Shadow Boxing with Fight Club
How the Movie Fight Club Illustrates the Problem of the Inferior Function
Carol Shumate, December 1, 2011
The gratuitous violence of the movie Fight Club epitomizes Jung’s description of the inferior function of the introverted intuitive type as “extraverted sensation … of an archaic character” (CW 6, para. 663). The entire movie has the quality of introverted intuition (Ni), filled with irrational but symbolically expressive images and visions.i But Fight Club is more than a movie about one type. The underground club where anonymous men engage in hand-to-hand combat represents the struggle we must all engage in with our inferior function to avoid projecting it in violence to self and others.
The inferior function, Angelo Spoto said, is “not just a trouble-maker extraordinaire, it is a moral exigency as well.” The 1998 film exemplifies this dual quality of our fourth function as both nemesis and vehicle for type development, portraying our struggle with the function as literally a battle. Spoto’s description of the inferior function summarizes the movie’s theme: “In its most diabolical aspects, it tampers with and sabotages our relationships, turning friend into foe, or intrapsychically speaking, Self into non-self.” Fight Club dramatizes this strangely autonomous character of the inferior function by anthropomorphizing it into a separate character, a projection of the protagonist, who, in suppressing some parts of his psyche, inadvertently recreates them as external obstacles to be overcome.
The movie does not shy away from demonstrating how our tendency to project our non-preferred functions can lead to homicide, suicide, or even the breakdown of civilization. The violence is exhausting and many viewers cannot stay with the movie to the end. But Fight Club’s accomplishment is to elicit in us the instinctive fear, resistance, and embarrassment we all experience around the domain of our inferior function, whichever function that may be for us. The reward for sticking with the movie until the end is a catharsis that feels as if we have integrated our own inferior function. (And here we must acknowledge that this article is a spoiler: If you want to experience this cathartic effect of the movie, see it first before reading further.) In this way, the film makes the struggle worthwhile, suggesting that we can change the trajectory of our lives (and our civilization) by recognizing and owning our functions.
Part of what makes the movie an instructive vehicle for exploring psychological type is the exaggeration of the qualities that Jung associates with certain functions: introverted intuition (Ni), extraverted sensation (Se), and introverted sensation (Si). Of course, this exaggeration implies pathological dysfunction, but it also makes the functions visible to us, and suggests that we can reach psychic wholeness from the depths of our dysfunction by grappling with our own inferior function, the site of our inferiority complex.
The entire movie is one man’s fantasy of an alternate reality. The protagonist, Jack, played by Ed Norton, could be viewed as an INTJ, though a dysfunctional INTJ.ii A similar movie could be made about any of the types, but this type code enables the exploration of the inferior function via what is perhaps the most vivid and cinematically gratifying function: extraverted sensation.
We see in Jack’s character the qualities Jung observes in the introverted intuitive type: “The intensification of intuition often results in an extraordinary aloofness of the individual from tangible reality” (CW 6, para. 661). The movie exaggerates this aloofness to the point of near-complete dissociation from reality. However, the main character’s internal monologue is so insightful and original that it illuminates the extraordinary richness of the interior life of Ni types, of whom Jung says, “They are living evidence that this rich and varied world with its overflowing and intoxicating life is not purely external but also exists within” (CW 6, para. 665).
Early visual cues that suggest Jack’s type as a youthful INTJ are his controlled movements, neat attire, and clean desk and apartment. Paul Tieger says that INTJs are characterized by “movements that are thoughtful and deliberate” (1998, 174) and in Ed Norton‘s portrayal, Jack moves almost robotically. He dresses conservatively, another INTJ attribute (Tieger, 1998), and his verbal interactions are clear, crisp, and dry, characteristic of an extraverted thinking (Te) auxiliary function. John Beebe has called Ni the “knowing” function, and Jack’s inflated Ni, together with auxiliary Te, makes him appear arrogant, smug, and callous. In contrast with his internal monologue which flows effortlessly, Jack’s actual conversation consists of pre-rehearsed remarks. [View video-clip]
We can see further evidence of extraverted thinking in Jack’s job, in which he applies a mathematical formula to fatal car crashes to determine whether it is more profitable for the automobile company to pay off the claimants or to recall the defective vehicle. Jung says of extraverted thinking that this type “elevates … an objectively oriented intellectual formula [my emphasis] into the ruling principle not only for himself for but his whole environment” (CW 6, para. 585). Jack adheres to the formula ruthlessly, to the extent that he frightens a fellow passenger on a plane trip when he tells her about his job. “In keeping with the objective formula,” says Jung of extraverted thinking, “the conscious attitude becomes more or less impersonal, often to such a degree that personal interests suffer” (CW 6, para. 589).iii
We can also see Jack’s type in his almost complete repression of sensation, as perhaps could be expected of a youthful Ni dominant individual, though with Jack this is pathologically exaggerated. He inhabits a world of extreme sensory deprivation. He lives in a bland apartment and works at a bland job—or rather, he manages to make his job bland. In fact, his job of analyzing fatal car crashes is graphically sensational, but his exclusive focus on the formula reduces these dramas to figures on paper, causing his job to resemble the actuarial work of insurance. His apartment is a perfectly organized, Ikea-furnished apartment–all white, beige, and undifferentiated, like Jack himself. [View video clip] Paper white is the color of his life and he is a paper man who takes up residence on Paper Street. He appears, like his apartment and his office, to be a man without shadow.
