How an Apartment Becomes a Prison: An Analysis of Commodities and Spaces in Fight Club
We are beginning to see what the new model of the home-dweller looks like: ‘man the interior designer’[.]
— Jean Baudrillard | The System of Objects
“Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?”
— Baruch Spinoza | Theologico-Political Treatise
Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is?
— Tyler Durden
Click your heels three times: “There’s no place like home.” — Tyler Durden hates consumerism! All of his anger and aggression is directed toward various aspects of the consumer society. He takes advantage of any opportunity he gets to point out the problems he sees with this social formation or regime of signs. Tyler’s relationship to the Narrator can be seen as one between a teacher and a student wherein the lessons are on the evils of consumption (commodification, credit, personalization, employment, advertising, mass media, fashion, etc.). The film is filled with a veritable litany of timely aphorisms through which Tyler seeks to call his entire world into question. 1) “The things you own end up owning you.” 2) “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” 3) “You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” 4) “Fuck off with your sofa units and Strinne green stripe patterns.” 5) Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.” 6) “We are all part of the same compost heap.” 7) “We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.”
All of the forms of disgust Tyler has for consumerism are deeply linked to one space in particular: the Narrator’s apartment. In Fight Club, one of the Narrator’s central problems is his condo; this organized collection of “clever” commodities and material “goods” is one of the main impediments to his existential health. It blocks the paths of potential becomings in his life. Why and how? Consumerism 101: an apartment is not just an apartment — it is much more and yet nothing at all. In other words, for the Narrator (and consumers in general), the home is the self. However, in becoming the self, the home corrodes subjectivity. If in Totality and Infinity Emmanuel Levinas was correct in holding that the home has always been the very condition of subjectivity, the ground of what we call a life, then what type of social formation could produce such a toxic, alienated and corrupted relation between a person and his or her dwelling? Three words: the consumer society. Deleuze and Guattari provided many concepts that can help map the structures and parameters of consumer spaces, but owing to the abstract and abstruse nature of these concepts, it is conducive to begin with a more empirical, concrete survey of consumer environments. Luckily, such a survey was undertaken by Jean Baudrillard in his first two books The System of Objects and The Consumer Society, and it is to their insights that we must turn so that we can begin to understand the hidden dynamic between the Narrator, his condo and Tyler Durden. After this empirical clarification, we’ll be able to see how some of D&G’s concepts apply in this case.
What did Baudrillard mean by “the system of objects”? Let’s state outrightly that the Narrator’s apartment is a system of objects. For Baudrillard, our lives are completely submerged in a “proliferating vegetation” of commodities. This jungle has connected itself rhizomatically to every aspect of our day-to-day existence. But is this an original observation? Marxists have long spotlighted the commodity as the central organizing principle of capitalist society. For example, Georg Lukács’ analysis of ubiquitous reification produced in capitalist society by the “commodity-structure”:
“It is no accident that Marx should have begun with an analysis of commodities when, in the two great works of his mature period, he set out to portray capitalist society in its totality and to lay bare its fundamental nature. For at this stage in the history of mankind there is no problem that does not ultimately lead back to that question and there is no solution that could not be found in the solution to the riddle of commodity-structure. Of course the problem can only be discussed with this degree of generality if it achieves the depth and breadth to be found in Marx’s own analyses. That is to say, the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects. Only in this case can the structure of commodity-relations be made to yield a model of all the objective forms of bourgeois society together with all the subjective forms corresponding to them.”
