetish character of the commodity as the veneration of the thing made by one self which, as exchange-value, simultaneously alienates itself from producer to consumer human beings” (Adorno, 1991: 33). Exchange value refers to the popularity, scarcity and the price of a thing. For example, water’s use value is very high because it is a vital drink but its exchange value is very low because it is not scarce. In contrast, a diamond is very low in its use value but its exchange value is enormous because it is very scarce. Adorno asserts that capitalism forces us to be delighted by something because of how much it costs. In other words, people began to attach importance only to the exchange value of a commodity. “The more inexorably the principle of exchange value destroys use values for human beings, the more deeply does exchange value disguise itself as the object of enjoyment” (Adorno, 1991: 34). According to Theodor Adorno, in the capitalist system people are targets whereas firms are hunters. People mostly buy a commodity not because of their will and necessity; instead they are affected by the popular culture that is spread through the mass media. “The customer is not the king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object” (Adorno, 1991: 85). This theory is called “commodity fetishism” and according to him it is the biggest gift of capitalism. He also makes an analogy between consumers and prisoners. “When the feelings seize on exchange value it is no mystical transubstantiation. It corresponds to the behaviour of the prisoner who loves his cell because he has been left nothing else to love” (Adorno, 1991: 35).

Fight Club ending scene (Where Is My Mind by The Pixies)

Adornian Interpretation of the movie ‘Fight Club’

Theodor Adorno’s ideas are mostly based on the negative effects of the capitalist system. The source of these negative effects is popular culture and the culture industry. Adorno identifies these as reasons for people’s passive satisfaction and lack of interest in overthrowing the capitalist system. The culture industry forces people to be delighted only by certain accepted values; there is no place for different ideas or behaviors. This is called “standardization” and it is caused by culture industry and popular culture. “…The categorical imperative of the culture industry no longer has anything in common with freedom. It proclaims: you should conform, without instruction as to what; conform to that which exists anyway, and to that which everyone thinks anyway as a reflex of its power and omnipresence” (Adorno, 1991: 90). We all believe in the dominancy of money and try to be wealthy, in other words we do not listen to our instincts but rather we listen to popular culture’s values. An ideal life is portrayed to us via films, news, and books starting from our birth. Everyone tries to reach this ideal life instead of living his or her lives. When we adhere to popular values or reach an ideal life, we may feel happy but the question to be answered is: is this the truth or a virtual happiness? Standardization prevents us from being ourselves. The culture industry is clever than any other dictators; because it does not exert any physical power over people but people might have serious “invisible” mental problems or they may unconsciously waste their qualities in order to behave according to popular values. In other words, they may sacrifice their individuality. “The sacrifice of individuality, which accommodates itself to the regularity of the successful, the doing of what everybody does, follows from the basic fact that in broad areas the same thing is offered to everybody by the standardized production of consumption goods” (Adorno, 1991: 35). In other words, modern capitalist state “offers a vision of a society that has lost its capacity to nourish true freedom and individuality” (Adorno, 1991: 29).

In the film, the narrator has a well-paid, white-collar work but he is not happy about his life. He feels emotionally and spiritually empty. He feels that he is one of the victims of this complex system but he does not know what to do in order to escape from this virtual world. He realizes that he has lived for money and sacrificed his individuality until today. He realizes that he unconsciously conformed to popular ideas and has become a slave of capitalism like Adorno mentioned. So, he is not a typical victim of the capitalism because at least he discovers that there is something wrong going on with his life. After realizing that, he begins to suffer from insomnia and sadness. He goes to a doctor but the doctor could not help him. He participates in disease groups in order to face with realities and gets rid of his virtual life. He talks with dying people and feels relieved. Although capitalism offers us a virtual world, even in this virtual world death is cold and real. He feels alive, like he is out of the game when he speaks to dying people. “Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I’d ever felt. I wasn’t host to cancer or blood parasites; I was the little warm center that the life of the world crowded around”.

