Men and Nostalgia for Violence: Culture and Culpability in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club

Article excerpt

The first role about Fight Club is you don't talk about fight club. (Palahniuk, 1997, p. 50 et passim)

To write about Fight Club is to violate the first rule of Fight Club, (1) to engage in a discourse rendered illicit by Tyler Durden's directive in the novel and unspeakable by a post-war cultural politic (2) that posits violence as the exclusive domain of men (3) and brands male violence as the monolithic evil overshadowing American culture. The novel explores the relationship between men and violence and the effect transformations in American culture during the second half of the twentieth century have had on white, heterosexual men.

In America during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a cultural ethic emerged that disassociated men from aggression in an attempt to create a more congenial masculinity. Fueled by feminism(s), racial reform, and other popular and important movements of the period, the rhetoric of anti-aggression has spread widely through American culture, radically altering the way men are perceived and the way men perceive themselves. As heirs to the mantle, contemporary men are increasingly being held accountable for violence throughout human history, judged guilty by virtue of their Y chromosome. This double bind has left many men clinging to masculine traditions as a means of identifying themselves as men while rejecting those very same traditions in the public arena, covertly adhering to principles that they must overtly reject. Both rejecting and embracing male traditions result in a loss of power.

George Yudice (1995) points out in his discussion of the gender.maleness electronic discussion group that men (those in his study)

   ... seek a kind of salvation, through the recognition (shame) of
   their actions and powerlessness, in a leftist institutional
   context that they think gives recognition only to those who have
   a "difference" (that is, women, blacks, Latinos, gays, and
   lesbians). (p. 278)

Some members of Yudice's study feel compelled to accept "responsibility for male oppression and violence" (p. 178). These men are at least partially reflective of men within American culture who feel social pressure to adjust their behaviors and redesign their rhetoric to accommodate long disenfranchised groups. Masculine rule is still in place within American culture, but those who rule--those men who rightly or wrongly control the greater part of power--are increasingly being pressured to abnegate that power, without, it is important to add, sacrificing their manhood. The most effective strategy for dislodging men from the thrones of power has been to engender in them a penetrating sense of guilt, or, to borrow Yudice's term, shame. But shame is also associated with not engaging in traditional male behaviors. Greg Alan Williams (1997) in Boys to Men, for example, admits, "For years after I left the Marines I was ashamed that I'd never gone to war [Vietnam] and had no stories of horror or heroism to tell" (p. 28).

Shame, James Gilligan (2000) argues, is linked to violent crime. In his 25-year study of violent men, Gilligan defines shame as an "absence or deficiency of self-love" (p. 47), which he posits as the opposite of pride, that is, "a healthy sense of self-esteem, self-respect, and self-love" (p. 47). Gilligan claims that "constant shaming leads to a deadening of feeling, an absence of feeling" (p. 47), which ultimately leads to violent criminal behavior. Gilligan's examination of Ross L., who was serving a life sentence for the brutal and motiveless murder and mutilation of a woman he had known in high school, reveals a childhood filled with ridicule specifically aimed at Ross L.'s masculine identification. Gilligan links the convict's violent crimes to a deep sense of shame associated with qualities traditionally associated with manhood, such as sexual virility (Ross L "boasted" [p. 64] of his sexual conquests) and violent behavior. …