(History and Class Consciousness, p. 83)
Baudrillard’s originality lies in his re-conception of the commodity as a system of signs. Just as Heidegger said that, strictly speaking, “there ‘is’ no such thing as an equipment” (Being and Time, p. 97) in order to foreground the referential nature of ready-to-hand tools, so, too, Baudrillard thought that there’s basically no such thing as a commodity, but, instead, commodities are now systems, networks, series, ensembles, collections, sets, etc. “Few objects today are offered alone, without a context of objects which ‘speaks’ them. And this changes the consumer’s relation to the object: he no longer relates to a particular object in its specific utility, but to a set of objects in its total signification. Washing machine, refrigerator and dishwasher taken together have a different meaning from the one each has individually as an appliance” (The Consumer Society, p. 27). These systems of commodities are systems of objects, but with a twist. From the perspective of the consumer, the objective or material features of the objects (use-values) are less important than are their sign-values. “To become an object of consumption, an object must first become a sign” (The System of Objects, p. 218). What Baudrillard essentially did was combine Saussure’s differential theory of the value of signs with the various Marxist analyses of commodification, alienation, reification and commodity fetishism. Yet what exactly is sign-value? Commodities signify — they signify the self. Consumers base their “individual” identities on the commodities they consume. A commodity’s sign-value, like the value of a sign in language, is relative to its place within the differential sign system, the system of commodities. Thus, consumption is not merely the material acts of nourishing our bodies, that is, eating, drinking, etc. Consumption is the activity of building an identity out of the system of sign-commodities one buys and the sign-services one uses. “[Y]ou never consume the object in itself (in its use-value); you are always manipulating objects (in the broadest sense) as signs which distinguish you either by affiliating you to your own group taken as an ideal reference or by marking you off from your group by reference to a group of higher status” (The Consumer Society, p. 61). That is to say, systems of objects are assemblages of status symbols or codes-of-status, yet not just of one’s class, but one’s ‘individuality’. Yet where there’s a system of objects, there first must be a system of “needs”, which provides advertising and the mass media with their fundamental task. To answer Tyler’s question, we know what a duvet is because the consumer society is the interminable production of new “needs”. We know what a duvet is because we “need” one. However, the need for “a” commodity is really the need for difference (individuality). Thus, consumption is the existential-semiotic globalization of “keeping up with the Joneses”. While on the surface consumption (and the suburban life it tends to produce) appears to be a great social pacification, deep down it is a repressive and rigid mobilization of aggressive, violent and competitive energies.
It is through the sign-commodities we consume that we “personalize” and “differentiate” ourselves, but beneath the facade of this explosion of individualism lies a hyperconformism. Despite the vast array of commodities industrial production has made available to us, the system of objects is an extremely closed and arborescent mechanism. How so? Every home is fundamentally comprised of the same stuff, the same junk, the same shit. There’s only one structural model of the home. This model of the system of objects is what Baudrillard called the “standard package”. “This sociology culminates in the notion of the ‘standard package’, defined by Riesman as the set of goods and services which forms more or less the baseline heritage of the average American. Rising regularly, indexed to the national standard of living, it is an ideal minimum of a statistical kind, a standard model of middle-class life. Exceeded by some, only dreamt of by others, it is an idea in which the American way of life is encapsulated. Here again, the ‘standard package’ refers not so much to the materiality of goods (TV, bathroom, car, etc.) as to the ideal of conformity” (The Consumer Society, p. 70). The power of the consumer society lies in masking this molar homogeneity with an unending flow of “marginal differences”. For example, consumers believe that they are doing something truly authentic by wearing a certain pair of shoes. “Hey, look at me! I have the new Carolina blue Air Jordans! I now have a self!” Of course, these marginal differences aren’t differences at all, in other words, they’re not structural, ideological, existential, affective or moral differences — they all belong to the same “morality” of consumption.
