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On superficial anti-consumerism

When Fight Club came out in theaters I was quite enamored with it. Tyler Durden was an anti-hero inspiring to many of my cohort, but ultimately we were enamored by a more surface level reading of him – especially considering none of us read the book. Tyler has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence (if he ever left the cultural scene of young “adult” men) in places like internet memes and edgy personal investing blogs.

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What’s cooler than memes? Deconstructing them.

While I still find many aspects of his philosophy appealing, I no longer find Tyler Durden inspiring. I doubt that anything but a surface reading could find him so. The values we are force-fed by our culture and peers are often empty and lead down paths of meaningless pain and suffering; I’m with him so far. We surround ourselves with consumerism chasing fame, fortune, and as many creature comforts as we can manage – I agree. But Tyler’s solution replaces those values with their destruction, which does not change the paradigm and is itself easily co-opted by culture and consumerism and the rest.

“We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact and we’re very, very, pissed off.”

There are two lies there, but he only focuses on one – hence the anger. It’s true that the vast majority of commerce sells you the lie that they have just the thing to make you feel like a rock star, but the second and more insidious lie is that fame and riches would lead to happiness and fulfillment. Are money and fame ultimately meaningful? Do millionaires and movie gods and rock stars really live better lives, or are they on average as miserable (and happy) as the rest of us? I could quote you the satisfaction studies that show making over $75,000 a year ceases to increase happiness, but you won’t be convinced by statistics. In your mind you think yourself immune to hedonistic adaptation. Perhaps you should try a thought experiment.

So if the creators of television or advertising are doubly lying to us, don’t worry to much about the injustice; they’ve bought the bigger lie themselves hook, line, and sinker. How do I know? Show me how someone spends their time and I will show you what they regard as valuable. (Maybe you view this sort of analysis to be valuable, ahem). But what if those evil media executives value the money and influence that they receive by lying to us, how are they being punished? I haven’t read this book either, but I find the following quote relevant:

“Do you know what punishments I’ve endured for my crimes, my sins? None. I am proof of the absurdity of men’s most treasured abstractions. A just universe wouldn’t tolerate my existence.”
– Brent Weeks The Way of Shadows

I think there is a punishment this character neglects to mention. He must live as the person capable of such crimes and sins. Don’t you see? He knows that he has done bad, evil things, he says so himself. No amount of rationalization will make that okay, especially in his own eyes. Does that sound like getting off easy to you?

For a moment, imagine that money and fame are really all that important, who then can blame anyone for lying, cheating, and stealing in order to get that which is Good? There is something intuitively higher, something more important than money and fame so that we inevitably seek justice when it has been violated. But how do we usually seek retribution? By valuing the same things as the wrong-doer! If integrity and having a fulfilled and meaningful life are the point, the highest Goods, we should realize that those things have already been taken from him. Who dispensed this karmic justice? He did, on himself, in the moment he acted. To go further back, it happened in the moment he chose to value something as “good” above integrity and fulfillment; the act was an inevitable consequence of the misjudgment.

Some people respond to a perceived lack of meaning in the world with the idea that we must create meaning for ourselves. But I don’t think this is entirely correct, we already know what we should do and what we should value. There are minor individual variations, but in general we find meaning and fulfillment through mastery of skills, personal relationships, and altruism. This is the way things work, a recognition of the reality of being human.

What about psychopaths? Those that seemingly feel no pains of conscience? Perhaps some people exist that through biology or choice have suppressed these negative emotions (a goal some have mistakenly attributed to Stoics, I note). But do we envy these people? Why do we instinctively refer to such people as “miserable” human beings? And what does any of this have to do with such people, when we’re talking about you and me? If you don’t recognize yourself or your understanding of your personal reality, I trust you will correct my misunderstandings in the comments.

Still not convinced and hung up on psychopaths? Let’s take a real life example, the iceman killer. He isn’t haunted by all the killing unless he thinks about it, which means always. There are many interesting aspects of this man, but I will only point out a few. When he felt weak, he used his anger to physically assault people to feel powerful. He became addicted to this because not only did it get him respect, eventually he made money to support his young family. In the interview, he wishes he could have chosen differently, but says that he didn’t feel like he had a choice at the time. That’s because the decisions that count were made when he assigned value to material wealth and power above compassion and integrity toward other human beings. If wealth and power are ultimately important, or if we are somehow free to decide what is best for each of us, who can blame him for the choices he made? But hopefully it’s clear that he misunderstood what is truly good and bad.

