Simulation of authority figures and self-destruction as a discourse of protest in the postmodern world in Chuck Palahniuk’s

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Simulation of authority figures and self-destruction as a discourse of protest in the postmodern world in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend.

Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.”

(Often attributed to Groucho Marx)

Table of contents

  1. Abstract…………………………………………………………………………….2

  1. Introduction………………………………………………………………………..3

  1. Theoretical framework……………………………………………………………4

  1. Analysis

Chapter I: Everything is a copy of a copy: Simulation in Fight Club…………….8

Chapter II: You have to fight: Constructing male gender and a discourse

of protest……………………………………………………………....19

Chapter III: A father to complete ourselves: The role of male parents in the

postmodern world………………………………………………….....31

  1. Conclusion………………………………………………………………………...38

  1. Works cited………………………………………………………………………..40


This paper aims to discuss Chuck Palahniuk’s portrayal of the state of postmodern reality, postmodern masculinity and the role of authority figures such as that of the father and that of God in his novel Fight Club. Discomforted and frustrated, the unnamed narrator is a fine example of the postmodern man: he struggles with the consumer-driven goals of society, the diminished condition of manhood in a Hyperreal world and the emptiness such world makes him feel.

By analyzing works from the perspective of gender studies and psychology, this project intends to explore and review concepts such as social constructionism of gender, fatherhood, simulation, and Hyperreality in order to discuss broader topics such as violence and self-destruction as means to reassert masculinity and as a discourse to protest against postmodern society.

Key concepts: Hyperreality, simulation, masculinity, self-destruction, discourse of protest


In a world where male role models are dictated by advertisement and mass media, discomfort and frustration among men begin to set in. An example of this kind of man is the unnamed narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, who finds a way to reject the spoon-fed approach to contemporary living.

In the first chapter, titled “Everything is a copy of a copy: Simulation in Fight Club”, a definition of the concepts of Hyperreality proposed by Jean Baudrillard as a real without origin and simulation as a vehicle to alter reality is provided. Baudrillard’s understanding of God as a mere simulacrum of His own is also defined in this chapter as it will be useful to the analysis of the main characters attempts to transform their own life. The second chapter, titled “You have to fight: Constructing male gender and a discourse of protest”, explores social constructionism of gender and Fight Club as a vehicle that helps in such process. The discussion encompasses the fields of gender studies and psychology by reading the novel’s manifestations of masculinity in the light of critics and theorists such as Judith Butler and R. W. Connell. This chapter also incorporates Nigel Edley’s discourse-oriented approach on manhood as an aid to the discussion of violence and self-destruction and the role of these practices in the configuration of the narrator’s identity. The third and final chapter “A father to complete ourselves: The question of fatherhood in Fight Club”, applies Anthony Clare’s discussion on the role of male parents in the life of the postmodern man, focusing on the experiences of the narrator portrayed in the novel.

Theoretical framework

This framework is intended to provide an overview of the theories to be revised in the examination and analysis of Chuck Palahniuk’s portrayal of the state of masculinity, the configuration of authority figures and the setting and kind of reality in which events in his novel Fight Club take place. In order to do so, research and analysis on different academic fields will be carried out: Theories ranging from gender studies to psychology will be of help in the development of the discussion of concepts such as social constructionism, masculinity, violence, self-destruction, Hyperreality, and fatherhood.

In regards to gender studies, the concept of masculinity will be defined in an attempt to better understand its relevance to literary studies. Similarly useful will be psychological approaches when examining the masculine identity crisis experienced by the narrator of the novel. Likewise, issues such as the significance of the creation of an underground fighting club on the reassertion of postmodern masculinity and the rejection of the role of men as dictated by the postmodern world will be analyzed.

First of all, ideas proposed by Jean Baudrillard about Hyperreality as a real without origin, simulation as a vehicle to alter reality, and God as a mere simulacrum of His own will be useful when analyzing the narrator’s attempts to transform his own life. Many of the events within the novel taking place in a dream-like artificial state of consciousness, at one point the narrator states that “with insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” (Palahniuk, 21) In other words, the novel, the literary text (as well as the movie) would be the embodiment of a postmodern reality whose boundaries with fantasy become blurry. Baudrillard’s contention that to simulate is "to feign to have what one hasn't" (2) will serve as ground for discussion of the narrator’s attitude towards life when attempting to cure his insomnia by attending to support groups. Another instance of simulation may well be found in the name of the street (Paper Street) where the narrator’s alter-ego supposedly lives: “Paper street” refers to a street that is depicted on a map but does not actually exist. Tyler Durden is the work of the unconscious that the narrator has produced. In other words, Tyler is the simulation; the narrator, the simulator. Tyler represents the narrator’s unconscious. Tyler's work, as a projectionist, a banquet waiter, a soap distributor and all his work with and around Fight Club is performed and produced in the real by the real (the narrator). So despite he believes that Tyler is doing all the work and is therefore real, it is, as a matter of fact, the narrator’s unconscious being produced in the real by the narrator. Baudrillard’s claim that simulation "threatens the difference between 'true' and 'false,' between 'real' and 'imaginary'” (2) will be of help as well to analyze Palahniuk’s characterization of Tyler Durden and his existence being only in the narrator’s mind.

