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January 6, 2004

What's the Matter With Ikea Boy?

Quick question while I'm sorting out the schedule for my spring semester English class (yes, I know I should be using Moveable Type; maybe next fall): I'm teaching Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (and probably David Fincher's film adaptation), and I'm trying to find a couple of critical essays that tackle Fight Club's treatment of consumer culture and masculinity. I have Henry Giroux and Imre Szeman's "Ikea Boy Fights Back," but I think their resistance to the film needs to be complicated by an essay that affirms the film's critique of consumer culture.

I think it's important to find an essay that finds value in the novel and film as critical texts, in part because I know many students will be entusiastic about them (with good reason), and I don't want to position film and literary critics as "censors" who think that the popular is somehow bad or wrong. I realize that Giroux and Szeman aren't making that argument, but when professors talk about the popular, students seem to anticipate that we will reject it.

Any suggestions? Has anyone taught Fight Club (either novel or film) in their classes?

This question grows out of an experience on the first day of class yesterday in which I was asking students to introduce themselves and to mention a film they had seen recently that they either liked or hated. After most of the students had introduced thesmelves, mentioning what I considered to be a relatively broad range of recent films, one student apologized for the class having such popular tastes. I'll admit I'm kind of a movie snob sometimes (though not always--I just don't like Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, Tom Cruise....), but the student's response, given on the first day of class, seems to suggest an unconscious perception that liking the popular is somehow wrong, particularly in a college classroom. There's a larger question brewing here, one that I'm struggling to even ask, but I think the reputation of English professors as elitists makes teaching students a critical engagement with the ideological contradictions found within any popular text an even more difficult task.

Then again, maybe I'm reading way too much into a throwaway comment....

Update: Thanks to Steven Shaviro for the link to the Amy Taubin article, "So Good It Hurts."

Posted by chuck at January 6, 2004 10:28 PM

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I think that many academics do have a problem with Fight Club. I have an unfinished essay on the film; when I presented part of it (with no conclusion) at a conference, I was basically attacked for supporting fascism.
Nonetheless, there are a few good discussions that don't trash the film.
The best thing I've read on Fight Club is Amy Taubin's article in Sight and Sound; I found it at http://www.edward-norton.org/fc/articles/sight.html.
She highly praises the film, though her focus is not its critique of consumerism so much as its avant garde formal practices.
Terry Lee in Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, Fall-Winter 2002 p418(6) defends the film as a deconstruction of hegemonic masculinity.

Posted by: Steve Shaviro at January 6, 2004 11:25 PM

In a sense, I think Taubin's formal reading will amplify one of the major arguments I'm making in the class about how digitization challenges the indexical quality of cinematic representation.

In the essay, Taubin comments that "Since the twist subverts what for 100 years has been an essential premise of cinema - that it is an index of the physical world - to leave it out of this analysis does the film an injustice. Especially since this premise will become a part of ancient history when film is trnasformed from a photographic medium to a digital electronic medium - and Fight Club is nothing if not a glimpse of that future."

On a brief glance, I think her essay will serve my purposes quite well.

Posted by: chuck at January 7, 2004 12:01 AM

On the popular: When I teach Samuel Richardson's 1740 novel _Pamela_, I tell my students that it was a runaway bestseller, popular as no work of fiction had ever been before. They're impressed.


Then they read it, and they're somewhat less impressed. Puzzled, even.

Posted by: George at January 7, 2004 12:09 AM

i can only speak from a student's perspective on the popular-tastes-in-the-classroom issue, but i did struggle with that while i was working on comics. not so much when i was doing my straight-historical work on french & belgian comics, but quite a bit when i was focusing on peanuts/nietzsche and peanuts/derrida. i was a bit nervous going to avital ronell's office hours to talk over why charlie brown getting the ball pulled out from under him can be read as a scene of derridean forgiveness, but all in all, my professors were really supportive. the strange looks tended to come from fellow students, and i wonder if perhaps that's where the anxiety is directed.

