Identity Making from Soap to Nuts

The Role of Abjection

How to Cite

Caldwell, T. M. (2003). Identity Making from Soap to Nuts: The Role of Abjection. M/C Journal, 6(1).
Vol. 6 No. 1 (2003): Fight
Published 2003-02-01

The release of the film Fight Club (Dir. David Fincher, 1999) was met with an outpouring of contradictory reviews. From David Ansen’s [Newsweek] claim that “Fight Club is the most incendiary movie to come out of Hollywood in a long time” (Fight Club DVD insert) to LA Times’s Kenneth Turan who proclaimed Fight Club to be “…a witless mishmash of whiny, infantile philosophising and bone-crushing violence that actually thinks it’s saying something of significance” (Fight Club DVD insert), everyone, it seemed, needed to weigh in with their views. Whether you think the film is a piece of witless and excessive trash, or believe, as Fight Club novelist Chuck Palahniuk hopes “it would offer more people the idea that they could create their own lives outside the existing blueprint for happiness offered by society,” this is a film that people react strongly to (Fight Club DVD insert). Whether or not the film is successful in the new ‘blueprint’ area is debatable and one focus of this essay.

It isn’t difficult to spot the focus of the film Fight Club. The title and the graphic, edgy trailers for the film leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that this film is about fighting. But fighting what and why are the questions that unveil the deeper edge to the film, an edge that skirts the abyss of deep psychological schism: man’s alienation from man, society and self, and the position of the late twentieth century male whose gendered potentialities have become muted thanks to corporate cookie-cutter culture and the loss of a ‘hunter-gatherer’ role for men. In a nutshell, the film explores the psychic rift of the main character, unnamed for the film, but conventionally referred to as “Jack” (played by Ed Norton). Jack leads a life many late twentieth century males can identify with, a life without real grounding, focus or passion. It is the kind of life that has become a by-product of the “me” generation and corporate/consumer culture. Aside from Jack’s inability to find real satisfaction in his love life, friendships, job, or sense of self, he also suffers from an identity disorder. While there are few people who are unaware of the mind-numbing (and in some cases, audience-alienating) “twist” offered near the end of the film, it bears repeating that the compelling character of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) who shapes and influences the changes in Jack’s life is actually revealed near the end of the film as a manifestation of Jack’s alter ego. Jack and Tyler are the same person. The two conspire to start ‘Fight Club’, where men hit other men. Hard. The Club becomes an underground sensation, expanding to other communities and cities and eventually spawns the offshoot Project Mayhem whose goal it is to ultimately erase individual debt so everyone (all consumers) can start at zero. In order to manage this affair, several large buildings are slated for destruction by the Mayhem team. Of course no people will be in the buildings at the time, but all the records will be destroyed. This is the core of the film, but there are several other interesting sidelights that will become important to this discussion, including the lone female character Marla who becomes the love interest of Jack/Tyler, and the friend Bob, whom Jack meets during his insomniac foray into the seedy underworld of the self help meeting.

The film itself seems to cry out for a psychoanalytic reading. Its thinly veiled references to Freudian concepts and subliminal tricks aside, it also makes the inner world of the protagonist its landscape and backdrop. In a film dominated by a psychological and psychical problem, psychoanalysis seems an excellent tool for delving more deeply into the symbols and attitudes of the piece. I have chosen both Kleinian object relations and Julia Kristeva’s understanding of abjection to help illuminate some issues in the film. Object relations helps to make clear both the divergence of personality and the emergence of a ‘repaired’ protagonist at the end of the film as Jack first creates and then destroys his alter ego. Kristeva initially explored abjection theory via literature in Powers of Horror (1982), but Barbara Creed’s Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis (1993) opened wide the door for applications of the theory to film studies. Creed uses abjection to explore issues of gender in the horror film, focusing on the role and depiction of women as abject. Here, I have adapted some of her ideas and intend to explore the role of abjection in the male identification process.

