In David Fincher's highly successful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's cult novel, Fight Club (1992) the viewer is presented with an unwittingly prescient parable for the church of the twenty-first century. The film interrogates the transmutations of desire in the context of late-capital, and the manner in which this culture of desiring consumption is also a culture of death. Released in 1999, Fight Club begins with the narrator, possibly named Jack, sitting in a chair with a gun in his mouth in a building that is about to explode. He begins to recall the events that have brought him to this point: that of facing his own destruction as well as that of the many buildings that surround his high-rise vista. "Two minutes to go and I'm wondering how I got here." This beginning that is the end allows "Jack" to take us to a point in his life many months before.
He lives in an unnamed American city, has a decently paid job as an accident investigator for an insurance firm and a fashionable apartment that is a simulacrum of an IKEA catalogue. "I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something like the clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green Yin and an orange Yang ... I had to have it." And this thirst for lifestyle-simulation mirrors the thirst for sexual stimulation: "We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection." "Jack's" life is meaningless, empty and superficial and the somnambulistic status of this life is borne corporeally. "Jack" cannot sleep. He goes to see his doctor and requests sleeping pills but the unsympathetic physician suggests that he attend a testicular-cancer support group to find out "what real pain is." So Jack has his first taste of group therapy, the emotion, the sharing, and the tactility. In becoming a cuddle-junkie, and finding a whole array of supportive contexts - the sickle-cell anemia support group, the "Free and Clear" group, the prostate cancer group, and so on -"Jack" finds freedom in the performance of the loss of hope that is central to each of these meetings. Jack is cured: "Babies don't sleep this well." Cured, that is, until he is confronted with another "tourist" or faker, Marla Singer, whose presence at these sessions brings "Jack's" own deceit into focus. Although they attend meetings for different reasons (Marla says they are "cheaper than a movie and there's free coffee"), they agree, at "Jack's" insistence, to split the various groups between them. Nevertheless, "Jack" has returned to the life of the insomniac because "she" has ruined everything.
Redemption comes twice for "Jack." On a plane, he meets Tyler Durden, a man who is even more cynical than "Jack," who makes a living from selling soap to high-class cosmetic retailers. This chance meeting changes "Jack's" life and sets in motion the transformation of his emotional and material circumstances. When his apartment is destroyed after a (seemingly) accidental explosion, "Jack" moves in with Tyler in the latter's dilapidated house on the margins of an industrial wasteland. This arrangement is, however, conditional. Tyler offers hospitality on the basis that "Jack" hits him. Outside a bar, the two men beat each other up for amusement. Feeding off the pleasure of this violent encounter they start "Fight Club," a secret society that meets in the underground of the city and exists to provide men with the authenticity and reality of experience: they beat each other to pulp. This is no gentlemen's club and the fighting relies on a completely different rationale than the Queensberry rules. But there are rules:
The first rule of fight club is - you don't talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is - you don't talk about fight club. The third rule in fight club is - when someone says "stop" or goes limp, the fight is over. The fourth rule is - only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule - one fight at a time. Sixth rule - no shirts or shoes. Seventh rule - fights go on as long as they have to. And the eighth rule of fight club is - if this is your first night, you have to fight.
Everything is going well for "Jack"; he is sleeping, does not care about work, material possessions, or status. Then Marla returns to the fray. She calls "Jack" after taking an overdose. Although "Jack" refuses to go to her rescue, Tyler saves her life by embarking on a sexual relationship with her and thus keeping her awake all night. "Jack" is disgusted and, whenever he sees Marla in the house, treats her with disdain. Although he despises Tyler's relationship with Marla, "Jack" is still beholden to Tyler and his amazing ability to undermine consumer culture and the conventions of capital. Tyler reveals that his soap is made from human fat stolen from liposuction clinics. "From the asses and thighs of rich women, paydirt." But the soap-making process also reveals an ingredient that Tyler will put to work - glycerine.
