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.
Perhaps the most prolific advantage of pluriform investigation–what I am trying to achieve in this blog–is being able to listen in to both sides of dialogue when it comes to certain issues. I believe this is particularly important because cynics are often the most accurate observers of reality precisely on account of their hostility. Is this not the particular attractiveness of philosophies of finitude: a permanent suspicion of meaning and motives? Developed through to its full consequences in Continental Philosophy this means reason must turn against itself and overthrow its own sovereignty. The renunciation of rational mastery and the critique of illusory metaphysics are such instances. Nihilism, the breakdown of ultimate meaning and absolute truth, is however respectable in that it honestly assesses that there is no fixed frame of reference: humanity is always already embedded and thrown in a particular environment that colors our perception of the world. Nevertheless, our contingency upon history in the form of language, culture, society and so forth means that we are the makers and keepers of our own socio-symbolic existence, one order no less arbitrary than another. That is, unless language is believed to reflect meaning as much as it creates it.
With everything cast into doubt this way it is no wonder that postmodernism has been the harbinger of resistive, subversive and disruptive strategies to undermine common assumptions, destabilize conventional customs, and show that things can be otherwise. Past these negative gestures of sabotage it is to the latter positive task of imagining and forming new worlds that philosophy must also turn to with its newfound abyss of freedom and unpredictable results. This is finally the contemporary predicament: either accept the loss of truth altogether and limit oneself to “the interplay of multiple meanings” or revalue and transform the current vacuum of values by establishing a new balance to society. This deadlock can be seen through many famous complimentary opposites that haunt philosophy: scientism/obscurantism, absolutism/relativism, transcendence/immanence, law/transgression. It seems then that the real test of philosophy today is to bridge such gaps.
It is the same tension anyone faces who opposes or struggles against global capitalism and a continuing leitmotif that shows up in most of my writings, that is, we always belong to the system we criticize. Using conservative concepts in any revolution is inevitable after all, but their limits can be exposed at the same time. The capitalism machine on the other hand functions precisely due to its misfirings and contradictions thus rendering futile the exhaustive efforts in exposing our contingency and unraveling inconsistencies. All the frantic activity (read activism) that has gone into breaking apart the hegemonic global social order that poisons nature and gives certain individuals clear advantages over others has been in vain oftentimes and has instead actually fueled the violent social organization to grow. In fact it appears as though nihilism fits in quite well with capitalism: it can justify nothing so it tolerates everything and antagonistic games are allowed to continue as usual. Is there then any solution on the horizon today? With lack of resolution and a long list of failed attempts and misfired intentions it is no surprise that the modern subject, myself included, has come to peace with incommensurability and indecision itself.
A similar irregularity is inscribed in theology between catophatic and apostatic registers that theologians must interminably shift across. This interstice which makes the theologian the best and worse Christian is the very gap that requires leaps from formulating true statements about God and his people to acknowledging that conclusions are always provisional. Deconstruction is similarly poised towards the impossible gesture of speaking about the unspeakable, the unrepresentable, the tout autre, that which can never be engulfed or enclosed. However philosophy, unlike theology, is not compelled to classify the void and it is questionable how much of a difference this naming makes.
Exaggerated to its extreme pole this via negativa eventually becomes just another precise and totalizing rationalism utilized to securely grasp reality: a universal (un)knowing. On the other hand, no social theory is any more justifiable than another and we should therefore be suspicious of all knowledges, including scientific and humanistic ones. While the wager is borderline “irrational,” I have found my peace in narrative theology broadly conceived. Drawing from the wisdom that language and narrative is inseparable from humanity and the most basic form of thought, theology can shed its false humility. In other words, religion is irreducible to something more basic lurking behind it. With that said, I believe Christianity, on the whole, educes a more convincing, persuasive, and particularly peaceful account of reality. Unfortunately the church has often merely been a therapeutic enclave community in service of the state whose purpose has been to assuage the burdened souls of laborers in order to keep them toeing the line productively and agreeably. The help becomes part of the problem.
Creatio ex nihilo, the account of creation that says creation came from nothing, has reigned in Christian orthodoxy ever since the third century ACE, but it remains a flimsy doctrine and the book of Genesis does not support it according to Catherine Keller in her Face of the Deep . The alternative account of creation that she describes, equally based—if not more so—on exegetical scholarship, is creatio ex profundis. As the name implies, creation arises from out of the boundless and expanding depths of the chaosmos rather than being zapped into being from nothing. “The Beginning” does not mark a single absolute origin but a “beginning-in-process” that is both “unoriginated and endless.” Beginnings are always taking place and do not mark a definitive newness. Infinite creations open out from the formlessness, undifferentiated and bottomless abyss of primordial chaos. There is great depth and darkness to life, in other words, but we intentionally try to avoid recognizing this nonlinear, endless opening because we are trained to fear lack of closure. This fear has its beginnings in the doctrine of creation which western theology has taught us to “shun the depths of the creation” in favor of understanding it ex nihilo. The darksome deep is an ambivalent origin in contrast to a creation under the mechanism of control and mastery that ex nihilo offers. In the beginning, according to this alternative account of creatio ex profundis, is not no-thing or even no-thing-as-something but difference and multidimensionality. In the beginning is formless, primal chaos.