The Narrator’s relation to his apartment is precisely the relation Baudrillard analyzed between the consumer and the system of objects. The Narrator invested in the rigidly standardized (segmented) consumer way of life believing that it would lead to his happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction, but that’s not where it got him at all. Instead it led to the existential deterioration of his life. In constructing his system of objects, he was seeking to construct a self. As he so aptly puts it during that great panoramic shot of his condo, “I used to flip through catalogs and wonder: What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” From the Erica Pekkary dust ruffles to the little yin-yang shaped coffee table, from the Klipske personal office unit to the Hovetrekke home exer-bike, from the Johannshamn sofa with the Strinne green stripe pattern to the Rizlampa wire lamps of environmentally friendly unbleached paper, all the Narrator was doing was “personalizing” and “differentiating” himself as a functional system of objects. When the detective calls to discuss the new information concerning the explosion of the condo, more specifically, that the dynamite used to blow it up was homemade, the Narrator goes on the defensive and declares, “That condo was my life. OK? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed. It was me!” Sure, he’s not being sincere but that’s only due to the fact that Tyler has already started to realign his perception. Nevertheless, it holds true. The destruction of his system of objects simultaneously shattered his consumer self or molar identity. While pop psychology might interpret this event to be a terrible tragedy, Tyler thinks it to be a good thing — an opportunity for self-liberation.
There definitely is a traumatic aspect to it for the Narrator that we shouldn’t overlook though. We can rethink this traumatic event in “selfhood” in terms of Jaques Lacan’s concepts of the Imaginary order and the mirror stage. When a baby is between 6 and 18 months of age it’s confronted over and over again by its own mirror image (what also is referred to by Lacan as its “imago” or “specular image”) — this stage of development corresponds to Freud’s stage of primary narcism. Of course, the mirror can be any reflective surface, for example, a window, a body of water or even a mother’s loving gaze. In fact, the mother’s gaze is usually the infant’s first mirror. But while the mother’s gaze is usually the first mirror, it is the second one, an actual mirror, that truly brings about a unified sense of self in the infant. Unlike apes that quickly lose interest in their mirror images, human babies find great joy in the experience of their reflections. An infant is jubilantly captivated by its imago. But this difference isn’t inconsequential; it’s a structural, ontological one. It is, as Lacan puts it, “an ontological structure of the human world” (Écrits, p. 95). This primary identification with the mirror image has huge consequences on the psychological development of the child. Prior to this identification, the infant is “fragmented” or is a “body in pieces”. The idea here is that infants lack a unitary sense of self. They are very uncoordinated and cannot control their own bodies or any of the objects around them with ease. William James got it right when he said, “The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming, buzzing confusion” (The Principles of Psychology, p. 462). The most crucial aspect of the mirror stage is the infant’s identification with its image, since this is how a unified sense of self emerges and begins to take hold of the proto-subject or Imaginary subject. Without this primary identification there would be no human subjects. However, this identification with the image is a dialectical thesis containing its own negation; it leads to alienation insofar as the infant identifies with something it’s not — it’s not the image in the mirror. This identification-alienation dialectic or mirror dialectic confuses us about ourselves. In finding ourselves, we lose ourselves. The derivation of the Imaginary unity of the ego from the perceived unity of the mirror image means that the ego is an other.
But the identification with the mirror image is just the first of many identifications. As the child matures it comes to identify with a host of people, objects, activities, places, etc., that supplement and augment one’s ego. These secondary identifications simply extend the range of our alienation. Viewed from the Lacanian perspective, the consumer society and the system of objects are a mirror-system: it renders us permanent babies lost in alienation. Consumption is the hyper-commodification of primordial alienation. Consumption is a systematic exploitation of the mirror stage. The Narrator’s Imaginary self was, thus, literally destroyed by the explosion of his condo. The shattering of his mirror-system of objects was the shattering of his consumer identity, which, in turn, was a line of flight his repressed desire could escape on (Tyler is the Narrator’s repressed desire). At the end of the film, Tyler frustrating says to the Narrator, “Wanna go back to the shit job, fuckin’ condo world, watching sitcoms? Fuck you, I won’t do it!” Tyler, as repressed desire, relentlessly reaffirms that we are not the things we identify with; he always emphasizes the importance of severing ties with our secondary identifications, since they’re ontological falsifications. Tyler is at war against consumer méconnaissance along with the anxiety, ennui, alienation, reification, pacification and enervation it grounds. Consumerism regiments and overcodes the Imaginary insofar as it harnesses our desire for a complete, unified self, then redirects it toward the system of objects, which advertising convinces us will make us whole. Tyler rejects all this: “I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let’s . . . let’s evolve, let the chips fall where they may.” His point is that we should just let desire flow, let desire make new types of connections, let desire desire.