Because of Marla’s presence, he needs to find another way of escaping from the land of virtualness so, he discovers his own unconscious side, -Tyler Durden-, a mad but charismatic man that shows him that he can face realities not only through disease groups, but also through fighting, self-destruction, anarchism and everything starts to change. Tyler is aware of capitalism’s efforts to standardize all people. Tyler rails against standardization: “You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake” he says. Tyler does not want to sacrifice his individuality and encourages or threatens people to behave like him. In one particular scene, he drags an Asian convenience store clerk, Raymond K.K. Hessel, out behind the store, ostensibly to shoot him. Instead, he badgers the poor clerk into distilling his life story; that he never wanted this job; in fact, he is just making time as a clerk, and he was at one point in school and had a passion to become a veterinarian. He forces him not to sacrifice his individuality, and commands him to return to school tomorrow to become a veterinarian or die. “Raymond K.K. Hessel, your dinner is going to taste better than any meal you have eaten, and tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of your entire life”. Also, he motivates the narrator (his conscious side) to rail against his boss. Adorno explains self-sacrificing through a clever analogy. “Society is always the winner, and the individual is only a puppet manipulated through social rules” (Adorno, 1991: 141). He clearly states that an individual does not control his own life and acts according to popular social values.

Another negative aspect of the capitalist system that is shown in the film is Adorno’s “false” needs ideology, which is caused again by popular culture and the culture industry. Adorno claims that the capitalist system brings problems like taking away “true” needs like freedom, full expression of human potential and creativity, genuine creative happiness, imagination and replacing them with false ones like commodity fetishism and popular culture. “Imagination is replaced by a mechanically relentless control mechanism which determines whether the latest imago to be distributed really represents an exact, accurate and reliable reflection of the relevant item of reality” (Adorno, 1991: 55). The narrator at the beginning of the film buys new Swedish furniture for his house although he does not need any furniture. Consuming ties him to his virtual life, his furniture are like his toys, which add color to his life. Adorno explains this as being hunted by the culture industry and calls it “commodity fetishism”. He asserts that the reason for most people’s shopping is not their need but rather, their strong belief about the high exchange value of a commodity. “The consumer is really worshipping the money that he himself has paid for the ticket to the Toscanini concert. He has literally made the success he reifies and accepts as an objective criterion, without recognizing himself in it. But he has not made it by liking the concert, but rather by buying the ticket” (Adorno, 1991: 34). Like in Adorno’s example, although the narrator does not need any furniture, he buys new Swedish furnitures, because he was raised like all other sleeping people to believe that Swedish furniture is very valuable and a “must be” in his house. In this case, he is not happy because of having Swedish furniture, but because he is consuming, spending his money to gain popular commodities in other words satisfying his false needs. However, the narrator’s revolutionary sub personality, Tyler Durden, strongly rails against commodity fetishism. He says, “The things you own end up owning you” and burns the narrator’s house down because he knows that these commodities are things that could pull the narrator back to his virtual life again. Tyler like Adorno complains about false needs. “We are designed to be hunters and we are in a society of shopping. There is nothing to kill anymore, there is nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore”. Popular culture is the reason for the proliferation of these false needs and both Adorno and Tyler criticize popular culture and its most effective tool: television. Tyler says; “We were raised on television to believe that we’d all be millionaires, movie gods, rock stars, but we won’t. And we’re starting to figure that out”. Adorno also believes that capitalism became more powerful after the invention of television. Popular culture spreads like a mortal disease with the help of television. “Here an objection may be raised: is such a sinister effect of the hidden message of television known to those who control, plan, write and direct shows?” (Adorno, 1991: 144). Those who control television try to impose popular culture on us according to Theodor Adorno’s views. Adorno in his article “Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture” which was published in 1954, talked about the role of technological inventions that have made the control of the individual consciousness easier. Adorno and Durden also both blame advertisements for making people psychologically ill. Tyler shouts; “Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need”.

