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Fight Club 20 years on: suicide and empathy

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David Fincher’s Fight Club is now 20 years old. And that the film still manages to talk directly to the issues of today is a testament to the foresight of Chuck Palahniuk’s original novel, but also to the incisiveness of Fincher’s film-making. There are countless blog posts, papers, books, online documentaries, social media brain dumps and podcasts that dissect the film in all sorts of ways. From how it inspires incels, the feminist narratives to the film’s evisceration of consumer capitalism, there are many themes, ideological takes and thematic overtures that can be gleaned from such a masterpiece. So it is not without a big dollop of caution that I go about adding yet another view to the corpus of virtual detritus written about the film, but having trawled through a lot it, it is a view that I have yet to see made so forcefully; and that the film’s relationship to male suicide and how we require the empathy of minor subjects to tackle it.

That said, there are many articles written as to Fight Club’s take on the crisis of masculinity in late capitalism. But largely, this body of work can be surmised as follows: the narrator of the film (played by Edward Norton) typifies the contemporary Western male. Emasculated by a capitalist machine that has deadened his heroic desires, he is depressed, an insomniac probably bipolar and generally suffering chronic mental health problems. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) is the hyper-stylised masculine idyll physically, sexually and socially. Moreover he deliberately represents the subconscious desire of all men to break free form the shackles of an anaesthetised, suffocating life that has no meaning beyond capitalist logic. Tyler, as the film’s twist so excellently portrays (in the clip below), is the projection of a masculinity that defies capitalism’s attempts to straight-jacket powerful masculinity into efficient and productive labour.

In one of the film’s most famous (and most used quotes), Tyler says:

“Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God 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 shit 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”.

There is something very intoxicating to this vision, particularly to anti-capitalist sentiments. The film invokes many tropes and actions that are the mainstay of activist, perhaps ‘leftist’ leanings; they engage in forms of civil disobedience, appropriate corporate spaces, infiltrate urban infrastructure, perform in-work subversion and squat. The reactionary and perhaps even revolutionary ethos of ‘Project Mayhem’ (what Fight Club evolves into) is rightly lauded as heroic anti-capitalism.

It is clear then that, on one level, Fight Club is a narration of a violent reaction to an equally violent emasculation by society. There is a hero inside of all men, and if he just releases this onto the world he can defeat the very system (i.e. late capitalism) that subdues him. Much of this anger, channeled by Tyler Durden, is focused on reacting to capitalism’s emasculatory characteristics. The feminisation of society (given a literal allegory with Bob Paulson’s character; his ‘bitch tits’ and overt stereotypical female mannerisms) needs to be conquered.

But to conclude this from the film’s continuing narrative is to be ignorant to it’s deeper critique of this corrosive heteronormativity lurking in the background of such anti-capitalist sentiments. Seeing the film this way – in a politically polarised and populist 2019 – is fraught with danger. And it is why, when you browse Fight Club clips on YouTube, the suggested other videos to watch are of incel-baiting mash-ups and Jordan Peterson eulogies. There needs to be a much deeper appreciation of how the film turns this supposed advocacy of heroic white masculinity in on itself to critique not only an anaesthetising capitalism, but the way it suggests that the heroic white man will be the only one who can liberate society from it. Because what the film’s story continues to develop is how not overcoming this ‘angry white man’ mantra can lead to annihilation of the self, in the form of radical self-harm or even suicide.

Suicide is painless?

The rate of suicide in males around the world under the age of 45 is sickeningly high, and remains so in an era defined by overwork, precariousness and a lifestyle and leisure life saturated with the toxicity of capitalism’s overt masculine identity. Work long hours, look good, be funny, don’t get ill, be a strong parent, drink, get healthy, work out; and you need to do all this with radically diminished emotional resources that have been leached away by the constant stream of the attention economy. But that suicide rates in young males is three times higher than it is in females indicates just how embedded a corrosive toxicity is into the late modern masculine identity.

