Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fight Club and Nihilism

Most commentators suggest that Fight Club is a nihilistic film likely based in the anarchist and violent tendencies portrayed by Tyler Durden.

First we should consider a basic concept of nihilism. Literally it suggests “nothingness” emanating from a “complete rejection of and possibly the destruction of beliefs and values associated with moral and traditional social structures. Philosophically, nihilism represents an attitude of total skepticism regarding objective truth claims. Nihilism views knowledge as dependent upon sensory experience alone, so that moral and theological claims are meaningless” (Stan Grenz, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms).

In many ways, these ideas are embodied in the film. There is a rejection of capitalism and consumerism that most hold dear in our culture. There is a rejection that violence is bad. Pain, or other sensory experiences becomes the means to awaken to real life. We see that latter with the scarification ritual in the soap-making kitchen. Tyler says, “this is the most beautiful moment of your life, don’t deal with it the way those dead people do.” Which is another critique of the therapeutic tendencies of our culture.

That same scene also gives us other insights into the nihilism of the film. Many forms of nihilism are naturally paired with atheism. If there is no God, than there can be no moral absolutes. Tyler’s monologue in the kitchen suggests that this form of nihilism is not atheistic.

“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. Never wanted you, and in all probability he hates you. this is not the worst thing that can happen. We don’t need him. Fuck damnation, man. Fuck redemption. We are God’s unwanted children. So be it. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.”

Kelton Cobb in The Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture states, “This is a bitter theism, a resentful affirmation of God’s existence” (p. 265-6). God seems to be a given. And yet we are forced to contend with the apparent realities of life rather than what we would like to believe about God. His experience colors his concepts of God. In return, he renders God as irrelevant.

The article on Nihilism from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Donald M. Borchrt also suggested, “nihilism is caused not so much by atheism as by industrialization and social pressures, and its typical consequences are not selfishness or suicide, but indifference, ironical detachment, or sheer bafflement.” This claim certain helps see the effects of consumerism as an institutional violence.

And yet, the nihilism portrayed in Fight Club is not absence of hope. Tyler says to Jack, “In the world I see, we’re stalking elk in the grand canyon around the ruins of the Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the vines around the Sears tower. And when you look down you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty carpool lane of some abandoned superhighway.” Kelton Cobb states, “For Tyler, Eden will rise from the rubble of cities that have been cleansed of the poison of corporate logos, global markets and consumer incompetence” (p. 265-6). Furthermore, if there is no hope and no meaning, why bother with the destruction of society to liberate humanity?

In many way’s the film is nihilistic. And yet there are glimmers of hope not unlike our eschatological hope. Times are dark and yet we can see and imagine a purer reality as it has been promised, and in some ways is already present.