William Irwin joins us for a discussion about the novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk and the movie it inspired. Are consumer choices authentic choices? Where does Tyler Durden go wrong in his thinking?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) is a novel that’s well-worth reading if you haven’t yet. Here’s a link to the David Fincher movie (1999) starring Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter.
Here’s William Irwin’s essay, “Fight Club, Self-definition, and the Fragility of Authenticity.”
He’s also written a short column for Libertarianism.org, “Free Market Fight Club.”
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is William Irwin. He’s Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he’s creator of the philosophy and pop culture series of books including Seinfeld and Philosophy and the Simpsons and Philosophy, both of which he edited. Back in August 2016 we had him on Free Thoughts to talk about his book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism [00:00:30] Without Consumerism. Welcome back to Free Thoughts.
William Irwin: Well thanks for having me back guys. Pleasure to be with you.
Aaron Powell: Today we’re going to break the first and second rules of fight club because we’re going to talk about Fight Club. I’ll start with is Fight Club, and I guess we should sometimes, the movie and the novel are a little bit different in how they approach these things.
Trevor Burrus: We should also have a thing at the beginning if you have not seen or read Fight Club-
Aaron Powell: Spoilers.
Trevor Burrus: -there will be spoilers that you probably don’t want, so you should probably go read [00:01:00] and watch it, and then come back and listen.
Aaron Powell: Yes, you’ve been warned. Is Fight Club anti-consumerism or is it anti-anticonsumerism?
William Irwin: Well there you go right. There are some differences between the novel and the film. I think one that’s pertinent to the question you ask is that the movie I think is more anti-consumerism than the book is. It’s [00:01:30] sort of ironic in that the movie itself is of course a consumer product, and lots of big companies including Coke, not Coca-Cola, but Pepsi, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, seem to have paid big money to have product placement in what at least seems to be an anti-consumerist movie.
Trevor Burrus: But I mean it’s also pretty extreme to the point of mass destruction, at least in the [00:02:00] movie and also in the book, which could be seen as sending up the aims of the kind of … At the time it came out we have the WTO was about to happen. Some of the anonymous were going to break stuff. The ad busters magazines, stuff like this had come out. It could be seen as parodying exactly what they do for just how extreme this is and how silly it gets.
William Irwin: Yeah. That is a good point. It certainly, [00:02:30] in the end when Fight Club morphs into Project Mayhem, it’s totally gone off the rails. It moves from a kind of issue of self-discovery with these guys. How well can you really know yourself if you haven’t been in a fight, and discovering your individuality, and breaking free. To then the first rule of Project Mayhem is you don’t ask questions about Project Mayhem. So these people are acting basically like drones following the leadership [00:03:00] of Tyler Durden, and breaking up, blowing up buildings and all the kind of mindless violence and mindless anti-consumerism that you mention. It’s a good point and a reference made maybe for listeners that the movie goes back to 1999, so you said it nicely in its historical context just before.
Aaron Powell: That was one of the interesting differences I think between the movie and book is that the movie the big plan is to blow up the credit [00:03:30] card companies and wipe out consumer debt. The book it’s just to blow up a big building, and I think knock it over on top of a museum. The movie seems to take that notion and run with it even more.
William Irwin: Much more I think. Yeah, that really is the way that it’s framed in the movie. So I think it takes on a sort of victim mentality, whereas the characters start off trying [00:04:00] to discover themselves and break free from the way in which they’ve been conformists. Sort of become Ikea boy and this nesting instinct, and metro-sexual concern with clothing and appearance and all of that. To then blaming it, why am I this way, instead of saying I’m responsible for the way that I’ve become because I’ve bought into media portrayals, [00:04:30] or just conformed to the way in which people are living around me. Instead of saying that, the finger gets point at the corporations Gucci and Calvin Klein, who are selling them a lifestyle, or Ikea, or Starbucks, or whatever else. Really all those corporations have done, have made available certain products that you’re free to choose to indulge in or not.
Trevor Burrus: If this was to be considered an existentialist book, [00:05:00] is that change from self-discovery, the idea of having a fight club just so you can experience what it’s like to be hit, and feel different emotions in danger, how that can be beneficial to you. Changing from self-discovery to we’re going to change the whole world order, and we’re going to blame as you said ourselves on those other people, the corporations and whatnot, does that make it not existentialist when it makes that shift? [00:05:30] When it goes from self responsibility to let’s go blow stuff up because they did this to us?