The reasons for this gendered difference is contested. The main causes of suicide are obviously mental health problems such as PTSD and severe depression, but losing close loved ones, substance abuse, loss of self-worth (through job loss or relationship breakdown) are all contributors, and sometimes it can be a potent mix of all of the above. But these are prevalent across all genders. The statistics will say that women are actually more likely to attempt suicide than men (although transgender people are the most likely to attempt suicide). Males are however more likely to use more lethal methods of suicide than women and therefore are more likely to end up dead. At a time when contemporary work patterns demand evermore of our time, and austerity is cutting off vital support services, the socio-political environment has created a perfect storm of suicide-catalysers among all genders. But a huge contributing factor to the higher proportion of men who die because of suicide is down to corrosive, toxic masculinity; put bluntly, men are more likely to go through with suicide because of who capitalism demands them to be.

As decades of tireless feminist critique have taught us, gender is socially constructed. In contemporary capitalism, the masculine identity is constructed in such a way that to fall short of it, means that you have failed as an individual. You can’t be seen to be mentally ill, let alone talk about it (after all, the first AND second rule of Fight Club is that you don’t take about it). Straying from the idealised trope of the successful heroic male simply won’t be tolerated. There is no other means by which to express your male identity than as the way capitalism demands. Moreover such an idealised view of masculinity completely negates asking for help. This is a sign of failure. Men, on the whole, are far more likely to bottle up emotional pain and mental illness than women, allowing their depressive thoughts to build up far stronger. Strong enough to contemplate lethal suicide. Indeed, the success-at-all-costs mantra that capitalism exudes lingers in suicide ideation, so much so that men are compelled to ‘succeed’, even with suicide. To put it another way, society under late capitalism demands males to situate themselves within a paradoxical and ultimately untenable position of being successful, heroic, stoic and performing the idealised homo capitalus while providing nothing by way of outlets or alternatives.

A Streetcar named Desire

Returning to Fight Club, what Tyler Durden presents to this depressed, burned-out homo capitalus is an articulation of the desire to be rid of all those socio-political pressures. It is a desire, as we’ve already seen, that can have triumphant anti-capitalism in-built. However, as the radical French philosopher Gilles Deleuze spent his life arguing (before he killed himself) was that this kind of desire can act as a ‘line of flight’ form the ‘apparatus of capture’, the latter of which in this case is the straight-jacket of modern capitalism. To ‘flee’ from the norm, the status quo, is a result of this desire being ‘unleashed’. It is the puncturing of the social strata and forging a new revolutionary path. However, Deleuze (when writing with Guattari, 1983: 252) has warned against “turning to destruction, abolition pure and simple, a passion for abolition“. This is why in unleashing the potent progressive desire that ferments within the apparatus of capture, it is vital to do so as a multiplicity. That is, with a heterogeneity that involves everyone, not just men. To do so with the belief in the power, or indeed the cult, of the individual is doomed to destruction (be that co-option, selling out, burn out or its most extreme, suicide). There is simply not enough agency and power in the Self to take down the system in its entirety, we must act collectively.

What Fight Club shows in the third act, is this heroic individualism consumes the group. They became slaves to Tyler Durden’s image as the new stylised way to fight the status quo. They act as one ideology, consumed by an individualised image of masculinity.

Such individualising masculinity that exists in our contemporary societies denies men the competency to connect with others and find empathy in shared suffering beyond the male identity, and ultimately to shed that image. Indeed, in the famous ‘His name is Robert Paulson’ scene (above), the anonymous member says “I understand. In death, a member of Project Mayhem has a name. His name is Robert Paulson”. Therefore, it is only through death that a man can be free to be who he wants. It is only via death that we can wrest control of our own destiny away from a cultish fervour of either late capitalism or heroic anti-capitalism.

