DEC 6-8


Tues, Dec 6 

Material on Butler, Mulvey, and the Intro to Gender & Sex

 Material on Žižek, Kristeva, Lacan, Freud, and Psychoanalysis

Thurs, Dec 8

Material on Brooks, Barthes, and Narratology

In this last section, we will apply the various theories we have learned to David Fincher's film, Fight Club. The film invites a reading through each of the theories discussed so far: Narratology, Psychoanalysis, theories of gender and sex, Postmodernism, and theories of ideology. By applying each of the theories discussed this semester, these last two weeks will serve as hands-on practice for the final exam.



"Fight Club and Closure"

During the last week of the semester, we analyzed David Fincher's Fight Club, a film of speculative fiction that allowed us to review all the material we have examined this semester. In proper Brooksian fashion, I suggested that the best way to review the material was to move backwards through the synopses and modules all the way back to Peter Brooks and his understanding of narrative closure. Through such a series of analepses, the class was able to reconstruct the story of the course.


As usual, there is no way for me to reproduce all the fascinating interpretations that were offered in these final classes. The following comments were the ones that I happened to jot down and that happen to tie in well to previous discussions.

We began by discussing the narrative structure of Fight Club's openings. Like many of the works we've examined this semester, the movie follows a circular narrative, ending where it began ("ground zero," as the movie puts it). La jetée is perhaps the best analogous example, since in that film too the opening and closural moment is connected precisely with a combination of death and sexual consummation, thus following Peter Brooks' psychosexual theories regarding narrative form. The same alignment of consummation and death exists at the end of Fight Club. After all, 'ground zero' also refers to the site of a bomb blast, and '0' serves as a visual metaphor for the loop structure of the narrative. (The Matrix used the same metaphor in choosing '303' as the room where the film begins and ends.) The ticking stopwatch that we hear just before the first analepsis similarly functions at once to suggest the forward momentum of story or the proairetic code while reminding us of the countdown to death suggested by the bomb (hence death drive). The lyrics of the Pixies’ song, “Where Is My Mind?” which is playing at the end is another clue: “Your head will collapse/ If there’s nothing in it/ And you’ll ask yourself/ Where is my mind?”

In Fight Club, it is possible to interpret that final moment (the heterosexual union between the narrator and Marla) as to some extent "impossible," since it is hard to tell from the film version of the narrative whether the narrator does or does not actually blow his own head off. Other impossible elements are included in the conclusion, including the final splice of a penis as one of the last images of the film, another breakdown of the "mimesis of the diegesis," as one might put it. That is, we have another example of suture being broken. Also, the splice suggests that Tyler has not been killed but somehow has stepped outside his diegesis in order to splice a penis into his own movie, thus offering us with yet another breakdown of the frames of the film's diegesis. It’s also worth noting that the countdown that we believed was for the bomb turns out to be the countdown to the gun going off (in real time or pure story time), which is another clue that everything after that scene is fantasy construction and outside of the official closural moment (in many ways, a commentary on closure itself and our desire for a happy ending), as Sara Kramer argued. 


We also begin with an invocation of both the proairetic code (the drawing of a gun being a classic example) and the hermeneutic code ("do you know Tyler Durden?"). The hermeneutic question turns out to be the crucial one for the film, one that is not resolved until the very end. The question also serves as a classic "false lead," since the question implies that Tyler and the narrator are two different people; only at the end do we realize that we have been misled by our as-it-turns-out-unreliable voice-over narrator. The film is, of course, also very self-conscious about its discursive manipulation of the story, highlighting the process of discursive reordering both at the beginning ("wait, let me back up a bit") and at the end ("ah, flashback humor"). We are thus given a self-conscious dilation of narrative. What's fascinating is that, whereas an audience often must reconstruct the story of the narrative at the end of a film, in this case we must also reconstruct the main character of the narrative, who we have misunderstood throughout the film. We have seen similar maneuvers, of course, in Brazil, Blade Runner, La Jetée, and even Buffy (who may well be an actual woman suffering from psychosis in an L.A. insane asylum). Such manipulation affects our ability to identify with the main male character (one function of traditional Hollywood cinema, as Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman have taught us). The namelessness of the narrator aids our identification (our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of the narrator); however, that identification is undercut by the plot that develops, thus implicitly undercutting the gender politics of identification, and arguably having a spill-over effect on the film viewer. The narrator is, after all, a rather objectionable human being. As I pointed out, we are then given another Hollywood-icon figure with whom to identify, Brad Pitt (complete with diegetic reference in the film to his film, Seven Years in Tibet), but that identification is also overturned. (After all, that iconic character, as it turns out, does not exist and, as many pointed out, he is himself questionable as a leader.)