Adorno is very hopeless about our chances to overthrow this system. However, Tyler Durden has a revolutionary character and he thinks that violence and disruption can be a solution for this problem. He first starts to manifest his violence by fighting with other people and he forms Fight Club. Day by day, Fight Club becomes a stronger obsession, because people slowly open their eyes and understand that they were distanced from reality. Tyler impresses people who are disgusted by the empty consumer culture and people who are not happy about their lives (e.g. Bob has testicular cancer) and they join Fight Club. Tyler trains his students himself and even gives them homework. Soon, he becomes a cult hero for many people but also a public enemy for the rest of the society. He is successful in impressing people by telling them the negative effects of capitalist system and afterwards, he explains to them the rightness and the legitimacy of violence. He has big plans (Project Mayhem) to destroy all banks and credit card companies in order make people’s bank accounts vanish and thus make them free and equal. Tyler successfully executes this crazy plan and the narrator cannot save both the banks and credit card companies from destruction. Tyler Durden influences hopeless person and makes them revolt against capitalism. Tyler sees rich people as his enemies. He steals fat from liposuction center and makes soap with it. Tyler wants to destroy everything and goes back to a primitive society in which people would have nothing and that would result in their being equal. “I wanted to destroy something beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone…”. However, like Adorno stated, there is no chance for human beings to overthrow this system and live in a completely equal and peaceful world. There will be always inequalities between ruler and ruled, strong and weak, intelligent and dumb people. Even in “Fight Club”, Tyler Durden puts some rules, restrictions to and gives orders to his “space monkeys (members of Project Mayhem)”. Some members are stronger, more intelligent and in the more favor of Tyler Durden. “Fight Club” also becomes a part of the system by limiting its members’ freedoms.

Another important point about the film is that although the movie seems to be anti-systemic and makes us think that it criticizes the modern capitalist society harshly, we may easily notice that it is a production made by Hollywood for the sake of profit and its publications are made from television, newspapers etc. This reminds us Adorno’s ideas on jazz music. Adorno thought that while jazz music, which is mostly based on improvisation and syncopation[3] seems to provide liberty to the artist, it in fact serves the interests of the culture industry with subterfuge. For Adorno, jazz music unlike its marginal position, is strongly tied to the culture industry. Similar to jazz, we can say that the movie “Fight Club” was presented to audience in the form of a cultural commodity in different formats and shapes. Souvenirs, post-cards, posters of the film were put on sale and many companies made profit from the sales of these products made by the film’s admirers who claim to be against the system. This paradox makes the stance of the movie much more complex since we can say that Fight Club, as a part of the popular culture, just performs the role of being against the system. It does not offer any alternative choices and at the end, it offers an imaginary nihilist vigilantism which makes the audience perhaps even more desperate about changing their conditions and the system. From this perspective, we can assert that Fight Club fights with other movies made for commercial purposes within the system. However, considering Theodor Adorno’s negative position against the revolutionary 1968 generation and violent anti-system movements, we can claim that Fight Club and Adorno stand together within the system not against it and they both show some weaknesses of the system for creating the antidote.

Conclusion

Finally, in my opinion, in addition to its artistic, commercial and cinematographic success, Fight Club is an important novel and movie that directs people to question the system by staying within the system. The movie -from an Adornian perspective- is very rich of ideas and has clever points. However, similar to Adorno’s position maybe, it does not have a revolutionary character and it just acts as revolutionary. In my opinion, Fight Club is still significant in showing problems the of individuals living in the modern consummerist society. Our modern anti-hero “Tyler Durden” shouts: “The first rule of the Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of the Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club. Third rule of the Fight Club, when someone says “stop” or goes limp, the fight is over. Fourth rule of the Fight Club is, only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule of the Fight Club is, one fight at a time. Sixth rule of the Fight Club is, no shirt, no shoes. Seventh rule of the Fight Club is, fights go on as long as they have to. Eighth and final rule of Fight Club, if this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight!”…

Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ

BIBLIOGRAPHY

[1] Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Culture-Industry-Selected-Routledge-Classics/dp/0415058317.

[2] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0137523/.

[3] “A shift of accent in a passage or composition that occurs when a normally weak beat is stressed”, (Dictionary.com).

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