From the perspective of gender studies, Judith Butler’s thoughts on sex and gender as being socially and culturally constructed through the reiteration of stylized acts in time will be discussed. According to Butler, “gender requires a performance that is repeated” (140) She further argues that if gender does not exist, but is rather performed, it is up to individuals to perform individual gender roles that fit their lives more appropriately. By doing so, she rejects the fact that gender arises from biology. In Fight Club, the narrator is looking for ways to recover his sense of manhood that has been lost to a consumerist society. One of these ways is through violence, a primitive form of masculinity that has been present in humanity from early years.

Similarly pertinent to the analysis of Palahniuk’s novel are R. W. Connell’s ideas on the masculinity, especially his proposal of the existence of more than one kind of manhood. One of these categories is hegemonic masculinity, regarded as the norm at a certain time and place. In Fight Club, an example of such category would be the tendency to purchase and accumulate material goods as a way to channel one’s frustration and to fill the emptiness of life, an experience that is depicted in the characterization of the narrator of Fight Club. In addition to that category, Connell claims that there are also subordinate masculinities, which does not only include within itself homosexual masculinity but also any other large group of men whose members are systematically excluded from political, social and cultural contexts. In this respect, the narrator in Chapter 6 refers to participants of Fight Club as being part of a “generation of men raised by women” (Palahniuk, 50). Such allusion may well fit the description of a rejected group of men, which is, in this case, a large group of postmodern individuals who have grown without an authority figure (God and/or father) in their lives. In addition, Nigel Edley’s discourse-oriented approach on manhood will be employed for the discussion of violence and self-destruction as a discourse of protest against the postmodern society and its consumer-driven goals.

Throughout the novel, several allusions to authority figures (God and father) are made. In this regard, psychiatrist Anthony Clare’s thoughts on masculinity as well as his ideas on fatherhood are examined, taking into consideration the narrator’s experiences that are depicted in the novel. Clare, for example, poses the question of the usefulness of the father figure in today’s society. “If men still have a role as fathers”, he demands, “then it is time they explained what it is. And it is time they fulfilled this role.” (222) He further asks, “What is it that fathers do? What is it that fathers are? What do they bring to society that society cannot do without?” Without a male role-model provided by a father figure, the narrator has been accepting what postmodern culture, mass media and advertising has been telling him about the role of men in society (to have a good job with a good salary, to own the finest car, the finest house, the finest technological device and the like) and such lifestyle eventually overwhelms him. Such questioning by Clare might well find answers in the realization that the narrator (a postmodern man who resents the absence of a father in his life) and his alter-ego Tyler Durden (a kind of surrogate father) are the same person, thus rendering the role of an authority figure useless or, at least, subject to be questioned.

Chapter I: Everything is a copy of a copy: Simulation in Fight Club

Before addressing issues such as the condition of masculinity in the postmodern world and the importance of authority figures such as that of the father and that of God in the configuration of postmodern manhood, it seems pertinent to describe the context in which Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is set.

In his essay “The Precession of Simulacra”, Jean Baudrillard provides significant elements for the discussion and the revision of the conditions of postmodern culture and society as they are depicted in Fight Club. As a starting point, he takes Jorge Luis Borges’ fable On Exactitude in Science, in which “the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly”, as an example of what once was “the most beautiful allegory of simulation”. When the Empire falls, the only thing that is left is the map. However, Baudrillard contends that “[t]oday abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance” but it is “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (2). It is the real, not the map, he argues, whose vestiges remains until today. "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory" (2). He further develops that “[i]t is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” and now the development of every real process is by means of its “operational double, a programmatic metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real.” (3). Such machine or machinery may well be the kind of society depicted in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club: the unnamed narrator’s (and also the main character) experiences take place in a world where everything seems to be handled on a plate, provided that you have the job and thus the money to afford it: from furniture to food, every single basic human need seem to be covered in such a way that an individual needs not move from his desk to get what he needs; there is no urge to get the paper at the newsstand: you can read it online; there is no urge to cook: you can order fast food for delivery; there is no urge for sex: you can watch pornography and so on and so forth. Thus, the narrator is a fine example of a postmodern man who has been deprived of all his drives by a consumerist society that has taken all his agency away, who now finds his life devoid of meaning or direction and whose role in society is passive. As the telling of the story progresses, we learn about the miserable, lonely life that he leads and we eventually get to sympathize with him: he works as a recall specialist for the automobile industry and his duty is to survey nationwide car accidents involving his company’s car so that the firm is able to determine if it is worthwhile to pay for the damage caused by their cars; it is as if human lives are set a price, a job morally questionable and undoubtedly depressing that even makes him wish he was dead: “Every takeoff and landing, when the plane banked too much to one side, I prayed for a crash” (19).

Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreal (“a real without origin or reality”) has a resonance in the narrator’s statement that “(…) Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy” (21) Postmodern culture is, according to Baudrillard, a chain of substitutes for a non-existent reality; many of the events within the novel take place in a dream-like artificial state of consciousness which serves as an embodiment of the postmodern reality: a reality whose boundaries with fantasy have been blurred.

In fact, as a result of the stress of his job as well as the jet lag induced by constant business trips, the narrator develops insomnia. In seeking treatment, he goes to a doctor hoping for a pharmaceutical solution to his problems. He, instead, suggests that the narrator attend support groups for people struggling with terminal diseases to see other people suffering, in an attempt to find out what is keeping him from falling asleep and focus on that, an advice the narrator follows. The first instance of simulation can be observed at this point: the narrator attends meetings for people who are struggling or have been struggling terrible life-threatening or life-altering diseases, despite the fact that he is physically healthy. With the hope that he will feel some kind of engagement to society, that is meaningful connections with other people, he ends up becoming addicted to these meetings and finding comfort with the support group for victims of testicular cancer. The members of this group prove to be the only individuals to whom the narrator relates. In fact, he finds a way to release his suffering by crying for the very first time after a man named Bob, a former body builder who lost his testicles to cancer caused by abuse of steroids, embraces him. Later that night, the narrator manages to fall asleep. (“And I slept. Babies don't sleep this well” [22]). Thus, the narrator has been able to find relief and things in his life have been back to normal by, following Baudrillard’s premise, substituting signs of the real for the real. The narrator’s statement in the very same page illustrates that he is living another kind of reality: “This is better than real life”. By “this”, he is referring to the support groups, which have come to constitute the simulated reality he has been living in, a world of his own that provides him with a shelter from the postmodern consumerist culture he has been wishing to escape from.

The gesture of visiting support groups exemplifies what Baudrillard in the section “The Divine Irreference of Images” defines as simulation: “[…] to feign to have what one doesn’t have” (3), as opposed to dissimulation, which is “to pretend not to have what one has” (3). He further develops this idea by quoting Littré who states that "Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. [But] Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms." Interestingly enough, it can be argued that it is not the narrator himself the one who has produced the symptoms of the life-altering condition that he feigns to be ailed with and that actually affects members of the support group for victims of testicular cancer. Instead, the narrator’s emasculation has been caused by a postmodern society that has taken his agency away and is best seen as a metaphorical removal of his sexual organs. Thus, some of the symptoms of the illness or condition in question –in this case, testicular cancer- are somewhat produced in the narrator, although not by he himself. The kind of society in which he has lived has taken his agency away by providing men with few or no opportunities whatsoever so that they can do things for themselves. Having the courage –or, to use the rather sharp metaphor, having the testicles– is not really necessary because no much effort has to be made in order to get things done in the world depicted in Fight Club. Nevertheless, such symptoms is what enables him to be placed in as equal position as the rest of the members of the group: they share the same signs –or in this case, consequences- of the disease, only with the exception that the narrator’s castration is metaphorical rather than literal. According to Baudrillard, pretending or dissimulating leaves “reality intact”, whereas simulation replaces reality by altering it, something the narrator does by faking he is suffering from the same conditions that affect other members of the group. In fact, he acknowledges that he disguises his real identity when introducing himself to support groups (”I never give my real name at support groups” [22]). Only after he simulates what he is not and what he does not have (that is, by entering the world of the terminally ill and by doing so with an identity that is not his own) is he able to find relief. By being embraced, that is, by establishing meaningful contact with somebody else, the narrator is able to cry and feel accepted, even if it is not by society as a whole: “Walking home after a support group, I felt more alive than I'd ever felt” (22)