Another film convention that gets reworked is the opening establishing shot, as Sara Kramer explained. The opening close-up of neurons firing is a clue to the diegesis, as is the opening close-up of the computer code in The Matrix or the opening POV from inside Sam Lowery’s dream in Brazil. In Fight Club, the diegesis we watch is, in large part, created by the narrator's psychosis, thus underlining that the entire film will be focalized through this nameless protagonist. It is only at the end of the movie that we are given the earlier scenes as they actually occurred; that is, as an objective treatment of events rather than as an extended subjective treatment. We are, in fact, given a collapsing of subjectivity and objectivity, and a sort of reverse establishing shot since we're given here a microscopic close-up rather than the usual long shot: on the one hand, the subjective perspective of the protagonist; on the other hand, the objectivity of a microscope as we proceed from the brain stem (the medulla oblongata, which controls our autonomic responses, and the primeval part of of our brain [the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and thalamus], as I suggested, where the id likely resides) through the frontal cortex.


I also pointed out the narrational strategy of the film: the voice-over is in the first person; however, the photogrammetry effects of the film suggest an omniscient perspective. What's interesting about the photogrammetry is that the sequences are properly impossible, thus adding to our discussion of the cognitive effects of new technologies (new ways of perceiving time and space) and highlighting the impossibility of the narration (thus perhaps providing a clue to the narrator's psychosis,). Two issues (postmodern and psychoanalytical) are combined in Fredric Jameson's contention that the postmodern condition is best exemplified by schizophrenia. Fight Club's narrator thus joins a host of other examples of psychotic protagonists and narrators from this semester: Sam Lowery, Buffy, the protagonist of La jetée, and the teenagers in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space." Finally, photogrammetry is, like bullet-time technology in the Matrix, a form of hyper-suture, since the technology behind the effect is sutured out.


We also discussed, in passing, the difficulties of mounting an effective critique of multinational capitalism while relying on a multinational corporation to provide funds for the production of the film. (That position is even included in the plot, since the narrator ends up funding Project Mayhem by blackmailing his own employer into providing him a corporate account.) An analysis of the faked FBI warning at the start of the DVD provided us with fodder for a discussion that spoke to an ongoing debate among postmodern critics, a debate that we explored earlier in the semester by examining the different understanding of parody proposed by Linda Hutcheon and Fredric Jameson. An important thing to realize is that the film does not provide any solution since Tyler's position is just as suspect as that of late capitalism; indeed, his Project Mayhem follows aspects of late capitalism: he sets up franchises; he alienates his subjects from their own identity; and he is as oppressive a leader as those in Foucault's carceral system. I pointed out that Tyler's command in the fake FBI warning amounts to "Enjoy!" and, as Lacan has taught us, that sort of command can, in fact, serve further to cement the power of the superego.


Eventually, we developed our psychoanalysis of the film. We began with Tyler. Tyler represents a simulacrum of the self, a fact that is underlined by the choice of Brad Pitt to play the character since he is one of Hollywood's icons for perfect masculinity. Tyler also appears to represent at once the ideal ego ("I look like you want to look") and the id (since he flouts rules and consummates his desires). In short, he is everything that the narrator cannot himself become, since both the id and the ideal ego are to some extent unreachable (one is too ideal; one is too real). Finally, he’s also clearly tied up with the superego: he’s aligned with the narrator’s father at various point, he sets up franchises (through the fight clubs), he imposes rules constantly (even at fight club!), and he’s continually associated with the phallus.  All of this makes us question to what extent the message of the film really is to obey your id as a way to access the real; after all, we must remember that the whole point of the film is that Brad Pitt’s character, who is trying to get us to reach the Real and the Id, is himself not real.

