When You're a Boy (2000)

Heaven loves you The crowds are for you
Nothing stands in your way
When you're a boy
[Boys Keep Swinging - David Bowie]

There is a scene in the recent film of Chuck Pahlianuk's novel Fight Club where Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, who play the founders of an underground network of bare-knuckle boxing clubs, are strap hanging on a trolley car. Their faces are bruised and scarred from vicious fighting. They occupy the aisle with absolute self-assurance, emanating an aura of threat. Pitt's character spots a Calvin Klein underwear advert, and laughs at the model's rippling torso. "Real men don't look like that", he sneers. Norton agrees. The ordeals they undergo at fight club, the pain they inflict and have inflicted on them, have allowed them to discover a surer foundation for masculinity than that represented by the ad. "The gyms you go to," writes the novel's narrator, "are crowded with guys trying to look like men, as if being a man means looking the way a sculptor or art director says."

The brief scene on the trolleycar is one of the most troubled moments in recent Hollywood cinema. No one watching can forget that Pitt's acting career was kickstarted by the scene in Thelma and Louise where he takes off his shirt to reveal a worked-out chest and washboard stomach identical to that his Fight Club character derides. Pitt's spectacular (and spectacularised) upper body, which is constantly on show in Fight Club (yellow-lit, oiled and scarred, a direct visual descendant of Bruce Lee's in Enter the Dragon), means more in this context than a lame piece of movie casting. It shows Hollywood's basic inability to cope with Fight Club's question about the meaning of manhood in service economy America, and points up a formation analysed by Susan Faludi, in her recent book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man.

Faludi charts the decline of successive visions of masculinity based on communal responsibility and public participation, "The old model.. showed men how to be part of a larger social system; it gave them a context and it promised them that their social contributions were the price of admission to the realm of adult manhood."She argues that this kind of masculinity has been replaced by an 'ornamental culture', brought about by the acceleration of capital, a spectacular media and the hyper-competitive individualism valued so highly in American culture:
"Constructed around celebrity and image, glamour and entertainment, marketing and consumerism [ornamental culture] is a ceremonial gateway to nowhere. Its essence is not just the selling act but the act of selling the self, and in this quest every man is essentially on his own, a lone sales rep marketing his own image..." So Hollywood was never going to be able to deal with Fight Club, since it is the main disseminator of the ornamental culture against which the book revolts. Looking for a solution, Faludi prescribes a return to the social, a rediscovery of public roles for men. Pahlianuk also has a vision of community, but one based on a horrifying, neurotic, and yet compelling kind of sharing - giving and receiving violence. "A lot of best friends meet for the first time at fight club. Now I go to meetings or conferences and see faces at conference tables, accountants and junior executives or attorneys with broken noses spreading out like an eggplant under the edges of bandages or they have a couple stitches under an eye or a jaw wired shut. These are quiet young men who listen until it's time to decide. We nod to each other..."

This community of centred, self-knowing men, is specifically predicated on the destruction of the ornamental body. Time and again the book returns to the appalling physical consequences of the fights, the destruction visited on his own flesh being a particular fascination of the narrator. A central scene takes place on the Saturday night that "a young guy with an angel's face came to his first fight club, and I tagged him for a fight." The narrator systematically destroys this face, "first with the bony knuckles of my fist and then the knotted tight butt of my fist after my knuckles were raw from his teeth stuck through his lips." In the narrator's mind this rage against male beauty becomes a metonym for a wider negation. "I wanted to destroy everything beautiful I'd never have. Burn the Amazon rainforests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn't afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I'd never see." The key words here are 'have' and 'afford', and they point up the underlying tension between Hollywood and Fight Club - a revolt against status, possession and luxury that extends even to that ultimate first-world luxury product "the environment".

Fight Club is about waste, in the Bataillean sense of expenditure without goal, without hope of return or recuperation. Although the fighters aim to win, there is no sense of competition, no league tables, no winning or losing in the sport-war-money sense that American cultural cheerleaders view as the secret of their global success. At fight club, your individual achievements are meaningless. "You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake." Having the shit kicked out of you can be as therapeutic as doing it to someone else. The main issue is not success, but affect. This brings Pahlianuk into imaginative territory shared with Douglas Coupland and Brett Easton Ellis, both of whom describe a society where hierarchies of value have been flattened, leaving behind numbness and absence. Coupland's sensitive slackers experience anomie and respond with fragile personal mythologies, cobbled together from childhood experiences or fleeting epiphanies - lying in a cornfield and watching an eclipse, marvelling at the flight of a flock of birds. Ellis's lost souls drift over a plane of signification where everything is morally equivalent to everything else, so that watching a child being tortured can inspire an indentical (lack of) response to buying a new shirt. The common thread is a desperate desire to feel, and a sense that something about American life at the Millennium makes that impossible.

The destruction in Fight Club becomes overtly political. Tyler Durden, its central character, sets up a terrorist force dedicated to the obliteration of civilisation and a return to a Rousseauesque pre-industrial state of nature. He graduates to this via acts of workplace sabotage (pissing in the soup at his catering Mcjob), and a subversion of that classic American role: the entrepreneur. Durden's "Paper Street Soap Company" manufactures its product from human body fat stolen from dumpsters behind liposuction clinics. In this it revisits the Nazi holocaust both as a perversion of American small-business culture and as a farcical revolt against ornamental America's obsession with a physical ideal.

Ornamentalism is a way of being a man fitted totally to the needs of the twenty-first century economy. Ornamental man is atomised, mobile, expresses his masculinity through consumerised display, and submits shyly to a scrutiny that is no longer definable as a male gaze ogling women, but has become a genderless capitalist eye disciplining male and female, gay and straight alike. The corporate gaze, checking out the size of your packet. Above all ornamental man is productive, sweating hard on the pec deck, working late at the office, eating healthily and getting it up that extra time to please his ornamental but demanding cosmo-reader girlfriend.

This is the true danger of Fight Club. Nihilistic male violence is, by definition, anti-productive. Our society is mobilising itself at all levels to promote economic efficiency. It is also, seemingly by coincidence, mobilising to prevent "antisocial" masculine violence. Once valorised as 'bravery' and formalised through male-controlled institutions, this quintessentially masculine impulse towards chaos is now the object of intense State pressure. From the football terraces and street muggings, to the poor academic and disciplinary record of the current generation of schoolboys, unchannelled masculine energy is seen as the biggest threat to the internal security of a new society which prefers to fight its wars outside its borders, and relay them home by television. The focus on sexual violence (which in so many ways is welcome), also has the effect of defining male sexuality first and foremost as a social problem, rather than a source of joy. What kind of mayhem will ensue is yet to be seen, but the fact remains that there is a generation of men who agree with Tyler Durden that "we are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday we'll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we won't. And we're just learning that fact ... so don't fuck with us."

This piece first appeared in Mute 16