In the meantime, fight clubs have sprung up all over the country Out of them Tyler starts "Project Mayhem," a revolutionary organization that thrives on petty vandalistic acts that eventually mutate into terrorist attacks against major corporations and big business. During one mission, a member of Project Mayhem, Bob, is shot and killed by the police. "Jack" is horrified. Bob was the first person that he met at his testicular-cancer support group and his death deeply affects "Jack" who now wants to stop Project Mayhem's activities. Tyler Durden, though, has disappeared.
In order to find him, "Jack" criss-crosses the country following Tyler's footsteps from the airline ticket stubs he had left behind. As he does so, he comes across numerous fight clubs, the members of which believe he is Tyler Durden. Realizing that they are right, a fact confirmed by Marla, "Jack" attempts to foil Tyler's plans to blow up a number of skyscrapers (the homes of various credit card companies) but is thwarted by Tyler. In the climax to the film, "Jack" momentarily masters his schizophrenia and shoots himself in the head, only wounding his own body but "killing" his alter ego. "Jack," and Marla, who has been returned to him by the members of Project Mayhem, hold hands as the spectacle begins and the explosions bring down the buildings around them.
Fight Club offers an engaging and thoughtful analysis of the manner in which capital, and the empty and somnambulistic subjectivities it engenders, might be rejected and resisted. In the face of the loss of experience an underground world of embodied, corporate pathos is performed and celebrated. This martial dramaturgy is at once both a lament for, and a critique of, the atomization and superficiality of those other corporate existences that define the lives of subjects in so-called advanced Western societies: branding, consumption, and image. But fight clubs are nothing more than a subterranean enactment of the perversion of the new moralism of late capital that takes as its slogan "you are what you consume" and which refuses the establishment or repetition of any acquired habits. The danger with this underground rejoinder lies in the possibility of the normalization of perversion when Fight Club becomes a project. In the filmic text this is exactly what happens as the micro-fascist "Project Mayhem" emerges from the quest for the real, the true, and the certain.3 Micro-fascist in its logic, "Project Mayhem" does little more than replay, in a different key, the antinomian and anomic character of late capital. This project of resistance rejects any law or tradition (bar those that are constructed within) and instead measures its value and efficacy on the basis of Romantic tropes such as brotherhood, exclusivity with regard to experience, and the purity of identity.
For the Christian churches today, it is both right and proper to offer a critical interrogation of the logic of late capital and to provide and promote an alternative economy of goods, practices, and desires. Nevertheless, the constant temptation for the church is to respond to the transformation of identities, practices, and values in a manner that is analogous to Fight Club. The church is in a crisis of its own making. It responds to the proliferation of experiences and promises with its own fantastic promise of an exclusive experience. Take the Alpha course, a full length commercial for a product that will fill your Jesus-shaped hole, a true experience of the fullness of self that sure beats MacDonald's promise to fill your burger-shaped hole (and without the calories). Christianity-lite sees the Scriptures as a way to out-do the Ikea experience and if pornography deludes us with the fantasy of the eternal erection then Christianity offers something even better - eternal resurrection. Ironically, the performagraphic logic of the church seems to change when we turn to sex. Here the church responds to the proliferation of discourses surrounding sex with all the puritanical zeal of an underground sect that seeks to promote the truth. Yet, for the most part, Christian commentators are doing little more than occupying and enjoying the very space that was bequeathed to the church with the rise of modernity. When it comes to sex, Christians (especially evangelicals) expound a sophisticated moral code that is ostensibly biblical in tone and content. Yet, as any reading of the biblical data on sex and sexuality will demonstrate, the creation of a legalistic framework that curtails the flights of eros is both a refusal of the multidimensional character of scriptural narrative and a blindness to the crucial influence of a peculiarly modern conflation of religion and morality As a consequence, Christian reflection on sex tends towards a normalization of a modern perversion of Christianity, one that is micro-fascistic in its emphasis on marriage as the exclusive locale for the practice of erotic performance.
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