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Soon in easily digestible major motion picture format.

Surely there is some cabal at work here, brainwashing us all into misunderstanding what we should value and thereby controlling us. Something more nefarious than just plain advertising. The new world order or the Illuminati – an unknown secret force working against us. In truth, there is something lying to us and it is a powerful secret that endures even after discovery: ourselves.

Categories: Communications & Media Studies, Pop Culture, Stoicism.

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12 Responses

  1. i like the article but i strongly disagree with a few points. you are assuming a universality to your values. i am not an altruist, i do not wish to become an altruist. i don’t think altruism is good at all. i am a libertarian (compared to you at least.) i see justice coming to those who made the world a better place, often through business. the values you listed work fine for star-trek but in reality we need money to track value. i

    i also think you under value tyler durden. he was not just angry, he owned a soap business and started a massive social movement.

  2. bob has bitch tits.February 17, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    You are missing the point entirely bob.

  3. Bob has bittttttttch tiiiiiitttsssssFebruary 17, 2013 @ 11:48 pm

    yeahhhhhhhhh!

  4. TrevorParsonsFebruary 18, 2013 @ 2:45 am

    ” ‘We’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact and we’re very, very, pissed off.’

    There are two lies there, but he only focuses on one – hence the anger. It’s true that the vast majority of commerce sells you the lie that they have just the thing to make you feel like a rock star, but the second and more insidious lie is that fame and riches would lead to happiness and fulfillment.”

    Where exactly did this quote make any mention of “fame and riches [leading] to happiness and fulfillment”? Completely pulled out of thin air, or quite heavily implied at best. Read the Durden quote again exactly as is.

    Your thought premise here is quite circular: The premise of your entire stance here is manifested to suit a pre-existing opinion you made up somewhere along the way, and that opinion, of course, is supported by the made-up premise.

  5. I tried to make it clear that this was a somewhat superficial reading of Tyler, but let’s take a closer look at that quote and it’s context. He’s speaking to a bunch of inductees. Now, why would they be pissed off at the fact that they won’t be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars if those things weren’t preferable?

  6. in reality we need money to track value

    This can’t work because the value in money is contrived and artificial. Here’s an explanation why and how.

    i am not an altruist, i do not wish to become an altruist. … i see justice coming to those who made the world a better place

    If altruism is helping other people, and justice (I take it you mean the good-karma kind, not the retribution kind) comes to those who make the world a better place, how do they make the world a better place if not by helping other people? This seems to imply that you could improve the world while leaving everyone absolutely miserable, or even by making them more miserable in the process. What is the world about if not about people? What’s the peopleless world like?

    And if you’re not even interested in becoming an altruist, I suppose all your energy is directed towards yourself. Are you that special that the status of the world depends on your happiness regardless of everyone else? After Bob comes the flood?

    As a final point, libertarian and altruist are not the same thing, but they are compatible. Even if we’re all free to do pretty much what we want (libertarian), we can also want to help people, right? The libertarian’s argument against socialism isn’t the equality, which can happen by accident in a world of libertarians, it’s the coercion that’s usually involved in practice. So I think a libertarian, such as yourself, would be against Tyler Durden because of how he forced the world to conform to his wishes, which is the most anti-libertarian thing you can do, and his soap business would be totally beside the point, no?

    I have no opinion on bitch tits besides pics or it didn’t happen.

  7. If even a misreading can inspire an interesting interpretation, do we really have to care about how to read faithfully?

    If Dimebag Darrell can riff on Bach, and it’s good, who cares that DD never met Bach and asked him how it was ‘meant’ to be played? (NB: Durden =/= Bach)

  8. @GuyFox, is that NB a backhanded way of saying I =/= Dimebag Darrell?

  9. No, Frugal, it’s a backhanded way of saying that not even Dimebag Darrell is Dimebag Darrell. You’re most definitely FrugalStoic, but only as I represent you to myself.

