Here is a rough draft of a conference paper I want to get back to and possibly, hopefully, publish:

My current research involves the continuation of my master’s thesis. As I was working on my thesis a friend lent me the documentary Derrida. In this movie, Derrida is asked about love. He tells us the question of love is the basic question of philosophy, the question of Dasien, and that is the question of the que or the qua? (the who or the what?)

This idea that the question of love is the same question of being stuck with me. The other influence here is a class in which I read Derrida’s “The Politics of Witnessing” and I noticed how love and identity and the identity the characters in Palahniuk’s work all correlate in some ways.

That is to say: Jacques Derrida states, “all responsible witnessing engages a poetic experience of language,” (66) which is to say that the most responsible way to bear witness to an event is through a poetic language that does not claim to grasp the moment, capture it, or totalize it. Derrida then goes on to conclude his essay, “The Politics of Witnessing” by stating how the poetic experience is the most ethical way of bearing witness by showing itself to be false and not claiming to actually capture the moment. The poem does not claim to represent any actual event as Derrida says:

Revealing its [poetic experience] mask as a mask, but without showing itself, without presenting itself, perhaps, presenting its non-presentation as such, representing it, it thus speaks about bearing witness in general, but above all about the poem that it is, about itself in its singularity, and about the bearing witness to which every poem bears witness (96).

Derrida also states (in his documentary) that love is a question between “who” one loves or “what” one loves (Derrida documentary). The question is: does one love the other or some quality about the other. The idea of loving something about the other or a specific someone (with a self-same identity) leads me to contend that the way one bears witness is also the way one loves. Derrida explains that in bearing witness:

…I affirm (rightly or wrongly, but in all good faith, sincerely) that that was or is present to me, in space and time (thus, sense-perceptible) and although you do not have access to it, not the same access, you, my addressees, you have to believe me, because I engage myself to tell you the truth, I am already engaged in it, I tell you that I am telling you the truth. Believe me. You have to believe me (76).

Isn’t this what one is saying when one is in love? It is an affirmation to the other that, “I love you, you have to believe me.” This is, after all, what is so scary about love. You are left asking yourself, “What is it that this person loves about me?” And then as Lacan would put it, desire becomes my desire to want to fulfill what the other wants of me. I outline these thoughts because it is my belief that these statements can inform a certain reading of Chuck Palahniuk’s texts.

Palahniuk’s characters embrace an ephemeral, non-definable identity that take the form of Martin Heidegger’s conception of identity (Being as Dasein) as always moving ahead of itself, as being-in-the-world-towards-others, rather than a static, non-moving self-identity. I would say that Palahniuk’s novels, specifically Invisible Monsters and Fight Club, can be interpreted as (post)modern day love stories. But these are love stories that describe a love that holds no claim to a who or a what, but rather, a love that speaks in these Heideggarian and Derridian terms.

My contention is that in Chuck Palahniuk’s work, the characters come to a foundational apprehension that their identities and choices in life are all organized by artificial, social constructions, especially the construction of language. Upon achieving this realization, the characters will take steps to challenge this overriding discourse that is ruling their lives, and they will try to break free of their socially imposed identity. Ultimately realizing that they cannot escape the “trap” that is society’s discourse, they fall back on love, but again, this love expresses itself through a poetic expression of language and is towards others who do not have any fixed, fully present identity.

In Fight Club, the narrator’s identity (let’s call him Joe, as in “I’m Joe’s total lack of surprise”) is established by his lack of identity. Joe is an insomniac, and because of the insomnia, Joe has no identity that can connect him to the world around him. Joe says, “This is how it is with insomnia. Everything is so far away, a copy of a copy of a copy. The insomnia distance of everything, you can’t touch anything and nothing can touch you” (Palahniuk Fight Club 21).

This distance Joe describes is the same distance from experience anyone feels because of the gap in meaning in language, and since as Terry Eagleton points out:

…language is something I am made out of, rather than merely a convenient tool I use, the whole idea that I am stable, unified entity must also be a fiction. Not only can I never be fully present to you, but I can never be fully present to myself either (112).