With the rise of a murderous incel culture, celebrity pseudo-academics denouncing the evils of feminism, and the general backlash to the #MeToo movement among insecure white male media commentators and breakfast TV hosts, there is a clear and present danger of the unleashed desire careening into “destruction, abolition pure and simple”. Suicide is often discussed as part of the online incel and alt-right culture, and almost always in response to a deep depression and loneliness brought about by a young man’s inability to conform to the standards capitalist society impinges upon him. So the aggressive paragons of anti-feminism that have large followings on Twitter and sub-reddits are examples of how males have reacted to what they perceive to be the emasculating character of neoliberal capitalism, a system in which feminism is taking control and robbing them of their long-held dominion over the world. Tyler Durden – who at this stage in the film could quite easily be thought of as a Pepe the Frog wearing, Infowars presenting, UKIP voting gob-for-hire – is the angry white man inside all men, that if left unchecked threatens to destroy himself.

Masculinity in a Minor Key

So, at the end of the film, when Ed Norton’s character puts a gun to his own head and pulls the trigger, he is attempting to rid himself of the now uncontrollable subconscious desire that has been ‘unleashed’ into and onto the world. It is the end that so many young men feel is the only way out. It is an attempt to wrest back control of his own agency away from a nihilistic, destructive sociopathy. But Fincher is showing us that turning such violence back on the masculinity itself is a way out; to choose a constructive empathic desire rather than a self-defeating caricature. By using the visual motif of suicide, Fincher is actually (in/sub)verting the violence of the act back on the very ideology that spawned those thoughts in the first place.

But to resist such destructive, violent and angry masculinity that can lead young men to horrific suicide requires the very ideologies that it appears to be reacting to. Empathic connection is in such short supply in the modern capitalist world, but such empathy is vital as an antidote to the pathogenic malignancy of modern masculinity that spawns suicide ideation. If we talk to each other, bring others into our orbit of desire and let it effect them as much as it stirs us; this is desire that is far more constructive. Deleuze has argued that only via radical assemblages of desire can new worlds be built. There is no new land of plenty beyond capitalism without multiple connections. This requires men to recalibrate their own masculinity to be less in line with how capitalism demands, and more in tune with how those who are constantly and severely marginalised by it. Such a process is not achievable without alternative discourses of feminism, subalternism, post-colonialism, disability discourse, queer theory and the rest. The empathetic qualities of these ‘minor theories‘ are fundamental in recalibrating the white, male, able, middle class body into one that is less dependent on violence as a means of self-validation. They teach us that to resist hegemony in all its forms is to make radical moves to dismantle the very identities that sustain it; including toxic masculinity.

Such empathy in Fight Club has distinctly feminist overtones, not least because at the end of the film (seen above), The Narrator stands there with Marla, as the phallic skyscrapers of late capitalism come crumbling down. He has defeated his suicide-inducing desire via a realisation of how Tyler had been the corrosive force in his life all along. While Marla is told she met him ‘at a strange time of his life’, her very presence – and her feminist commitment to him as a vulnerable depressed and suicidal male – allowed him to overcome that strangeness; or more accurately, dismantle Tyler Durden’s manly grip on his identity.

To me, what all this says is that the anti-capitalist desire that Tyler Durden represents needs to be nurtured, cared for, developed and maintained. Too often, we rush to protest, resist and plans our lines of flight from capitalism’s capture. And so we must. But as Deleuze (and many scholars before and many others since have) said, to truly see such revolutionary desire transform into new lands of justice and hope instead of hopelessness, anger, loneliness, and too often for young men, suicide, then the toxicity of self-grandiose masculinity must be countered with an radical empathy. Such an empathy is found not with the capitalist version of male identity. It is found in the masculinity that can be built by women, and other marginal subjects; people of colour, disability, indigeneity, and all those who are marginalised by rapacious capitalism that demands they conform. Only then can we be rid of a masculinity that so toxifies our media and political spheres, and build a far better one. That would be a masculinity worth fighting for…

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

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