However, such relief does not last long due to the intrusion of Marla Singer, also feigning to be ill, at the same support groups meetings. In seeing her fakery reflect back on him, the narrator makes up his mind about confronting her and threatening to expose her. The narrator -unlike Singer- passes judgment on her behavior, neglecting the fact that it is the same as his; the two of them seek the same thing in the meetings; that is, meaningful human contact. However, the intrusion of Singer into the meetings, by feigning to have the same diseases the other members of the groups, ends up ruining the narrator’s goal at the meetings: to cry freely to be able to fall sleep; her presence makes him feel inhibited and insomnia reappears: “Since the second night I saw her, I can’t sleep” (23)

Despite having convinced Marla Singer to attend meetings separately so as to avoid each other, the narrator seems to have quitted visiting support groups and while on vacation, in an attempt to find a way out of the problems in his life, he meets Tyler Durden, the man with whom he eventually creates Fight Club. The character of Tyler Durden may well be the embodiment of what Baudrillard refers to as simulation, which is something that "threatens the difference between 'true' and 'false,' between 'real' and 'imaginary'” (3). Baudrillard claims that the simulator –in this case, the narrator- cannot be treated as being either ill or not ill because any symptom can be “produced” and can no longer be taken as a fact of nature. In fact, he argues that “every illness can be considered as simulatable and simulated” (3) Medicine “loses its meaning”, he further develops, because its ability is to treat “real” illnesses according to objective causes. Disregarding the idea that simulation should “be at the gates of the unconscious”, Baudrillard poses the question of why the “work” of the unconscious could not be “produced” in the same way as any old symptom of classical medicine. He is quick to provide an answer himself: “dreams already are”. In this regard, we may find the embodiment of simulation in the character of Tyler Durden because he exists only as a result of the work of the narrator’s mind while he is unable to sleep. Tyler Durden, the character with whom the narrator creates Fight Club, and the nameless narrator are the same person: Durden is the persona the narrator adopts when being awake, that being the most likely reason why Palahniuk does not give the narrator a name. Durden is the simulation; the narrator, the simulator. The former’s work, as a projectionist, a banquet server, a soap distributor and all his work with and around Fight Club is performed and produced in the real by the real, in this case, the narrator. In fact, towards the final chapters of the novel, specifically in chapter 22, the narrator begins to question his insomnia and wonders whether he has been sleeping or not. Standing at the edge of his bed, Tyler Durden explains that while the narrator thinks he is sleeping, he becomes Tyler: "Every time you fall asleep," Tyler says, "I run off and do something wild, something crazy, something completely out of my mind.” (163)

Such discovery allows the narrator to realize he has been hallucinating; he has created another self and does not have insomnia. Thus despite he believes that Tyler is doing all the work and he is therefore real, it is the narrator’s unconscious that is being acted out into the real by the narrator. "One implies a presence, the other an absence", (3) Baudrillard states. For the narrator, he is real because he looks and acts real, but to other characters, the narrator and Tyler are the same person. Another indication of Tyler Durden’s incarnation of simulation is the name of the street where he supposedly lives: Paper Street. A paper street refers to a street that does not actually exist but it is nonetheless depicted on a map. Metaphorically speaking, Tyler Durden would be the street that only exists in the narrator’s mind, in this case represented by the map.

In recalling how he meets Durden at the beach while on vacation, the narrator draws to the following conclusion: “Maybe I never really woke up on that beach. (…) / When I fall asleep, I don't really sleep.” (173) Such acknowledgement on the narrator’s part –that he never actually slept– is followed by a fearful confession: “Tyler Durden is a separate personality I've created, and now he's threatening to take over my real life.” (173)

The reason for such creation stems from the narrator’s discomfort at life as a result of the consumerist lifestyle of the postmodern society. Unmotivated by his everyday life, the narrator creates another self that could embody everything he cannot:

I love everything about Tyler Durden, his courage and his smarts. His nerve. Tyler is funny and charming and forceful and independent, and men look up to him and expect him to change their world. Tyler is capable and free, and I am not.

I’m not Tyler Durden.

“But you are, Tyler,” Marla says.

Tyler and I share the same body, and until now, I didn’t know it (175)

Early signals of this split personality can be found throughout the novel in sentences such as “I know this because Tyler knows this” (Palahniuk, 12) and is now reaffirmed by the statement “Everyone in fight club and Project Mayhem knew me as Tyler Durden” (Palahniuk, 12). In other words, he is viewed as the creator of both organizations to which he comes to represent a sort of God-like figure.