This all recalls Jung’s description of the way a dominant Ni may experience or manifest his inferior function, Se: “What the introverted intuitive represses most of all is the sensation of the object and this … gives rise to a compensatory extraverted sensation function of an archaic character” (CW 6, para. 663). Extraverted sensation “of an archaic character” virtually defines Tyler Durden, the antagonist played by Brad Pitt. Just as the inferior function compensates the dominant, Tyler is everything that Jack is not: Tyler is the man of action who lives in the moment and takes pleasure with no thought of consequences. Jung says, “Instinctuality and intemperance are the hallmarks of this sensation (para. 663)” when it manifests in the introverted intuitive type. As the carrier of Jack’s inferior Se, Tyler’s gestures and speech are fast, spontaneous, reckless, and instinctual, and his dress and style of interaction are anything but conservative. Tyler erupts in Jack’s life much the way the inferior function can erupt in any of us if we manage to suppress it or avoid it for a long time—in violent disruption. Tyler urges Jack to break through his self-imposed isolation from reality by engaging in acts of violence. Tyler insults, attacks, harasses, and torments Jack. As horrifying a friend as anyone could imagine, Tyler is relentless and remorseless:
TYLER: Look at you. You’re pathetic. Why do you think I blew up your condo? Stop trying to control everything and just let go. Let go!
Here, the credo of extraverted sensation—‘be spontaneous’—is exaggerated by the barbarous quality of the inferior function, which always remains primitive in us. In the dominant position, extraverted sensation is fluent and persuasive; if undeveloped, however, as in the inferior position, it can be brutish and bullying.
Ever the primitive, Tyler urges Jack to give vent to his most violent impulses by creating the Fight Club, which, tellingly, is hidden underground. The club becomes the visual expression of inferior extraverted sensation, but also of the addictive rush that can be had from projecting our own animal instincts onto others and then attacking them for the same. It exemplifies the drive that feeds war, genocide, and mob rule. As Spoto observes: “Because the inferior function is so tied to the side of an individual’s personality, we must realize that the inferior function, when it is at the heart of such projections, can actually be dangerous.”
We can’t bear to accompany Jack into Tyler’s barbaric world, and we are tempted to quit watching. Why, we wonder, does Jack let this brute dominate him? Why doesn’t he fight back? Of course, he does fight back, and that is the point: Fighting back does not work. The inferior function cannot be simply overcome, or resisted. At the same time, to fight is mandatory. That is what makes Fight Club an iconic representation of the intra-psychic struggle with the inferior function.
Jung suggested that the inferior function can exercise a near-fatal attraction over us. Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s protégé, has described Hitler’s rise to power as a function of his ability to appeal to the inferior function of his audience (1971, 68). Like Hitler, Tyler appeals to his audience’s inferior function. Not surprisingly, the rules appeal to Jack’s attachment to intellectual formulas. The men who are drawn to the club all have suits and briefcases. They all resemble Jack—i.e., men who have repressed extraverted sensation and who can only experience it negatively, through violence. Von Franz says that the voice of the inferior function expresses itself in clichés and in primitive ways. Tyler’s innumerable mottos and rules have the quality of clichés, delivered with the hypnotic power of one who tells the audience what it wants to hear:
TYLER: The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.
The second rule of Fight Club is: You do not. Talk. About Fight Club.
