Fight Club and America’s Violent Addiction

“The first rule of fight club is — you don’t talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is — you don’t talk about fight club. The third rule of fight club is — when someone says “stop” or goes limp, the fight is over. Fourth rule is — only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule — one fight at a time. Sixth rule — no shirts, no shoes. Seventh rule — fights go on as long as they have to. And the eighth and final rule — if this is your first night at fight club, you have to fight.” (from Fight Club, based on the novel of the same name by Chuck Palahnuik)

Any fight, any verbal confrontation has the potential to end in death. I learned this from a the men’s class I took from Bay Area Model Muggings (BAMM), a self-defense course designed to train you to learn how to fight for your life and why your life is worth fighting for – my second class of this type. This very real concept – that any confrontation can ultimately lead to death – is obscured by what we perceive to be real: the media. No one ever dies on TV, fist fights never end in death in the movies, or, if they do, the death is glorified, justified, hyperreal, beautiful.

BAMM is the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the national organization IMPACT! Personal Safety. From the two IMPACT men’s classes I’ve taken, I found that the inspiration for many men to take the class is the fact that they’re completely unfamiliar with what it’s like to “be in a real fight.” Many of them have taken multiple martial arts classes and been frustrated with the form, the no contact, the pulled punches. IMPACT trains you to hit full force against a padded assailant in realistic scenarios. Because of this and because their scenarios are more focused on sexual assault, the women’s classes are often utterly terrifying for the students, and often times send many of them into flashbacks of their own assault(s). I wouldn’t speculate that it is any less terrifying for the men’s classes, but men are fighting a very different assailant, one whose primary goal is not (as often) sexual domination and control, but more often territory, or defense of his pride. BAMM and IMPACT provide an opportunity to learn how to fight, which from the testimonies of many men in the classes I’ve taken, is something they’re expected to know how to do, but never learned. Many men who take IMPACT, have often in the past used their mouth and wits to defend themselves, with mixed results. In many ways, IMPACT, for a lot of these men, is a safer, more controlled version of the fight club described above. There are rules of conduct, a definite ending point, and a general expectation that this is an environment in which it is safe to express oneself in a way that might otherwise be unacceptable. It’s a place to fight with no fear of repercussions.

IMPACT is both real and hyperreal. It’s a role-play scenario. The padded male instructors are not real assailants, even though they’re telling you to “fuck yourself, pretty boy,” that they’re going to “kick your ass,” or possibly “gonna fuck you up the ass right now.” You’re not on the street, you’re on pads. Neither individual is likely to get badly injured during the course of the fight. And yet when I’m standing there, eyes closed as per instruction, waiting for the male instructor to get my attention verbally or physically touch, hit, or otherwise rouse me, my heart is racing, I’m “in the moment.” The fight from then on is completely adrenalized – a technique IMPACT uses to solidify the training into the muscles of the body, as opposed to memorizing positions and movements. And I’m fighting. I’m hitting this guy over and over. I don’t stop until he’s on the ground, and then I’m hitting him in the temple with a closed fist, one knee over his arm, the other over his leg, he’s lying there, prone and defenseless. This is called a “hammer” or “hammerfist,” and it’s a “finishing move” designed to incapacitate your assailant. They don’t teach this in San Francisco. I hammer him again and again, and then I hear a whistle and the fight is over.

If this were a real fight, it wouldn’t have lasted that long. If this were a real fight, the assailant is likely to have retreated after the first sign of resistance. But IMPACT trains you to fight until the assailant is unconscious and no longer able to harm you. If this were a real fight, the first “heelpalm” or “forward elbow” would likely give the assailant a bloody nose: the fight wouldn’t be clean. If this were a real fight, when the assailant (which is who in this scenario again?) fell, there’d be a danger of hitting his head against the concrete, splitting the back of his head open, possibly giving him a concussion or worse. More blood. Danger. Violence. Witnesses would see me on top of him, screaming “NO” while beating this guy senseless. But who would be the assailant to them? The picture of violence that we’re given in this society is devoid of consequences. In movies, television, video games we’re taught that violence is not only okay, but an acceptable form of expressing oneself (if you’re male), and, most times, perfectly justified.

In her essay on pornography, Erin McClenahan discusses how in modern times the United States Army uses films, photography and simulation to socialize the soldiers to become more accustomed to violence, desensitized. Likewise, the Nazis, “too, used similar methods to prepare officers for killing and hurting the Jews like movies dehumanizing Jews [and] comparing them to rats…” (McClenehan). As someone who buys and plays video games, it’s not difficult for me to see the way in which the violence within the video games could make violence on the whole seem more “okay.” One popular computer game on the market, in fact, Delta Force and its sequels, was originally made for the US Army as training and simulation. A first person perspective, Delta Force puts you in foreign landscapes, gives you a scenario of terrorist kidnapping or drug smuggling, and puts you and your squad in the action. Among the added features of Delta Force to add to realism are the voices of the terrorists or enemies speaking in their native tongues, and real weapons used by the US military available for the missions in the game. Games like these dehumanize violence to the point in which killing a “bad guy” isn’t real, it’s just code and graphics, 1’s and 0’s.

