The Obscene Counternarrative of The Dark Knight

Now a major motion picture, the comic of Batman has the double characteristic of telling two simultaneous yet asymmetrical stories. Although these two narratives, one apparent and the other hidden, are coupled with the same events and plot line they are fundamentally opposed; one the reversal of the other. On the obvious plane, The Dark Knight is a story about a purported madman who is restrained by a vigilante hero, aided only by a select incorruptible minority in the Gotham network of law enforcement. However, inscribed in the fissures of this apparent story is a clandestine counternarrative that overturns the previous standard meaning and tells the whole truth of the film from a different standpoint. For those who look beyond the surface of this manifest story discover for themselves the disturbing reality of a world suspended over a void; a world shockingly close to our own. The narrative at this second level of understanding includes a highly logical Clown Prince of Crime, an irrational knight of faith and a defenseless district attorney. Inverting the figures of The Joker, Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Harvey Dent/Two-Face in this way redoubles the narrative of The Dark Knight and helps make proper sense of the movie at these two antagonistic narrative registers. It will be shown that many of the questions raised in the film are the same ones that burden modern thought.

It is commonly supposed that The Joker is a lunatic and his maniac schemes seem to confirm this much. Christopher Robichaud picks up this topic in Batman and Philosophy and asks whether The Joker can be morally responsible for his ghastly and villainous deeds, such as killing his own henchmen and desiring to watch the world burn. He ultimately concludes that “the Joker isn’t playing with a full deck” and so does not freely choose his actions in the sense relevant to the moral appraisal of willful actors; his judgment is too severely impaired by heinous impulses. This however is not a satisfying response for it seems that The Joker disturbs us precisely because he is playing with a full deck.  That is, he has a profound view of the world, but that view is, to the casual viewer, a card up his sleeve, out of plain view.

That card – that view of the world – is a strongly anti-realist vision of knowledge and truth. The familiar ways of the world – whatever those may be in one’s culture – are generally left unquestioned and are conceived of as entirely natural.  But the basic postulate undergirding secular social science is that societies are structured by human fabrication, not by biology or divine architecture. Be that as it may, these social constructions make everyday life convenient, simplified and meaningful to the extent that they are routinely shared in a given environment. Consequently, these collective cultural features make us blind to the historic particularity of our version of the world. The upshot of this ignorance is that it allows us to refashion the somewhat complicated and diverse world into the well-worn image of a quite comprehensible culture, which is, of course, conceived of by those within it as a completely transparent and unbiased interpretation of the world.

This was in fact the pretentious form of rationalism that constituted Enlightenment thinkers who invented unchanging, objective and universal categories like knowledge and truth. Owing to the impossibility of an uninterested neutral perspective it follows that “truth” is generally produced and sustained by socio-political regimes of power; the policing Gotham city-state apparatus for instance. What this means is that “truth” is simply one of many possible interpretations of reality guided and enforced by the special interests of whoever previously had the smoothest tongue or strongest weapon. The Clown Prince of Crime is out to show that one bad day can ruin a person and he is successful at proving this point because knowledge and subjective identity are contingent upon variable human experience. At an enigmatic level these are the conceptual idols that The Dark Knight blows apart. And, lest we forget, The Joker philosophizes with dynamite.

Although this topic may appear remote in The Dark Night, consider this proving point. How can we speak about crime if we do not have a preceding notion of legal order? Before laws are created, transgressing the law is an impossibility. In this primal neutral state of things there is neither good nor evil, property nor theft. At some juncture a positive norm, such as a prohibitory law, is imposed in order to counteract and limit the dizzying abyss of infinite possibilities. Accordingly, The Joker threatens to unravel the established order of Gotham more so than any other crook because he effectively challenges how the world is divided up between complimentary opposites – such as sanity and madness – in contrast to petty thugs who simply break preestablished rules. The Joker’s main effect, in other words, is to playfully dispute and mock what is generally accepted as unquestionable common sense. By doing so, The Dark Knight forces us to recognize the historic nature of our moral convictions and confront the inherent ambivalence of rationality and justice.

The Joker proves to Gotham that there is no going back to business as usual. The deconstructive clown has shown that when reason criticizes all things of earth, the order of meaning – the source of all our values – collapses. The obligatory framework of secular society is, after all, the acknowledgment that nothing culturally given is absolutely necessary; ideology chief of all. Rather than lunacy, it is The Joker’s precise rationality that leads to his rigorous logic of nihilism and continuous transgression of arbitrary boundaries. Accordingly, Batman’s most homicidal enemy stands in the tradition of the Enlightenment and objectively reveals to Gotham the universal void beneath their random life meanings. The dilemma Batman consequently faces in The Dark Knight is either to accept this rational fatalism or make an irrational leap of faith beyond The Joker’s logic of death. Bruce Wayne wagers on the second and, as a result, transfigures into the dark knight to resist the totalizing cult of nihilism itself.