The rules are simplistic, primitive, and irrational as von Franz predicts. The repetition adds form without content, creating nonsense: If no one talked about the club, how would it gain members? The rules also show occasional flashes of brilliance, as is sometimes the case with the inferior function, but often this brilliance is dangerously cruel, as is the case with Rule #8: “If this is your first time … you have to fight.” Note the little sneer in Tyler’s face after he delivers this final rule. [View video-clip] The Fight Club rules reflect the dangerous desire of the ego to dominate and silence the other parts of the self and to prevent the conscious self from acknowledging its unconscious projections.
But the movie has an even more powerful Se seducer than Tyler in the character of Marla Singer, played by Helena Bonham Carter. Marla takes the fascination of extraverted sensation to a new extreme: She is addicted to addict support groups. Like Tyler, Marla sensationalizes every encounter: she chain-smokes at a meeting of lung cancer victims; she makes a ‘group hug’ sexual; she overdoses on drugs during a long, manic phone conversation. It is impossible to miss her critical role as Jack’s Anima, because Jack exclaims: “SHE ruined everything!” The Anima/Animus or “soul-image,” according to Jung, carries the inferior function. If the individual is unconscious and wholly identified with his persona as Jack is, the Anima can be projected on a person of the opposite sex, who becomes “the object of intense love or equally intense hate” (CW 6, para. 808).
Jack’s divorce from his Sensing and Feeling functions is so extreme that at first he is unaware of being attracted to Marla, and is even unaware that she is attracted to him. It is Tyler who takes up the Marla challenge with gusto, when Jack himself (or at least his conscious self) neglects Marla. As Beebe has observed (2005), a neglected inferior function, when in the guise of the Anima, can manifest this neglect by appearing in our dreams as disheveled and impoverished. When Marla first appears, she seems the chic dramatic femme fatale. But around Jack she takes on the crazed look of a street person with punked-out hair and sloppy clothes. [View video-clip]
Jack’s neglect of extraverted sensation is also symbolized by the state of his house, or rather, Tyler’s house. Jack has traded his perfect but bland apartment for Tyler’s extraverted sensation mess, which becomes a visual representation of Jack’s escalating psychic disintegration. The house resembles the worst kind of college fraternity house that no one has any obligation to clean or maintain. As the movie progresses, holes begin to appear in the walls, the plaster and wallpaper begin to peel off in strips, and worst of all, the house develops plumbing problems. Drips become leaks, which become standing water in some rooms, and the water rises threateningly higher over the course of the film, symbolizing the encroachment of Jack’s unconscious impulses.
Jack is so unconscious that he only realizes his feelings for Marla when Tyler takes her to bed. Now, Jack is simultaneously tormented by Tyler’s bullying taunts and by his jealousy of Tyler’s sexual relations with Marla, and his bitterness and violent impulses escalate, even though it alarms him. Jack’s appeasing strategy of indulging Tyler’s excesses backfires, and Tyler’s violent demands only increase.
Von Franz describes this insatiability as characteristic of the Anima, which Jung associated with the inferior function (1980, 93):
…the rejected content turns up again in a new projection in the individual’s environment, as one sees in the case of Don Juan, who chases one woman after another in his search for the one inner image of woman (anima), only to realize, in the moment of possession, that it is not ‘there.’
Thus, an un-integrated inferior function will drive us, like Don Juan, to seek its image again and again, in ever-new guises.
In Jack, we see this multiplication effect in the escalating fights he engages in with a steady procession of new combatants. The numbers of fighters swell to the size of an army. They even take on the look of soldiers; gone are the suits and briefcases, replaced by camouflage uniforms and weapons. At this point, the Fight Club has entirely disappeared and an army occupies Jack and Tyler’s house.
This marks a sea change in the movie, a shift from extraverted sensation in its raw, untrammeled experience of the moment, into unconscious, and therefore out of control, introverted sensation. The soldiers obey orders unquestioningly, as is characteristic of undeveloped introverted sensation. Lenore Thomson says of Si types that they “use rules and regulations to bring outer reality into line” and “insist on the letter of the law” (1998, 175). As with any function that remains unconscious, this characteristic becomes dangerously exaggerated in Jack’s psychic house. Tyler dreams up ever more violent missions for the soldiers, and the army of men goes out to assault the world, terrorizing random citizens, vandalizing stores, overturning cars, blowing up civic transportation. When Jack, alarmed, asks the soldiers what they’ve done, the reply is: “Sir, the first rule of command is, you do not ask questions, sir.” This shows how grotesquely the Flight Club formula has mutated, and how determined the ego is to refuse Jack admittance to his unconscious.
