Hegel and Chuck Palahniuk: The Master-Slave Dialectic of Fight Club
by C.H. Newell
In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel defines consciousness in social terms in that “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when… it so exists for another… it exists only in being acknowledged” (§178). Furthermore, Hegel uses the master-slave dialectic in order to define the process through which an individual attains its self-consciousness. At the beginning of this process, an individual must see the ‘other’ as she sees herself, as both subject and object. The master-slave dialectic puts two consciousnesses at odds in a situation where “each seeks the death of the other” (§187). However, death is the answer because, as Hegel makes clear, self-consciousness does not simply require the individual in question, but rather the ‘other’ must continue to live in order for mutual acknowledgement and recognition of consciousness. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk illustrates Hegel’s social theory of consciousness and the master-slave dialectic in the relationship between the novel’s narrator, his later revealed alter-ego Tyler Durden, as well as their mutual lover Marla Singer. First, existence in and for itself is represented by the narrator first meeting Durden, and the change from subjectivity to objectivity which follows. Secondly, the master-slave dialectic emerges when the narrator comes into conflict with Durden after recognizing they are one person. Finally, the narrator literally kills off his alter-ego, but manages to attain ultimate acknowledgement through Marla whose recognition allows him self-identity. In Hegel’s terms, the narrator represents a thesis, Tyler Durden is the opposite antithesis, and Marla Singer reconciles their differences through playing the role of synthesis between them.
Fittingly for Hegel, the narrator of Fight Club is unnamed and is never once referred to outside of himself. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is self-involved. At the same time he is concerned about identity, in that he fills his apartment with objects in order to give himself a sense of individuality. For instance, he tells the reader “[i]t took my whole life to buy this stuff” (Palahniuk 29), as if they are an indication of his status or who he is as a person. Moreover, the narrator goes on to tell us: “I loved my life. I loved that condo. I loved every stick of furniture. That was my whole life. Everything, the lamps, the chairs, the rugs were me. The dishes in the cabinet were me. The plants were me. The television was me. It was me that blew up.” (Palahniuk 78). In the narrator’s eyes, he projects his identity onto the objects of his life. However, as opposed to living human beings who can give the narrator a sense of actual self-consciousness in return, these inanimate objects cannot and only serve to isolate him in a world of false subjectivity. Until his apartment is literally blown to bits and all the furniture and other objects inside are destroyed, the narrator is incapable of letting go. Only through destruction of his false subjectivity is he liberated, and given a way towards discovering true self-consciousness. Even further, it is the destruction of his apartment which brings the narrator into closer contact with Tyler Durden.
After the damage to his apartment, the narrator only has one acquaintance to call for a place to stay: Tyler. For the first time in the novel, the narrator says “[d]eliver me from Swedish furniture. Deliver me from clever art” (Palahniuk 31) and picks up the phone to make a call. Immediately after these words Tyler picks up on the other line. The narrator goes virtually unnoticed by almost everyone around him until he and Tyler become roommates. It is only after the recognition of Tyler that they “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another” (Hegel §184). In addition, once we later learn that Tyler is the alter-ego of our narrator, this applies directly to Hegel. Once the ‘other’, or Tyler, is able to recognize the narrator then they both become self-conscious entities. Afterwards, the creation of the Fight Club begins. Tyler and the narrator seemingly take on dual roles of leadership, existing in themselves and for themselves. The whole point of Fight Club comes down to Hegel’s concept of “only through staking one’s life that freedom is won” (§187). All the men engaged in Fight Club are there because of a search for identity, or as Hegel puts it they are attempting to attain self-consciousness through “seek[ing] the death of the other” (§187). This struggle between the fighters is a perfect example of Hegel, as “death… does away with the truth which was supposed to issue from [the fight]” (Hegel §188). Therefore, the fact these fighters do not kill one another acts as a synthesis for Hegel; neither individual is fully destroyed, though, they have staked their lives and have not “put an end to their consciousness” (§188). Nonetheless, the major shift between the narrator and Tyler Durden into a master-slave dialectic comes later when they enter into a conflict over Marla Singer. Ultimately these two opposing consciousnesses seek to “regard its otherness as a pure being-for-self or as an absolute negation” (Hegel §187). In other words, the narrator and Tyler either must accept the other as a pure self-consciousness, or else there is possibility of death.
After Marla drives a wedge between Tyler and the narrator, their relationship changes from one of mutual recognition to a “life-and-death struggle” (Hegel §187). The narrator begins to act negatively towards Tyler’s relationship with Marla, which prompts Tyler into essentially becoming the master. Eventually, the narrator becomes more involved in the work of Project Mayhem after Tyler goes rogue and sets everything up without his knowledge. In becoming the master, Tyler “holds the other [or the narrator] in subjection” (Hegel §190). No longer are they in a balance of mutual recognition. On the contrary, Tyler as master “achieves his recognition through another consciousness” (Hegel §191). Once Marla comes between him and the narrator, Tyler actually disappears for a while leaving the narrator to work on Project Mayhem himself; he basically delegates all the labour in his absence to his “unessential consciousness” (Hegel §192). Finally, it is through his work on Project Mayhem the narrator slowly gets closer to understanding himself as an independent being. Particularly when the narrator discovers he and Tyler Durden are the same person, this is when the life-and-death struggle truly begins. The first instance of this battle comes when Tyler takes the narrator for a ride in a car, which he then proceeds to send flying into traffic. The narrator survives and continues to struggle. Later, Tyler convinces others in Project Mayhem to try and kill the narrator. Again, the narrator survives and continues their struggle. Lastly, this life-and-death struggle does not exactly take the route of Hegel, as the narrator shoots himself: “[W]hen I pulled the trigger, I died… [a]nd Tyler died” (Palahniuk 154). On the one hand, Hegel’s theory suggests “life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness” (§189). On the other hand, the narrator does not die. Even while Tyler dies the narrator is able to retain a sense of self-consciousness, as Marla recognizes his true identity; she never saw him as one or the other, but simply saw him as Tyler. Once Durden is shot and dies, the narrator is able to live on as himself truly because Marla writes to him in the hospital and insists on acknowledging his self-consciousness. Though this situation does not follow Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to the letter, the essence of his social theory involving mutual recognition does hold up throughout Palahniuk’s novel through an intermingling of consciousnesses, as well as the struggle between the narrator and Tyler Durden towards attaining independent self-consciousness.
Hegel sees self-consciousness as determined through social recognition. That is to say, Hegel believes consciousness does not become self-consciousness until two independent entities acknowledge one another as both being object and subject. At the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the novel’s narrator is completely involved in his own subjectivity. Once he meets Tyler Durden, this subjectivity extends to his understanding of Tyler as also being a subjective, individual entity. Furthermore, after this mutual recognition Tyler and the narrator enter into a master-slave dialectic where they each must stake their lives in order to negate the other. In Hegel’s theory, neither side must actually die, but rather through staking their life each self-consciousness accepts the reality of death and therefore comes into their own. In opposition, the Palahniuk novel sees Tyler die and the narrator continue living. It is through a third party, Marla Singer, the narrator is able to continue on as a self-consciousness. Marla allows a synthesis between the thesis and antithesis of the narrator versus his alter-ego Tyler, instead of the narrator altogether losing his self-consciousness after Tyler’s death.
Hegel. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. eBook.
Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. Print.