One cannot help but to ask the following question: if consumption made the Narrator so unhappy, then why was he so invested in it? If Homo consumericus finds the mall-life so unpleasurable, then why the incessant desire for it? Simply put, because the secondary identifications the consumer makes with his or her system of objects are charged with a whole array of libidinal investments. This connection is subtly indicated by the Narrator himself: “We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow collection.” That is, the sign-commodities we consume are supported by the displacement of libido. However, this displacement turns out to be a systematic repression of desire. The system of objects represses desire. It is a rigid segmentarity in which desire gets trapped. Consumerism is the repression of desire masquerading as the liberation of desire. As Deleuze and Guattari said, “If desire is repressed, it is because every position of desire, no matter how small, is capable of calling into question the established order of a society: not that desire is asocial, on the contrary. But it is explosive; there is no desiring-machine capable of being assembled without demolishing entire social sectors. Despite what some revolutionaries think about this, desire is revolutionary in its essence — desire, not left-wing holidays! — and no society can tolerate a position of real desire without its structures of exploitation, servitude, and hierarchy being compromised” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 116). This goes to show that capitalism must overcode and segment desire to such a degree that its own mode of production and reproduction is secured against the destructive, slippery and “proletarian” power of desire. After WW II, capitalism found consumerism to be an incredibly effective method for ensuring its own reproduction insofar as capital accumulation was transformed into existential “individuation”, i.e., the building of a self. Consumerism provided desire with a seemingly infinite amount of commodities to connect to (the heterogeneity of the content of the consumer society), while secretly repressing desire by exclusively imprisoning it in a single way of life (the homogeneity of the form of the consumer society). Tyler is the Narrator’s unconscious attempt to liberate his desire from the consumer lifestyle.
We have discussed many facets of the consumer society but its most fundamental and structural mechanism has not yet been pinpointed. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari worked out a distinction between striated space and smooth space, and it is within this distinction that we discover the mechanism at the center of the consumer society. Smooth space is heterogeneous insofar as it is a patchwork; it connects heterogenous elements together, but not under a single organizing principle. However, on a superficial level, smooth spaces come across as highly homogenized, e.g., the sea, the desert and the air seem to always be just more of the same. The heterogeneity of smooth space is not lodged on the level of content and expression (form and substance), rather it is found in the flows that flow in the space. It is the heterogeneous flows that traverse the desert unrestrictedly that make it a smooth space. One can think of double articulation, content and expression, as the structuring (“normalizing” and “regularizing”) of nomadic flows. Striation homogenizes a space by restricting flows, by grouping, sorting, channeling or segregating unrestricted flows. Social systems (caste systems) that are based on racial, sexual, or economic differences involve striations and segmentations. For our purposes, it is of the utmost importance to understand how D&G conceived of the transition from industrial capitalism to global (consumer) capitalism.