At this point, what was masochism becomes sadism, and suicidal tendencies become homicidal. John Beebe’s model of eight functions and archetypes posits that, whereas we have four functions in consciousness, we also have access to the other four functions but we tend to be unaware of them; that is, they tend to remain sunk in our unconscious. Beebe’s model places Si in the eighth or Demonic / Daimonic position for INTJ. Jung said that our inferior function can act as a bridge to the unconscious, and, thanks to Beebe’s model, we can actually watch Jack travel along the bridge of his inferior Se into his unconscious Si function. As soon as Jack’s Se is awakened—after he has thoroughly explored it in the Fight Club and via other forms of self-mutilation—it confronts him with his unconscious Si function, which, personified by the soldiers, takes on a truly demonic dimension as Beebe’s model predicts. Lest we have any doubt about the role of the soldiers as unconscious manifestations, or of Tyler’s mediating role between the ego and the unconscious, Tyler makes it overt: “We guard you while you sleep,” he says while the soldiers pin down one of their victims; “Do not f___ with us.” The real target of the message is Jack himself.
The army of soldiers represents the tremendous power we give others over us when we project our less-preferred functions on them. The more Jack tries to exclude, repel, and control the soldiers, the more they encroach on his territory, multiplying and taking over his home. Whereas Si in the dominant (or Heroic) position remembers, maintains, and preserves, Jack’s Si soldiers plot destructive military actions and laugh as they watch buildings burn on TV. We know they are Jack’s because they address him as their commander. The house too takes on the distorted quality of the unconscious, as its inhabitants, the soldiers, exhibit ever-more extreme regimentation—introverted sensation grown pathological. Tyler’s Se fun house has mutated into something resembling a military barracks on the front line: Its windows are boarded up, and it contains no furniture, nothing but maps of military operations and logs of “human sacrifices.”
The disastrous impact of Jack’s psychic split on the world around him is predicted by Jung (CW 9ii, para. 126):
The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate. That is to say, when the individual … does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict and be torn into opposing halves.
Jack’s inability to make conscious his introverted sensation distorts the aspect of Si that records, tracks, and archives experience. His incapacity to access his Si manifests as amnesia. Ni dominant individuals have said that, to the extent that they can grow aware of their introverted sensing, it can manifest as an inability to remember positive moments (Beebe, 2010). Because introverted sensing is focused on recalling lived experience, to be unconscious of it is to lose out on a part of our history. Poor Jack cannot even remember making love to Marla.
We are tempted to see Jack as simply insane. But, if we think this movie has nothing to tell us about ourselves, Jung tells us otherwise: “Even in normal individuals character-splitting is by no means an impossibility. We are therefore fully justified in treating personality dissociation as a problem of normal psychology” (CW 6, para. 799). Late in the film, Jack finds his way to psychological health, and his archetypal complexes show their positive sides. He manages to engage with reality (Se), and to record and remember it (Si). It is the insistent intrusion of Jack’s Anima in the person of Marla that triggers both Jack’s amnesia and his recovery of memory. It is Marla who first cracks the code of the movie, and that of Jack’s mind: She realizes that Tyler and Jack are the same person.
Spoto’s warning about the danger of the inferior function is realized in the film when Tyler tells Jack that Marla must be eliminated because: “She knows.” Although Tyler appears to want Jack to reclaim his repressed aggression, in reality Tyler is invested in keeping Jack ignorant and enslaved. The inferior function, however weak it may be in us, is still after all a conscious or ego-syntonic function—a part of our persona. Bridge to the unconscious though it is, the inferior function nevertheless can generate a fair amount of resistance to the revelation of our unconscious drives. Tyler illustrates this push-pull effect of the inferior function vis-à-vis the unconscious. Jack has no idea what Tyler means. He still doesn’t recognize himself in his myriad projections, believing that Tyler is a real person. But his recognition that Tyler is a serious threat to Marla enables him to push through his defenses and perform the difficult task of overthrowing his ego from its throne.
Together, Marla and Tyler demonstrate how projection can be either creative or destructive. Jack’s projection of Se on Tyler almost kills him; his projection on Marla saves him. How can projection possibly be a good thing? Jung tells us how: “If the soul-image is not projected, a thoroughly morbid relation to the unconscious gradually develops” [my emphasis] (CW 6, para 811). Marla draws Jack out of his intellectualizing, his fantasies, and his self-pity. She saves him from his already ‘morbid relation’ to his unconscious, leading him to reality, and to wholeness. What Marla has “ruined” is Jack’s neat compartmentalization of his psyche. By luring his projected Se from Tyler to herself, Marla saves Jack from dissociating. We know this has happened when Tyler goes missing; then Marla alone carries Jack’s extraverted sensation.