William Irwin: I would certainly say so, but what part of the irony involved in answering that question is that Fight Club starts off as very much an existentialist tale in the sense of the early Jean-Paul Sartre, who has this emphasis on personal freedom, individual freedom, and with that individual responsibility, to [00:06:00] the end part of Fight Club mirroring the later Jean-Paul Sartre who embraces Marxism and does not disavow his existentialism. It’s been a constant puzzle ever since how those two could possibly fit together. My book Free Market Existentialist argues that they really can’t. Once you start blaming other people rather than taking individual responsibility, the existentialist [00:06:30] impulse is pretty well gone.
We can see this if we imagine alternatively the way the characters in Fight Club might have acted. It might not have been as good of a story, it’s a great story, I don’t critique it as art, but it would have been more existentially satisfying if they took responsibility for themselves and simply spread that message of personal responsibility rather than trying to liberate everybody [00:07:00] from their debt that they … When you think of the debt that they want to free everybody from, it’s debt that’s been incurred by freely making choices to charge crap on their credit cards. That’s not very existentialist, freeing people from responsibility that they themselves should be held accountable for.
Aaron Powell: I wonder about the starting point for it because it seems like there … We can say like their reaction to consumerism and their reaction to where the world had [00:07:30] put them, and the way that the world had treated them, ultimately goes off the rails. But I wonder if it’s on the rails to begin with in a sense that what’s so bad about the situation that our unnamed narrator finds himself in, or that these other men find themselves in that warrants rejecting everything. I mean he seems, he has a job okay, but you know you need a job even [00:08:00] when he’s talking about hunting in the jungles outside the Rockefeller Center. That still is a job. You still need to work. He seems to have a decent life. I mean he’s got insomnia, and as someone who has suffered from insomnia before, it’s terrible. It really sucks, but that’s not really a product of late capitalism or something that he can’t go to sleep. Are they kind of misdiagnosing [00:08:30] their situation to begin with, and therefore rejecting modern society and consumerism, not just in a bad way ultimately, but for bad reasons?
William Irwin: Well I think certainly they go overboard in their rejection of it. Moderation is called for more than complete rejection. It’s as if somebody had one bad meal and decided never to eat again, or to eat only to the extent that they’re wasting [00:09:00] away. As you suggest in the question there’s lots of good that is on offer in the capitalist society in which the protagonist finds himself living, but he’s sort of living in a well upholstered hell where he has no actual meaning in his life, and the choices that he’s made have not been well considered ones. They’ve just been … I mean this is a guy who has first world problems. That he has no meaning [00:09:30] in his very, very comfortable and pampered, and some might say privileged life because he really hasn’t chosen well.
We see this in the dialogue between Jack and Tyler Durden where they’re talking about their similarities before the big reveal has come that they’re really the same person. That their father is an absentee father. That the father said it was important that they go to college. [00:10:00] Then it was important that they get a job. Now they’re saying well maybe it’s important that you get married. But none of these are really self chosen ideals.
This is the kind of thing that as a college professor I see all too often in my students who are choosing a major. They’re at a college that their parents told them to come to in the first place, choosing a major that their parents have chosen for them that will lead them into a career that they probably won’t [00:10:30] really enjoy very much, to buy a lot of crap that they really won’t enjoy very much after the initial high of having it is gone. In a way it’s hard to feel sorry for these guys, but it’s also really not an extreme or unheard of situation that the protagonist finds himself in.
Aaron Powell: Let me see if I can revise the thought I’m, I guess the question is what’s [00:11:00] wrong with Ikea? In the sense that he’s got these comforts, and maybe he’s choosing them for the wrong reasons, but one of the themes seems to be that there’s something almost anti-existentialist or anti-authentic about comfort, about wealth, about the being pampered. That in order to be truly who you are, to be truly authentic, you need to … The Paper Street Soap Company [00:11:30] where they live is an absolute dump. The movie just kicks that up a few notches. It’s almost a dangerous place to live in terms of the electrical, and the falling ceilings, and the water damage everywhere. That you have to suffer through standing on the porch for three days. That having creature comforts of any kind in a sense is inauthentic, which seems, I mean at least a point that would have to be argued [00:12:00] for. Is that, why do we need to reject creature comforts in order to be really who we are or self-defining?
