Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dealing with Violence: Fight Club's Assumptions

my good library buddy here at the seminary sent me this review of Fight Club. The author concludes that "The result of Tyler’s and the narrator’s use of violence is, unsurprisingly, violence without end." i wish the author would have written a longer article as to how he sees that this would be the result of Fight Club. I mean, i think i can see it, but i need it explained lest my own assumptions get in the way.

and i think that's where i'll start, my own thoughts on what Mimetic Theory and Fight Club assume about the nature of humanity and what not.

Mimetic theory's main assumption is that human beings are not inherently violent, that somewhere along the way violence was introduced and then others learned from there on and the cycle is continually renewed. When we turn to human history, with a citation found from this article by Alfie Kohn stating that some of the points made by critics of biological determinism are:
  • Even if a given behavior is universal, we cannot automatically conclude that it is part of our biological nature. All known cultures may produce pottery, but that does not mean that there is a gene for pottery-making.
  • Agression is no where near universal. Many hunter-gatherer societies in particular are entirely peaceful. And the cultures that are "closer to nature" would be expected to be the most warlike if the proclivity for war were really part of that nature. Just the reverse seems to be true.
  • While it is indisputable that wars have been fought, the fact that they seem to dominate our history may say more about how history is presented than about what actually happened.
  • Many people have claimed that human nature is aggressive after having lumped together a wide range of emotions and behavior under the label of aggression. While cannibalism, for example, is sometimes perceived as aggression, it might represent a religious ritual rather than an expression of hostility.

 But then there's another side of science that takes the opposite track. I think this is the side that Fight Club assumes, that humans are inherently violent and aggressive. This is the belief, popularized by Sigmund Freud and animal researcher Konrad Lorenz, that we have within us, naturally and spontaneously, a reservoir of aggressive energy. This force, which builds by itself, must be periodically drained off - by participating in competitive sports, for instance - or we'll explode in some awful violent action.  in some ways, Mimetic Theory assumes this as well with the scapegoat mechanism.

Richard Dawkins (yes, THAT Dawkins) argued in the Selfish Gene that "The general principle that behavior evolves to serve selfish ends has been widely accepted; and the idea that humans might have been favored by natural selection to hate and to kill their enemies has become entirely, if tragically, reasonable."
How about we mix the two? Let's mix that the idea that aggression is a natural tendency that must be drained periodically (Fight Club) and violence being a learned behavior (Mimetic Theory), then we see a larger, fuller picture emerge. Innate tendencies such as competition and pride mixed with the way in which a society functions can bring about the need for violent action due to the circumstances of a situation. After all, we are creatures of circumstance. We adapt and react to the world around us, and because of this there are times when we must engage in violent activity. However, we can use culture as a means to create a situation where competitive means for survival are unneeded, but until there is a united effort to reform the way we interact with the world, violence is just an unfortunate consequence. so therefore a united effort is needed to reform the way we interact! That is what Fight Club does. 


 Going back to Tyler's vision that Fight Club is after: 
"In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."
This sounds rather peaceful, tribal. A return to simplicity.  Fight Club, as i interpret it, attacks the dehumanization that is taking place in soceity. In 8 simple rules, it provides structure, friendship, vulnerabilty, and an empowering outlet in a life that otherwise depowers and dehumanizes. when you punch another person, you see the immediate result and reaction of the other person, not so when you gossip about them or post blog entries about them ;-). in some ways, it is a more honest and open form of violence, one i feel more comfortable with as it doesn't beautify it or refine it. it's real, it hurts, and there is consquences like loosing teeth and explaining away blackeyes.

i think in the Fight Club model, empathy is the result. shared experiences of the fighters bind them together in a true community. like the priest hugging his opponent after a fight. or how every member mourns their martyr "Robert Paulson."

of course, to say that Fight Club is the answer and a means to end the cycle of violence or perpetuate it infinately is pure spectulation. the movie doesn't give us what happens after the buildings blow up. it does give us plenty of evidence to speculate ON, but never enough to go one way or another.