This account of creation, despite how it may at first appear to be iconoclastic, is fully supported by Christian scripture. The oceanic chaos of the Bible located in Genesis 1.2 is depicted in monstrous sea terms—Leviathan. These immense waters are generally considered evil, particularly in the lineage of Babylonian, Ugaritic and Caananite sources, but we find throughout the Bible that the watery depths are affirmed as part of creation, not in spite of it. Furthermore, in contrast to the background of Babylonian matricide of the oceanic female Genesis depicts creation by procreation. If anything, God merely shapes the preexistent dark, unformed murky depths into the order we know today.
This much can be asserted: Genesis 1 betrays no fear of the dark, no demonization of the deep, of the sea, its she and its dragons. No trace of divine warrior or cultural misogyny appears on the face of the text of the first chapter. Does the contrast to the Babylonian epic, which we read as mythological intertext of Genesis 1.2, not begin to appear dramatic, deliberate, almost parodic? (pp. 30-1)
In fact, the marine chaos of the second verse of Genesis echoes throughout the whole Biblical narrative, especially in certain psalms that praise Leviathan (see here for how it appears again in Job).This particularly stands in contrast to the myths of the ancient world that intoned ceremonious triumph in mastering chaos rather than bearing with it. “Scripture…knows only a formation of something new from something—else, something yet unthinged, unformed, some sort of marine chaos not identical with the literal sea but not separable from it” (p. 25). Even Augustine in his Confessions admits that the flux and flood in the opening of Genesis does not grant a singular interpretation. What Keller discovers is that “Augustine exegetes tehom as God’s first creation, the creation of that matter from which both the heaven and earth would be then secondarily created” (p. 36). However, Augustine oscillates on what this might fully mean. From early on the church had a difficult time tolerating the sort of constraint that an unformed primal chaos would have on the imagery of a masterful and dominating lordship. The result is that Augustine began to understand chaos and complexity as an outcome of sin and a lack of order. So while Augustine may have been a potential advocate of tehomic theology at one point he ends up retreating “into a tidy neo-classicism.” Instead of affirming a theologically indeterminate origin that would understand order as coming from something unformed Augustine comes to think of an “unchanging order” as the only way to “save us from a chaotic nihil of meaning” (p. 38). In his early years he considered the multidimensional deep as a gift but later focused on single meanings to combat heresy. His influence on Radical Orthodoxy is undeniable.
To offer clarity between the distinctive theologies of creatio ex nihilo and creatio ex profundis allow me to post a couple quotes that summarize this dramatic shift from the first to the latter.
Theologies have tried to draw the line at “God,” to say that, whenever the creation starts, it is preceded by absolutely nothing—nothing but the pure and simple presence of God the Creator. Certainly this “nothing but” of a nonnegotiable starting-line lends a useful sense of foundation… Admittedly that tehomic alterity which has been relegated to the outer darkness threatens to flow back monstrously: the flux, repressed, returns as the flood. I am arguing that the genuine threat that chaos poses is no better reason to patch up the failing foundations, than to tear them down with nihilistic abandon. (p. 10)
Until the late second century, Jewish and Christian interpreters seem to have assumed that the Creator formed the creation from some depersonalized version of this primordial stuff… What Christianity first presumed was the idea not of the ex nihilo but of a Creator effecting “in the beginning” irreducibly new and contingent reality. The idea of a creation from nothing rather than a formation from formlessness [preexistent material] only gradually ensconced itself in Christian common sense. Along with it settled the dogmas of omnipotence: not just of the biblical lord of great if somewhat unpredictable power, but an immutable, unilateral All-Power clothed in the attributes of a single male Person (or two; or…) (pp. 15-6)
Chaos erodes meaning; therefore, it is ubiquitously sublimated and suppressed in Christian theology. Radical Orthodoxy for one has gone to great lengths in distinguishing the nihil from the ex nihilo. The fear is that without this stable foundation chaos, flux, “nothing” and atheism will erode the solidity of order and meaning. Rabbinic midrash has always affirmed the “multiplicity of meanings” but theologies in the tradition of the ex nihilo doctrine rarely learn to bear with chaos.
These doctrines of creation also have some practical implications. The order of creation that is upheld in Eurocentric theologies is not similarly received in a positive tone in Latin America because it tends to mask hierarchy, domination and oppression. From the colonizing perspective, evil is synonymous with disorder rather than injustice. Chaos is treated as darkness and the voices of hermeneutical complexity are muted by the dominant discourse of order. After all, the colonizer relies on powerful interventions and what better model to follow than God’s singular act of an instantaneous and permanent creation. In addition to a tehomic theology benefiting the struggle of postcolonial resistance to the colonizing episteme a doctrine of creatio ex profundis also aids in the deconstructionist’s task of destabilizing and protesting “founding certainties” by way of illuminating the deep flux beneath all of reality. In other words, complexity and chaos always arise from within rather than from without. Therefore, the transcendent-in-the-immanent will always shatter our finite and fixed meanings. Perhaps in this case we would be wise to borrow the tehomic ethic: “to love is to bear with chaos.”