William Irwin: Right. No I think that your question, your point there is right on. It illustrates how they go too far. I mean we all know, and maybe have been this kind of person like the smoker who becomes an anti-smoking zealot and is knocking cigarettes out of people’s hands and [00:12:30] wrinkles his nose at the smell of tobacco, that kind of thing. It goes too far in that direction. I don’t think from a purely existentialist standpoint there’s anything wrong with Ikea or with taking comforts in certain pleasures, or even certain consumer goods, so long as they’re chosen authentically.
If we think about the way that they dress at Paper Street where [00:13:00] it’s just kind of Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt hanging out in that ratty bathrobe and clothes like that, it’s really stripped down. But then also if you think about the initial encounter between Tyler Durden and Jack, if we can call him that, the protagonist played by Ed Norton, on the plane, think about the contrast in the clothes that they’re wearing there. We have Ed Norton wearing his business attire, which he’s [00:13:30] cultivated a taste for, but then we have the Tyler Durden character wearing a red leather jacket, and a collar flung open shirt. This seems to be more authentically what his taste would be if he didn’t have to conform to the expectations of the business world. The red leather jacket and whatever else Tyler Durden is wearing might even be more expensive than whatever the business attire was, but it seems more authentically [00:14:00] chosen. I think that’s an important corrective in the middle ground that the movie doesn’t realize.
If we were to play it out philosophically, that’s a place we’d like to see it end up so that you swing back and forth in a kind of Hegelian dialectic of extremes. Where we have extreme capital-, not extreme capitalism but extreme consumerism, and then extreme anti-consumerism and we find this middle ground where our consumer choices [00:14:30] are authentic choices. Of course that might make for a boring story and movie, but philosophically it’s probably a healthier middle ground.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that authenticity is, well that it’s particularly an issue in modern life. This movie stands I think as one of the texts that talk about authenticity, especially the way we perceive it now. We talk about [00:15:00] whether or not someone will be keeping it real, whether or not someone is a poser or not. We had this huge question when I think it was Avril Lavigne … I apologize to anyone who knows more about this than I do because I don’t know much, but there was a video in the early 2000 where she was skateboarding. Then there was a huge kerfuffle because they were like she’s not really a skateboarder. She’s not authentically a skateboarder, so she’s somehow, it’s almost like cultural appropriation that they’re not being authentic. [00:15:30] It seems like something we might talk about more recently than maybe we used to when we were too poor maybe to sit around and wonder whether or not we were being authentic as a race.
Is that part of the question the way we talk about authenticity now, which is that we do it from a position of affluence? Often times what we think of as authenticity is stripping away some of those affluent traits, but maybe when we were relatively poor as a people tilling [00:16:00] the fields and things like that, the view of authenticity could have been flipped around. That what you really needed was a life of leisure where you could contemplate the greater questions of existence. It’s not really a thing called authenticity. There’s just different viewpoints of what you don’t have right now.
William Irwin: Yeah, no that’s a great question. It certainly is a rich person’s luxury to worry about authenticity. It’s one of those terms that I think has been taken up more [00:16:30] and more in our discourse and dialogue, and maybe misused, maybe not. I mean it drives me buggy as someone who considers himself an existentialist to hear talk about the existential threat all of the time, whatever that may be, of North Korea, or whatever it may be. The real existential threat from the existentialist is that you may be living in godless, meaningless universe. That’s the real thing, not whether or not your existence [00:17:00] will continue.
In terms of authenticity, that’s a nice example about Avril Lavigne skateboarding and the talk about cultural appropriation as to whether or not certain foods or fashions can be borrowed in a way that really is genuine. Thinking back on the recent Presidential election there was lots of talk about authenticity and [00:17:30] the problem with Hillary Clinton as not being authentic, or not even that she was not authentic, but that she was not perceived as authentic. Likewise talk about Trump. Part of what a lot of people did like about him was that they at least thought he was authentic, spoke his mind, that sort of thing.
Aaron Powell: This is where I just want to interject with a …
William Irwin: Yeah please.
Aaron Powell: It seems if you use Trump, and you use our narrator and Tyler [00:18:00] Durden as your examples of authenticity, then it’s like I’ll call it mental illness or mental health issues bound up in being authentic.
Trevor Burrus: I’m stupid. So crazy that I don’t even know what I’m saying kind of thing.
