"A Generation of Men Without History": Fight Club, Masculinity, and the Historical Symptom
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“A Generation of Men Without History”:
Fight Club, Masculinity, and the Historical Symptom
Abstract

This article uses a reading of Chuck Palahiuk’s novel, Fight Club, as an opportunity to construct a Lacanian framework for understanding historical self-consciousness. I argue that Fight Club’s historical imagination dramatizes the way the impossibility of defining the postmodern “present” is conflated with the interminability of identifying with one’s symptom, revealing how both are governed by the same tautological performativity. Fight Club’s narrator couches his wounded masculinity in conspicuously historical terms, seeking recognition from the Other qua History as a means of interpellating an identity for both period and self. I argue that this dynamic, a dynamic of historical interpellation, is one way texts “think historically,” to borrow Jameson’s phrase, in postmodernity. In other words, maybe texts do not reflect or reveal their time so much as they assert—performatively, imaginatively—what their time ought to be. —kpf

There is a brief but suggestive moment in Chuck Palahiuk’s popular novel, Fight Club, in which the first-person, unnamed narrator describes how Tyler Durden splices tiny pornographic frames into film reels. In the scene (dramatized in David Fincher’s largely faithful cinematic adaptation of the novel), the narrator describes how Tyler, working as a projectionist at a public theater, comes to splice the image of an erection into a family film:

You’re a projectionist and you’re tired and angry, but mostly you’re bored so you start by taking a single frame of pornography collected by some other projectionist that you find stashed away in the booth, and you splice this frame of a lunging red penis or a yawning wet vagina close-up into another feature movie.

This is one of those pet adventures, when the dog and the cat are left behind by a traveling family and must find their way home. In reel three, just after the dog and cat, who have human voices and talk to each other, have eaten out of a garbage can, there’s the flash of an erection. Tyler does this.

(29–30)

Significant in its brevity, this recollected scene comes as close as any in encapsulating Fight Club’s narrative logic and its complex, imaginative imbrication of identity and historical self-consciousness.

For what Tyler inserts is a single, subliminal frame that represents a moment of masculine prowess. It flickers for an instant, barely registered, before leaving an afterimage that lingers in the (future) memories of the audience. In sequence and out of sequence, fleeting and memorable, framed and frameless, the afterimage serves as the phallic signature of the novel’s charismatic and mischievous anti-hero—and as such as an appropriate emblem for the text’s conception of masculine identity in late-twentieth-century American culture. Much like Tyler’s subliminal insertion, Fight Club avers and projects a masculine identity it sees as both revolutionary and evanescent, an identity whose arrogated transience raises several questions regarding its historical lineaments and periodic framing. Why is this projection necessary? To whom is it addressed? Not from where, but from when does Tyler insert his image, and against what or when is that image, identity, and time visible? How is the constitutive, performative relationship between identity, narrative, and temporal assertion to be understood? In raising these questions through its narrative and its narrative structure, Fight Club provides one example in contemporary postmodern fiction of how the dynamics of identity formation, the logic of narrative, and the antinomies of historical periodization can be conflated—governed as they are by the same impossible, tautological logic.

In the form of a pornographic intrusion, Tyler’s subliminal frame suggests that Fight Club will code its masculinity in terms of the scandalous and the prohibited, an assumed identity-position that is coincidentally confirmed by at least one hostile reading of the film (and by extension, the novel’s) construction of masculinity.1 Moreover, as a fleeting afterimage, one framed as a recollected moment, the pornographic frame “exists” in the diegesis of Fight Club as a twice-removed ontology—as a memory of something that must have persisted in a (remembered) audience’s memory...