From here I think I can address Matt Martin’s comments more thoroughly. Doubtless, turning a “no-thing” into a “something as nothing” is a shifty move. Perhaps Badiou, Deleuze and Žižek pull this stunt–I cannot say–but in my estimation they come closer to this creatio ex profundis ideal type than they do to a bogus nihilism. A chief motive of Keller’s, after all, is to provide ample evidence in support of a third position beyond the dualism between nihilism and ex nihilo–she specifically references Radical Orthodoxy. In an email correspondence with Peter Hallward back in November I posed this question to him in relation to this topic. His response follows.
…instead of creatio ex nihilo would it be possible to substitute instead creatio ex profundis if we are to remain faithful to Badiou? It appears as though inconsistent multiplicity parallels a plural foundation of becoming–as you identify in the closing chapters–rather than an empty void qua nihil.
Up to a point I’d go along with this, with a caveat. True, ‘void’ isn’t just ‘nothing’, no more than zero is. (There’s a difference between e.g. ‘scoring’ zero goals in a soccer match, and there not being a match at all; void is always what counts for nothing according to a situation, e.g. here a situation that counts goals). But Badiou’s whole effort is to avoid any neo-Romantic reference to depth, and to insist instead on the fully rational analysis of presentation, which in its most generic sense, equates ‘that which is presented’ with presenting in the zero degree, so to speak. This is an important question, I hope you pursue it more. I tried to deal with it a little more here, but there’s still a lot more to done with it.
To add a little more to this discussion let me put another quote from Keller past the reader to illuminate a position that is concurrent with at least Deleuze in my opinion.
All theological interpretation (at least that which recognizes itself as interpretation rather than revelation) today exposes itself to an incalculable multiplicity of influences–movements, powers, protests, doubts, cultures, desperations, expectations. One pursues hermeneutical complexity. But one always risks chaos (p. 5)
The reason I added this to the mix is to find an affinity with actor-network theory. (I haven’t read any texts on it myself so a wik article must suffice). The point is to show that truth–call it a new objectivism–is an “incalculable multiplicity.” I hardly take this as a no-thing-as-some-thing.
In my post ‘A new kind of atheist’ I proposed that overdetermined and inconsistent meanings of existence constitute the whole truth of reality and is in no way a failure to cognitively map our situation. I suggested that this understanding of the Real very well might make ‘suprarational faith vs rational nihilism’ a misconceived dualism. What I lack in rhetorical eloquence I leave to Žižek to make up the difference. Pay particular attention to the final sentence!
…everything is not just the interplay of appearances, there is a Real–this Real, however, is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap which prevents our access to it, the “rock” of the antagonism which distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective. And, again, the “truth” is not the “real” state of things, that is, the “direct” view of the object without perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism which causes perspectival distortion. The site of truth is not the way “things really are in themselves,” beyond their perspectival distortions, but the very gap, passage, which separates one perspective from another, the gap (in this case: social antagonism) which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable. The “Real as impossible” is the cause of the impossibility of ever attaining the “neutral” non-perspectival view of the object. There is a truth, everything is not relative–but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not the truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective (The Parallax View, 281)
From my understanding, Alain Badiou seems to offer the same wisdom. In every axiomatic set there exists a void or gap that is uncounted in the situation. But what makes Badiou radical is that he locates truth precisely in the void rather than in spite of it. What’s more, one is a subject of truth if s/he locates him- herself in the void. All this comes to mean that our understanding and explaination of reality is in no way incomplete in the same way theology thinks of it. The truth is not “to come” in an eschatological unfolding or (thinking Derridian here) infinitely deferred. The partial, distorted and perspectival view of the Real is truth. Nietzsche, to prove this point for Žižek, failed to articulate the “right” position because he failed to recognize truth in the struggle for a “non-perspectival view”. Žižek’s concluding point is this: subjects must “come to peace with incommensurability itself“.
Despite this being a relatively short post, this sums up the fruit of a year of researching alternatives to the continental/analytic philosophy divide–primarily through the works of Deleuze, Badiou and Žižek. One of the prime reasons I have followed theology to the extent I have is partly due to the incompleteness or closedness of philosophy. But if this alternative proves reasonable I believe I’ll be heading in different directions from before. Žižek has already been a great model for myself; a critical psychoanalytic atheist philosopher who is also interested in how theology could possibly animate critical thought.
For those interested, here are some books on my summer reading list on a continuation of this journey:
Brassier, Ray. 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction
Meillassoux, Quentin. 2008. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency
Harman, Graham. 2009. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics