Columns > Published on February 29th, 2012

Transgression in Theory: The Idea of a Fight Club

Not very much has been written, on even a basic theoretical level, about this weird thing we call transgressive fiction. I call it weird because the very idea of lumping together some twisted and “dangerous” novels and seeing them as part of a “group” — or worse, a genre — feels, to me, like a bad move. Certainly, as I’ll happily concede, novels like American Psycho and Fight Club have thematic similarities, as well as stylistic ones. Still, considering them in terms of a genre, which apparently we have come to do, means softening them, cushioning their blows, and attributing (in hindsight) a pattern to their development.

It doesn’t, in the end, matter very much, because as the popularity of the transgressive genre rises, so will its impact diminish. Not to say the texts themselves will lose their power: it’s trickier than that. I think, rather, that whatever is genuinely transgressive about these novels — assuming they are transgressive in any real sense — will be overlooked.

Transgression is a very difficult concept. I’ve found that in conversations about Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk, it’s rarely made clear what exactly is being transgressed. Beyond that, it’s hard to explain why the transgressions are needed in the first place. And since so little theoretical discussion exists that deals directly with this kind of text (notwithstanding some excellent film criticism), I’m going to try my hand at starting a conversation.

I must take certain things for granted, at least at first. For instance, I think that the idea of jouissance, an irrational, exuberant enjoyment without any purpose except itself, is a fantastically useful one. It was developed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and more recently by the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, to explain many apparently unreasonable kinds of behavior in people. This enjoyment has to be understood as extremely desirable: it’s a thrill, it’s the kick we get out of things even though we probably wouldn’t if we operated on cold logic. A football team wins and your friends start screaming with joy; or you hear someone say something arousing to you that nobody else can hear, and you feel those “butterflies” in your stomach; or you’re about to have an orgasm. That generic, almost boundless feeling of “being alive” — let’s call that jouissance.

I’m going to maintain that much of “transgressive” fiction relies on the manipulation of this enjoyment. How else to explain it? What sense can we make of the popularity of this new genre, if we don’t take into account the serious and irrational thrill that comes with seeing Patrick Bateman acting like a lunatic, doing the crazy things he does (or doesn’t actually do)? If transgression means anything in these novels, it means seeking a way out of the boredom we’re immersed in. It means, basically, seeing people break out of the mold in which they’ve been placed. Very often, this amounts to saying that there is an ambivalent attitude to capitalism in these books, too. The capitalist system is not necessarily rejected outright, but its dangers are highlighted. I will operate on the unpolished assumption that transgressive fiction offers a critique of some of the worst parts of capitalism. I particularly invite disagreement on this, because very often this is the most important aspect of “transgressive” fiction that gets overlooked.

It seems appropriate to launch these reflections with the great unholy text of transgressive fiction: Fight Club. In particular, the titular club: I consider the least rewarding part of Fight Club to be the fight club itself. Not that the idea is valueless — it is, in fact, a great idea — but it is also the easiest aspect of the novel to appropriate and, ultimately, to deflate.

A fight club has rules: you don’t talk about it, and you only fight one other person at any given time, and you can’t wear a shirt or shoes, and the fight lasts however long it needs to last. It is a ceremonial event. You can beat someone else to a pulp, but you must follow the rules. You mustn't talk about fight club, but it can change your life.

Fight club is, at its core, another form of castration. It promises a thrill found nowhere else in the blandness of this boring society: real violence, a true struggle. That struggle, sadly, turns out to be staged. The rules of fight club ensure the functioning of a precisely delineated system, and the system cannot contain its own potential: fight club, of course, becomes Project Mayhem, where the goal is to experience violence without the regulations of fight club.

What begins as a cathartic exercise in beating the hell out of someone turns, by an easy but twisted logic, into an impotent attack on the social order.

It’s valid, and pleasantly banal, to say that the appeal of fight club lies in its vindication of the masculine, the phallic, the imposition of the will. Whoever wins in a fight can only have won because of his strength, his virility. The loser tries again. The winner also tries again. The point is the fight and its delicious brutality. The power of the novel, however, lies in the contradiction at the heart of the fight club. What begins as a cathartic exercise in beating the hell out of someone turns, by an easy but twisted logic, into an impotent attack on the social order.

As gratifying as it may feel to break someone’s nose without suffering any legal consequences, it is more gratifying still when the legal consequences are there. In a brawl, breaking the rules is as important as breaking a nose: and that is why fight club fails. The system of the club grants every participant a certain respectability, a place in the order. Fight club is a brotherhood: it is a social activity, undeniably erotic, acceptably juvenile, deluded in its aims, and finally doomed to repeat the mistakes of the system to which it opposes itself.

A fight club amounts to little more than an explosion of confusion and aggression inside a padded room: the rules of fight club are there to ensure that the jouissance of the fight lasts as long as possible, but at the same time these rules prohibit a totally unrestricted access to jouissance. You can only enjoy so much — even in a fight club there are limits. That is the problem, and it’s not surprising that fight club becomes Project Mayhem.

The ambiguously democratic aspects of fight club disappear in Project Mayhem. Instead of a brotherhood, it is a hierarchy. Instead of fighting each other, members must fight the outside world. Project Mayhem is unpredictable, uncontrollable and unassimilable. It no longer promises much: not jouissance, at any rate. Without any regulatory functions in place except the word of Tyler Durden, the Project stands for nothing except a spirit of opposition. Ordered society, on which the very life of Project Mayhem depends, and through which Project Mayhem manifests itself exclusively, cannot afford to accommodate this opposition. The transgression goes too far. In this, it seems truly radical.

Fight club was a self-contained spectacle, easy to overlook and in fact highly helpful to the system — after all, it only takes a nice bloody fight to work through the stress of a bad workweek. Project Mayhem, by contrast, refuses absolutely to cooperate with the system that sustains it. Instead of fighting with your fists, you now get to construct bombs. Rather than unwind after a hard week of bureaucratic bullshit, you target the bureaucracy itself: Project Mayhem was born, not out of a primal urge to dominate, but out of the instability of the system. It is a total rejection of, rather than a solution to, the problem of a totalizing capitalism. Fight club helped you cope, while Project Mayhem unshackles you completely, places you in a void where the only golden rule is that you cannot align yourself with the establishment. Your very freedom depends on reacting against the stories that the system tells itself.

This radicality is not, in the end, an obvious step toward universal emancipation. Project Mayhem eats away at the social sphere: it is purely parasitical. It lives because society lives. It reduces its agents to nameless things — expendable, stupid, mechanical. When one of the more developed minor characters, Big Bob, dies because of Project Mayhem, the group’s response is genuinely grotesque: chants of “His name was Robert Paulson!” fill the page, along with idiotic and meaningless little facts: “He is forty-eight year years old, and he was part of fight club. He is forty-eight years old, and he was part of Project Mayhem.”

“And the crowds yell, ‘Robert Paulson.'”

The maddening repetition turns him into a symbol, a martyr, the first official casualty. His name was Robert Paulson, but so what? His name stands for nothing except the legitimation of Project Mayhem. The police have murdered a member of the Project, and now the battle against society is a real thing. Robert Paulson, through a necessary sacrificial logic, has inaugurated the Project. From there, it’s all downhill: Tyler Durden has ceased to exist anywhere except through the narrator, who repudiates that identity. The violence proliferates, but lacks focus. By virtue of its newfound reality, Project Mayhem becomes political. The world disintegrates, as far as our hapless narrator is concerned.

Are we right to detect something profoundly conservative about all of this? Fight Club is not as left-wing a novel as it can superficially be taken to be. And yet it is not a reactionary novel, either. If a fight club is just a carefully administered supplement to the proper functioning of society, Project Mayhem is a violent and mindless efflorescence, a manifestation of the dangerous potential of that same society. The questions the novel raises are crucial. How does transgression work? How far must we go to become truly radical, and at what point does that radicality become reactionary all over again?

Of course, a discussion of Fight Club doesn’t make much sense without an effort at discussing Tyler Durden. So that will be next month’s point of departure.

About the author

Phil Jourdan is a writer, musician and distinctly unenlightened person. He is structural editor at Angry Robot, and a co-founder of Repeater Books and Litreactor. He splits his time between the UK and Argentina.

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