In light of this, I would like to discuss Baudrillard’s revision of the Iconoclasts’ ideas about God, which states that they foresaw that simulacra would have the faculty to efface God from the conscience of man and that there was an annihilating truth to be discovered: “(…) deep down God never existed, (…) only the simulacrum ever existed, (…) God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum” (Baudrillard, 4). Spontaneously created after Tyler asks the narrator to “hit him as hard as he can”, Fight Club gives birth to an even more violent and radical organization, Project Mayhem, that is intended to fight the postmodern consumerist society. Dissatisfied at the fights at the club, the narrator goes back to the support groups only to find Bob alone, who tells him that the club has disbanded and that he has found a new group (Project Mayhem). Throughout the novel, signs that allow us to think that he is a Creator, with capital letter, a sort of God/Jesus-like figure can be found. For example, Fight Club and also Project Mayhem have their rules, the equivalent to the Ten Commandments. In the same sense, members of the club may well be viewed as his apostles to whom he has directed his teachings (the rules of Fight Club and Project Mayhem). Towards the end of chapter 5, after his condominium is completely destroyed -the only belongings are inside his suitcase- and all of his “clever” furniture he has spent so much money and time amassing is now gone, the narrator decides to call Tyler Durden in the hope that he would set him free from the materialistic and hollow life he has been leading so far: "Oh Tyler, please deliver me / Deliver me from Swedish furniture / Deliver me from clever art” (46)

With the idea of Tyler Durden as a God-like figure, it seems inevitably not to think of the language the narrator is here employing as religious. The “evil” part from the Our Father prayer is here replaced by elements that represent evil to the narrator in the postmodern world (namely, furniture and material goods in general). The line "the phone rang and Tyler answered" (46) is also indicative of Tyler’s status as a savior figure, especially the verb at the end of the sentence (to answer) which is the same verb people employ to say God has heard his prayers. In chapter 8, Durden makes the narrator promise not to talk to Marla Singer about him (“Don't ever talk to her about me. Don't talk about me behind my back. Do you promise?” [72]). Unable to keep the promise, the narrator betrays Durden, and this provides another example of the God/Jesus-like figure of who has been betrayed by Judas.

Rejected from the time of their birth by their own fathers, the narrator and Durden see them as figures who might have never really wanted them in the first place. (It seems worthwhile to clarify at this point that the issue of fatherhood, although will be discussed in the ensuing lines, will be addressed in a greater extent in another chapter.) In order to overcome this internal strife, Durden proposes getting to the core of yourself to find out who you really are and in order to start building yourself back up from there: "Maybe self-improvement isn't the answer / Tyler never knew his father / Maybe self-destruction is the answer." (49)

Unable to recall memories of his father during his childhood (“I knew my dad for about six years, but I don't remember anything” [50]), the narrator progressively comes to the conclusion that “[m]aybe we didn't need a father to complete ourselves” (54). At one point, the narrator recalls a time when he asks Tyler what he has been fighting and Tyler says his father, a figure whose role is several times discussed by Chuck Palahniuk through the narration and dialogues of the characters of the novel. In chapter 18, a mechanic, who is a member of Project Mayhem makes the narrator ponders on this issue: “If you're male and you're Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never know your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?” (141)

This statement summarizes Durden’s view of God not as benevolent or reliable, but indifferent to the human condition. In Durden’s interpretation, God becomes an obstacle to progress as human beings cannot truly move forward as long as they feel they need the blessings of an indifferent creator. According to Baudrillard, in the era of simulacra and of simulation, “there is no longer a God to recognize his own.” (5) In this regard, the narrator, resenting the absence of his father in life, has unconsciously created a figure (Durden) out of the necessity to have an authority and messianic figure capable of saving him from the life that he leads: Tyler functions both as a father and as God as both are the same person, thus the narrator becomes his own God.

Towards the end of the novel, we learn that the narrator is institutionalized and refers to his psychologist as God, with whom he disagrees during his sessions. Statements such as “God’s got all this wrong” and “You can’t teach God anything” (207) are examples of this conflict. At the hospital, patients who are still hurt or bruised, continue to recognize him as Tyler Durden; that is, as the creator of Fight Club and Project Mayhem. “Everything’s going according to the plan” (208), an individual with a broken nose tells him. “We miss you Mr. Durden” says another. Conceived of as a creator, Tyler Durden a.k.a. the narrator is the embodiment of the Iconoclast’s idea revised by Baudrillard that God never existed, that only the simulacrum ever existed and that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum. In a world where “everything is a copy of a copy”, Durden is a copy of God.

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