All Commentary
Tuesday, May 9, 2017

We Fight to Feel Alive

Fight Club anticipates so much of our times, and offers a powerful critique of violence as a way of life.

“I’m just here for violence.”

So read a sign by a man in New Orleans protesting the city’s decision to remove some marbled tributes to the Confederacy.

This seems to be a growing tendency around the country. Is there a controversial speaker coming to campus? Let’s go and be disruptive or disrupt the disrupters. Is there a pro-Trump or anti-Trump rally happening? Let go and see if we can partake in some fisticuffs. Which side should we choose? That matters, but not as much as the appeal of the clash itself. Conflict, even violence, makes us feel alive.

The longing for a fight isn’t just an American problem.On the digital level, we’ve all been dragged into wicked flame wars on every platform, where small differences of opinion devolve quickly to insult to viciousness to blocking. Twitter has become the haven for provocateurs to demonize, threaten, and swear retribution upon others. Every public intellectual today faces some degree of harassment on this level.  

The longing for a fight isn’t just an American problem. It affects every European country, where political groups are going to their corners and coming out swinging.

The Fight Club

Sometimes a movie can be so far ahead of its time that we forget how much it foreshadowed. So I’m not entirely sad that I waited until 2017 to see the 1999 classic movie Fight Club. I didn’t know the story and had no expectations, much less any notion of the plot twist. This is the best way to experience the film. It did to me exactly what it was meant to do: take me on a long journey from the mundane to beyond-belief absurdism.

The film is a creation of the legendary David Fincher, based on the book by the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. It stars Edward Norton as the mild-mannered narrator, Brad Pitt as the tough-talking guru of the club Tyler Durden, and Helena Bonham Carter as the disheveled but beautiful Marla Singer. There are three distinct stages to the plot’s development, but the main one involves the creation of a club for boys to beat each other senseless, just because it makes them feel good.

It’s not about anger. It’s not even about winning. It’s about discovering something about yourself.They gather in an appointed spot at an appointed time and start throwing punches until one person says enough. It’s not about anger. It’s not even about winning. It’s about discovering something about yourself: the pain you can feel and the pain you can inflict, which is somehow more real than anything else in your life. It connects to a primal side of us that we’ve lost in the course of betting and prettifying our lives while actually draining away our core bio-evolutionary drive to struggle.

As a viewer, you are aghast, but the case for the practice is also strangely compelling. One of the main criticisms of the movie when it came out was that the whole notion was actually too compelling. Reviewers didn’t doubt the quality of the movie, but they were very worried about whether the narrative would create copycat clubs and behavior around the world.

Remember, this was 1999. We had no notion then of the Alt-right or the Antifa. ISIS, Trump, Sanders, and the rise of mega-toxic online culture was nowhere in sight. The income stagnation of young white men didn’t become entrenched until after 2008. The cultural trope of middle-class people looking for meaning and growing tired of merely consuming is more of our time than the last century. And the general sense of a slow-growth economic environment festering and leading to longing for violence had not emerged. The final scene with collapsing buildings eerily foreshadows 9/11.

The connection to our times is obvious, with the growing street battles between left and right, the winning of which decides nothing but makes the participants feel as if they matter. Indeed, the movie was truly before its time.

Seeing the Future

It serves as a prescient allegory for the rise of a new form of politics in the 21st century.This movie is nearly spooky with regard to how much of the future it managed to anticipate. Made at the end of the second millennium it seems to anticipate a return of brutalism in the third millennium. Though it tells the story of a just a few people, gradually morphing into a tale of gang organization and violence, it serves as a prescient allegory for the rise of a new form of politics in the 21st century.

The movie begins with the feel of a light comedy. A young man with a white collar job busies himself filling up his apartment with Ikea furniture and defining his lifestyle with careful choices over glassware. He has to travel often for his business, and it has become routine to him. Nothing particularly meaningful or interesting ever happens. He has developed insomnia and seeks out some cure for it, but nothing seems to work.

One day, on an airline flight, our narrator meets Tyler Durden, who seems to be the most interesting person he has encountered in years. They meet up again later and the narrator stays at Tyler’s house, which turns out to be a dilapidated mansion of sorts. Clowning around one day, Tyler insists that his new friend punch him. He does and Tyler punches back. A brawl ensues but instead of becoming enemies, they discover a source of friendship. It makes them feel like they are living large. “Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive,” says Tyler. “If you don’t claim your humanity, you will become a statistic.”

The Rationale

The Fight Club grows and grows, and at some point, Tyler explains the underlying theory.

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

We fight because we have no purpose, no place. To find them, the Fight Club shoves aside all things people associate with civilized behavior and reveals our inner manhood, our ability to feel and inflict pain. We need to see the blood to really believe in life.