Of course, Batman’s identity and cause are unjustifiable within the bounds of pure reason alone. Like The Joker, Batman is a freak and an outlaw to the establishment. In contrast to the relatively modest, urbane and evenhanded Harvey Dent, Batman and The Joker are comparatively wild and uncouth for Gotham. But whereas the carnivalesque mad dog could survive the inquiries of skeptics to his raison d’être by noting the illegitimacy of dogmatic metaphysics, the silent guardian lacks sufficient reasons to ground the meaning of his sacrifice. That is because, as we all know, Batman suspends universal ethical norms and in so doing renounces communicability with Gotham’s denizens. For that reason Bruce Wayne must resign himself to keeping his ethical choice secret and represents himself on the public scene instead as a mere quixotic playboy. Perchance this is why we occasionally glimpse an anxious and despairing underside to Batman, uncharacteristic of his typical strong veneer.

The dark knight of faith believes that nihilism and, subsequently, The Joker can be overcome. Batman is not in the dark about our finite embeddedness in a history, culture and society of our own creation, it just so happens that his diagnosis of nihilism is accompanied with the demand that things be recreated otherwise than present conditions. Rather than despair over this contingency, Batman devotes his whole being to seeking a solution to the social faults of Gotham at his own expense and within the complex web of his own location. In one of the more subversive strategies expressed in the film Batman, with the help of Lucius Fox, exercises social agency by tinkering with the military-industrial war chest of Wayne Enterprises and retools its instruments for purposes other than what they were originally intended for. Ostensibly, this is one of very few transformative practices available for traversing the paradox of redeeming situations that one is simultaneously complicit with.

It should be fairly obvious at this stage that Harvey Dent, Gotham’s district attorney and white knight, enjoys the most indefensible ideology of the film. The Joker and Batman are both privy to the fact that all laws are the product of a specific historical milieu but Dent believes that corruption can be fought from end to end with a commitment to justice. But as we all know human rights are not a naturally given set of concepts suspended by indubitable skyhooks. They have been developed over a long period of time and are provisional conclusions that are themselves revisable and replaceable. As such, “universal” rights are always-already determined by the hidden assumptions, values and interests of a social situation. Dent however, the secular humanist par-excellence, self-deceivingly denies how fate positions us in this way and implicitly succumbs, in part, to the illusion that we are in control of our own destinies. Fearing the truth that he lives in a tragic world the new DA of Gotham attempts to rid his life of this moral luck and symbolically achieves this in a misleading, same-faced coin.

The Joker is all too aware that Harvey Dent represents the best of Gotham’s “civilized” schemers – those who manage the status quo and ensure everything goes according to plan. Although it would seem that Dent is Gotham’s noble white knight, the counterpoint of The Dark Knight is that in actuality he barely holds more than a few half-baked strategies about fighting injustice. In other words, Harvey’s moral code is a bad joke. For this reason The Joker targets the misplaced sense of control in Harvey’s life and shows him how pathetic he really is. It is no astonishment in the end that Dent becomes an apostate to the tradition of secular humanism and converts to a more intriguing cognitive mapping of the world. In a turn of face Harvey passes through the negation of an ahistorical account of ethics and comes to affirm the fragility of our attempts to understand, explain and govern reality. Most interesting of all, his neo-alter-ego Two-Face learns to embody the axiom that chance is the design of the universe.

From a proper postmodern perspective The Dark Knight subverts the typical preconceived ideas about enclosed single-dimension story-telling. Most noticeably discerned in the wild clown, the narrative of the film slowly reveals a veiled counterstory that reverses our familiar and consoling interpretations of the world. By uncovering the vain and distorted presuppositions that ordinary people hold about morality The Joker makes obvious the ultimate arbitrariness of wisdom and truth. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, recognizes the nature of ethical norms in the same way but does not see the Clown Prince of Crime championing any radically new values in his will to power. Rather than despairing or seeking the ruin of organized society the dark knight – the brave existentialist – posits his own sense of the good and lives as though it were already in truth a reality. Lastly, Harvey Dent misses the boat on the true nature of morality and naively clings to a “realist” set of theories about social justice. That is, until his radical transmogrification leads him to reject conventional morality and join The Joker and Batman in a vision of morality as incarnations of intersubjective choices. Together, the symbolic articulation of these three figures on this minor register expresses a certain agnosticism towards rationality and justice in addition to an enduring openness to the unknown and the ambivalent.

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