“If work constitutes a striated space-time corresponding to the State apparatus, is this not especially true of its archaic or ancient forms? For it is there that surplus labor is isolated, distinguished, in the form of tribute or corvée. Consequently, it is there that the concept of labor appears at its clearest, for example, in the large-scale works of the empires, the urban, agricultural, or hydraulic works by which a “laminar” flow in supposedly parallel layers (striation) is imposed upon the waters. It seems on the contrary that in the capitalist regime, surplus labor becomes less and less distinguishable from labor “strictly speaking,” and totally impregnates it. Modern public works have a different status from that of large-scale imperial works. How could one possibly distinguish between the time necessary for reproduction and “extorted” time, when they are no longer separated in time? This remark certainly does not contradict the Marxist theory of surplus value, for Marx shows precisely that surplus value ceases to be localizable in the capitalist regime. That is even his fundamental contribution. It gave him a sense that machines would themselves become productive of surplus value and that the circulation of capital would challenge the distinction between variable and constant capital. In these new conditions, it remains true that all labor involves surplus labor; but surplus labor no longer requires labor. Surplus labor, capitalist organization in its entirety, operates less and less by the striation of space-time corresponding to the physicosocial concept of work. Rather, it is as though human alienation through surplus labor were replaced by a generalized “machinic enslavement,” such that one may furnish surplus-value without doing any work (children, the retired, the unemployed, television viewers, etc.). Not only does the user as such tend to become an employee, but capitalism operates less on a quantity of labor than by a complex qualitative process bringing into play modes of transportation, urban models, the media, the entertainment industries, ways of perceiving and feeling — every semiotic system. It is as though, at the outcome of the striation that capitalism was able to carry to an unequaled point of perfection, circulating capital necessarily recreated, reconstituted, a sort of smooth space in which the destiny of human beings is recast. Striation, of course, survives in the most perfect and severest of forms (it is not only vertical but operates in all directions); however, it relates primarily to the state pole of capitalism, in other words, to the role of the modern State apparatuses in the organization of capital. On the other hand, at the complementary and dominant level of integrated (or rather integrating) world capitalism, a new smooth space is produced in which capital reaches its “absolute” speed, based on machinic components rather than the human component of labor. The multinationals fabricate a kind of deterritorialized smooth space in which points of occupation as well as poles of exchange become quite independent of the classical paths to striation. What is really new are always the new forms of turnover. The present-day accelerated forms of the circulation of capital are making the distinctions between constant and variable capital, and even fixed and circulating capital, increasingly relative; the essential thing is instead the distinction between striated capital and smooth capital, and the way in which the former gives rise to the latter through complexes that cut across territories and States, and even the different types of States.”
(A Thousand Plateaus, p. 492)
In the industrial society the social spaces were highly striated, whereas private spaces tended to be smooth (except perhaps for the homes of the wealthiest members of the bourgeoisie). However, in the consumer society the relation gets inverted: social space becomes smooth and private space gets striated. There’s a complicated history to this transition which has many connections to economic and social changes, the emergence of the leisure class (as described by Veblen), the emergence of the market and industry of interior design, the role of the homemaker (the wife) in the Victorian era, so on and so forth.
In a genealogical sketch, in the briefest and most germane overview, the transition from industrial capitalism to consumer capitalism involves the worker becoming an interior designer, i.e., the striater of personal space. We can locate the inception of what we call interior design in the 17th century. Yet it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century with the growth of the bourgeoisie that it took on a much more prominent role in Western society. One of the pivotal moments in the history of interior design was the publishing of Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament in 1856. In this work, Jones formulated 37 key principles of interior design and decoration. The construction of this aesthetic apparatus of capture, this structure of decorative rules, this normative systemization of private spaces, this overcoding model of the pleasurable living environment, would come to hold sway in the consumer society, but, first, it had to take on the principle of personalization — with the addition of this principle, the foundation of the system of objects was established. Up until the 20th century, large retail companies monopolized the service and art of interior design. In the 1880s, Mary Haweis would release a series of highly influential essays in which she rejected the rigid and arborescent model of interior design espoused by Owen Jones as well as the role manufacturers played in this process. She argued that living spaces must take on a personal dimension in order to be true interiors. As she put it, “One of my strongest convictions, and one of the first canons of good taste, is that our houses, like the fish’s shell and the bird’s nest, ought to represent our individual taste and habits.” (It’s noteworthy that this quote appears on a number of websites devoted to interior design.) While interior design started off as a commercial enterprise, and, then, became the work of individual interior decorators, it would eventually become a personalizing “duty” of the homemaker. One’s home ought not be merely a signifier of one’s class (even though it still is through and through), but instead ought to be a signifier of one’s individuality. However, once we reach the full onset of the consumer society in the Postwar era, one’s individuality itself is not represented by one’s interiors, rather one simply is a system of objects/striations.