Men are born to fight and rule, not trade and cooperate, or so the theory goes.The movie features over-the-top displays of masculine derring-do. The gendered element of the underlying philosophy is unmissable: contrasting civilization with manhood, as if peacefully cooperating with others for mutual gain in productive pursuits is a feminized undertaking, activities that are morally and physically emasculating. Men are born to fight and rule, not trade and cooperate, or so the theory goes.

There is a grain of truth here. The struggle, the fight, the kill, is the dominant story of humankind’s existence, during which time male dominance and female subjugation were unquestioned. Women as a sex only gained the fullest possibility to exercise their human rights in the age of laissez-faire, the 19th-century belle epoch of peace, new technology, and commercial achievement, a time when the blood feud, the ethnic conflict, the race and religious war were at a low ebb, while manners, etiquette, and civilized deference to the well-being of others was on the rise.

Drama Lost and Regained

The idea of the Fight Club is to recapture the lost drama, drive, and sense of purpose that we can only experience through violence, according to countless champions of war from Carlyle to Schmitt. Following the onset of the Great Depression, the rise of fascist ideology in America and Europe had the same idea: effeminate ideas like peace and freedom didn’t work, so let’s try something masculine like power and war. Through them, we can recapture honor, discover what heroism looks like, strengthen our spirits, find out the meaning of greatness.

The Fight Club puts on display the most powerful critique of liberalism ever penned.Is this really what war does? It can be associated with heroism in individual cases, but the main result is to unleash unthinkable horror. Indeed, as Christopher Hedges says in his classic 2002 work War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning: war actually “exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us.” It is not manly but animalistic, not civilized but barbaric, not true but riven with lies.

In some sense, the Fight Club puts on display the most powerful critique of liberalism ever penned, the notion that peace, trade, and mutual cooperation, and the resulting social order of commercial production and consumption, robs our lives of drama and meaning. This can only be recaptured through the reassertion of the friends/enemies paradigm, and this, in turn, can only be made present in our lives through the fight. The film sets up this critique and then knocks it down beautifully by revealing it as a dangerous pathology that threatens us all.

It makes perfect sense, then, that the contemporary political Fight Club, though defined as right and left, and seemingly warring from opposite sides of the political spectrum, are absolutely united in one central point: opposition to the idea of peace and trade as pillars of the social order. The more you look, the more you realize that socialism and fascism, Alt-right and Antifa, far right and far left, have more in common than they like to admit.

As with the Fight Club itself, the purpose of the opposing sides in the modern political struggle is to find meaning through the fight itself. But a closer look reveals something remarkable: the opposites sides in the fight are really on the same team, and might even be the same person. How much difference, really, is there between the Hegelian of the right and the Hegelian of the left?

The foreign policy analogy has the U.S. supporting both sides in Syria, bombing US-built tunnels in Afghanistan, and providing arms to both sides in civil wars around the world. What seems to be two sides, on closer inspection, turn out to be one side united in the love of struggle for its own sake. How else to explain the desire of the Trump administration to once again ramp up the fight in Afghanistan, a fight with no end in sight, and, to that extent, the model war for any cause that has given up belief in civilization itself?

But What about Drama?

What about this critique itself? Is the free society really devoid of drama? A contrasting view of this question comes from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a book that departs from Scottish Enlightenment aesthetics to embrace a more Nietzschean spirit regarding enterprise. It is about discovery, competition, achievement, the tragedy of loss and the elation of triumph, all in the context of market exchange.

Is the free society really devoid of drama?To my mind, this is the book’s singular and epic achievement. It demonstrated that all the supposed honors and glories of war are actually better realized through commerce. Enterprise, in Rand’s view, is the Fight Club without violence and blood but with all the excitement, daring, and drama. The book is not to everyone’s taste, but it does do an effective job in countering the critique of markets that they are stultifying and emasculating of the human spirit.

It is especially notable that Rand’s heroes maintain their motivation and morality even in the face of tremendous adversity. They reject the means of violence on principle and fight for their freedom and rights by use of their minds and their capacity for heroic production, not destruction. They don’t go to the alleyways and beat each other up to find the meaning of existence. Instead, they stand up for human rights and personal achievement, even in the midst of an economy in decline, with property rights under fire, with bureaucrats ruling the day.

No one can say that this story lacks drama. On the contrary, Rand finds the ultimate drama in the fight for freedom, peace, property, and capitalism. As for the choice of violence, it is the path of losers, people who have lost confidence in their own ability to compete, create, and add value to great project of life. Tellingly, Rand’s real hero in the book in a woman, a fact which flips the narrative of commercial life as emasculated. Violence is, in fact, an act of despair in one’s own capacity to achieve as a human being.

How can believers in these liberal ideals today resist the Fight Club mentality? As with Rand’s heroic characters, we should be conscientious objectors in the wars of our time, whether hot or cold, in politics or the streets, large or small. We have no dog in this fight. As they beat each other to a bloody pulp, let us go forth boldly to build a civilized, inclusive, peaceful, and free world. That is a truly heroic struggle, and a thoroughly sound and sane way fully to feel alive.