Posted by: silvergirl at January 7, 2004 12:20 AM

Two possibilities: See Geof Sirc's response to Giroux in the next issue of JAC. And (at the risk of promoting my rather less-than-perfect article) I could also point you to the thing I wrote for the latest issue of Composition Forum ("Big Time Sensuality: Affective Literacies and Texts that Matter"). I talk about affect and/in experience of Fight Club, which does not necessarily "mean" in significant (and critiquable) ways. I draw a lot from Massumi and Grossberg in the article. But Sirc is really, really excellent. Start there.

Posted by: Jenny Edbauer at January 7, 2004 1:05 AM

sorry--i should've said that geoff's response is in the next JAC issue immediately following giroux's critique of fight club. if i wasn't so lazy, i could find the reference. i'm prety lazy, though.

Posted by: Jenny Edbauer at January 7, 2004 1:06 AM

Some of that anxiety might very well come from other students--Tech can be a pretty competitive place. I also have found it intersting that students will sometimes confide in me privately about indpendent or obscure tastes they might not mention in class (which suggests a similar kind of self-consciousness), but because of the context, the anxiety seemed more directed at me (or my position as the instructor).

I do think there is a slightly different kind of "guilt" in (some) students admitting that they like certain texts, such as when a female student "admits" that she liked "Love Actually" or "Mona Lisa Smile." Or when a male student admits to liking "Paycheck" or "Dumb and Dumberer." Perhaps, though, this is a more general discomfort with revealing something specific about your tastes to a group of relative strangers.

Posted by: chuck at January 7, 2004 1:15 AM

Jenny: thanks for the suggestions! I'll certainly take a look at both articles. I happened to be writing my previous comment when you posted yours.

The connections you're making to Massumi and Grossberg sound interesting.

Posted by: chuck at January 7, 2004 1:21 AM


Why not insert more of the popular in the exercise? Have the students compare the "academic" critical essay with reviews they find on the WWW.

On the film, Fight Club: I remember being struck by how the camera doesn't do a 360 degree pan in the final scene thus at the very last minute constructing a space for the viewer that is theatrical in the sense of proscenium sight lines. The viewer is looking into a box as if through a fourth wall/window. It is actually very nuanced--- the viewer can choose this projection or adopt the imaginary view that the fourth wall is also ablaze. The identificatory moment, the split.

Likewise, in the classroom the Other erupts. Question becomes how does the teacher duck the student projection: teacher as Other? Who in the classroom is a camer? Who a screen?

Ask not what students can consume be it popular review or academic criticism, ask what they can produce, what utterances they can make that then become the basis of their own odyssey of analysis.

How can the rewriting be persued....

Posted by: Francois Lachance at January 7, 2004 10:28 AM

Interesting suggestion about asking students to find online articles, fan sites, or blog entries about FC, Francois.

I like Jenny's suggestion of reading Giroux aagainst Sirc, just to give them a sense of how academic debates unfold, but I think pop readings of the film could add another interesting dimension (and I'd imagine that some students go looking for these sites anyway--might as well reward them for their labor).

I like the reading of the final shot of the film--it is quite staged. I'd noticed that before, but your interpretation is intriguing....

Posted by: chuck at January 7, 2004 10:59 AM

For a fun addition, you might consider showing the parody trailer: "Thumb Club"


It is surprisingly well done, and it might play well into conversations about fan reaction and reception, etc...

Posted by: Jason at January 7, 2004 2:20 PM

I know that at least one Emory film professor shows Fight Club as a class assignment. It's not on their online film schedule but I was watching another film at Emory one day and noticed that some students were watching Fight Club in another class. So if you have any contacts at Emory . . .

Posted by: Chris at January 8, 2004 5:04 PM

Jason: "Thumb Club" looks like fun. If I can work it in, I will. I'll certainly encourage my students to watch it.

Chris: My connections to Emory entail two or three degrees of separation unfortunately, but I'll try to keep an eye out for what people in their film department might be doing.

Posted by: chuck at January 8, 2004 8:34 PM

Okay, I just discovered yet another way that blogs are cool. I left my apartment in a rush and forgot my notes on Fight Club. I go to the library's computers, call up my blog, and there are all the articles I wanted to find!

Posted by: chuck at January 15, 2004 9:13 PM

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