VIOLENCE AS A RECLAMATION OF MASCULINITY IN THE POSTMODERN MOMENT

The Scream
The Scream, Edward Munch

If the schizoid reality of postmodern society produces fractured individuals, then violence becomes a means by which the alienated and fractured individual can experience feeling and inscribe a history on his body. Inflicting pain on the body becomes a means of exhibiting endurance through visual signifiers like blood, cuts, and bruises. Wounding the self is a way to experience the certainty of existence known only through pain. The use of self-inflicted violence fits nicely within the postmodern paradigm because its relationship to the body is paradoxical. While it is the postmodern remedy to ahistoricity and fragmentation, violence simultaneously perpetuates this fragmentation because the wounding of the body results in a disruption of the totality of the coherent bodily narrative. Fighting and wounding is the only means by which the men in fight club feel truly "alive."

Masculinity in Crisis

Inherent in the myth of the regeneration through violence is the importance of a virulent masculinity, and the issue of masculinity is a prevalent concern in Fight Club. The narrator attends a support group meeting for men with testicular cancer, aptly named "Remaining Men Together." It is here that he listens to a man lament the fact that his ex-wife just had a baby with her new husband. The population of this support group illustrates a crisis signifies the crisis of masculinity in America. In the following scene, the soft lighting in foreground of the support group contrasts to the hard lighting focused on the America flag hanging ominously in the back of the room. As Sally Robinson posits, "an enduring image of the disenfranchised white man has become a symbol for the decline of the American way" (2).

Remaining Men Together
Big Bob

The men the narrator meets at the "Remaining Men Together" support group are a representation of a cultural loss of masculinity. One of the group's members, Bob, is a former fitness guru whose steroid use has caused him to lose his testicles and in their place develop "bitch-tits" as a result of hormone replacement therapy. While the narrator feels emasculated because of his consumer driven and IKEA furnished life, the men in the support group represent the physical manifestation of emasculation. In Taking it Like a Man David Savran discusses the emergence of the "masochistic male subjectivity" (163) and argues that the "new-narcissist" or "new sado-masochist" is now a dominant figure in U.S. culture and is no longer located in the margin.

The self-inflicted violence that differentiates Fight Club from other old-order "masculine" films such as Rambo or The Terminator can be understood through the lens of the "new sado-masochist." Reflexive sado-masochism allows the individual to portray himself as victim while also feeling powerful because of his ability to endure pain. Pain, then, becomes desirable. "Concealed under a veneer of righteous indignation, willfulness, anger, grief, or guilt, and repudiated by the would-be heroic male subject, reflexive sado-masochism has become the primary libidinal logic of the white male as victim" (Savran 210).

In Fight Club the "group hug" mentality of the early 1990's men's movement is replaced by raw and uncensored violence. The male in Fight Club turns to violence in an attempt to reawaken the senses that have been dulled by quotidian existence. Fight club is a place where men can experience a true sense of "being." "You weren't alive anywhere like you were alive here," the narrator tells us because, "who you were in fight club is not who you were in the rest of the world." The basement arena of the fight club provides a space in which the men in the film can transcend the reality of their lifestyle, their jobs, and their bodies. The narrator demonstrates his understanding of rebirth through violence by describing how after a fight "we all felt saved."

Fight Support
The First Rule of Fight Club

Despite the fact that fighting is supposed to enable the men to rise beyond their innocuous existence, it in fact reinforces social order and power relations. On the first night fight club meets, Tyler establishes eight rules informing the men, "The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club" and "The second rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club." Despite the narrator telling us, "Fight club wasn't about winning or losing" the basic premise of the fight is that one man will emerge victorious. What seems to be at war in the narrator's statement is the fact that what the men in fight club are performing is unadulterated virility in its purest form. "Fight club wasn't about winning or losing," the narrator says. The men have no protection and must rely on their own instinct and strength to "win" the fight. Endurance and the ability to withstand pain becomes a means by which the individual and his masculinity can be saved.

The choreographed fight scenes in the film capture the horrific nature of the violence the men are engaged in. The cinematography of the fight scenes change as the film progresses. John Chenoweth, the film's cinematographer explains, "At first the camera was more of an observer. As the fights progressed, the camera took more of the point of view of the fighter. In fact, the last fight in the movie is quite gruesome" (50). Chenoweth is referring to a fight sequence that the censors forced director David Fincher to change. The way the scene was originally shot focused on Angel face's (Jared Leto) bloodied face while the narrator pummels him mercilessly. At the urging of the censors Fincher changed the shot to focus on the horrified faces of the men in the crowd as they watch the narrator beat Angel's face beyond recognition. A tracking shot is used in this fight sequence, which follows the fighters as they dance around each other. At various points the camera also uses a medium close-up and point-of-view shot to allow the viewer to experience the movement and perspective of the narrator. The high-angle shot is used to look down on Angel's face implicating the viewer in the narrator's actions.

In addition to the clever camera work, the sound effects in this scene are quite disconcerting as the viewer can hear the sound of flesh being torn and bloodied. The narrator's flippant explanation for his explosion of rage is nothing more than "I wanted to destroy something beautiful." This statement captures the irony that is fight club; the men are destroying the very bodies that they must inhabit and cannot escape. In this scene, however, the narrator has taken things too far; he breaks the very rules he established for fight club by continuing to beat Angel Face once he is down on the ground. Fight club is spinning out of control.

Angel and the Narrator

Although Tyler attributes the stagnation the men in fight club feel in their lives to the fact that they are "a generation of men raised by women," it is a female character that enables the narrator to break free from his domineering alter ego. The lone female character in the film, Marla Singer (Helena Bonham-Carter), is characterized as the pasty skinned, chain-smoking, suicidal love interest of Tyler/the narrator. Marla is a threat to the narrator from the get-go because she too is a "faker" who attends support group meetings because "the coffee is free and it's cheaper than a movie."

Marla is a threat to the narrator's integrity as a storyteller because her role in the film helps reveal to the audience that Tyler and the narrator are the same person. Whenever Marla is at the house on Paper Street she and Tyler never appear in the same room with the narrator. In the following scene when Marla leaves the house exasperated by the way the narrator is treating her, Tyler immediately enters the kitchen and mutters, "Get rid of her" while exiting up the stairs. According to Tyler, the narrator must never tell Marla about his (Tyler's) existence. It is through Marla's interaction with the narrator, however, that the viewer begins to question the narrator's mental stability.

Marla and the Narrator

Marla is a catalyst in the narrator's realization that he and Tyler are the same person. After the narrator confronts Tyler in the hotel room he phones Marla, questioning her about their sexual relationship. Marla confirms that she and the narrator have in fact been intimate, and she tells him that his name is Tyler Durden. Marla Realizing that Marla's life is in danger because of her knowledge of Project Mayhem, the narrator assumes the role of the hero in the captivity myth who must rescue the female from the "wild" Indians who in this case are the "space monkeys" of Project Mayhem. The narrator's desire to save Marla and undo Tyler's plan to blow up several large office buildings reincorporates the narrator into the myth of the hero; he had previously been the anti-hero, seduced by Tyler's nihilistic value system. By performing the role of rescuer, "the hunter reaffiliates himself with the world of familiar order which he had previously deserted" (Slotkin 552). Despite the film's romantic Hollywood ending, which differs significantly from Chuck Palahniuk's novel, the "familiar order" cannot be restored. In the novel, the narrator dies and finds himself in a mental institution in heaven where he muses, "We are not special. We are not pieces of crap or trash, either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens" (207).

Ending

In contrast, the film ends with Marla and the narrator standing together holding hands as the narrator tells her, "I'm really OK. Trust me. Everything's going to be fine." There is a false sense of complacency implied in these comments because while the narrator might be "healed," there is still a group of "space monkeys" eager to wreck havoc on the city. Furthermore, the futility of the narrator's comment is emphasized by the detonation of the office buildings that fall to the ground while the narrator and Marla watch. The falling buildings signify the failure of the masculine corporate world. More importantly there is no sense that the narrator's masculinity can be restored since he had to kill his virile masculine counterpart, Tyler Durden.

Gone is the powerful white masculinity that triumphed in the 1980's film Wall Street where "greed is good." By the 1980's "American culture…would be a culture based on triumph-on the admiration of power and status-and nothing would be more important to that culture than its symbols" (Mills 12). During the Reagan years, the male "hard body" in films represented "an effort both to remasculinize the nation after what was widely perceived as the post-Vietnam impotence and the result of a feminized presidency of the Carter years and to get government off the backs of the average citizen" (qtd. in Shapiro 139-140). The early 1990's response to this emasculation materialized in the development of men's groups led by gurus such as author Robert Bly. Bly's popular 1991 book Iron John topped the bestsellers list for weeks and exhorted men to "accept that the true radiant energy in the male does not hide in, reside in, or wait for us in the feminine realm nor in the macho/John Wayne realm, but in the magnetic field of the deep masculine" (8). The problem with these "mythopoetic" men's groups, as Michael Kimmel notes, is that, "the search for the wild warrior within leads men's movement scions to wander through anthropological literature like postmodern tourists, as if the world's cultures were arrayed like so many ritual boutiques in a global shopping mall" (319), which only further emphasizes the postmodern heterogeneity that contributes to the fracturing of the individual self.

In Fight Club the white male has lost faith in his role as a consumer and wants to experience a "real" sense of being that can only be achieved through pain. The narrator, whose body has been bloodied and broken by Tyler (aka, himself) in the final scene of the film, Tyler after a fightportrays himself as the victim who wants to reverse the damage of Project Mayhem when he tells Tyler "this is too much!" This scene captures what Sally Robinson is talking about when she writes, "white masculinity most fully represents itself as victimized by inhabiting a wounded body," (6) and "displaying wounded bodies materializes the crisis of white masculinity, makes it more real, like other bloody battles over race and gender in American history" (9). On the one hand, Fight Club could suggest that the only way the white male can truly experience a masculine self, a self that has been lost to the feminized narcissism in the schizoid reality of the postmodern moment, is through wounding. On the other hand, however, Fight Club appears to be more of a critique of violence than anything else by stressing the ephemeral nature of salvation through violence and pain. In the postmodern world, violence becomes just another hackneyed affectation, and by this formulation the men in fight club are just perpetuating their banality. By accepting responsibility for his actions and by acknowledging that he and Tyler are the same person, the narrator matures and recognizes the limits of Tyler's nihilism. While the film acknowledges the frustration felt by men in today's society, Fight Club seems to be telling them that it is time to grow up and take charge of their individuality instead of blaming society for making them feel like they have lost it.