  10. I think it’s important to point out that Tyler Durden is an amalgam of Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. In the movie and the book, each actor represents an opposite extreme. I think Brad Pitt is a metaphor for reality, and Norton is a metaphor for fantasy.

    Both men enjoy certain benefits, but neither one has it all figured out. The message of Fight Club for me was that, to have a fulfilling life, one needs the balance of living in fantasy — Norton — and living in reality — Pitt.

    Norton represents the dangers of fantasy. While believing whatever we want can often assuage us, taken to an extreme, we become so out of touch with reality that we develop insomnia and a host of other disorders. Meaning is gone.

    Pitt represents the dangers of reality. I think people relate to Pitt more because he represents what’s most lacking in culture: reality. But taken to an extreme, Pitt begins hurting people and doing things that most people would find quite reprehensible.

    Frugal said of Pitt’s Durden: “He’s speaking to a bunch of inductees. Now, why would they be pissed off at the fact that they won’t be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars if those things weren’t preferable?”

    I think what’s more upsetting to a person is believing the world functions one way and having it revealed to you that in functions differently. I think the inductees on some level know that the story they’ve been fed is bullshit. All Pitt’s Durden does is become a mirror that shows it to them. I think it’s the lie that is upsetting, whether it is a lie about money, fame, status, or happiness.

    To me, Fight Club is a story about the dangers of not being able to effectively perceive the world, and the lack of balance that results from that lack of perception.

  11. I think I’ve read this before, but I just read it again, and it is incredibly insightful. Thank you.

    @Alex,
    “I think what’s more upsetting to a person is believing the world functions one way and having it revealed to you that in functions differently. I think the inductees on some level know that the story they’ve been fed is bullshit. All Pitt’s Durden does is become a mirror that shows it to them. I think it’s the lie that is upsetting, whether it is a lie about money, fame, status, or happiness.”

    This is interesting, but there’s a flipside to this. For instance, Frugal makes a very good point regarding money/power vs. integrity/fulfillment. Here’s the thing, while much of the aspirational advertising is selling a lie (e.g. people with better lives than you do X, and that is loosely associated with iProducts, or whatever), much of our entertainment media is showing us nonstop that money does not equal happiness.

    In Fight Club, it is likely the inductees have seen “Wall Street”. Or “Glengarry Glen Ross”. Or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Or “Death of Salesman.” Or “101 Dalmatians”. Or “Goonies”. Or for potential inductees from modern times, see “Breaking Bad” ,or “Mad Men”, or… the list is endless. Our favorite shows and movies are constantly displaying that power, greed, fame, etc never leads to a happy ending. And the inductees doubtlessly watched the news, or the colbert report, and saw nothing but the evils of power-hungry, money-soaked men. This is all shit we already know. This is all shit the inductees already knew.

    It’s a problem of scale. We know that BP/Haliburton/ execs are evil and destroying everything, and there’s some comfort in knowing that they know that too and are probably miserable. Meanwhile, the same guy who’s happy to see the fall of Donald Sterling is trying to convince his wife and kids to uproot their whole existence and move 2,000 miles, away from everything they know, so Daddy can go from $80k/yr to $100k/yr, from an Acura to an Audi, from a 3bd/1bth to a 4bd/2bth, and he can’t see that it’s the same thing.

  12. Alex wolfeOctober 5, 2014 @ 1:54 pm

    I don’t think there’s a flip side to what I was saying because I was trying to make an observation regarding human happiness in general across a wide variety of possible contexts.

    To me, the elephant in the room is that there is nothing that will force you to face the truth of your actions in this life except your actions themselves. A person could die believing something that is objectively not true their entire life and be rewarded for it. Like, for instance, how Bob could uproot his family and get an Audi and they can be happy.

    What you’re talking about is our culture making it difficult for us to discern truths worth basing our life around. I wholeheartedly agree. I would like to point out in closing that for every story of fame an abundance ruining a person, an equal number of examples could be created that show money and power do solve problems.

    Your correct, too, that on some level, we already know money won’t solve all of our problems. But we don’t U DERSTAND this. Duden understands, and he essentially founds his academy to get people to act on the things they might already know, but do not understand as a part of their Dna.

Got insight?