Music: The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa: Slowthinking (2002)
As I noted in my past post, this week I’ve been working on a co-authored essay on the filmic version of Fight Club with Tom Frentz. Isn’t it funny that any contemporary event always get grafted into what one is working on at the moment? (e.g., me reading Tom Cruise as the Narrator of Fight Club, Project Mayhem as Scientology, and so on.) I cannot be the only person who does this, right? Heck, if I’m writing an essay and teaching a class, I often find parts of my essay coming out in classroom lectures as examples. Is this is a problem? A one-track mind? A form of stubbornness or obsessiveness?
Anyhoo, I thought I would tease with the first half of the essay. Tease, tease:
THE NARRATOR/JACK: I don’t know my dad. I mean, I know him, but he left when I was like six years old. Married this woman, had more kids. He did this like every six years. Goes to a new city and starts a new family.
TYLER: He was setting franchises . . . . We’re a generation of men raised by women; I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.
–dialogue from the film Fight Club
In a pivotal bathroom scene in David Fincher’s controversial Fight Club, Tyler and the Narrator sum up what critics have been saying about the movie for almost a decade: the film is a dark, violent depiction of a “crisis of masculinity” hastened by the lack of stable father figures in late capitalism (Iocco; Lizardo). Although the Palahniuk’s novel and Fincher’s film foregrounds an explicit critique of consumerism, the film’s disturbing hypermasculine violence has received the most attention. After only a couple of rounds of viewing, even first timers figure out that they’ve been dropped into some primal rite of manhood from Hell in which beating the crap out of your peers makes you a man while buying the crap out of catalogues makes you, well, something less. As the evil twin of Robert Bly’s men’s movement in which male “wildness” is reclaimed through spiritual rituals overseen by initiated elders, Fight Club traffics more in male “savageness” led by a neo-Fascist street gang mentality of uninitiated adolescents (see Karman).
More alarmingly, Fight Club has evolved–or “devolved,” as the case may be–beyond a cult classic into a gen-u-ine media franchise, replete with DVDs and YouTube.com videos of real-world, back yard blood fests, and even an in-progress video game for those who prefer watching to doing (Westerfelhaus and Brookey 306). That the film premiered just six months after the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999 also overdetermined a certain critical reception that placed the film within a broader social context of contemporary male violence (e.g., Giroux; Krister). For example, Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally argued that the school shootings did not reveal “a crisis in youth culture but a crisis in masculinity” owing to “the construction of violent masculinity as a cultural norm” in popular culture (pars. 5; 10), a charge that was applied to professional wrestling television programs and violent video games, but certainly prescient given Fight Club‘s thematic. Astonishingly, a week before the shootings James Garbarino’s widely read book, Lost Boys: Why Our Suns Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them advanced the thesis that young men embrace violence (against themselves and others) to disassociate from “doubt and psychological pain” frequently caused by “serious ruptures in early relationships,” precisely the causal factor Fight Club advances for Jack/Tyler’s violence (Seaton 212; Garbarino). Fight Club is thus not a just a movie, but an uncanny and disturbing reflection of larger, social anxieties rooted in early life.
As some critics have noted, owing to its explicit critique of fathers and deity, the social anxieties that concern Fight Club are classically Oedipal in nature, rendering it a Freudian flick not simply concerned with models of masculinity, but paternal models in particular. Paul Kennett has argued that the patricide at the end of the film is thus an obvious “completion” of the Oedipal complex, but “it must be admitted that Fight Club does not dramatize the Narrator’s return to reality” (62). In distinction, Robert Westerfelhaus and Robert Alan Brookey have argued that the patricide “reintegrates Jack into the very society with which he had been at odds throughout most of the film,” a heteronormative matrix that disturbingly utilizes violence to legitimate homosocial bonding. In what follows, we also argue that the Narrator struggles with the Oedipal complex in the classic way-he has sex with his (symbolic) mother and seemingly kills his “personal father”-but that he neither completes the complex or is reintegrated into the heteronormative matrix. Contrary to the readings of Kennet, Westerfelhaus, and Brookey, we argue that the fact the Narrator remains at the end of the film without a name is indicative of psychosis: the Narrator fails to become a subject of the law and integrate. For us, such an ending implicates not so much hegemonic homophobia as it does a larger cultural anxiety about the decline of fatherhood.
In order to make this case, however, we must understand the Oedipus myth less literally and more figuratively as the process of signification as such, a point that is easier to discern when one reckons with the fact that Freud advanced two Oedipal myths: (a) the more familiar myth of triangulation; and (b) the less familiar myth of the primal horde. Once we understand these two myths as party to the same figural logic, Fight Club emerges as heteroabnormal, more than heteronormal and, at some level, advances a complex critique of violent masculinity despite the unfortunate interpretation of the film by some young men as a pedagogy. The film, we argue, is demonstrative of psychosis, what happens when there is a failure to properly incorporate a traditionally heteronormative social reality. Insofar as the film is an expression of larger social anxieties, it registers not simply homophobic anxiety but a foundational fear of insanity as a consequence of the deterioration of the father figure in Western culture.
To this end we proceed as follows. First, though a sustained engagement with the work of Westerfulhaus and Brookey, we describe Freud’s two Oedipal myths in order to tease out a logic that Jacques Lacan terms the “foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father” (also see Kennett 48-64). Second, we attend closely to the plot narrative of the film to show how the Oedipal logic underscored is precisely that of psychosis. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the ways in which Fight Club mirrors the disturbed psyches of real world self-mutilators (“cutters”), teenage bullies, and self-appointed assassins. Violence against the self and others represents psychosis insofar as both reflect an inability to distinguish between the real and the symbolic, a failure to get some distance between the labels for things and the objects they denote. We think this is directly related to Jack/Tyler’s subtle but nevertheless repeated claims in the film: there are not enough daddies to go around.
Oedipal Logics, or, the Father as Signifier
The filmic version of Fight Club is a rich and complicated text that invites multiple interpretations, and owing to its explicit themes of madness, masculinity, and sexuality, a great deal of the critical work on the film has been conducted from a psychoanalytic vantage. The basic plot revolves around a nameless narrator (played by Edward Norton) who works for the recall division of an automotive company. Through his narration, the spectator learns that his deep malaise and depression are managed by consumerist habits (e.g., catalog shopping), and then later by attending self-help group meetings for illnesses he does not actually have. After meeting a mysterious woman, Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), at a self-help group, the Narrator’s ego “splits,” resulting in the appearance of another character, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), whom the Narrator does not realize is himself. The primary drama introduced in the film concerns the love triangle among the Narrator, Marla, and Tyler, a love triangle that is in reality a solipsistic dyad between the Narrator and himself.
The narrator, sometimes referring to himself in third person as “Jack” (a name taken from a journal the Narrator finds) and his alter-ego Tyler begin a “Fight Club” that meets underneath a bar, where men beat each other senseless and, thereby, experience a more virile manhood. As Tyler, the narrator creates multiple Fight Clubs in multiple cities as seed organizations for a fascistic terrorist group he creates, Project Mayhem. The secondary drama of the film concerns how these Fight Clubs become terrorist cells, which apparently exist to blow up financial buildings in major cities. To his horror, the narrator gradually realizes that he is Tyler and, at film’s end, shoots himself to kill off the “bad self.” Tyler disappears, Marla reappears, and as the Narrator and Marla hold hands they watch skyscrapers implode, courtesy of Project Mayhem. Insofar as the triangulation of Marla, Tyler, and “Jack” are obvious reflections of the Oedipal triangle-not to mention the over-the-top castration motifs-it makes sense that critics have turned to psychoanalysis.
In the field of Communication Studies, no one has spent more time probing the film’s psychical and ideological openings or contradictions than Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus. Initially, they concentrate more on the “extra texts” that now accompany most DVD releases of major films. These supplements, they argue, encourage viewers to interpret the main text in preferred ways that maximize profits (“Hiding” 22-25). When they turn to Fight Club, the critics are more interested in how the apparently homoerotic scenes in the film are denied, dismissed, or ignored by the “auteurs”-namely, the director, screenwriter, novelist, and major performers in the extra texts (33-38). They show how powerful and attractive images of homoerotic bonding are muted or erased so that a preferred heteronormative interpretation can align the film with mainstream viewing practices, and thereby with optimal profit taking.
In their most recent analysis, Westerfelhaus and Brookey contextualize the film within the politics of the Religious Right, and argue that, ironically, Fight Club ends up supporting the very heteronormative ideology the Religious Right fears the film is subverting (“Unlikely” 302-306). In advancing this argument, Westerfelhaus and Brookey frame the narrative as a manhood ritual involving social separation, initiation, and return (308), and they examine the relationships among the Narrator or “Jack”, Tyler, and the men in Project Mayhem using Freud’s rendition of the classic Oedipal myth. They position the homoerotic scenes within a liminal dreamscape that is ultimately rejected for the sober, “social reality” of the final scene, where Tyler has been “killed,” and Jack and Marla hold hands while watching the surrounding buildings implode (317). To this end Westerfelhaus and Brookey deploy Freud’s old toxic triangle in two rather specialized ways. First, following Reeder, they write,
love for the mother does not always play a role in the stories informed by this myth; and when present, it is rarely a central element but is, rather, symptomatic of broader competition between son and father. . . . In particular, the son envies and fears the father’s phallic power, which includes but extends well beyond mere sexual prowess. The son fears this power because it provides the father with the ability to withhold the same from the son, the deprivation of which constitutes symbolic castration. (309)
Second, they see the resolution of the Oedipal myth as an ideological mechanism through which the male chooses a socially appropriate woman (not the mother) while repressing his homoerotic attraction to the father (and other men). Thus, “The repression of homoeroticism within the context of the Oedipal drama requires the annihilation of any narcissistic projection of self that reflects such desire . . . As we shall see, annihilation of homoerotic desire is ritually realized in Fight Club‘s final scene” (310).
Westerfelhaus and Brookey’s creative use of the Oedipal drama in Fight Club uncovers complex and seldom noticed homoerotic attractions between fathers and sons. They also show, quite convincingly we think, how those same homoerotic images that seem to dominate so much of the story, are erased and repressed by the film’s final scene. Yet, we worry their concentration on homoerotic imagery causes them to overlook other important meanings in this film that, somewhat ironically, the Oedipal myth, understood in a more Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, can illuminate. We take issue, in particular, with the assertion that the love for mother, and by extension the mother’s love, plays no role for some iterations of the Oedipal myth and, thus, has little play in Fight Club. Quite to the contrary, a more strictly Oedipal reading of Fight Club suggests the love and enjoyment of mother are central to the film; it is because female figures are denigrated (e.g., Marla) or absented from the screen that mother is ever-present. In this respect, Fight Club can be recast as the masochistic underbelly of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho sadism: Norman’s inability to disidentify with mother manifests in psychotic behavior directed toward other people; the Narrator’s inability to disidentify with mother manifests in self-mutilation and abuse. Indeed, we will argue that it is Narrator’s inability to disidentify with the mother that explains the homoerotic and hypermasculine themes of the film.
To understand why the mother is central to Fight Club, however, we need to set forth Freud’s two takes on the Oedipal myth not simply because his original psychoanalytic interpretation of that drama informs our own reading of the film, but because, increasingly fewer and fewer critics are reading Freud’s won primary texts. We cite him, then, at some length:
A child’s first erotic object is the mother’s breast that feeds him, and
love in its beginning attaches itself to the satisfaction of the need
for food. . . . By her care of the child’s body she becomes his first
seducer. In these two relations [food and bodily care] lies the root
of a mother’s importance, unique, without parallel, laid down unalterably
for a whole lifetime, as the first and strongest love-object and as
the prototype of all later love relationships-for both sexes. . . . When a
boy, from about the age of two or three, enters upon the phallic phase of
his libidinal development, feels pleasurable sensations in his sexual organ and learns to procure these at will by manual stimulation, he becomes his mother’s lover. . . . In a word, his early awakened masculinity makes him seek to assume, in relation to her, the place belonging to his father, who has hitherto been an envied model on account of the physical strength which he displays and of the authority in which he is clothed. His father now becomes a rival who stands in his way and whom he would like to push aside. . . . The boy’s mother understands quite well that [her son’s] sexual excitement refers to her. She believes she is acting rightly in forbidding him to manipulate his genitals. . . . As a rule, in order to make the threat more terrifying and more credible, she delegates its carrying out to the boy’s father, saying that she will tell him and that he will cut the penis off. . . . In order to preserve his sexual organs [the boy] gives up possession of the mother more or less completely; his sexual life often remains under the weight of this prohibition. (88-93)
So there we have it from the master’s (or father’s) voice. In order to avoid castration by the father, the boy renounces his desire for his mother and enters into an uneasy alliance with his father.
