Friday, March 7, 2008

Fight Club, the Hegelian Synthesis and Robert Bellah’s Individualisms

The Hegelian synthesis suggests that from a thesis will arise its anti-thesis and as a way to mediate between the two a synthesis will emerge blending and rejecting elements of both the thesis and antithesis.

Fight Club, while giving voice to the frustrations of many post-moderns, seems to utilize this very modern construct.

The thesis is represented by Edward Norton’s character Jack or the Narrator as a buttoned-down un-happy white-collar worker in an un-ethical and mind-numbing job. His antithesis, Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt is the alpha-male unrestrained by societal rules and its ways of functioning. Tyler is Jack’s self-created, self-liberating alternate personality.

For this to work we must ask, does the film ultimately condone the violence of Tyler’s actions as they are portrayed? The final scenes would seem to give us ample direction to say that the violence portrayed is not the ultimate answer. The Jack at the end is no longer the slave to the Ikea nesting instinct he was at the beginning and yet neither is he the slave to Tyler’s ambitious anarchy. Jack in the final scenes would seem to represent the synthesis. He has been liberated from desire for consumption but also its antithesis of violent rejection. He is not the emasculated male nor the hyper-violent male either.

I think we see the synthesis at work in Tyler’s words too. On one hand he says that “You are not your khakis” but also, “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We are the all-singing, all dancing crap of the world. We are all part of the same compost heap.”

Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart describes individualism in two particular forms: utilitarian and expressive. Benjamin Franklin is the epitome of the utilitarian expression of individualism where the individual rises to success through hard work and personal initiative. They are identified by the proverbial “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” Many believed that if each individual vigorously pursued his or her own interest, the social good would also automatically emerge (p.33).

Expressive individualism, a form of Romanticism and best exemplified by Walt Whitman, arose in reaction to the materialistic pursuits of utilitarian individualism. Expressive individualism sought to cultivate the self and self-expression where each person has a “unique core of feeling and intuition that must unfold if individuality is to be expressed (p. 333-4) These sentiments are easily identifiable in Whitman’s writings, as well as, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and others. For the expressivists, “the ultimate use of the American’s independence was to cultivate and express the self and explore its vast social and cosmic identities” (p. 35). We hear this in our language of “finding oneself.”

Fight Club seems to critique both the materialistic utilitarian individual as well as the self-cultivating expressivist. And yet, the film avoids becoming preachy and dictating the synthesis. It is left to the individual to navigate and mediate between the utilitarian and expressivist, as well as the emasculated consumer and ultra-violent alpha male. Jack becomes the one who has successfully escaped both but we are left to fill in what his life will now look like.