Fight Club has the pretension of being sociological by pretending to critique consumer society. It’s never a good idea for film-makers to play sociologist unless they are well versed with it and David Fincher ain’t . As a results, the film dishes out a trite humanism preaching against consumer culture and the artificiality of social relations without having a clue about these things.
Edward Norton character has no name because in the bureaucratised white collar society of the 20th century, people lose their individuality. We are all just a cog in the machine. This humanist understanding of reality can be found in Marx’s concept of alienation (see Marx’s writings, Lewis Coser). For Marx, the modern worker in the factory experienced loss of ownership over their work. Unlike the pre-modern craftsmen, factory workers do not own their products or their work from beginning to end. They are part of the rationalised, hierarchical, and buraucratical system of work (see Taylorism). On a wider level, human beings are alienated from their humanity by living in stratified society. In society, people need to fit specific roles rather than live out their own nature. There are many variations of this complaint to be found in literature (Kafka, Svevo, Pirandello etc.) and sociology (Weber, Simmel, Durkheim, Tönnies) although it leads to very different and deeper analyses. The conflict between the individual and society is at the core of the 20th century’s idea of authenticity: the search for individual’s self-expression against conformity and objectification.
The film is a long whinge against consumerism and the idea that consumer products will bring you happiness. The narrator is dissatisfied and alienated because consumer society is ‘fake’. The accusation of artificiality is a normative one. It presumes (wrongly) that consumer society can only alienate us from our humanity and that being human means being a lot more than that. Than what? There are two problems with this: in the first instance, the critique of consumerism rests on a normative and banal understanding of consumer culture, which runs counter to the empirical research (Daniel Miller); in the second instance, it implies a teleological ‘essence’ of humanity, which is everything but objective. Fight Club preaches against consumerism and denounces it as empty and wrong, whilst fundamentally failing to grasp how people make meaning and moral choices as consumers. It stoops to an unbelievable low when it links soap, liposuction and the holocaust by suggesting that the fat of people doing liposuction is used to make soap just as the Nazi did with the Jews. It’s ignorant and stupid. One may frown at liposuction, but it’s not dehumanising, it’s not forced on anyone, and it’s not killing.
C.W. Mills’ splendid analysis of the rise of the middle class in White Collar elucidates the complexity of modern society, the rise of consumer culture, and individualism. The problem with Fight Club’s banal critique of consumerism is that it fails to see that this search for individuality to be lifted from an anonymous society comes from modernity and is at the core of the construction of our society. It is a product of society. The notion of authenticity has been constructed as the individual in conflict with the rest of society and with the social roles they need to play. The film argues that humanity cannot be satisfied with simply fitting a role in society; yet, instead of choosing Alasdair MacIntyre and telling everyone to be virtuous, the film makes mince-meat of Nietzsche misunderstanding and conflating his Übermensch with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Polite and neurotic Ed Norton is transformed in violent and anarchic Brad Pitt and, with it, the essence of humanity is reduced to violence for men and sex for women (definitely NOT Nietzsche!).
The search for authentic living in a rather crass performance of masculinity is hardly subversive. Whilst the film is allegedly critiquing social constructs for being artificial, they seem to be quite happy with a very oppressive relation of power between men and women. The film reduces men to physical fighters and women to be sex for the men. It also rests on a mediocre romantic understanding of nature as being more authentic than society (by ‘romantic’ I mean the Romantic Movement). Somehow films tend to think that fighting, fending for ourselves in the jungle, and having sex is truer than thinking, forming cooperative relationships, and making art. Trouble is, the first thing that people do when they find themselves with others is society. Alas, that’s not something the makers of Fight Club understand.