William Irwin: Yeah. Well I don’t necessarily offer them as icons of authenticity. I’m simply saying that people perceived-
Aaron Powell: Sure.
William Irwin: -Trump as being authentic. I wouldn’t offer him as an example. Sure, part of [00:18:30] the problem with authenticity is it really is about trying to be the real thing, but there’s no such thing as the real thing. As you soon as you try to be the real thing, you’re definitely not the real thing. Dave Chappelle used to have a great skit on his comedy show about keeping it real. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that.
Trevor Burrus: I think I remember that one, yeah.
William Irwin: I think he titled it When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. It was about Chappelle [00:19:00] acting out the demands of what it means to be an African-American, and how you act, and how you respond to white people. When you’re consciously trying to do that rather than doing it spontaneously or organically, all you’re doing is putting on a show. The skits would just go off the rails where he’d end up acting the tough [00:19:30] guy in a place where he wasn’t the tough guy, or telling off his boss, or whatever. This is obviously what can go wrong comically, and maybe it’s what goes wrong, I mean there are all kinds of psychological diagnoses we can put upon Tyler Durden, but perhaps going way too far in the pursuit of being your authentic self ends up making you not your authentic self.
Trevor Burrus: That, you [00:20:00] got me thinking about the constructing of image. Maybe what Fight Club, the movie and the book, is one of the things it could be seen as saying is we spend a lot of time knowing about what other people are doing, more than a comparative time if you lived in a small town in Indiana 1830s. Your images of what a real farmer was, or what a real housewife was, or any of these sort of expectations that are put [00:20:30] on. There are definitely social expectations, but you’re not pulling in tons of things from around the world, and definitely not in a social media feed that are conveying to you that real men do X and real women do Y, or real people who do this do X or Y. Not to say that they’re always telling us what we should be because that’s a pretty common narrative. They’re always telling you that you have to be this way, but you just didn’t even know.
So maybe part of the statement here is that the world that is telling you what is authentic is itself not a very good representation of [00:21:00] authenticity, so that he’s wrong. Going away from consumerism, that’s what we’ve been told. I hear that all the time. Being anti-consumerist seems to be pretty authentic. Seems to be like the cool thing to do. Actually he just misconstrued the entire thing. He took an image that he thought was authentic and it wasn’t actually authentic to begin with.
William Irwin: Yeah, no I think that’s right. There were fewer options and possibilities living in 1800s in a farm town [00:21:30] in Indiana. You didn’t even think about it. You might have had a sense of what it means to be a real man, the kind of image of masculinity that your father or whoever else portrayed. Maybe what it meant to be a real Christian, or whatever it may be, but there weren’t a whole, authenticity wasn’t itself on sale. Being consciously anti- [00:22:00] consumerist is as inauthentic as being consciously … Well I mean people are very self-congratulatory about these things. I mean whenever I see a Prius on the road and it’s littered with bumper stickers, I think man the car itself is a bumper sticker. You don’t need bumper stickers on that. I get it. You’re an environmentalist. Likewise, when somebody is ostentatious [00:22:30] in their anti-consumerism, they have lost any semblance of what authenticity would be in relation to anti-consumerism. So it’s a very difficult balance, and maybe it’s one that’s impossible to fully achieve for any real period of time, being anti-consumerist and authentic about one’s anti-consumerism.
Aaron Powell: Has consumerism, or I guess the form of market economy that enables [00:23:00] consumerism, been instead kind of a boon to authenticity? In a sense that there’s a line in Fight Club about our stuff. Your stuff owns you, and that there’s something wrong with that. It gets this kind of line of causation where your stuff, and the quest for more of it, and the right kind of it, ends up defining you as a person. It feels like, at some level it’s hard to define what authenticity means or being really [00:23:30] you, but at some level bound up in it and central to it is the ability to express yourself, to have a means to express who you are. We can do that through our language. We can do that through our actions, but we also do that through the things that markets make available to us. It’s not that the line where he’s trying to find what dining set defines me as a person, it’s more like what dining sets expresses the person [00:24:00] that I am, or what music, or what set of clothes, as Tyler Durden is doing.
I wonder if the very fact of pushing against consumerism, and then pushing against markets, and then pushing into this primitivism where you wear, they say I think it’s in the book, that you’re going to have these leather clothes for the rest of your life. Presumably everyone’s wearing the same leather clothes. That this push in fact makes it harder to enable [00:24:30] actual self-expression and actual authenticity because we’ve taken away so many of the channels by which we can express who we really are.
William Irwin: Well I mean that’s it. When energy and time is consumed by chasing consumer products, then we lose emphasis on things we’d rather, and more authentically, express ourselves through. I mean it’s just ridiculous the kind of things that the [00:25:00] protagonist call, and Jack is interested in. What kind of dining set defines me as a person. Well, it’s possible for a 30 year old male to authentically have that thought, but it’s also pretty odd and pretty ridiculous. We get the dialogue with Jack and Tyler Durden where he’s asking do you know what a duvet is. Oh, it’s a comforter. [00:25:30] I mean why does a guy like me, a 30 year old single male, know what a duvet is in the first place. It seems kind of ridiculous. Sure, it’s not that it’s by default necessarily inauthentic, maybe some guys really do genuinely like dining room tables and bed linens, and things like that. It seems like they’ve been led into a realm [00:26:00] of desiring things they really wouldn’t want if they could free themselves from it.
It’s like the importance of second order desires, and second order choices. It’s fine to have the desire, and it’s fine to have the option, and fine to even want something, but you need to ask yourself do I want to want it. Here if [00:26:30] we think of consumerism, it’s not necessarily that consuming and wanting things is a problem, it’s the ism. It’s the similarity between say alcoholism and consumerism. It’s fine to want a beer as they do in the movie and in the book, but the problem is when you have no real desire for it, and yet you find yourself drinking anyway. [00:27:00] When you don’t have the desire, but the desire has you I suppose.
Trevor Burrus: What do you think the relationship is between views of authenticity and political beliefs? I’ve thought a lot about this because people use that word in a lot of different policy areas that I operate in as a policy analyst. I hear, I understand that one’s view of what a human being, an authentic human [00:27:30] being, is really, and I’m putting these in air quotes, an “authentic” human being is really like affects your views of policies to some degree. For example, one of the things I do here at Cato is some Second Amendment policy and firearms policy. I think that a lot of people have a view … If you view humans as inherently violent for example, as authentically violent, then you might be wary about giving people guns to [00:28:00] carry around on their hips because you think it would perpetuate that violence because civilization teeters on the edge of collapse and guns would make this happen. Whereas if you view people as authentically cooperative, then maybe you’d have a different view about guns.
Or in the campaign finance realm when you have people criticizing corporate speech and Citizens United. I often tell people that the views against Citizens United and corporations spending in elections are not wildly different than that guy you knew in high school [00:28:30] who said, “Well yeah ‘cause like the corporate radio stations, they tell you that you like have to listen to Lady Gaga, and so you’re all listening to that because the corporations are telling you that.” That’s what they think how people form political beliefs too. There’s this sort of weird mix of authenticity where every single side in ideology has an implicit theory of authenticity that maybe affects some of their views.
William Irwin: Sure. I think that’s the case. If you think that there is a human nature that tilts in one direction [00:29:00] or another, that certainly is going to influence the policies that you endorse, the politics that you have. There was a book published about a year ago I suppose called Fishing for Fools by a couple of economists who basically think of all of us as suckers and easily led aground by our desires all the time. The example that they use and come back to over and over again is [00:29:30] the Cinnabon stand at the mall or at the airport where I mean there’s all this great science behind the way they position it, and how they market it. We’re just suckers like people who fall for a phishing scam through email every time we walk by a Cinnabon. Their view of human nature is very much that. That we’re really out [00:30:00] of control, that we don’t have very much change of controlling our desires. We don’t even realize what they are.
My own view on things is that well listen, sure when I smell the Cinnabon I want a Cinnabon, but I also want to not want the Cinnabon. I don’t want to endorse that desire. I think that people really have much more of a chance to endorse their second order desires where I can recognize what I [00:30:30] want to want and don’t want to want, and put that into play. In the realm of policy and politics as you mentioned, I mentioned Hillary and Trump before, but you’d have a hard time finding anyone in the realm of politics who would really be comfortable as describing as genuine and authentic. I think probably in the recent election cycle Bernie Sanders [00:31:00] was the one who was most authentic, and probably the person I liked much although I had the least in common with in terms of my political orientation.