i stand on the side that Fight Club presents a "system shock" model that is counter-cultural and that leads to true community and a new means of ordering society. much like the system shock model we find in the gospels that lead to a new community that the rammifications are still being played out 2,000 years past.

it's hard to figure out, can Fight Club's violent means reach a nonviolent end? My deontologist leanings (right ends by way of right means) cringes at the thought... but my Christian leanings say otherwise (paradox of the Cross and blood of Christ). not to say that these are separate from each other, but it's the best way i can catagorize and try to explain how my thinking is torn.

how do you see it? can peace be reached through violence? or is it like Gandhi stated "There is no way to peace, peace is the way"? is humanity inherently violence and will we ever get over it? by what means can we escape violence?


Bryce said...

Hey, Luke. Been watching your posts and have to chime in…

It would be a mistake to claim that mimetic theory posits that humans are inherently nonviolent. Instead, the theory proposes that humans are inherently MIMETIC. :-D We are imitators of desires that we see modeled in others around us. And when our mimesis moves toward acquisition of limited resources (food, mates, cabbage patch doll), we escalate to violence.

One of the more controversial elements of Girard's theory (because it can be postulated, but not proven) is the process of hominization. Many animals have limited rivalry that results in competition and violence. But somewhere along the way, proto-humans lost the instinctive drive to end violence before a rival is killed. Other animals generally establish a pecking order without killing their opponent. Not so with humans, who will fight to the death without any controls.

Girard asserts that cultures develop over time with prohibitions that attempt to curb violence. But this can only work for so long. So rituals develop that attempt to release violence in a targeted fashion that preserves order. In primitive cultures, this generally has to do with recreating a murder that previously was seen as bringing peace when mimetic discharge was achieved at the death of a victim. Such recreations become, over time, highly stylized rituals which mediate violence and mask murder as a sacred act.

What I believe that Daniel's assumption that the violence is ever increasing in after Fight Club ends makes sense. This is based on a logical extrapolation that violence appears to always retaliate with ever-increasing violence unless something occurs to break the cycle. The wars of the past two centuries fall illustrate the point. What's missing in Fight Club is the retaliation of the established order.

Further, we tend to live under the "myth of redemptive violence" in which one supreme act of violence will clear up the whole mess. But it never does. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not end all war. "Peace through superior firepower" has proven only to escalate arms races.

A forward-looking view might reach what Girard acknowledges as apocalypse – where we are our own undoing. Thus Tyler Durden's vision of pounding corn and laying strips of venison on an abandoned superhighway is less about peace and more about the romanticized results of what happens when nearly everyone is killed off in a massively violent episode.

What is required to break the cycle of violence is the way of peace. But that's a whole other entry and I'm afraid this is already running long. But at least you have my initial thoughts…


Luke said...

Bryce, thank you for your initial thoughts! i stand corrected on my assumption of what Girard thinks of humans, namely that they are inherently MIMETIC, to which i completely agree.

i was drawn to this statement: "But somewhere along the way, proto-humans lost the instinctive drive to end violence before a rival is killed." and i guess that's what i see Fight Club doing. it is re-establishing a method as to which ppl can engage one another without the end result being death. could Fight Club be that method i wonder...

what i respond to is the liberationist ethic behind the movie, namely facing down a predatory, consumerist soceity and standing with the oppressed underdogs. and you're absolutely right in the fact that "What's missing in Fight Club is the retaliation of the established order." i wonder what that would look like. but where i differ is "laying strips of venison on an abandoned superhighway is less about peace and more about the romanticized results of what happens when nearly everyone is killed off in a massively violent episode." cause i don't see that.

what i see is that it is a "romanticized result of what happens when the systems that separating and dehumanizing people are aggressively removed." by blowing up the buildings, Tyler is removing the system, not those who are perpetuating and profiting by those systems. that's why i use the term "system shock" vs. a more individualized term. i also use agressive vs. violent to say the action is extreme, but amounts to property damage than a catastrophic loss of life.

in a way, Fight Club is about systems perpetuating rivialry and a method for the individual to exit the system. the means are violent but the result isn't. it seems that a true community is formed as a result and the men of the fight club exist in a new fraternal society which uses the goods of this world with moderation and sharing. early church as described in Acts? (not to mention just as idyllic and whitewashed?)

so in someways Fight Club uses the myth of redemptive violence but in otherways it overturns it... hmmmm. am i way off on this?