In this film fighting operates as both reality and metaphor, on both the physical and psychical levels, encompassing the internal and external fight within the mind and body of the protagonist. Jack’s main problem is a lack of concrete identity and self-realization. Numbed by his willing and eager participation in consumer culture and his tacit compliance with the gritty underworld of his job as an automotive ‘recall coordinator’, his life’s work is estimating the cost effectiveness of saving lives by calculating the cost of death. In Jack’s world, meaning is derived solely through the external—external products he consumes and collects. Jack’s consumer-based emasculation is expressed when he states, “Like so many others I had become a slave to the Ikea nesting instinct.” In this sentence he clarifies his disempowerment and feminisation in one swoop. Having few, if any, relationships with human beings, meaningful or otherwise, Jack never reaches a level of social maturity. His only solace comes from visiting anonymous help groups for the terminally ill. Although Jack is physically fine (aside from his insomnia) a part of him is clearly dying, as his sense of who he is in a postmodern culture is hopelessly mediated by advertisements that tell him what to be. In the absence of a father, Jack appears to have had no real role models. Made ‘soft’ by his mother, Jack exhibits a not so subtle misogyny that is illustrated through his relationship with fellow ‘tourist’ in the self-help circles, Marla Singer.

Jack’s identity issues unfold via various conflicts, each of which is enmeshed in the club he starts that revolves around the physical pain of hand-to-hand, man-on-man combat. Jack’s conflicts with himself, others and society at large are all compressed within the theme and practice of fighting and the fight clubs he institutes. Fighting for Jack (and the others who join) seems the answer to life’s immediate problems. This essay looks deeply into Jack’s identity conflict, viewing it as a moment of psychic crisis in which Jack creates an alternate personality deeply steeped in and connected to the ‘abject’ in almost every way. Thus, Jack forces himself to confront the abject in himself and the world around him, dealing with abjection on several levels all with a view to expelling it to restore the ‘clean and proper’ boundaries necessary in the ‘whole’ self. Viewed though the lens of psychoanalysis, particularly Klein’s work on object relations and Kristeva’s work with abjection, allows a reading in which the film expresses the need for and accomplishment of a self-activated encounter with the abject in order to redraw ‘clean and proper’ boundaries of self. This film’s tag lines, ‘Mischief, Mayhem and Soap’—illustrate both the presence (Mischief, Mayhem) and function (Soap) of the abject—the interaction with the abject will lead to a ‘clean’ subject—a proper subject, a restored subject. Before continuing, a brief discussion of abjection and object relations and the ways in which they are utilized in this essay is essential here.

One of Klein’s major propositions is that “the neonate brings into the world two main conflicting impulses: love and hate” (Mitchell 19). Each of these conflicting impulses must be dealt with, usually by either “bringing them together in order to modify the death drive along with the life drive or expelling the death drive into the outside world” (19). Along with this conflict arises the conflict of a primary relationship with the mother, which is seen as both satisfying and frustrating, and then later complicated with the addition of the father. The main conflicting love/hate binary is reflective of a number of ‘sets’ of dualities that surface when looking into the mother/child relationship. Besides love and hate, there is the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mother, the mother as symbolic of both life and death, the symbolic (paternal) and semiotic (maternal), total oneness and total autonomy. The curious ‘split’ nature of the infant’s perception of the maternal figure recalls a kind of doppelganger, a doubling of the maternal (in positive and negative incarnations), that can be seen as abject. In the film, this informs the relationship between both Jack and Marla and Jack and Tyler, as I argue Tyler and Marla serve as parental substitutes at one part in the film. This is clarified in Jack’s statements about his relationship with the two of them: “My parents pulled this exact same act for years” and “I am six years old again, passing messages between parents.” This imaginary relationship allows Jack to re-experience some of his early identification processes, while effectively trading out the gender responsibilities to the point where Tyler symbolically takes the place of the ‘mother’ and Marla the place of the ‘father’. The result of this action is an excess of male gendered experiences in which Jack in crisis (emasculated) is surrounded by phalluses.