Aaron Powell: I think on the Cinnabon, part of the reason that all those things work is because when it comes down to it, the Cinnabon is authentically delicious.
Trevor Burrus: Paid for by Cinnabon.
Aaron Powell: I hear they’re doing ads now.
Trevor Burrus: No we’re non-profit Aaron.
Aaron Powell: Cinnabon if you would like to send me money I’ll take it, but … But on this, one of the things that you bring up, and [00:31:30] you sent us a couple of essays that we can link to in the show notes on Fight Club. In one of them you mentioned this notion like it begins in anti-conformity. The problem is conformity, is all these men conforming to social rules and a certain expectation of what masculinity means. So they turn radically anti-conformist, but then quickly that radical anti-conformity turns into [00:32:00] just as radical collectivist conformity, so Project Mayhem and the space monkeys when they start showing up all dressed the same, all act the same, don’t ask questions.
This seems to be a pretty common thing in our experience that movements that begin in anti-conformity end up adopting their own extremely strict sets of rules and then punishing people who deviate [00:32:30] from them. We see this in, you can see it play out in the forms of campus activism right now of we’re going to stand up to the societal structures, we’re going to break with the expectations of racism, sexism, so on and so forth, but quickly has become the worst form of shame based and calling out conformity. Is this almost like an inevitable turn? Is there something in [00:33:00] the drive for anti-conformity that makes it susceptible to or pushes it in that direction of becoming collectivist conformity?
William Irwin: Quite possible. As mentioned before, there’s kind of a Hegelian movement with it where an idea meets its opposite, and hopefully in the end the two come together and you find some reasonable middle ground. But we see too often, and in terms of for example campus politics [00:33:30] and shouting down speakers, et cetera, at this historical moment, we see an extreme ugly opposite. You can think of this, going back to the Avril Lavigne example, or you can think in terms of different fashions, or different kind of music. Think of punk as a rejection of mainstream music and mainstream fashion. Then [00:34:00] you move pretty quickly from authentic punk into very inauthentic punk where it’s specified as to what will actually count as punk and what will not. Of course you have all the permutations on that with faux punk and portrayal of certain stances and views of music as being punk that really is nothing like punk. In my mind, not to get too far off on that tangent, I think punk [00:34:30] happened once in the 1970s and you can’t go back to it.
Aaron Powell: I would disagree with that.
Trevor Burrus: I’m looking at him. He’s the punk rock fan more than I am.
William Irwin: Oh yeah?
Trevor Burrus: I agree with William I think.
Aaron Powell: I think it lasted through the ’80s and into the ’90s, and it still exists today.
William Irwin: Okay.
Trevor Burrus: There’s one punk album, Ramones Ramones.
Aaron Powell: No, there’s more than that.
Trevor Burrus: That’s it. Sorry. Aaron you’re wrong on this one. But sorry, continue on the authenticity. The thing I wanted to tie onto [00:35:00] that too is something Aaron and I were discussing before we were recording. Which is the alt right and the Trump world seem to be pretty related to the Fight Club narrative quite before their time.
Aaron Powell: I mean the term snowflake that gets kicked around a lot I think actually comes directly from Fight Club.
William Irwin: It certainly it used in Fight Club. I noticed that in just re-watching the film lately. I wonder if it got picked [00:35:30] up from there [crosstalk 00:35:31].
Aaron Powell: I want to say I read somewhere, which I know is a bad way to do scholarship, but I want to say that I read somewhere that that’s where the term … Yes the term snowflake itself does not originate there, but using snowflake in that way comes from Fight Club.
William Irwin: Right. I mean there’s something really disturbing about that and the sort of paramilitary look of a lot of the alt right folks. If you were to parody, if you were to imitate [00:36:00] anything in Fight Club, the space monkeys look and the Project Mayhem behavior is really not what you would want to imitate, but you’re right there’s something disturbingly similar about the feel and the look and the vibe that you get off of a lot of alt right folks that is resonate of that part of Fight Club.
Trevor Burrus: Especially the view of masculinity I think is important there because it’s [00:36:30] all men except for Marla I guess in Project Mayhem. Correct? Did they ever say that there were any women?
Aaron Powell: No, there’s no women.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, so they feel somehow emasculated by women.
Aaron Powell: In the very bad graphic novel followup Fight Club 2 that was published a year or so ago, there are women in-
Trevor Burrus: In Project Mayhem.
