Thinking Politics in The Dark Knight Rises
In as much as one can draw any generalizations about the Dark Knight Trilogy, its political punch is found principally in its hidden meanings. The revived Batman film series operates at a double register; that is, two distinct, but interconnected, levels. On a first, tentative level we can say that the films sedate and distract us from reality through idealizations of friendship, family, romance, politics, economics or whatever. If Hollywood sells anything, after all, it is entertainment. But on the obscene underside, these fantastic films tell a different story. Here, the true referent is our current socio-political conjunctures.
It is no secret that Nolan’s last Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (hereafter TDKR), does not directly approach its true (political) focus. Rather, the film maintains its authentic topic at a distance. But why must TDKR obfuscate its true historical reference? Because any serious challenge to the existing order quickly engenders guarded attitudes. Nowhere is this more accurate than with respect to lost causes; namely, politically radical ones.
Here one thinks, for example, of totalitarianism. Far from being a meaningful theoretical concept, forcing us to acquire new insight about political alternatives, the notion of ‘totalitarianism’ actually prevents us from thinking. The motif of revolution is so monstrous that the slightest inclination of engaging in political projects that aim to undermine the normal state of affairs and transform reality is immediately denounced as ethically dangerous and illegitimate. In other words, it is dismissed as potentially ‘totalitarian’.
It is no small matter then that the form of TDKR makes it possible to neutralize this prohibition against thinking about grand solutions. What the movie does is nothing less than take into account the very idea of applying a radical political project directly to reality. Such a politics (whatever remains of it) dares to directly confront the entire field of state power. That the movie dreams about a grand, all-encompassing, leftist strategy of directly taking over the state apparatus at all is significant, even if it is not really meant seriously as a project that we might try to live.
It has now become fashionable to assert that those who still insist on fighting the entire domain of politics are stuck in the old paradigm. The new (postmodern) politics adopts a different, apparently more modest mode of engagement. Rather than directly confronting the state or bombarding it with impossible demands, the new politics creates spaces outside the scope and control of state power to tinker with its edges. Since the state has betrayed its responsibility for justice, extra-statal practices are required to change the social structure themselves.
The basic predicament of our capital-saturated society is whether to resist the state with out-and-out revolution or from effective localized subversion. Should movements directly engage the state in a highly centralized form of political organization or remain closer to the mode of functioning as nomadic groups? One does not have to be a profound observer to see that this conundrum is shared by the final Batman movie.
Bruce Wayne believes that insisting on demands from those in power is futile. They simply cannot be fulfilled. This belief of Bruce Wayne is nowhere more apparent than in his exchanges with Alfred. Alfred dares to raise the thorny issue that Batman should hang up his cape and assist those in power through other, more civic, means: “The city needs Bruce Wayne. Your resources, your knowledge. It doesn’t need your body.” During another scene Alfred pointedly asks, “Aren’t the police supposed to be investigating that?” To which Bruce Wayne replies, “They don’t have the tools to analyze it.” Few can disagree with Alfred’s response that “They would if you gave it to them.”
Bruce Wayne rightly calls into question this flat solution, noting that “One man’s tool is another man’s weapon.” This is, after all, the same symptomatic point that emerges apropos of every new social gesture: true revolutionary potential is exploited and then betrayed by the very system it originally contradicts. Consequently, Bruce Wayne keeps the cape and continues to act in the shadows, effectively pulling the strings of political life from the periphery.
It is no small coincidence that Bruce Wayne also lives a philanthropic life beyond the cave, highlighting as it does the same commitment to transforming society outside the ambit of state power. And not wholly unlike the work of charity by George Soros or Bill Gates, the immense donations to public welfare – in this case to orphanage homes – reestablishes a balance to the capitalist system, thereby postponing its crisis, which in this context involves unemployed youth uniting in the sewers and forming a revolution.
Here it is worth pointing to the fact that the film’s villain, Bane, also recognizes the ethical call engendered by the experience of injustice and wrongs. At the same time, the political procedure is clearly different. Rather than remain in the backwaters of society (read sewers) with the downtrodden, Bane and his brawlers openly struggle for hegemony.
Surprisingly, the film’s main antagonist proves to be a very philosophical rebel (not completely unlike the other villains of the trilogy). He explains his actions in terms of the failings of the ruling order. Bane does not rebel because he is infected by godless immorality, but because the rulers of Gotham City have shirked their responsibilities in protecting those with no proper place in society. For this reason, the politically organized underworld is truly a product of misrule, ethically impelled to turn against its oppressors and create something radically new. In the language of Bane, it is “necessary evil.”
That there is more going on in the film than simple run-of-the-mill violence is obvious enough. What makes the character of Bane so convincing is not the explosion of physical strength as such, but the concrete twist he gives it. The politics of revolutionary justice embodied in Bane is that of radical egalitarian violence. Rather than fighting on the side of the hierarchical social order, Bane’s excess of power is on the side of the part of no-part, defined here as the unaccounted for of society.
It is important not to overlook the fact here that Bane’s bodily discipline, concentration, and strength of will is what qualified him for the villain role in TDKR. For Nolan, “With Bane, physicality is the thing.” According to the original story, the childhood and early adult life of Bane was spent in a penitentiary environment where, it would seem, he possessed nothing. Indeed, the aged-out orphans of Gotham City similarly had nothing to their name.
This is significant, given that those who have nothing have only their discipline. Here, true freedom can only be regained through extreme corporeal discipline and the spirit of sacrifice, in which one is ready to risk everything. (As the critical reader will perhaps suspect, this sounds close to something like ‘fanatical fundamentalists’ who have only their discipline, their capacity to act together).
What takes place in TDKR is the event of momentarily canceling status quo realities and redistributing social control. Here, the all-too-easy liberal-democratic gesture is rendered inefficient at breaking out of Western modernity and its political deadlocks. Here, one is forced to actively think about grand solutions and lost causes.
The basic lesson is that Bane’s political commitments were clearly right steps in the wrong direction. Taking control of Gotham City was an appropriate gesture, the best thing he ever did, the only tragedy being that he was almost right. The authentic Event momentarily unleashed unprecedented forces of social transformation, a moment in which everything seemed possible. The misfortunes of the fate of revolutionary terror therefore confront us with the need – not to reject in toto, but – to reinvent true political options.
And thus we welcome the fact that “true ideas are eternal, they always return every time they are proclaimed dead.” God forbid that we might take them seriously…
Eugene Holland, “Beyond Critique” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus
Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes
____, Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?
____, “Mao Tse-Tung, The Marxist Lord of Misrule” in Slavoj Žižek Presents Mao