Anarchy and Agit-prop - The Undernourished Step-children of the Fight Club
By World Tirade Disorganization
Posted 11/30/99 05:06:15
The Fight Club is a travesty. The principals of anarchism, the temporary autonomous zone and criticism of consumer culture that was initially taken by the horns was promptly steered off a cliff. However impotent the discourse was, it was the closest thing that I've seen from the mainstream that not only acknowledged that people feel empty and directionless and tied to consumption as the source of meaning in their life but contained its own criticism. I was terribly disappointed to see the film chicken out with that whole premise of "what people really want is to get out debt". Even though they did show the followers of Tyler as adopting the costume of dissension without really embracing the principals of liberty, that fact was never adequately pointed out for an audience that mostly just saw a bunch of cool fight scenes. It was a perfect waste of a stage to show ideology in practice and explore some of the logic of action within a simplified, idealized and romanticized worldview.
Hakim Bey, anarchic theorist and practician, most pointedly does not describe the temporary autonomous zone
In fact I have deliberately refrained from defining the TAZ--I circle around the subject firing off exploratory beams
-Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone
Those who discover the temporary autonomous zone do so as some kind of native mystic of our culture who finds the moments where they are freely thinking and acting in a way that is communicative, expressive, creative and responsible rather than responding and reacting. There is no way to create a dogma or an ideology from this because it is a basic operating principal rather than a set of rules. And to turn it into a set of rules, as it was in the Fight Club, betrays its primary purpose as a space of liberation.
Tyler came with the promise of opening the temporary autonomous zone for the Narrator but he ended up being a convenient tool for the Narrator's ego-driven psychosis. The narrator was not in any sense a liberator, but a slavemaster who wanted to monopolize the energy of the weak-willed to act as a physical extension of himself. The Narrator wanted to not only blame someone for his own empty life but wanted to punish someone as well. What the narrator didn't understand was that he was his own slavemaster. He would never accept responsibility for the choices he made that created the life he is living. And this refusal led to his ego to split and create an angel of death who would validate the narrators anger and fuel his desire to find the way out but never point the finger at himself as the sole source of his suffering. By creating the person of Tyler Durden, the narrator could shift responsibility for his life onto someone else because he would not acknowledge that he was his own victim.
The Narrator discovers that his life has been devoted to working at a job he doesn't like with people he doesn't respect to buy things he never has time to enjoy. Getting and spending has become the story of his life and the shock of that recognition forces his psyche to split and create a personality to work out the practical application of this new knowledge. The narrator is this guy who follows the script that has been handed to him through magazines, television, and the air he breathes. One day he feels a little less numb. So instead of reinventing his life, he shifts responsibility to Tyler Durden to break the shell. Tyler is the organizer, the master planner of the destruction of the credit card companies.But it is not the Narrator's debt , his stuff, or his job that has kept the Narrator from feeling full or enriched. He made choices that ran him into a brick wall.
On one level, The Fight Club acts as a story of wisdom, because you can think of people as sheep being led by corporations who control the media leading you down the path of consumption and tying all your life stories to things to be purchased. But if you wanted an alternative, it exists everywhere and all around, especially with easy access Internet, and your choice to remain blind to your own captivity is nobody's fault but your own. Corporate interest is not concerned with humanity but since everyone believes that money is the sum total of existence and stuff defines who we are, they don't have to do much work to keep you strung out on the golden lie.
Good Idea, yes. The narrator starts to beat his ennui out of himself and then other guys get involved. The fight club is formed where men come together to experience reality in the form of bare knuckles, blood and bruises. How it turns from a cult of violence against each other into a cult of terrorism against consumer society is not well explained. Tyler begins to talk about his ideas behind why the fight club exists and the men shift from fists to ideology. It had the potential to be healthy and creative and expressive. Tyler was really clever when he orchestrated his brand of agit-prop activism to disseminate a truth among the lies. And then his methods devolved into bombs and terrorism and he became ugly and overbearing.
The members of the fight club were not looking for a purpose or a reason or a truth like the Narrator/Tyler. They were just a bunch of guys who wanted to fight. They wanted an arena to act out their aggression without criticism. They wanted their balls back and instead of going into the woods and covering themselves with mud and hugging, they prefer to beat the shit out of each other. Notably, these men were working class men. The very class that is most affected by rabid capitalism. People talk a lot about the emasculation of the middle class man, but the working class provide the muscle that serve the managerial class that serve the shareholders. The basic idea of the fight club according to Tyler Durden is simple. The working class hero fights against the machines of oppression and the ultimate solution is to eliminate debt. The workers bought into the idea they needed to consume more than they were able to afford and thus bought into the whole attraction of stuff. Its not that they borrowed to meet their basic needs, but borrowed to satisfy their consumer desires. And even though this desire was inculcated into them from birth by a media driven society that exists only to move money through the stock market by the creation and consumption of goods, they feel as if their complicity is justified by their ignorance. It is not the destruction of the debt record that will restore people to living a life not based merely on consumption of goods, or lifestyles defined by marketers, but a destruction of belief and a change in consciousness.
Society is a cage placed around the human psyche and although we have a tremendous capacity to learn and communicate, we are mostly a degenerate species incapable of using effectively or even understanding our awesome difference from other species. It comes to us in flashes when we not only use, but realize that we have, the capability to think beyond the present and to manipulate subtle concepts, to create new ideas and see what is not there and in a sense, create reality out of the ether of the mind. But we are still animals and our animal nature is stronger than our will. All the great liberating themes have all been spiritual themes and work is in order to achieve those higher states of mind, consciousness or being. You may believe man is inherently good, but it is a lot to easier to get pissed off when someone cuts you off on the highway then it is to just let it go. Reaching a distanced perspective that allows for compassion and wisdom is where all the great moral, ethical, and spiritual teachers have tried to lead humanity. And where we have as a species have completely resisted going.