To circle back to Fight Club, the lines or striations in the Narrator’s apartment, the referential “lines” between commodities, are lines between points. Interior design presupposes the royal science of Euclidian geometry. The system of objects is a point-system, a coordinate-system. It is the creation of a striated space in which subjectivity gets imprisoned. The striated lines within a system of objects are ultimately the bars of a jail cell. By utilizing Deleuze and Guattari’s first model of striated space and smooth space, the technological model, we can analogically think of the consumer environment, the system of objects, as a fabric. As D&G showed, weaving, as a process of striation, always involves a warp and a woof. We can think of the system of objects as the warp and the self as the woof. Consumerism is a weaving process. Neither the self or the system of objects is the weaver in this process. Strictly speaking, there’s really no weaver (individual subject) that stands over and above the weaved, over against the “fabric”. However, for the sake of clarification, and in keeping with the analogy, we can consider the weaver to be what Baudrillard called the Code, that is, the whole system of mass media, advertising, interior design, culture industry, etc. (the Baudrillardian Code has much in common with the Deleuzoguattarian apparatus of capture — so much so that I am tempted to say that they are simply different ways of conceiving of the same mechanism). The Code creates the “values” and “needs” of the consumer. The creation and manipulation of “needs” is the mechanism that guides the weaving process of consumer striation. It is the fundamental mechanism of reification (Lukács). It makes objects into subjects and subjects into objects. Properly thought, the system of objects is neither a system of objects nor a system of subjects — it is a system of sobjects. It is the blurring of the two, the collapsing of the one into the other, the blending of “threads”. Another analogical parallel between weaving and the system of objects is that both are infinite in length but finite in width, that is, just as a piece of fabric can keep on being extended indefinitely on one side while remaining completely delimited, closed and fixed by the frame of the warp on the other, so, too, can the system of objects be updated and upgraded ad infinitum without ever escaping the normative and orthodox segmentations of interior design (more broadly speaking, the Code in general). In the consumer society, we imprison our own desire behind the striations of the commodity-structure. We enjoy repressing ourselves. The impulse to striate is strong. The act of striation itself seems to be charged with libidinal investments. Striation has its own jouissance to it. Now that the seas have all been striated, and the entire planet for that matter, it is time to striate our bathrooms.
Now that we have a clear perspective on the structure of consumer living spaces, and the suffocation of desire and existentiality they can cause, we need to juxtapose this version of the home with a more primordial one. As I mentioned above, Emmanuel Levinas conceptualized the home as a condition of selfhood, and it is in his description of the relation between the home and the self that we find a non-consumerist way of thinking about dwelling. Levinas’ description of the home (and enjoyment) was intended to serve as a critique of Heidegger’s description of Dasein presented in Being and Time.
For Levinas, Being-in-the-world is conditioned by having a home. “The privileged role of the home does not consist in being the end of human activity but in being its condition, and in this sense its commencement. The recollection necessary for nature to be able to be represented and worked over, for it to first take form as a world, is accomplished as the home. Man abides in the world as having come to it from a private domain, from being at home with himself, to which at each moment he can retire” (Totality and Infinity, p. 152). The key difference between this view of the home and that of the consumer’s is that it does not see the home as the ultimate end of human existence. The consumer’s home is the consumer’s self — not merely the condition of the self. First we dwell, then we exist (care). Labor and possession are made possible by the “recollection” of the home. This term doesn’t carry the semiotic trace of Platonic anamnesis. However, the home is memory in a certain sense. The home concretely recollects the past, which is a condition of self-identity. Contra Kant, it is the home itself, not the transcendental unity of apperception, that concretely performs the synthesis of memory. In fact, this concrete synthesis of memory makes possible the abstract memory belonging to representation. But also think of this term more literally as re-collection. The home is the space in which occurs the repetition of collecting use-values that nourish, sustain and recharge my body and life. We recollect or continuously restock a specific place that provides shelter with furnishings, therein making it the inner citadel that conditions our inner inner citadels (egoism). The transformation of elements into furnishings presupposes a fixed location in which to store them. The home is the condition of personal property.