Kristeva’s work with abjection is also important here. I am especially interested in her understanding of the mother/child relationship as connected with abjection, particularly the threat the mother represents to the child as wanting to return to a state of oneness. The abject functions in Fight Club as a means for the protagonist to re-configure his own autonomy. For Kristeva, the abject is that which is cast out in order that “I” may exist. It exists at the borders of the self and continually draws the subject into it. As the subject revolts and pulls away, its resistance cues the process of defining itself as separate, proper and autonomous. When the narrative of Jack’s life refuses to make sense to him, and his experiences seem like “a copy of a copy of a copy,” Jack turns inward for help. Kristeva says that the abject is “experienced at the peak of its strength when that subject, weary of fruitless attempts to identify with something on the outside, finds the impossible within” (5). Thus Jack ‘finds’ Tyler. The abject, [represented by Bob, Tyler and Marla in the film] is that which disturbs “identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4). As the abject is that which blurs boundaries borders and classification, the film itself is steeped in abject images and ideas. The discrete categories of inside/outside, asleep/awake, male/female, and self/other are continually troubled throughout the narrative. The two most confused binaries are male/female and self/other. As the film is about Jack’s own experience of emasculation it is not until the male/female gender issues are resolved that his self/other issues can be resolved. Through the re-ordering of gender he is able to take his place in society alongside Marla, finally viewed as not his mother or friend but lover.

Jack Versus Himself: A Cult Of One

Jack is able to re-vamp his personality through exposure to the abject and the replaying of certain key object relations moments in his childhood. He engages with this ‘inner child’ to reconnect with psychically difficult moments in which his ‘self’ emerged. Jack, however, twists the typical plot of maternal and paternal bonding in ways that speak to the underlying misogyny of the film and of late twentieth century society as well. While the story begins with both male and female characters in unnatural roles with unnatural and abject body parts, by the end of the film, these ‘abnormalities’ or abject objects are erased, ejected from the text so Jack is restored to the ‘safety’ of a compulsory heterosexuality.

Bob, Tyler and Marla’s characters are three examples of gender twisting expressed in the film. In psychoanalytic literature, the child bonds first to the mother (via feeding from the breast and in-utero existence) and experiences a feeling of total oneness impossible to duplicate. Eventually the child seeks autonomy and breaks from the mother and her clinging ways with the help of the father and the phallus. So in basic terms, the female is abject, representing infantile regression and oneness, and the male represents taking the proper place in the symbolic order. When the female (mother) is denied, the male accepts his natural place in culture and society. However, in this film, Tyler (the male) is the abject presence in the text, that which threatens to consume and subsume the narrator’s personality. It is Marla, the phallic woman, who interposes herself in this dyad and becomes the correct choice for Jack, allowing him to proceed into ‘normal relations.’

Early in the film, Jack is unable to envision a female partner with whom he can open up and share, instead substituting Bob—and his doubly signified ‘bitch-tits’—as a locus of comfort. In Bob’s ample bosom, Jack finds the release he is looking for, though it is unnatural in more ways than one. The feminised Bob [testicular cancer patient] comforts and coddles Jack so much that he feels the same idyllic bliss experienced by the infant at the mother’s breast; Jack feels “lost in oblivion, dark and silent and complete.” That night he is able for the first time in months to sleep: “Babies don’t sleep this well.” This illustrates Jack’s longing for the safety and security of the mother, complicated by his inability to bond with a female, replaced with his deep need for identification with a male. Continuing the twist, it is Marla who foils Jack’s moment of infantile bliss: “She ruined everything” with her presence, Jack sneers. Jack’s regression to this infantile bliss with either man or woman would be perceived as abject, (disrupting system and order) but this particular regression is at least doubly abject because of Bob’s unnatural breasts and lack of testicles.