Tyler's ideas are profound even though they seem so obvious. "you are not your job". The response of his weak-minded followers to his ideas is trite. "Yeah, when he said "You are not your job" I was like, yeah., you are so right". Tyler was only an autocratic demagogue needing a cult to help him act out his frustration. And at the end, he did not discover that he always had the power to go home like Dorothy. The end of his journey was not enlightenment.
The end of his journey was being stuck with the results of what he had created and was powerless to stop and all he could do was sit by and watch the destruction. There was no attempt on his part to make sense of it and the audience was left to make any assumption they wanted about what comes next. Maybe he gained some wisdom. Maybe he had come back to a new beginning. Maybe he was going to be caught, arrested, tried and sent to jail for the rest of his life. The movie doesn't give us any indication what comes next for him, or us as witnesses to his story.
The Narrator/Tyler's response was the result of an immature philosophy that did not think far enough or deep enough about all the implications of his dissatisfaction and initial discovery of the role of consumption and marketing driven life-styles in the creation of his identity. Tyler was not a philosopher, or an artist. He was just a boy who, like a two year old, wanted to punish the authoritarians and break the cookie jar because he couldn't stop himself from wanting cookies. And he found a bunch of other two year olds to help him.
In the real world, the one we really live in, not the one in movies or magazines or billboards, people do feel strongly about the way people blindly accept an identity created by the storytellers in marketing. The billboard liberation front is one such group of people who do hijack the space purchased by marketers to use the familiar images and fonts and change the message. The idea is to interrupt the signal and force the mind to think by shocking it out of their hypnosis. The landscape takes on a surreal quality when you notice that the familiar has become slightly unfamiliar and it may not even strike you until much later. Publications such as Stay Free, The Baffler, Temp Slave, Beer Frame and Adbusters regularly publish essays and articles about spin machines, consumerism, commercial media and its impact in the daily working out of how we live our lives and how we interpret the symbols and messages flooding the visual landscape.
Images and relatively simple social narratives have conditioned us. Life is easier to understand when it all seems like there is a right and a wrong a sick and a healthy, a normal and a pathological. When the story has been written, all that is required of us is that we show up and read the teleprompter and stand where the director tells us to stand. The problem in our society is that we have it all backwards. Unchecked development is good and environmentalism is bad because it impedes progress and chokes the economy. Of course, these same people are breeding like mad and leaving a dead planet to their offspring. This selfish behavior is justified by the social narratives of expansion and economic growth in America. Get the money or you'll be the guy with the cardboard sign and your kid's kids still won't have any clean water to drink or any safe oceans to play in or a single space in their life that isn't a medium for the message of SPEND to make your life complete, to fill the emptiness, to create meaning, to create identity.
What guerilla art activism is trying to do is to make people more aware and less a servant of the market or even to their drives. Know Thyself. To encourage them to live authentic lives and to question the images, the stories, the bits and bytes and to own them and generate them rather then passively absorb information. Ideally, we'd all be storytellers, gathering around the people who embody common themes in a creative exchange. And you think we do that now, but we don't. We tend to gather around brands.
Nothing is wrong with money or owning things or wanting to create a comfortable life through the use of material items. It is the nature of our society. You do have to keep up in some respects because of the way we live. Buying into the lies created by marketers and giving up your life to be created and lived by someone in an office building in Manhattan or Los Angeles who doesn't know you or anything about the particulars of your life, is. They would like to convince you are sick and they have the cure. Whether it's an SUV or a cup of Starbucks Coffee, they have the thing that will put the finishing touch on who you really are.
I saw a bus with no advertising on it, and it looked wrong, like somebody had edited the picture by removing the ads. That is how conditioned I am to accept bus ads as "Reality". Their absence, however welcome, made me look twice while my mind was trying to fill in the missing information in the same way that when you see part of a letter or a word, you know what the rest of the image is because you've seen it so many times. Makes me wonder what exactly I "see" and what I just assume I see.
That we even have to try to define what "living" is shows that something is wrong and for a generation like mine who is completely lost in a sea of abstraction, needing to reclaim something that feels genuine or purposeful is a common desire but we lack the tools, or the knowledge to begin thinking our way out of the tomb of our televised lives.
The Fight Club asks good questions and hints at the guerrilla subversion of the commercial images that make up the totality of everyone's sensual and information environment, but is ultimately misleading and gratuitous. Instead of focusing on a change in consciousness that would lead to a change in behavior, it turns into a maze of violence and terrorism that misses the real enemy entirely. The enemy is us.
On the one hand, The ending with the new Adam and the new Eve on the verge of populating a planet full of debt-free but still deluded people did nothing to develop any of the truly important themes of this movie nor did it complete a cycle in the narrator's life so that he emerged triumphant from his ordeal with hard-gained wisdom. On the other hand, sometimes you have to pass a bill through congress that has a rider you accept as a compromise. You choose your victories. The Fight Club showed some of the activity that takes place outside the death grip of the mainstream commercial entertainment. Unfortunately, it tied art activism to violence, ignorance and misogyny when in most cases, it is used to combat these themes in society by pointing out where and how we unquestioningly accept poison as a cure or sickness as health.
Most people who have been suckling from the breast of commercial media do not have the opportunity to be shocked out of the cookie cutter life and to even begin to understand how shallow and completely abstracted and disconnected the lives of many Americans are. This point was lost an all but the tiny minority of people who are not only succeeding at saving themselves but attempting to save other people from the corporate monopoly that is more interested in turning you into a product rather than making available products and services you can use to enhance and create an utterly unique life out of the substance of the deepest and most mysterious parts of yourself. The Fight Club was a 10 megaton warhead with no detonator.