The paths to interiority (subjectivity) are interiors (personal and artificial spaces opened up in the elemental). Interiors interiorize interiority. For Levinas, to have property is to have a self. The home is a collection of furnishings that attempts to ward off the uncertainty of the future and guarantee the unabated flow of enjoyment. The home regulates the elements — the home is a bath tub. For us to be able to care about our existence, to be the being whose Being (social identity) is an issue for it, we must first establish some relative stability in our enjoyment in relation to the threatening and whimsical future. We can also think of the home as the locus of personal space as opposed to the impersonal and anonymous space of the elemental (what Levinas also calls il y a, which roughly corresponds to what D&G called chaos). These are two different spatialities: elemental or impersonal spatiality and domestic or personal spatiality. The home opens up a space for Dasein to “find itself”. The stomach cares nothing for authenticity. Imagine someone trying to shame a malnourished person on the verge of starving to death for not being authentic. The ethics of authenticity presupposes a full stomach. The game of resoluteness necessitates a warm bed. The home transforms the elemental into manageable personal property — it tames the forces of nature. My Being-at-home-in-the-world literally means having a home. To become homeless is to become selfless. The destruction of one’s home is the destruction of one’s humanity.
Levinas’ description of the home connects nicely to D&G’s description of the formation of a territory in A Thousand Plateaus. The concepts of the refrain, rhythms, striated space, smooth space, segmentarity, milieus, territorialization, lines of flight, etc., are especially helpful. For D&G, the creation of a territory out of milieu components serves to protect the territorialized from chaos (Levinas’ il y a and elemental), that is, it provides the territorialized with consistency.
“Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds. This was already true of the previous case. But now the components are used for organizing a space, not for the momentary determination of a center. The forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible, and the interior space protects the germinal forces of a task to fulfill or a deed to do. This involves an activity of selection, elimination and extraction, in order to prevent the interior forces of the earth from being sub merged, to enable them to resist, or even to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space that has been drawn. Sonorous or vocal components are very important: a wall of sound, or at least a wall with some sonic bricks in it. A child hums to summon the strength for the schoolwork she has to hand in. A housewife sings to herself, or listens to the radio, as she marshals the antichaos forces of her work. Radios and television sets are like sound walls around every household and mark territories (the neighbor complains when it gets too loud). For sublime deeds like the foundation of a city or the fabrication of a golem, one draws a circle, or better yet walks in a circle as in a children’s dance, combining rhythmic vowels and consonants that correspond to the interior forces of creation as to the differentiated parts of an organism. A mistake in speed, rhythm, or harmony would be catastrophic because it would bring back the forces of chaos, destroying both creator and creation.”
(A Thousand Plateaus, p. 311)
The formation of the home necessitates a line of flight out of the smooth space of chaos (elements, forces, intensities) to the striated space of a segmented territory (extensities). The recollection/consistency made possible by the home-territory allows for the possibility of a linear line of segmentarity, i.e., a life narrative. It likewise grounds circular segmentarity and many binary segmentations. To become homeless means to be deterritorialized and, then, reterritorialized on deterritorialization itself, which, in other words, means to become a nomad. But if the home, in the Levinasian-Deleuzoguattarian sense, necessarily involves the creation of a striated space, then is it not fundamentally the same as the Baudrillardian system of objects? No, and here’s why: the former is a supple segmentarity, the latter is a rigid segmentarity. The distinction between the smooth and the striated is not absolute; they are tendencies at opposite ends of a continuum. The more “solid” a segmentation becomes, the more rigid it is. The more “liquid” a segmentation becomes, the more supple it is. The segmentations that form the parameters of the Levinasian-Deleuzoguattarian home are supple in a number of ways. Most importantly, while conditioning subjectivity, these lines do not come to imprison the subject by bringing it to identify solely with them. This leaves the subject open to connect with the world in new ways, to enter into new becomings — unlike the system of objects. D&G describe the openness of the “circle” of the home like this: “One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune” (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 311). Despite the supple segmentations that mark its boundaries, the Levinasian-Deleuzoguattarian dwelling remains to a large degree a smooth space of self-organization. There’s something dialectical or contradictory about the home or dwelling becoming a prison. The home is our refuge from the elements, the wild, unpredictable and chaotic field of intensities. It is our sanctuary from il y a, the ‘there is’, the chaos. So what is the becoming-prison of the home? The one word answer: consumerism.