Both Bob, and to some degree Tyler, offer abjection to Jack as a way of dealing with this complexities of autonomous living. While my argument is that Tyler takes the traditional ‘female’ role in the drama, as a figure (like Bob) who lures Jack into an unnatural oneness that must ultimately be rejected, it is true that even in his position as abject ‘female’ (mother), Tyler is overwhelmingly phallic. His ‘jobs’ consist of splicing shots of penises into films, urinating and masturbating into restaurant food and engaging in acrobatic sex with Marla. Since Marla, who occupies the position of father bringing Jack into society away from the influence of Tyler, is also coded phallic, Jack’s world is overwhelmingly symbolically male. This appears to be a response to the overwhelming physical presence of Jack’s mother of which Tyler comments, “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I am wondering if another woman is really the answer we need?” During this same scene, Jack clarifies his regressive dilemma: “I can’t get married, I am a thirty year old boy.” Thus while Tyler campaigns for a world without women, Jack must decide if this is the correct way to go. Immersion in the world of uber-maleness only seems to make his life worse. It is only after he ‘kills’ Tyler and accepts Marla as a partner that he can feel successful.

In another help meeting, one of the guided meditations emphasizes his regression by asking him to go to his “cave” and locate his “power animal.” This early in the film, Jack can only envision his power animal as a rather silly penguin, which, although phallic to some extent, is undercut by the fact that it speaks with a child’s voice. In the next visualization of the ‘power animal’, the animal becomes Marla—clarifying her influence over Jack’s subconscious. The threat of Marla’s sexuality is on one level explored with Jack’s counterpart Tyler, the one who dares to go where Jack will not, but their encounters are not shown in a ‘natural’ or fully mature light. They are instead equated with childhood experimentation and regressive fantasies as Marla responds that she “hasn’t been fucked like that since grade school” and Tyler proclaims the relationship is mere “sportfucking.” It is Tyler who discovers Marla’s oversized dildo proudly displayed on a dresser, of which she states “Don’t worry its not a threat to you.” This phallicized Marla refers to herself as “infectious human waste,” clearly abject. Marla’s power must be muted before Jack can truly relate to her. This is illustrated in two separate ‘visions’ of sexual intercourse—one between Marla and Tyler early in the film in which Marla assumes the dominant position, and then later near the end of the film when the same encounter is replayed with Jack taking Tyler’s place, Marla now in the standard missionary position on her back: Proper. Jack’s struggle with self is played out via his relationship with Tyler (and Marla to some degree). Once Jack has been exposed to the various levels of abject behaviour offered by Tyler and Project Mayhem, he chooses to go it alone, no longer needing the double he himself created. After experiencing and rejecting the abject, Jack redraws his boundaries and cleanses his soul.

Jack Versus Society—The Personal Is Political

Jack’s personal struggle becomes political—and communal. Another attempt at forming identity, Fight Club is bound to fail because it offers not autonomy but a group identity substituted for an individual one. While Jack loathes his ‘single serving life’ before Fight Club, he must come to realize that a group identity brings more problems than solutions in an identity crisis. While the comfort of ‘oneness’ is alluring, it is also abject. As Jack is able to finally refuse the safely and oneness offered by Tyler’s existence, he must also deny the safety in numbers offered by Fight Club itself. The cult he creates swallows members whole, excreting them as the “all singing all dancing crap of the world.” They eat, drink and sleep Fight Club and eventually its ‘evolutionary’ offshoot, Project Mayhem.

During his involvement with Fight Club and Project Mayhem, Jack is exposed to three levels of abjection including food loathing, bodily wastes, and the corpse, each of which threaten to draw him to the “place where meaning collapses” (Kristeva 2). Jack’s first experience involves Tyler’s (a)vocation as a waiter who urinates and probably masturbates into patrons’ food. This mingling of bodily wastes and nourishment represents the most elementary form of abjection: food loathing. While Jack appears amused at Tyler’s antics in the beginning, by the end of the film, he illustrates his movement closer to self-identification, by calling for “clean food, please” signalling his alliance with the clean and proper. Bodily wastes, the internal made visible, represent the most extended contact Jack has with the abject. These experiences, when what is properly outside ends up inside and vice versa, begin with bloody hand-to-hand combat, including Tyler’s vomiting of blood into the mouth of an unwilling Fight Club participant “Lou”, causing another witness to vomit as well. The physical aversion to abject images (blood, pus, excrement) is part of the redrawing of self—the abject is ejected –via nausea/vomiting. Kristeva explains: “I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” (3). The images continue to pile up as Jack describes life in the Paper Street house: “What a shit hole.” The house slowly decomposes around them, leaking and mouldy, releasing its own special smell: the rot of a “warm stale refrigerator” mixed with the “fart smell of steam” from a nearby industrial plant.