We underscore two aspects of Freud’s vision here. First, the mother, as the boy’s first seducer, is a central player in this drama. Hence she is not, as Westerfelhaus and Brookey would have it, incidental to the action. As Hitchcock shows us with Psycho, mommy dearest may not necessarily appear within the diagetic field of a film to be ever-present. Second, the threat of castration, symbolic or literal, is triggered by the son’s incestuous desire for the mother, not necessarily by the father’s withholding of his power and possessions from the son. Rather, Westerfelhaus and Brookey are privileging Freud’s second Oedipal myth in his later work Totem and Taboo. In the first myth we have the story of someone who unwittingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother, an allegory for the desirous impulses of early life. In the second myth, we also have a patricide over incest: extending a story introduced by Charles Darwin, Freud relates the myth in terms of a “primal father” who perversely enjoys women indiscriminately and hordes them all for himself. Envious of the father’s unbridled perversity and angered by the prohibition against their enjoyment, the sons band together, kill the father, and eat him. Absent the law represented by the father, however, they go berserk with psychotic eruptions of violence and are reduced to a state of nature, or what Thomas Hobbes termed “the war of all against all.” Overcome with guilt and tired of the violence, the brothers realize that the father’s prohibitive laws were really for their own good, and thus they make a pact to share the women and institute the law of exogamy. The law is thus synonymous with the “dead father,” a kind of paternal ghost that establishes order in the name of rule of law (cite relevant sections of Totem).
As Charles Shepherdson points out, in the second Oedipus myth is in marked contrast to the first: “in the case of Oedipus, murder leads to an incestuous object, while in Totem and Taboo, murder puts an end to incest and establishes the order of the law” (134). It is important to note, however, that
Freud himself insists that the two stories do not in fact differ (in one case, incest, in the other, the elimination of incest), and in Totem and Taboo he draws explicit parallels between the two accounts of the father, as if there were no difference at this level. (Shepherdson 134)
Lacan argued that the key to understanding the common structure to both myths was simply to get rid of any literal understanding of the father and mother: what the mother represents is simply the first caretaker, irrelevant of sex; the father represents the symbolic, or alternately, the way in which human subjects become self-conscious as such because if the incorporation of the logic of the signifier. Lacan termed this signifier “the paternal metaphor” or the “Name-of-the-father.” To better understand the Lacanian rereading of the Oedipal as a logic of signification, we must discuss what is termed “primary” and “secondary identification” from a Freudian vantage, and then consider Lacan’s refiguring of these phases.
As we see in the original Oedipus myth discussed above, primary identification, Freud tells us, is between a child and its mother at the locus of the breast/mouth. What is key to this relation is that it is dyadic and, for the infant, without difference: the infant does not know it is not identical to its mother; they are one unit, undifferentiated and complete. This state of being is prior to any notion of a part-object (the idea of the breast as a discrete “thing” that the child wants to possess). Shepherdson continues:
With the appearance of the father, however, the initial attachment to the mother is broken (or reconfigured), and mediation is introduced, opening an initial difference, in such a way that identification and object-choice now come to be distinguished. (130)
Thus in secondary identification the father introduces a “cut” into the dyad and triangulates it. This intervention makes it possible for the infant to think about objects as representative of other things (and thus, representation as such). Both Oedipal myths stage the process of secondary identification: in both myths, the subjects discover what it is they desire (mother or women) by means of the incest taboo, by being told “no” by a father figure. Moreover, both myths concern the end of incestuous desire by accepting the law. In the first Greek myth, Oedipus blinds and exiles himself, accepting the law of the father; in the second, Darwinian myth, the brothers internalize the law and eventually accept it after killing the father. In both cases, the intervention of a father figure-a dead father, in fact-establishes the rule of law at a mournful murder scene.
