One of the things I most enjoy about vacation is the chance to catch up on my reading -- as well as my junk pop culture consumption. So I recently had the chance to read The Fight Club, the novel on which the popular 1999 movie is based, about severely-depressed white-collar workers who find succor for their soul-killing drudgery by beating each other up at night. As a child of the 80s, I loved the original Die Hard, and like a moth to flame, also eagerly checked out the (fourth) sequel, conveniently putting out of my mind that II and III were godawful. Live Free or Die Hard, which came out this past summer, features John McClane trying to protect the life of a nerdy young computer hacker played by Justin Long, as they battle a group of cyberterrorists led by an evil white programmer played by Tim Olyphant, and his Asian girlfriend, played by Maggie Q, who knows kung-fu and keeps tricking nerds into blowing themselves up with their computer.
Both Die Hard and The Fight Club both made me think of a 1970s American studies classic that I read in grad school: Regeneration Through Violence, by Richard Slotkin. Slotkin's thesis is that from the 17th-century onward, narratives of violent subjugation of the wilderness and Native Americans were paradoxically associated with healthy development, or "regeneration." Killing bears, chopping down trees, and blasting Native Americans was part of the process of carving civilization from an unruly nature and its "savage" inhabitants. Internalizing some of that savagery was a necessary part of being a heroic man.
Which invites the question of what happens to that glorification of violence in a society like ours, when nature and Native Americans have largely been destroyed. Die Hard With A Vengeance is interesting as an unreconstructed version of the myth -- the nerdy computer hacker spouts anti-Bush slogans about the Administration fomenting fear among the populace even as he is totally incompetent to defend himself from terrorists and needs McClane's assistance. (McClane drops the evil girlfriend down an elevator shaft, and kills many henchmen). In the final scene, however, the nerd redeems himself by shooting the villain, thereby rescuing McClane and getting to date his daughter. Regeneration through violence, dude! Giuliani '08! Maybe Cheney will invite you to his secret location for a highball!
I had thought Fight Club to be a similarly updated (and frankly, repellant) version of the myth that violence can get you in touch with a healthier, more vital you. In Googling around, however, I discovered this intriguing essay by a UVA grad student named Robin Freed (her master's thesis, no less!), which argues that The Fight Club is actually a pomo ironic retelling of the regeneration through violence myth, in which the fighting is not presented as the necessary brutality undertaken by a frontier warrior engaged in the relentless process of industrialization but rather a way to "soothe the men's feelings of inadequacy and alienation" in a technocratic order that no longer requires violence from the average Joe. The fact that the violence is self-destructive and ultimately does not solve any problems for the men makes the book and film "anti-violent."
Freed wants to make the book effectively a critique of the soul-deadening quality of modern business life, in which unmotivated, staged fights feel more real than the rest of our lives -- but I'd point to the popularity of the movie to question her thesis. Even though most of us are bored at work, perhaps even depressed, we think of cultural anti-hero Tyler Durden kicking ass just because he's so angry and frustrated and needs someone to take it out on. We think about Tyler, maybe even watch Fight Club again, get a cathartic release, and then get back to work. Is this really so different than the way Americans glorified Davy Crockett blowing Indians away in the 19th century? I'd like to hear ABers chime in.
Also, I'd love to hear any other contemporary examples people can think of that might fit with, or work against Slotkin's thesis.