Aaron Wagoner, in a past version of the class, eventually developed the diagnosis of fixation on the anal-sadistic phase, which, according to Freud, is tied to a split between active/sadistic and passive/scopophilic impulses. Even Freud’s association of the anal-sadistic phase with homoeroticism is explained in the narrator's fight with the "pretty boy": he is thus dealing with his own homosexual desire by way of reaction formation. The issue of regression is exemplified in the cave sequence where the narrator confronts his "power animal," which, of course, speaks in a child's voice, as Alex Reynaud pointed out; the cave is frozen, arguably, because of the narrator's unwillingness to accept the materiality of that classic representation of female sexuality, the womb (as Molly Weber put it in a previous version of the course, “cave = vagina.”  The cave itself, as something hidden, represents repression, and the narrator's continual return to the same metaphor thus functions by the logic of repetition compulsion. One could argue that the penguin is a castrated bird; the cave can similarly be read as a metaphor for lack (another way the cave could be said to be tied to woman).


The association of the cave with female sexuality is further underlined by the fact that the penguin is later replaced by Marla, including during the acid-burn scene when the narrator is forced to confront the real of his pain. (Marla, by contrast, represents the real of sexuality for the narrator vs. the desire of fantasy construction, which is why he first dreams of having sex with Marla in that distorted slow-motion sequence, with the distortion analogous to repression. Marla represents the unconcious real of the narrator's desire vs. the masturbatory fantasy constructions that he creates, for example, in the crapper/IKEA scene.) As Steve Sothman put it in a past version of the class, Marla is definitely NOT the "woman in the red dress" (i.e. The Matrix). The penguin's command, "Slide!" corresponds perfectly to the superego command, "Enjoy!" a fact that is underlined in the next sequence of caves where the penguin is replaced by copulation with Marla. The penguin is thus a classic example of displacement: the real issue here is the materiality of female sexuality, which disgusts our narrator.

The connection of the acid-burn sequence to Lacan's understanding of our separation from the real is perfectly exemplified, in turn, by the appearance of the linguistic definition of "sear" and "flesh" in place of the material fact of this real in that sequence. The cave is also associated with earlier forms of human development (Native American culture, the ice age), thus suggesting an alternate form of regression (back into the history of the species), as Elise Duncan suggested in a previous version of the class (hence Tyler’s wish to devolve backwards to a time before civilization as we know it). The connection of the cave to a womb is underlined by the narrator's statement that he died every night and was reborn each morning.

It’s also clear the narrator is working out an Oedipal scenario, as I suggested (Tyler like his father is creating "franchises"; one response to "who would you fight" is "my father"); indeed, identification with the father (and his representatives) is one of the features of the ideal ego. One might point out the connections made in the film between Marla/Tyler and the narrator's parents (passing messages between as he used to do with this parents). The moment when the narrator comes to the door of the room where Tyler and Marla are having sex could thus be read as analogous to the primal fantasy of seeing one's parents in the sexual act, though, since Tyler and the narrator are, in fact, the same person, it becomes clear that the problem is ultimately one of primary narcissism (an important aspect of the imaginary order's construction of an ideal ego after the mirror phase). The narcissism is further underlined by the fact that the triangular desire common in Hollywood film (two guys fighting for the same women, a scenario we discussed in relation to the Buffy episode, "Him") is here turned into a competition that is fully narcissistic (two versions of the same character).


In classic Oedipal fashion, the narrator also clearly suffers from a castration complex, as many of you pointed out; hence all the references to both real penises (including the threatened castration of the narrator at the end of the film) and phalluses (in this film, a cigar is never just a cigar, a cave is never just a cave). As Marla puts it when the narrator confronts her dildo, "it's not a threat to you." I argued that Marla in fact functions for the narrator as phallic mother, as a reminder of female lack; one might here recall Laura Mulvey: the female figure "connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father" (21). As Marla tells the narrator, "I have more of a right to be in the testicular cancer group than you do."