However, the Anima-projection phase must be short-lived, says Jung: “We cannot in the long run allow one part of our personality to be cared for symbiotically by another; for the moment when we might have need of the other function may come at any time and find us unprepared” (CW 7, para. 86). In fact, Jack has desperate need of his extraverted sensation to arrest the impending terrorist action of Tyler’s army.
Propelled by his fear for Marla’s safety, Jack begins to change. The smug wooden protagonist from the early part of the film is gone. His movements are fluid and quick, his interactions no longer bitter but pragmatic. He has dropped the formulas and the rehearsed witticisms. He relinquishes the illusion of control in order to take authentic control, and so he surrenders the dominance of the knowing part of himself, his dominant Ni. He knows that he does not know, but he must act without knowing.
In the final scene,iv Jack learns the truth of who Tyler is. When Tyler reappears, Jack tries to kill him but the bullets pass right through him to no effect. Now Jack understands how projections work. One cannot just kill them off, and it isn’t enough to know that they are part of oneself. One must confront them at the source: the ego.
Jack sees that the only way to regain control of his projections is to sacrifice part of himself, and he decides to shoot himself. Horrified by Jack’s intention, Tyler tries to talk Jack out of it, and begins to bargain with him, and then to threaten him, and here again we hear the voice of ego, desperate to contain us.
In the ultimate extraverted sensation act, Jack shoots himself through the chin and falls to the floor. Symbolically, this scene is emblematic of how, in order to gain access to our inferior function, we must release the grip of our superior function. Tyler’s body, a projection, disappears but Jack remains alive. This is how the ego is—it threatens us with death if we disobey, but if we refuse to listen, we do not die. The world does not end. By committing what James Hollis calls egocide (2007, 237), Jack defuses the demonic potential of his threatening multiple selves, his suppressed, rampaging functions, personified by Tyler Durden and the soldiers. Jack is wounded but empowered. With this act, Jack is also able to make conscious other unconscious functions including, notably, introverted sensation: He is able to recall (Si) the soldiers and re-collect (Si) the scattered parts of himself, which saves Marla’s life and his own.
The last scene of the movie shows the skyscrapers of the city exploding and falling in an eerily prophetic glimpse of 9/11, the most historic acting out of shadow impulses in our time—prophetic because the movie pre-dates 9/11 by three years. [View video-clip] The significance of this coincidence is uncomfortable, as befits the inferior function. It suggests that we are all terrorists, that we all have a Fight Club within us. We must all unseat our ego, comprised of our conscious functions, and especially our Hero or dominant function, in order not to be overrun by our Shadow functions. In order to resist the tyranny of others, we must learn how to deal with the tyrannical aspects of our own ego, which tends to treat our inferior and unconscious aspects as rogues and rebels. If we do not acknowledge these lesser aspects, the rogue aspects will tyrannize us themselves.
i I’m grateful to Hile Rutledge for this insight, shared on November 1, 2011.
ii Of course other type codes could be inferred in the characters. An argument could also be made for Jack as an INTP. Beebe observes that one cannot directly integrate the inferior function, and has suggested a novel route to reach the inferior: via one’s Trickster archetype. Beebe’s model correlates the Trickster archetype with the 7th function in any type code, opposite in attitude to the tertiary. For an INTP code, the 7th or Trickster function is, appropriately, Se. Tyler as Se would then represent Jack’s Trickster. Beebe has also noted a correlation between bipolar disorder and the Trickster archetype, and Marla exhibits some manic behavior, lending further support to the idea that she and Tyler could represent Se in the 7th position. Certainly, Tyler tricks Jack, and Jack’s final act is a tricksterish one, the only way possible out of the double bind that he’s in. However, Marla seems to play an Anima role toward Jack, which argues that she corresponds to Jack’s inferior function, indicating INTJ for Jack. It seems a stretch to see Marla as an extraverted feeling (Fe) type, the inferior function for INTP.
iii One could question whether Te or Ni is dominant, except that Jack is clearly a dominant introvert, revealing little of himself to others.
iv The ending of the movie differs from that of the book. This article refers to the movie ending.
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