Movies and TV further this binary of “good vs. bad,” which assists in making violence acceptable. The increasing popularity of “kung-fu” movies in America is interesting when the genre of Hong Kong action films is fully realized. No violence that occurs in these movies, or very little anyway, ever results in death, injury, or even blood for that matter. Just as modern martial arts is very much about the form of fighting more so than the act of injuring your opponent, the fights in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or any multitude of Jet Li films are choreographed with the following or similar pattern: “attack, block, change, repeat.” Again, if many of these attacks are taken out of the hyperreal and into the real, a very different scenario happens. On one hand, certain attacks, for example, Jet Li’s highly acclaimed rope work, could do quite a lot of damage in “real life,” whereas in the movies, they are often very easily defended. But the IMPACT program was started after a black belt in several martial arts was raped, proving that many of those techniques just can’t be realistically applied to life situations.

“Professional” wrestling glorifies violence within this “good/bad” binary even more. The soap opera of petty quarrels and rivalries are unending in the two major wrestling leagues, the WWF and the WCW. Violence is the only outcome to disagreement. Excuses for violence are found in anything, from saying something about someone’s ally or friend, to accidentally brushing up against someone accidentally. Often, alliances are formed and broken for no particular reason other than continuing the theme of conflict, to add to the variation of possible encounters between the myriad of characters these “wrestlers” portray. Nothing in “professional wrestling” is either “professional” in any sense of professional sports, or real. The “wrestlers” or characters will sign contracts to fight one another and talk about them in “interviews.” I put everything in quotations, because one has to be skeptical of everything and anything that comes out of an industry based solely on the entertainment of its male viewership, something that has no basis in reality and is entirely scripted and contrived. The lines of good and evil in wrestling are easily defined, and easily seen in the character’s behavior, dress, makeup, theme music, attitude. These lines are often crossed to create viewer tension and confusion and then crossed again, as with the recent switch of Hulk Hogan from child idol and all-American hero to the despicable “Hollywood” Hogan—his wardrobe, in the process, made a massive switch from yellow with the red “Hulk” inscribed on his shirts he would traditionally rip from his body, to all black, sporting the NWO (New World Order, a group of similar “evil” character/wrestlers) logo. His golden hair, which used to be his namesake, and accompanies every vision of Hogan in the minds of his original fans, is covered by a black bandana. His beard is grown out, mismatching his traditional bleached mustache. His eyes are hidden by sunglasses. He is now a “bad guy.”

These easily definable lines of “good” and “bad” are brought into our daily lives and interactions by cop shows and movies. The cop on the TV is a model for cops in real life, and the lines are clearly defined—obviously he’s a “good guy,” he’s a policeman. Because police are there to protect us, we ignore their humanity, their ability to fail, we ignore countless reports of police brutality, of cops being horrible, manipulative, “bad.” Hakim Bey, anarcho-philosopher-poet, talks at length about cops in his essay “Resolution for the 1990’s: Boycott Cop Culture!” He says:

“If one fictional figure can be said to have dominated the popcult of the eighties, it was the Cop. Fuckin’ police everywhere you turned, worse than real life… Powerful Cops–protecting the meek and humble–at the expense of a half-dozen or so articles of the Bill of Rights–“Dirty Harry.” Nice human cops, coping with human perversity, coming out sweet ‘n’ sour, you know, gruff & knowing but still soft inside–Hill Street Blues–most evil TV show ever. Wiseass black cops scoring witty racist remarks against hick white cops, who nevertheless come to love each other–Eddie Murphy, Class Traitor. For that masochist thrill we got wicked bent cops who threaten to topple our Kozy Konsensus Reality from within like Giger-designed tapeworms, but naturally get blown away just in the nick of time by the Last Honest Cop, Robocop, ideal amalgam of prosthesis and sentimentality… in the ideal drama of the eighties, the “little man” who once scattered bluebottles by the hundred with that anarchist’s bomb, innocently used to light a cigarette–the Tramp, the victim with the sudden power of the pure heart–no longer has a place at the center of narrative. Once “we” were that hobo, that quasi-surrealist chaote hero who wins thru wu-wei over the ludicrous minions of a despised & irrelevant Order. But now “we” are reduced to the status of victims without power, or else criminals. “We” no longer occupy that central role; no longer the heroes of our own stories, we’ve been marginalized & replaced by the Other, the Cop. Thus the Cop Show has only three characters–victim, criminal, and policeperson–but the first two fail to be fully human–only the pig is real. Oddly enough, human society in the eighties (as seen in the other media) sometimes appeared to consist of the same three cliche/archetypes. First the victims, the whining minorities bitching about “rights”–and who pray tell did not belong to a “minority” in the eighties? Shit, even cops complained about their “rights” being abused. Then the criminals: largely non-white (despite the obligatory & hallucinatory “integration” of the media), largely poor (or else obscenely rich, hence even more alien), largely perverse (i.e. the forbidden mirrors of “our” desires). I’ve heard that one out of four households in America is robbed every year, & that every year nearly half a million of us are arrested just for smoking pot. In the face of such statistics (even assuming they’re “damned lies”) one wonders who is NOT either victim or criminal in our police-state-of-consciousness… The media cops, like televangelical forerunners, prepare us for the advent, final coming or Rapture of the police state: the “Wars” on sex and drugs: total control totally leached of all content; a map with no coordinates in any known space; far beyond mere Spectacle; sheer ecstasy (“standing-outside-the-body”); obscene simulacrum; meaningless violent spasms elevated to the last principle of governance. Image of a country consumed by images of self-hatred, war between the schizoid halves of a split personality, Super-Ego vs. the Id Kid, for the heavyweight championship of an abandoned landscape, burnt, polluted, empty, desolate, unreal.” (Bey)

The violence in cop media – film and television – is always justifiable. It’s the ultimate battle of good and evil and they’re fighting for our rights. Cop shows are possibly some of the most violent shows on television, but the structure created through the system of acceptance in cop shows – where the cop is unquestionably good, and the criminal unquestionably evil – make it such that if the criminal does die, he merely got what he deserved. And getting what they deserve is the attitude for all criminals, the faceless minorities that occupy, fill, and overcrowd our prisons. Getting what they deserve is the motivation by the State-enforced violence and murder, the death sentence. Ours is a system in which an offence against our selves cannot go unresponded-to.

The irony of Fight Club was not that it commented on senseless violence, mindless action and brainwashing, and repressed male anger while glorifying all of these things, but that after the film was released, many pseudo-Fight Clubs began to spring up everywhere. Stupid kids and adults, mostly male, watched the movie and said “hey, that’s a good idea” despite the underlying message of the movie of “hey, this is a really bad idea.” More than anything else, I think this proves how our culture is hungry for any excuse to commit acts of violence, and how this hunger is fed from any number of sources, music, TV, film, photography, art, pornography, the internet, video games, children’s toys, our favorite pastimes – no moment in sports is awaited more than the promise of the batter charging the pitcher’s mound, the punch thrown in hockey, the one tackle in football that knocks the ball-carrier’s helmet off, and sends it rolling across the field like a severed head. Society has always been fixated on violence, public beheadings, hangings, executions and torture prove this, though today these are considered “cruel and unusual punishments.” So, like junkies, we find another supplier to get our fix. And it’s everywhere. It’s so pervasive that most of the time we don’t even see it. Violence is even in our language: the word “fag” for example can be traced to England which means cigarette – something you light on fire – which goes even farther back to a stick for burning, and a “faggot” is a bundle of kindling. The word “nigger” has a whole history of violence, oppression and slavery attached to it.

What made Fight Club so popular, I think, is it’s brutal honesty about what physical violence physically does. The most memorable scene, to me, in the film is when Edward Norton annihilates the new, pretty boy’s face, literally beating it to a pulp. After this, he explains, “I wanted to destroy something beautiful.” Even in it’s honesty about physical injury, the violence is glorified. Norton’s desire to “destroy something beautiful” is perfect reason to leave permanent scars, bruises and injuries. We have images of violence in our head, but they’re very skewed to make the hero come out the victor, without injury, wiping the dust off his jacket, and his rival – well, who cares about him? But it’s these images that make it easy for people to be compelled to violent behavior, it’s normalcy and the extent to which it is accepted is communicated through all of the channels we acquire knowledge, including school history books and political propaganda.

Fight Club is one of my favorite movies, as well as one of my favorite novels. However, I think it speaks volumes about our culture that the end of the film is a somewhat happy one, one in which, at least, Edward Norton, the main character, walks away, and gets the girl. The book concludes with the girl, and all his former supporters from the support groups he went to coming in, and he, in the face of this, blows his brains out, and the narrative is concluded as he is dead, in Heaven, talking to and about God. For the movie to sell to the American public, he needed to live through the end, and come out the victor, the hero, because violence is the answer, and no question is ever needed.

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