Perhaps the most important element of Lacan’s re-reading of the Freudian Oedipal myths concerns the way in which he applied them to the “real world.” Our contemporary concern with the “crisis of masculinity” and the (presumably) increasing paucity of paternal role models reflects a concern during Lacan’s time as well. Dylan Evans explains:
Lacan’s emphasis on the importance of the father can be seen as a reaction against the tendency of [popular psychoanalytic theories in Britain and the United States] to place the mother-child relation at the heart of psychoanalytic theory. In opposition to this tendency, Lacan continually stresses the role of the father as a third term who, by mediating the imaginary dual relation between mother and child, saves the child from psychosis and makes possible an entry into social existence. The father is thus more than a mere rival with whom the subject competes for the mother’s love; he is the representative of the social order as such, and only by identifying with the father in the Oedipus complex can the subject gain entry to this order. (61)
Unless something mediates the original dyadic relation between (m)Other than child, the child is caught in a scene of false plenitude and subject to the unbridled enjoyment of the mother. Broadly conceived, psychosis denotes at state in which an individual has not succumbed to the law or integrated the “paternal metaphor,” an individual who has not accepted the symbolic order as one that bars certain kinds of enjoyment (e.g., incest). Consequently psychosis is a kind of infinite narcissistic regress prior to sexual differentiation, prior to object-choice, a failure to be “cut” or “castrated” by the symbolic order such that one can get some distance between objects and the names for those objects. There is no “difference” in psychosis. The failure to complete the Oedipus Complex thus results in a psychosis which is neither homosocial nor homoerotic: psychosis is simply homohomohomo-ad inifinitim, as the individual has no sense of (m)Other, only an undifferentiated, whole, and unmediated sense of self. In this reading, what Westerfelhaus and Brookey identify as “homoeroticism” is therefore nothing of the sort, at least in the more commonplace sense of the term. Rather, as we shall see, it is the psychosis of a primal or primary narcissism that results in eruptions of violence toward the self or others.
Fathers, Fathers, Everywhere (Faux) Fathers
Let’s start with the obvious (although it is usually far from obvious for most first-time viewers): the Narrator or “Jack” and Tyler Durden are the same person. But what part or parts of the Narrator does Tyler Durden represent? Westerfelhaus and Brookey conjecture:
Within the context of the Oedipal drama played out in the film, Jack’s “other self,” Tyler Durden, can be understood in two ways. He is, of course, Jack’s double, a narcissistic projection of homoerotic desire. In addition, as the driving force behind the film’s ritual of rebellion, Tyler temporarily assumes for himself, and thus for Jack, the power of the primitive father, who Reeder describes as “a male figure standing outside of every order, and to whom all is allowed, since his only law is his own desire.(143)
Tyler serves, then, as both the object of Jack’s homoerotic desire and the source of permission that allows such socially outlawed desire to be pursued.
In other words, the Narrator splits himself in order to both introduce a father figure into his life as well as become that figure. Yet what Westerfelhaus and Brookey fail to note is that the Oedipal logic for doing so is motivated by a longing for order, a longing for fixity and an integration of the paternal metaphor. As the Narrator’s faux-primitive father, Tyler’s perverse enjoyment of women is legitimate within the Oedipal myth, but as a narcissistic projection of the son, the Narrator’s desires remain incestuous and trapped within the womb of late capitalism.
The (psychotic) invention of Tyler represents a form of masochism fueled by a deep-seated desire to stave off psychosis by bringing the law (on/into) himself, a condition caused, he admits to Tyler, by the rupture of his fathers sudden disappearance when he was six. Half-way into the film in what is arguably the pivotal scene, the Narrator’s attempt to internalize the paternal metaphor by himself is represented through self-mutilation. Tyler reveals to the Narrator that the fancy soaps he makes and sells to boutiques for a living are actually made from bags of human fat he steals from a liposuctionist. Tyler also explains that the same materials are used to make dynamite, a hint that their fight club was about to become a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, presumably to teach the Narrator about the reality of embodied pain, Tyler forces “Jack” to endure a chemical burn produced on the Narrator’s hand with lye powder. The Narrator screams in pain as Tyler declares, “our fathers were our models for god; if our fathers failed, what does that tell you about god?” The narrator responds screaming “No!” Tyler slaps him hard, and then insists, “listen to me: have you considered the possibility that god does not like you? Never wanted you?” Such curious dialogue during a scene of self-mutilation is certainly suggestive of Lacan’s description the Oedipal in two ways. First, the comparison of father to god yokes the first and second Oedipal myths together, indicating that is at stake is the law of prohibition; second, the Narrator is trying to literally inscribe the paternal metaphor onto the body. The inscription will remain in the form of a scar, a reminder of a past death and a transformation of passage into social reality.