And this postmodern conception of identity is what Joe describes in insomnia. Joe’s insomnia seems to be his awareness of how language is all around him, constructing his identity—which means he has no “real” identity that is his. Joe realizes how his identity is caught up in not only the language of society that is just “a copy of a copy of a copy, ” but also in the things he feels he needs to own in order to be “complete.” Unable to break free of societal constraints by himself, Joe creates Tyler Durden (there are other reasons Tyler manifest that will be discussed in a moment) and Joe implores, “Oh, Tyler, please rescue me.[…] Deliver me from Swedish furniture. Deliver me form clever art” (Palahniuk FC 46). Tyler is the manifestation of Joe’s unconscious desire to break free from the ruling societal discourse that tells him to buy clever art to be complete.

Furthermore, we come to the apprehension that Joe has come to these realizations about his identity, partially, because of and through Marla, who is the love interest, and this realization is the even more important reason Tyler manifest. Joe explains, “I know why Tyler occurred. Tyler loved Marla. From the first night I met her, Tyler or some part of me had needed a way to be with Marla” (FC 198). Tyler Durden, then, is the manifestation of love. It is Joe’s poetic expression—his way of being able to fall in love with Marla. Tyler is Joe’s “bearing witness” in that bearing witness as Derrida states, “…attest, precisely, that some “thing” has been present to him. This “thing” is no longer present to him, of course, in the mode of perception at the moment when the attestation takes place” (77). This attestation is rather a matter of “you have to believe me”. Love is not “present” and any attempt to explain love and thematize love, only totalizes love, as love is not a thing that can be perceived or that is graspable. Love is, rather, a thing that, “you just have to believe me.” The narrator, Joe, has created this barrier between himself and his love so that he does not have to be present when he falls in love. The reason that Joe creates this barrier is because Marla reflects his lie. Marla in reflecting this lie has pointed out to Joe his insufficiency, his lack—she has castrated him in a Lacanian sense.

Marla castrates Joe in that he feels less of a man because of his “nesting instinct” as he puts it, and therefore has to go to these support group meetings in order to feel complete, in order to get emotional release, in order to sleep, but Marla is a reminder of his lie—her presence there reminds Joe of his lie and his inability to cope in the world. He is castrated by his “lack”—his un-maniliness. Joe has come to realize that he no longer has a manly identity with which to confront Marla and have a loving relationship with; rather, as Joe puts it, “…I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalog” (FC 43). Later, Joe goes on to admit, “Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you” (Ibid 44).

It is this idea of lack (Joe’s lack of manhood) that is what Lacan means by castration. Joe feels an anxiety of confronting Marla without his phallus, his “thing” he can offer her; his desire is to be desired by her, but as Renata Selecl explains Lacan’s idea of castration, “The major problem of male and female subjects is that they do not relate to what their partners relate to in them” (Salecl 93 Reading Seminar XX). She goes on to explain (and again, here, this relates to what is happening with Joe):

For men, the way they desire…is conditioned by the fact that castration has marked them by a lack, which also means that their phallic function has been negated. As a result of this negation, men are constantly anxious that they might not be able to do it: that their organ might disappoint them when they need it most, that others might find them powerless, and so on…. Anxiety often arises precisely when a man encounters a woman who becomes an object of his desire (Ibid. 93-94).

Tyler Durden is the symbolic phallus. Tyler is what Joe thinks that Marla desires.

There is an Oedipal triad going on in as well, in which Tyler is the father (the one with the symbolic phallus that the mother desires and the child longs for); Joe is the child, who longs for the phallus, rather, to be the phallus (the thing) that the mother desires. Lacan states in his seminar, “What the child wants is to become the desire of desire, to be able to satisfy the mother’s desire…. To please the mother…. It is necessary and sufficient to be the phallus” (Lacan seminar of Jan. 22, 1958). And Joe, throughout the novel, is constantly comparing the relationship of Marla and Tyler to his parents, and Joe is constantly fighting for their attention.

Tyler opens Joe up to everything that Joe is lacking, and everything Joe wishes he had (the phallus) in order to attract Marla. Joe has an unconscious desire for Marla, and Marla has a strong attraction to Joe. But the attraction between these two goes even beyond this somewhat reductive conception of desire. What is happening here in this triad is beyond language. What happens in the fight clubs is beyond language, and the love that is expressed between Marla and Joe/Tyler is beyond any fixed conception of language. If Marla does desire Tyler (what is lacking in Joe) she is also, at the same time, desiring something in Joe (what Tyler is lacking).