Anglican Boy said...

Hi Luke,

My wife (Anglican Gurl) and I have been following your reviews of Fight Club and they have generated a lot of discussion between us. I really have to say that I have enjoyed Bryce's addition to the conversation immensely. He has made me consider the otherside of Fight Club.

I think what I enjoy most about Fight Club is how prophetic it is. It is a great critique of our consumerist culture as well as the systematic “Fleecing of the flock” done by big business. What I see Fight Club asking is “Can capitalism be saved?” and then answering “No.” It then takes the next step and provides a means to which change can come about. Granted this is a movie and that decrees a certain amount of idealism and one-sided story-telling, but I affirm that it does that, I guess, without questioning the methods. So often I hear people complaining about things without offering a practical way to change it. I almost want to say “If you don’t have an answer and just want to bitch (pardon my French) then I don’t want to listen to you.” But now Bryce is raising the question about the methods of Fight Club in bringing about change. I guess what I would like to hear is what would a nonviolent version of Fight Club look like? A Mimetic Club if you will. Bryce, thank you for bringing in the thoughts of Girard, it is the first I’ve heard of them. Looking forward to hearing what you both have to say.

Luke said...

Hey AB,

Bryce is working on your question. he's watching the movie as he has a new set of critical lens as to interpret the movie with. so hang tight there.

but in the meantime, i'm interested in knowing how ya came to the site. where do you and AG live, how'd ya find my humble little rantings, and what would y'all be interested in hearing?

Tit for Tat said...


I havnt really watched the fight club so my words are based more from my own experience. I have been in combative sports most of my life. And the one thing you can have within those systems is a "Respectful Violence". Two parties or more inflicting pain on the other. The trick is both work within specific guidelines and acknowledge when one goes past. This is very evident in the bowing process that many martial arts include. They bow to accept the fight, they bow at the end of the fight. And they bow whenever a "mistake" occurs. All done with the utmost respect. This used to carry over to many street fights as opponents had a code of ethics(such as no hitting a guy when he is down). Unfortunately society seems to have started losing the respect and rules of the rituals. Maybe Fight Club is trying to show a way to get them back? I guess I will have to watch it and find out. ;)

Anglican Boy said...

Hey Luke,

We came upon your site through Deconversion.com. You were talking with Quester and it really made sense to "Anglican Gurl." We were in a bad spot and were considering leaving the faith altogether, but how you phrase and present things makes sense to us.

We're in St. Louis, have two boys, and we like to watch movies. We're interested in hearing whatever you have to say! Family, theology, and movie reviews included!

We are looking forward to Bryce's response and your next post.

Bryce said...

Wow, guys...

I'd love to be running full steam at this conversation right now, but I've been trying to balance against a paper I'm writing for an upcoming presentation. What I thought I'd do is give you a link for a paper I wrote for school. The first half is about Anselm of Canterbury (Anglicans can certainly appreciate that ;-D) and the second half is a contrast with René Girard.

Hopefully it will enrich part of the conversation and prepare for a discussion of what that "mimetic club" might look like...

Here's the link...

TfT, part of Girard's mimetic anthropology deals with the elaborate rituals that cultures build in order to keep limits on violence. I believe that some of the things that you describe from your martial arts training originally served in this capacity.


Anglican Boy said...


I have tried to read your paper and it went over my head. I have a hard time dealing with Girard and the idea that we are all inherently mimetic. I'm a biologist by trade, so I can see that Girard is on the side of behavioral conditioning. However, I am also Jungian and think that there are things within us that have been passed down in our genes. We have inherent behaviors and ideas that come from our genetic line and some that are inserted in from "elsewhere." Where does Girard stand on this? He seems a little too behaviorist and biologically determinist for my liking.

Hope your paper went well, looking forward to your reply.