The problem, of course, is that self-mutilation is a psychotic procedure and doomed to repeated failure. As is the case with all “cutters,” painful self-marking provides only a temporary transformation; more self-mutilation in other (un)satisfying ways will inevitably follow, just as they do in Fight Club. For example, the narrator has multiple representatives of individuals who represent more traditional father figures, but whom he ironically rejects because they are associated with capitalism (and perhaps, then, touched with the maternal). The hallmark of the Narrator’s psychosis is that in every opportunity he has to integrate the paternal metaphor through an actual person in the diagetic space, he refuses it or attempts to do it himself. First, of course, the Narrator gradually rejects the authority of his male boss, eventually culminating in self-inflicted injuries which the Narrator sustains to frame his boss. After the Narrator splits into “Jack” and Tyler and the chemical burn fails to bring primary identification to an end, another opportunity arises with a much more fatherly father figure, a godfather of sorts.
One evening the owner of the bar under which the Fight Club holds its matches discovers what’s going down and makes a visit. Together with a henchman the bar owner brings the law, demanding that the participants leave and that the Fight Club be dissolved. As he walks down into the basement where about twenty Fight Clubbing men are assembled, Tyler boldly asks, “who are you?” The bar owner responds, “who am I?”
OWNER: “There’s a sign in the front that says ‘Lou’s Tavern.’ I’m fuckin’ Lou. Who the fuck are you?!”
TYLER: “Tyler Durden.”
LOU: “Who told you motherfuckers that you could use my place?”
Again, retreating too literally to either of Freud’s Oedipal myths fails to capture what happens in this scene. Lou has all the characteristics of a mob-boss (his speech and look), and he makes it clear he has all the resources and the singular right to enjoy (primal father). Yet he also “interrupts” the club, walking into a sort-of primal scene filled with “motherfuckers” (triangulating father). Finally, Lou establishes his authority with his name, a surrogate Name-of-the-Father. In other words, Lacan’s refiguring of both Oedipal myths better explains this scene: Lou is the father mediating the mother/child dyad in name. Figuratively, the mother here is the tavern, which is labeled “Lou’s,” or better, the belly of Lou’s tavern, and the father says it is off limits to all motherfuckers. Tyler, however, taunts Lou until the godfather beats him into a bloody pulp. Strangely, a more traditional filmic convention would end such a scene showing how Tyler kills Lou and mourns him, or rather how Tyler simply incorporates the law Lou represents (the is the route Tyler first tries by invited Lou to join the club). In a bizarre twist, however, Lou is so unnerved by Tyler’s masochistic enjoyment that he lets the motherfighthers continue: the mother/child dyad thus remains intact and thus psychosis continues. Insofar as he is Tyler, the Narrator’s desire is unquestionably something (m)other than homoerotic.
According to Westerfelhaus and Brookey, the always absent and invisible corporate structures of American commercialism make up Jack’s “institutional” father, the target of rebellion. Citing two of Tyler’s impassioned diatribes-one equating absent fathers with an equally absent God during the self-mutilation scene; the other on the emasculating effects of consumerism that occurs right before Tyler is beaten by Lou-Westerfelhaus and Brookey identify fear of emasculation and fury toward those who might inflict it as dual paternal themes in Fight Club. They conclude, “[f]ear of castration, obsession with potency, and anger toward the father are central to the Oedipal myth” (311). While we would agree corporate consumerism is certainly one potent projection of an institutionalized father figure in the film—the boss, Lou, and other rejected “personal” fathers are all obsessed with money—there is, however, another way to see these figures Oedipally: consumerism is the “mother” of the film and Tyler is “created” by the Narrator to put an end to primary identification.
Well, that’s all I can share for now. Destination next week: Tempe Arizona and a good time with some ASU peeps!