Understanding Binary Oppositions: Surface Reading versus Deep Reading


In deconstruction, a deep reading of the text focuses on the relationship between common binary oppositions in the work like male/female, day/night, light/dark, good/evil, nature/society, etc, in which one term seems to be “privileged” or more highly valued over the other. A post-structuralist reading might try to look closely at this hierarchy in order to show how it is not sustained throughout the work, or how the two terms are not oppositional at all but interrelated and interdependent.

Description: *  Look for sets of related words or word categories. This is called semantic mapping – examining how one target word is tied to another related word or words.

Description: *  How do these become crucial to the overall meaning or even disrupt the overall meaning?

Description: *  How do these dichotomies reveal what might be thought of as the textual subconscious, where meanings are expressed which may be directly contrary to the surface meaning?

Description: *  How do these binaries show that the text is characterized by disunity rather than unity, that it is, in fact, impossible to sustain a singular reading?

Description: *  Look for shifts and breaks of various kinds in the text, moments where binary oppositions explode into multiplicities of meaning, affecting the overall meaning of the work.




Fight Club: Deconstruction and Exploding Social Constructs

We cannot believe any longer that things are natural, because in deconstruction they are cultural, the result of construction and process.

Robert Dale Parker, How To Interpret Literature


Fincher’s Fight Club offers a template for understanding deconstruction in that it offers a field of diverse yet interchangeable oppositions between male and female, good and evil, conscious and unconscious, civilization and savagery, rationality and sensuality, self and Other, subject and object, etc.

But just as post-structuralist criticism has rather tended to regard discourses as highly complex, ambivalent fields, so too does Fincher’s film show that binaries are always unstable, threatening to unsettle the binary opposition between dominant and repressed. That is to say, categories reveal their own instability rather than their fixedness. Finchers’s work, for instance, is saturated with images and representations that are inimical to notions of fixity and essence: hybridity (the “colonized” people co-opt and transform elements of the colonizing consumer-capitalist culture, producing mimicry, difference, even resistance), mimicry, ambivalence, discontinuity, liminality (identities that are situated “betwixt and between”).


Consider, for example, Tyler Durden: how does his surface presentation deconstruct categories in that it is impossible to sustain a singular reading of this character? How is Tyler’s adoption of the consumer culture he deplores a form of resistance?


Or consider how Tylers appropriation of capitalist culture only satirically transforms the colonizing culture (a process Bhabha refers to as hybridity), entailing a form of authorial subversion?


Example 1:


Fight Club seduces us into a kind of self-deception: it tempts us into idolizing Tyler Durden as a pumped-up man’s man, while simultaneously undercutting traditional masculinity with a pervasive homoerotic subtext.  (One essay which gives a good catalog of the homoerotic references is Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus, “Hiding Homoeroticism in Plain View” in Critical Studies in Media Communication, March 2002.)



For now I’m more interested in self-deception. The most interesting scene along these lines is the one where Tyler looks directly into the camera and says, “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.” On the surface he is giving a kind of anti-advertisement meant to counter the consumerist messages of the media. But note that the film literally breaks down at this point – the sides of the image warp and we see the sprocket holes.


Here is the scene:




This cinematic device can be read as a simple homage to Bergman’s Persona, a film, like Fight Club, about two people with an ambiguous relationship and which also includes a similar scene where the film breaks down. Here is that scene:





But the Bergman reference doesn’t entirely make sense. Persona is about the nature of art and the human capacity for communication and other concepts which make sense of Bergman’s self-reflexivity. But why is David Fincher revealing the cinematic basis of his film? Why does the film break down at exactly this point in Fight Club?


I propose that our attention is being drawn to the fact that we are watching a movie — a product of the mass media — at exactly the moment when Tyler is attempting to undermine the influence of the media. Fincher is deconstructing himself.



Example 2:


There is another example of this technique when Tyler is getting on a bus and sees a Gucci ad of a naked man and wonders “Is that what a man looks like?” The irony is that Tyler is played by Brad Pitt who has the exact same body as the model in the ad!





Fincher wants us to see that although Tyler is the unnamed narrator’s image of an ideal man, that image is something socially constructed by the media. The things Tyler says sound a lot like people such as John Eldredge in his book Wild at Heart (e.g., “God designed men to be dangerous” but our culture teaches us instead “to be a nice guy”). And it is easy to get caught up in Tyler’s speeches. But the film subverts itself, pointing out that the message that a “real man” is a macho brute is just another one of the social constructions presented by the mass media.



Sign-for-Analysis: Pink Soap

Throughout the movie, there is a recurring theme of soap. Tyler Durden is a soap-maker by trade, and uses the by-product of liposuction labs as his main ingredients. Is there a hidden meaning here? His soap ends up being sold to major department stores, where the folks who had liposuctions done are purchasing the soap made from their own by-products, their own abject waste.


1.      Locate the dominant, or “surface” reading of your sign. Write it down in detail, analyzing the sign with specificity.


2.      Now flip this reading. Is there an oppositional reading implied in the sign as well?



Sign-for-Analysis: Penis spliced into the family movie film


1.      Locate the dominant, or “surface” reading of your sign. Write it down in detail, analyzing the sign with specificity. For example, what ideas are equated with the “phallus”? What is Tyler doing by subliminally splicing one into a family film—especially one that a mother is watching with her son? (Recall, he talks about his estranged father and bemoans his “generation raised by women.”)


2.      Now flip this reading. Is there an oppositional reading implied in the sign as well? Think of the idea of castration here, or the idea of film as a commodity industry. How does Tyler commodify and thus objectify the phallus by making it a kind of socially-detachable “art” for mass consumption? What does it say that male anatomy can be, figuratively speaking, “detached” from the natural body like a prosthetic, an artifice, or construct?


Sign-for-Analysis: Marla and phallic imagery




Of the dildo on her dresser, Marla says to Jack, “Oh, don’t worry. It's not a threat to you.” 




1.      Locate the dominant, or “surface” reading of your sign. For example, what does the “phallus” mean in literature? When Marla attends the “Remaining Men Together” meeting, she reinforces the idea of Marla-without-a-penis by stating to Jack, “I have more of a right to be there than you. You still have your balls.” She is given a phallic substitute later, when a dildo appears on her dresser, but it is, “not a threat to [Jack].” What, then, does it mean that Marla is lacking one and needs (figuratively speaking) a substitute? Write it down in detail, analyzing the sign with specificity.


2.      Now flip this reading. Is there an oppositional reading implied in the sign as well?







Sign-for-analysis: Project Mayhem

Description: Image Detail


1.      Locate the dominant, or “surface” reading of your sign. What binaries are teased out in the the concept of Project Mayhem (i.e., savagery/civilization, anarchy and nihilism/order and restraint). Write it down in detail, analyzing the sign with specificity.


2.      Now flip this reading. Is there an oppositional reading implied in the sign as well? Consider, for example, the symbolism below: the undifferentiated, masked “space monkeys” in the background. How is Tyler’s anarchy merely reproducing the societal institutions like law and order, conformity and subjugation--all things he abhors?