Aaron Powell: -the expanded Project Mayhem.
Trevor Burrus: But the question about men feeling that they don’t have a role in the world, that their unique contribution in terms of ability to [00:37:00] do violence for example, has been taken out of progress as it’s now construed. So men are looking for a place to fight fill those kinds of things. That’s what Tyler Durden and Project Mayhem eventually bring to them. There are similarities there with I would say the Trump movement.
William Irwin: I think that’s very true. One of the comic ironies of that is one of the ways, it’s not what Chuck Palahniuk himself really [00:37:30] had intended, but one of the ways that Fight Club has been interpreted is as a homoerotic novel. Really what they’re doing is fucking and not fighting if you read it that way. That’s not something that would be very appealing to the alt right folks I’m sure.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve encountered that interpretation and I think that’s definitely a valid one.
Aaron Powell: There’s also, I mean with the alt right and the men’s rights movement [00:38:00] online, Fight Club also seems to have a blame the women angle to it a bit. We get the discussion that these are men, our fathers are absent. He says we’re a generation of men raised by women. Then asks if getting married if a wife is a good next step. Marla Singer seems to be, I mean she kind of is the savior at the end in a sense, [00:38:30] but through most of it she’s the, she doesn’t belong here, she’s not part of this, she doesn’t get it. That angle seems to be picked up on too in the, we see … There was that shooting in California …
Trevor Burrus: I think it was San Bernardino or Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz I believe.
Aaron Powell: Where he, it’s this notion I can’t, the problem is women. In this case I can’t get a girlfriend, and that’s the fault of women, and the fault of feminization [00:39:00] of society as opposed to … It goes back to the victimization that you mentioned. That they’re mistakenly, they’re blaming everything but themselves for the position that they’re in. It seems obvious if you can’t get a girlfriend the problem is you, it’s not women, but that angle seems picked up too. It’s part of, I think one of the striking things about rereading, as I reread the novel for this conversation. I re-watched the movie. These came out, the movie is 1999, the novel is either ‘94 or ‘96, [00:39:30] I can’t remember which.
William Irwin: ‘96
Aaron Powell: ‘96 … Is how almost prescient these are is how much Fight Club has become part of the culture and you can see aspects of it at play. I think you could make the argument that it’s certainly maybe more most important texts of the late 20th century as far as talking about where we are today in the 21st century.
William Irwin: Yeah I think [00:40:00] it’s held up incredibly well and even as you suggest been a bit prescient in that way. You’re right, there is something very strange about the maleness of it all. I’m not so sure that things are blamed on women in the film or the book so much as women aren’t the answer. I’m not going to get married. There’s never really any mention of the character’s mother. It’s just that the father [00:40:30] is absent. But that message that a woman isn’t the answer can easily be taken on in saying that women aren’t important, or women don’t matter, or women are just kind of scenery or window dressing, or accompaniment. You surely do see that attitude taken on. It was really taken on in horrific and tragic effect by the, what was it San Bernardino gun shooting [crosstalk 00:41:00].
Trevor Burrus: Santa Cruz [00:41:00] I believe.
William Irwin: San Bernardino was different right.
Trevor Burrus: Our colleague Brink Lindsey wrote a book. Age of Abundance came out about 10 years ago maybe, but in that book he discusses the evolution of post-war life as a movement of people who suddenly have all their basic needs covered in America specifically. That they know where their shelter is, most [00:41:30] people know where they’re going to get food, they’re going to get water, and so on Maslow’s hierarchy they’ve got that covered. So then they have to move up to these next realms of spiritual and personal fulfillment as methods of living their lives. Post-war is defined as you have sort of the Christian right emerging, and you have the left emerging with two different theories about how to achieve fulfillment. This seems to me to be part of the entire story that we’re talking about here. That we have two different groups looking for authenticity, [00:42:00] looking for meaning in life, in different ways.
In terms of the political realm, they’re often at odds with each other. They’re trying to control each other while they’re living in an incredibly affluent world, and have entirely different interpretations of what keeping it real, to make it just very colloquial, entirely different interpretations about what the good life is, what you should be striving for in life. Not necessarily in one of them being incorrect, but maybe not very good for everyone in our country trying [00:42:30] to enforce that upon everyone else.