While at Paper Street, Tyler decides to make soap. Soap in itself is an agent of cleanliness, but in this context it is abject and defiled by being composed of human waste. In a deeply abject moment, Jack is accidentally covered in refuse that spills from a ripped bag full of human fat pilfered from a liposuction clinic. Even at this profoundly disturbing moment, Jack is unwilling to give up his associations with Tyler and Project Mayhem. It is only after his encounter with a corpse that he changes his tune. While Fight Club attempted to blur physical boundaries via hand-to-hand combat and exchange of blood and blows, Project Mayhem threatens the psychic boundaries of self, a deeper danger. While a loud speaker drones “we are all part of the same compost heap” and a fellow occupant reminds Jack “In project mayhem we have no names,” Jack realizes he is truly losing himself, not gaining strength. Mayhem’s goal of ‘oneness’, like the maternal and infant experience, is exposed via slogans like “you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” Tyler finally puts his cards on the table and asks Jack to “stop trying to control everything and just let go.” For Kristeva, “If dung signifies the other side of the border, the place where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything”(3). The corpse of Bob causes Jack to confront the boundaries of life and death, both spiritual and physical, as he opens his eyes to the damaging effects of the cult-like environment into which he has fallen. Jack’s momentary indecision morphs into action after Bob’s death becomes just one more mantra for the zombie-like Project Mayhemers to chant: “His name was Robert Paulson.”

Jack’s internal and external struggles are compressed into one moment when he commits homo(sui)cide. Placing a gun in his mouth, he attempts to rid himself of Tyler forever, his final words to Tyler: “My eyes are open now”. At this point, Jack is psychically ready to take charge of his life and confidently eject the abject from the narrative of his life. He wants no more to do with Project Mayhem gang and is reunited with Marla with whom he finally appears ready to have a fully realized relationship. His masculinity and identity restoration are made blindingly apparent by the final splice in the film—the image of Marla and Jack hand in hand overlooking the new view out of the tower, spliced with the shot of a semi-erect penis—back to shot of Marla and Jack. The message is clear: Jack is a man, he has a woman, and he knows who he is because of it.

While Fight Club novelist Palahniuk hopes the film offers options for life “outside the existing blueprint offered by society” (Fight Club DVD insert). On the other hand, it’s unclear how well the film pulls this off. On one hand, its lambasting of the numbing effects of blind and excessive consumerism seems well explored, it’s unclear what options really surface by the end of the film. Although many targeted buildings have been destroyed, through which the viewer can assume some or even most records of individual debt were erased, the building in which Marla and Jack stand (initially slated for destruction) remains. Perhaps this is meant to signify the impossibility of true financial equality in American society. But it seems to me that the more pressing issues are not the ones openly addressed in the film (that of money and consumerism) but rather the more internalised issues of self-actualisation, gender identity and contentment. In a postmodern space ripe for the redrawing and redefinition of gender stereotypes, this film carefully reinscribes not only compulsory heterosexuality but also the rigid boundaries of acceptable male and female behaviour. For this film, the safest route to repairing male identity and self-hood threatened by the emasculating practices of a consumer culture is a route back. Back to infantile and childhood fantasy. While it dances provocatively around the edges of accepting a man with ‘bitch tits’ and a woman with a dick, ultimately Bob is killed and Marla reclaimed by Jack in an ‘I’m ok you’re ok’ final scene: “Look at me Marla, I am really OK”. Jack’s immersion in an all male cult(ure) is eschewed for the comfort of real breasts.

Author Biography

Tracy M. Caldwell