We’ve seen how Baudrillard’s concept of the consumer dwelling relates to Fight Club, but how does this alternative, primordial concept of the home relate to the film? Whereas the Narrator’s condo is a system of objects rooted in a specific striated space and rigid segmentarity that prevents becomings, Tyler’s abandoned house is a smooth space with a supple segmentarity in which intensities can freely flow, thus, facilitating becomings. The condo was a space of arborescent representation, interpretation and fantasy opposed to the abandoned house which was a space of rhizomatic experimentation, improv and “schizophrenia”. The Narrator is lodged in the grid, the striated space of the consumer society. Tyler dwells completely “off-grid” in the smooth space of the nomad. The two tendencies toward stasis and change at work in the chaosmos are embodied by the two different types of homes presented in Fight Club. The Narrator is incarcerated on a particular stratum that unyieldingly represses his desire — his desire to become, the desire to make new connections. This desire unconsciously makes for itself a body without organs in the form of Tyler Durden. It is Tyler that blows up the apartment in an attempt to liberate the repressed desire of the Narrator. But Tyler was smart. He knew that without a home, a shelter, a territory, in the primordial sense, one is completely left at the mercy of the elements. This is why he had the abandoned house on Paper St. ready and waiting for the Narrator. Tyler knew that a dwelling is the condition of selfhood, but he also knew that once the self comes to absolutely identify with the home, the self is no longer a self. The self must be destroyed; it must undergo a radical deterritorialization. This is what leads him to say, “Self-improvement is masturbation. Now, self-destruction . . .” Given this analysis of the role played by commodities and spaces in Fight Club, we can say that the Narrator’s life, his line of linear segmentarity, has had four main segments in relation to his home(s). The first of these segments is not presented in the film, but the other three are. First, there is primordial becoming-subject, which is the Narrator’s existential relation to his childhood home. Second, the system of objects/condo forces the Narrator into a becoming-object. Third, Tyler destroys the condo thereby rendering the Narrator homeless, i.e., he initiates a becoming-nomad. Fourth, there is a becoming-subject (revolutionary subject) made possible by the abandoned house.
Fight Club is a study in how one might be able to become from within the consumer society. When the Narrator retreats into his cave and discovers his power animal (the penguin/Marla), what does it say to him? It says, “slide”. In the context of the film, “slide” means to become, to change, to flow, to deterritorialize, to experiment, to destratify, to make a body without organs, to liberate desire, etc. We now understand how commodities and spaces in the consumer society imprison the self, how they shackle desire, how they prevent deterritorializations and lines of flight. However, we must remember that Deleuze and Guattari repeatedly stressed that their categories of becoming and change are not good in and of themselves. Becoming is a tricky endeavor; it’s always a risk. There’s a chance that change will harm us more intensely than our fixity (stratifications and segmentations). If one cannot stand the lines and strata, then one must experiment — but do it with caution. As D&G said, “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 500).
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Baudrillard, Jean, The Consumer Society. SAGE Publications Ltd. 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, Anti-Oedipus. University of Minnesota Press. 1987
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus. University of Minnesota Press. 1987.
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