William Irwin: Right. Delivering an answer in any form is not going to suit everyone. There’s a line, I can’t quote quite exactly, in the film about our generation has no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. It’s this sense of being really comfortable as opposed to a preindustrial [00:43:00] way of living, and not having to struggle, not having a war to fight, so searching out for one. I see this in all kinds of little ways. Take my dog for a walk with my son, and the dog loves to find crap on the sidewalk. If he can find something to eat there he’s much happier with that than any kind of food that we give him. He’s got this whatever foraging [00:43:30] instinct in that way.
I see my son playing video games for hours and hours upon end. I’m not a video game myself, but I see what he’s doing. There’s no real conflict in his life, and he’s seeking out the kind of conflict or hero’s journey online in these games that he plays. I don’t think that’s an altogether bad thing. We need to have some sort of outlet for it, and [00:44:00] the fantasy outlet of video games, there could be worse so long as you’re in touch with your real life and don’t end up living all of your life in the video game. But I mean the consumerism that is the bad guy in Fight Club could as easily be today what we see with so many people living so much of their lives online, whether it’s in video games or some other kind of forum where they lose sense of a pursuit of an authentic self outside [00:44:30] of that.
Aaron Powell: Why is, I mean Fight Club is certainly not the only instance of making this argument. It’s a rather common one, and we see it a lot today. Why is it that notions of authenticity, and specific masculinity and masculine authenticity is so bound up in violence, in a return to violence? They discovered themselves through punching each other, or it turns out discovers [00:45:00] himself through punching himself in the face a bunch of time. That there’s something … One of the problems with modernity is that it stripped violence from our lives, which seems very odd. The stripping of violence from our lives is by definition progress. Why are we telling men that they necessarily in order to be real men have to be violent men?
William Irwin: I think it is progress, you’re right. [00:45:30] What we’re freed from is the constant tread of a violent death, but evolution has equipped us to have to respond to the near constant threat of violent death. There’s a great book by a guy I think his name is Jon Gottschall called the Professor and the Cage where he writes, he’s an adjunct English professor, and he writes about his experience [00:46:00] of training for mixed martial art fighting. He does a lot of interpretation of literature through an evolutionary lens and talking about men fighting in literature. From Iliad in the Odyssey through Beowulf up to the present. While I think it’s great that we’re stripped of the need to have to fight, we’re also given some evolutionary endowment to be [00:46:30] inclined to fight, or inclined to violence.
I think it has to find its safe outlet as my dog has whatever inclination to forage or hunt that he can exercise in some limited form while he’s out for a walk. Most men have an excess of testosterone, at least compared to what’s required for decent life in civilized society these days, and need to find some way to discharge it, [00:47:00] whether it’s through physical exercise or playing video games, or whatever the case may be.
Trevor Burrus: In Fight Club, we’ve been discussing there’s all these themes of anti-consumerism, maybe anti-anticonsumerism, authenticity, and a bunch of different things. It’s definitely something worth both reading and watching. What are some of the interesting things that you think that the movie forces us to ask or examine that you think not a lot people realize?
William Irwin: Well advertising gets demonized. [00:47:30] In some ways not rightly so I think because advertising presents choices to us. If we don’t look at whether or not we want to endorse them, we can easily go along with them. One of the ways in which I determine what to listen to on my iPod some days is to just flip through the list of artists and let one of them pop into my head, and advertising will do that for you. Some people think well any consumer spending [00:48:00] is good for the economy, any spending is good spending, but I’m not really sure about that. I think we have something like the emperor’s new clothes meets the broken window fallacy. Listeners to this podcast will know that a broken window is not something that’s a good stimulus for the economy any more than the cash for clunkers scheme back a few years ago was something that stimulated the economy.
I don’t think that just any consumer [00:48:30] spending is good for the economy either. When a kind of an idea, a desire, pops into your head simply as a result of advertising, it really pays to stop and consider hey I’ve got this desire now, whether it’s for the Cinnabon or the Chevy, do I really want to endorse that. Would my money not be better spent on something else. We vote with our dollars. We vote with our consumer [00:49:00] choices. No more than I would want to walk into the voting booth and let somebody’s name and the kind of nice sound of their name determine who I’m going to vote for should I want the sound of an advertising jingle determine where I’m going to put my dollars. You really need to reflect on the desire that I have as a result of the advertisement.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced [00:49:30] by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more visit us at www.libertarianism.org.