Entering Fight Club: On Becoming a Participating Academic

As a female scholar working on Fight Club, the inevitable question one gets during awkward wine receptions is: “So how do you feel about writing about violent men as a woman?” “Ambivalent” is the answer I usually give. Of course I’m wary of the machismo the novel displays. “What you see in fight club is a generation of men raised by women,” it famously claims. Given my gender I’m supposed to feel excluded. Fight club isn’t for people like me.

Then again, I do like the story. Despite Tyler Durden’s sexist rants and the fact that I’ve read them dozens of times. The story still fascinates me years after I first encountered it. Its treatment of bodies as sites of power, its colourful characters, its staccato writing style all make it a worthwhile read. But how to negotiate the violence and the sexism? How should I defend my interest in this controversial book?

Maybe I shouldn’t. Perhaps being a woman makes me a particularly suitable person to write about this book. Boys and men, I’ve noticed over the years, often get so excited by the violent thrills it has to offer that they overlook its darker aspects. The fact that this book excludes me because of my gender could actually serve as my way in.

Moreover, I’ve always been fascinated by the basic idea of starting a fight club. What is it about fighting that makes it so addictive? What could be fun about getting hurt? I didn’t know the answers to these questions until I took part in my first karate competition. I’ve been doing karate for about a year and a half now and even though it’s a martial art – which suggests that it’s all about fighting – every karateka will be able to tell you that it’s not about beating people up. It’s about control, respect, and self-defence rather than aggression.

That said, kumite (fights) can look rather aggressive.  And when I stepped on the mat, all geared up with shin, foot and hand pads, a chest guard and a mouth shield, I felt pretty intimidated. I’m not an aggressive person. Would I be able to actually fight someone? I should note that karate is very different from fight club in that it severely restricts the range of moves that are appropriate. Excessive contact doesn’t get you a prize, it gets you disqualified. Nevertheless, as my opponent approached me and hit me in the head, the experience proved to be anything but gentle.

Me (in red) performing at BUCS (photo: Simon Russell)

She eventually got a warning for repeatedly kicking me in the stomach – a move which, while not illegal, is rarely scored because it’s usually uncontrolled. My coached shouted at me: “Keep going! Get her!” Something changed as I took my position opposite my opponent. All of a sudden, I wanted to get her and win. I managed to do so and won my fight.

I didn’t feel any euphoria, however. Instead, I was shaking as I left the mat. I was drenched in sweat, ready to cry, to vomit, or to perform a combination of the two. It took me at least fifteen minutes, aided by a friendly medic, to get myself back together. I lost my next fight. My opponent bashed my head so badly that I lost one of my contacts. As I made my way back to my friends, I wondered what the hell had happened to me.

Several weeks later, a much-cited quote from Fight Club comes to mind: “You aren’t alive like you are alive at fight club. When it’s you and one other guy under that one light in the middle of all those watching. […] There’s hysterical shouting in tongues like at church, and when you wake up Sunday afternoon you feel saved.” While I don’t agree with the church bit, having been in an actual fight means that I can relate to the transcendental experience the narrator describes much more easily. Fighting does something to you, it changes who you are and how you relate to the world. For a very short period in time – a novice karate fight lasts only a minute and  a half – nothing exists outside you and your opponent. Becoming a fighter has made me understand a book which is supposed to exclude me. Academia is generally wary of feeding personal experiences into academic research – unless you’re a creative writer. Perhaps its time to reconsider this rule and see what happens if we take part in the world we usually only describe.

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