A resulting problem with the narrator is his disgust with female sexuality. The character is interested only in desire, which, as Lacan argues, is concerned with reproducing itself rather than in confronting the real sexuality of a woman. That split between desire and sexuality is exemplified in the Chloe sequence, as Sara Kramer argued.  That relation is also explored in the scene where the narrator feels Marla's breast for cancer; both scenes remind us of the real materiality of the body behind the narcissistic projections of fantasy. Chloe is the real on two scores: 1) the abject corpse, as she is on the verge of death; and 2) pure sexuality (she is the opposite, one might say, of the Matrix’s woman in the red dress).  Both Chloe and Marla remind us of Lacan’s formula: “the zero form of sexuality for animals is copulation; the zero form of sexuality for humans is masturbation.” The narrator's separation from the real is exemplified in the scene in which the narrator is examining a fold-out advertisement while defecating. His concern is only with the fantasy projections of late-capitalist advertising, which separates him from the abject real, yet it is the real that he will seek to confront throughout the rest of the film. As the narrator puts it, "we used to read pornography, now it was the Horchow collection." Of course, the following scene, where he walks through his apartment as if he is simultaneously walking through the catalog from which he is ordering his furniture, is another perfect example of Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra.

Tyler is the narrator's way of dealing with the disgust he feels for female sexuality, one reason why one of the early splices of Tyler appears over the image of Marla as she walks away from the narrator.


We also discussed the logic of condensation that we can align with soap in the film, thus building on our earlier discussion of "the watch" as condensed symbol in the Buffy episode, "Restless." The impacted series of meanings in this symbol include: 1) cleanliness as "the yardstick of civilization," as Caitlin Stamper explained; 2) the abject; 3) the death drive (through the story of ancient sacrifices); 4) late capitalism, since Tyler ends up selling the soap to luxury department stores, thus selling "rich women's fat asses back to them"; use-value is thus contrasted to exchange-value; 5) postmodern simulacral culture, since liposuction is one drastic way we try to force our real bodies to conform to image culture; 6) rebellion against late capitalism since soap also creates the dynamite Tyler uses in Project Mayhem; 7) and the real of pain since the lye is used to burn the narrator's hand.


To tie together our discussions of narratology and postmodernism, we also explored the interest of the scene in which we see Tyler splicing frames of penises into Disney films. In this sequence (and elsewhere in the film), what we are seeing is a breakdown in the suturing that usually edits out the look of the audience and the look of the camera in Hollywood film, leaving us only with the look of the main male character with whom we can identify. (These terms are coming from our earlier readings in Kaja Silverman and Laura Mulvey in relation to Buffy, "Once More, With Feeling.") The intrusion of the "look" associated with the materiality of film (including the "cigarette burns" that mark a change of reel) functions like an intrusion of the real (a castration), breaking us out of the mimetic reverie of a film's fiction and reminding us of the fact that we are in a theater looking at a fictional film. As the narrator puts it, Tyler was at work while the rest of us were asleep. So it is in relation to the mimesis of the diegesis: we get caught up in the dream of a film, so that the intrusion of the camera's materiality or a reminder of our own invested act of looking mark an eruption of that which we must continually repress in order to continue the dream of cinema. The fact that Tyler is splicing pornography into Disney films is significant because Disney is a huge multinational corporation and because it is one of Baudrillard's primary examples for postmodern simulacral culture. As Sara Kramer and Vivian Gu brilliantly pointed out, the fact that Tyler is splicing (editing, cutting) penises out of and into film strips is itself significant: editing and the space between each frame of film is thus perfectly aligned with castration, as feminist psychoanalysts also argue. The anatomically correct penis is thus here a symbol for castration and aligned with the real materiality of sex (a real penis) rather than the masturbatory fantasy of film (with its phalluses and symbols of power). 

Synopsis for Dec 6-8

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :