The Society of the ‘Fight Club’ is the Society of the Spectacle

The Society of the Fight Club Is the Society of the Spectacle.jpg
Full Essay Available for Free at: PopMatters.com

When Jack, the lead protagonist and narrator of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), is at work, he monologues that “with insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy.” The camera tracks sideways, imitative of the mechanisms of the photocopier that Jack is using. A Starbucks coffee cup is shown in close up, then a computer-generated pull-out shot of a bin, bursting with disposable commodities, is verbally annotated by a denouncement of global capitalism: “The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. The Planet Starbucks.”Functioning as a flashback, the opening scene of Fight Club implies that the macrocosmic spectacle of commercialism is to blame for Jack’s apathetic condition. This scene, and the film as a whole, I would suggest, can be usefully examined by Guy Debord’s observation that: “the more [the spectator] contemplates, the less he lives; the more he accepts recognising himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires” (The Society of the Spectacle, Debord, 1967: 30).

Debord’s critique of mass media, commodity fetishism, and his comparative analogies between religion and marketing in The Society of the Spectacle, are epitomised by the idea that “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (ibid: 4). Fight Club is a film in which entirely comparable tensions such as that between self-understanding and commercial acquiescence are engendered and explored by the relationship between the two central protagonists: Jack and Tyler. Both characters appear to exist within the diegetic reality of the film, but Jack has imagined Tyler – a projected image of self-worth — into being within his reality, and the audience is, at first, made complicit in this self-deception.

In Fight Club, notions of the spectacle find figurative and literal forms, driving the reflexive narrative. The formation of Tyler in relation to Jack can be understood as: “The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him” (ibid: 30). Debord saw these images as detrimental to human agency, and can be compared to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power (as the effect of economic, cultural, or social power — when it is not perceived as being such) leading to symbolic violence. However, whereas Bourdieu allows for distinction and the cultural capital of the individual to shape their understanding of their position within society, Debord saw the agent as increasingly divorced from reality as the spectacle “stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life: recovering the full range of their human powers.”

The passive worldview of Jack, the insomniac, seeps into the reality within Fight Club, and is shaped by the spectacle that Debord theorises, incarnated through the existence and actions of Tyler Durden. However, the film also consciously enables viewers to shape their own understanding of the cinematic spectacle. For example, in the opening scene of Fight Club, the metaphoric links between the photocopier and the film camera are apt, as they both provide reproductions of reality. However, whereas Jack believes that he is in control of the photocopier – a cultural competency that is later disproven as he forgets to remove the rules of Fight Club from it – the audience is afforded more credit, with reflexive ironies surrounding Cinema, as both a cultural and industrial spectacular product, more attuned to their own more sophisticated horizon of expectations…

 

The full 6,700 word version of this essay is published at PopMatters.com, where you can read the rest of the article for free.

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