Either way, or rather, both ways, the two of them (Tyler/Joe) do not have any fixed identity. If we are made out of language (as Eagleton says), and if identity is only possible through language, as it is in Dasien—the being which questions itself, which is in the world with others towards death, then there is no set identity to either one of the two characters that have a relationship with Marla.

This is why it is so easy for Marla to accept that Joe is not Tyler and to still love Joe regardless. Furthermore, Joe realizes that love is beyond words like fight club is beyond words. Fight club and Tyler are examples of training wheels (and this idea of training wheel will be explored in Invisible Monsters as well) for Joe to realize that identity is constructed by society, and that he has to go beyond a desire for Marla that will leave him castrated. As Joe himself says, “It happens that fast. I say, because I think I like you. Marla says, “Not love?” This is a cheesy enough moment…Don’t push it” (FC 197). The reason it is “not love” is because it is not in a conventional idea of love.
It is rather love as bearing witness—as a “you have to believe me—I like you even if I have no identity and do not know your identity.”

A violent love as Zizek would put it—the idea of I love you all or nothing—or as Derrida would say, the idea that I love a who, and that when that who changes (or if I do not love you “all), then I will no longer love you. This love between Marla and Joe is more like that love which is expressed in poetic language—even if she tells Joe before the big final scene of the novel, “It’s not love or anything…but I think I like you, too” and Joe hesitates thinking that Marla means she loves Tyler, and Marla reassures him, “No, I like you…I know the difference.” Even in this moment of doubt, this is a love beyond the conventional conception because the two “in love” have a precarious relationship with their identity.

Joe, after losing everything that defined his identity in the explosion and in his psychosis (Tyler), is still “liked” by Marla, and Joe, who only knows Marla as a “big faker” can still love her even if he has no concrete idea of her identity. Unable to find anything real in the “real world” Joe finds something real in love, but this is a love that is ungrounded—not like real reality. As Joe says of the fight clubs, “This is better than real life.”

In the end of the novel, Palahniuk shows us how Tyler (and all his masculine posturing and axioms) is just a manifestation of a psychosis, and that it is not Tyler that saves Joe in the end, it is Marla and community that saves him. It is love that is undefinable—that like bearing witness is best expressed through poetic expressions of love.
((((Kalvado quote)))))

Think of a valentine’s day gift—in order to show your loved one you love them you give them a superfluous, non-sense gift—candy or flowers. You do not—you cannot– put a price on love as love is not a thing that can be bought and sold.

This is what one sees in Invisible Monsters as well. The main character of the novel is Shannon Macfarland, a model who has purposely disfigured her pretty face to break free from societal constraints put on her because of her beauty. Her brother, also disfigured himself as a teen and is now going through a sex change operation just to break free from what society tells him he should do. In essence, I argue that Palahniuk’s characters deconstruct soceity’s discourse to show how what is natural is not so natural. But in the end, like Fight Club, what is left is a sister and a sister/brother who love each other completely even if they don’t have any identity to love or any thing to love.

Albert Camus said that he wanted to change people but not the world, which he saw as divine , and it seems that Brandy and Shannon feel the same way. They do not want to change the world; they just want to change the way people think about the world around them and about the way people are in the world. Chuck Palahniuk, also, does not seem like he wants to change the world but only the story about the world. It is hard to say what these characters achieve by disfiguring themselves and challenging the dominant discourse other than the awareness they have of societal constraints, and they know that by doing these things they will not be easily defined by society any longer.

Although Palahniuk deconstructs society to show how the natural attitude towards the world we have is not essentially natural, he is also giving his readers a story about community and love. The most astute reading of Palahniuk’s underlying themes can be seen in Jesse Kavadlo’s essay when he states, “Each novel…egregiously violent even by Palahniuk standards—ultimately proposes that what their characters, and all of us, need is—love” (Kavadlo 6). This is seen in IM as the novel ends with Shannon giving up her identity to Brandy. So often people are classified as “giving of themselves” to signify how much they care about community, and arguably there is no better way to express that giveness but to give away identity; especially when one thinks of how long it takes to come up with an identity and how much work is put into that identity. Shannon has worked hard to become a fashion model that can get steady work, and now she will give that over to Brandy so that Brandy can live out her dreams. Presumably, in the process, Brandy will continue to influence others and teach others how society is controlling and defining. She will continue to show how a transgender person can be the object of males’ gazes and desires, and she will continue to subvert the “natural” idea of sexual desires and gender roles. And all this is possible because of the loving gift from Shannon.

Shannon is left looking for something “real,” and for her that something real is love in a world of simulacra which moves forward like plot lines in a book or movie, “The fire in Evie’s clothes is just more and more every second, and now the plot moves along without you pushing” (Palahniuk IM 273). Shannon chooses love over the radical Baudrillardian postmodern idea of the loss of refrenciality as she states:

Give me a complete late-stage revision of my adult life.
Flash.
Give me anything in this whole fucking world that is exactly what it looks like!
Flash.

Here, again, there is the intertextuality of her feelings being tied into a photographer telling her how to feel and “pose.” It also shows how, more and more, Shannon nostalgically wishes for something that has a direct, straight meaning, which is why she clings to Brandy. Later, Shannon says:

Give me release.
I’m tired of this world of appearances. Pigs that only look fat. Families that look happy.
Give me deliverance.
From what only looks like generosity. What only looks like love.
Flash (Ibid. 291).

Shannon is tired of empty signifiers, ‘things that only look like things.’ The only real thing that she can cling to is love and community—the being-with-others, which happens in a transcednt, out of language state. Denzin can insightfully comment on what Shannon is going through. He states:

All knowledge is narrative. Today, more than ever in the history of western civilization multiple, local narratives, framed within larger interpretive patriarchal frameworks, daily circulate through the currents of popular culture, from film to soap operas, comic books, popular music, and romance novels. No, the loss of meaning and the mourning come from the very condition that Jameson and Baudrillard have identified. The cultural logics of late capitalism keep the unattainable (the real, the past, romantic love, true happiness) alive, attempting over and over again to reconcile the image with its referent, the concept with the sensible, the transparent with the communicable experience (Denzin 40).

Unable to find any material reality, she finds something real in the love she has for her brother, Brandy. Shannon, as a model, is surrounded by things that are fake in her work; as the daughter of a farmer who falsely fattens up pigs, she was surrounded by artifice as a child; as the sister of a closeted homosexual, she was surrounded by fake gender roles; and as a friend of Evie, she is surrounded by friends who are not what they seem; and as the girlfriend of Manus, she is surrounded by fake emotions (his fake emotions towards her). All of these things are aspects of identity and the things that influence identity, so it is no wonder that she rebels against these things the first chance she gets. Ultimately what Shannon returns to is: love . The novel ends in her total devotion and love for Brandy, “Completely and totally, permanently and without hope, forever and ever I love Brandy Alexander. And that is enough” (Palahniuk IM 297).

Chuck Palahniuk has been known as the writer of the book that became the famous movie Fight Club, but I hope to shows that Palahniuk is more of a satirist as Kavaldo explains, “More than an existential philosopher, however, Palahniuk is an American ironist…” (7). Kavaldo does an excellent job of closely reading Palahniuk and of not taking Palahniuk’s fiction in the dogmatic fashion some of Palahniuk’s fans have done, which leads critics to condemn Palahniuk for being too violent, too sexist, and too crass. The problem is that the violence is always contrasted by the humanity of his characters. Again, to quote Kavaldo:

A careful reader will, like the narrator [of Fight Club], be left unconvinced by Tyler’s sophistry and instead notice that only his language, exemplified by Palahniuk’s pumped up, brutally funny style, is powerful. His solutions…are not (13)

The same is true of IM, where the reader might side with the drug induced, road trip musings of Brandy’s brutal and harsh rebellion against society. Rather than rebel against society in the extreme way Shannon and Brandy do, the reader must remember that there is no getting outside of society, “Anything we want we’re trained to want” (Palahniuk IM 259). The reader must also remember that this only looks like rebellion, as Shannon repeatedly explains how things only “look like love, generosity, like she is crying” etc. what they are supposed to be. The point is, to reiterate again, to find community and love in a world where everything is false, and society is all just a copy of a copy, powerless vocabulary, just discourse, and makes you feel like you are severely fingering yourself.

Advertisements