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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 But why must TDKR obfuscate its true historical reference?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…

 

Material Consulted

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

____, “Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Gotham City

The real Hollywood Left

Hollywood is the ultimate ideological machine of the Oedipal narrative: the typical Hollywood product is a film that tells the story of a family drama in the context of larger social forces. As is always the case in such films, the “big plot” is framed into the coordinates of a “secondary plot” with a troubled family at its center. This, then, is how one should read Hollywood films: all the catastrophes and conflicts that make up the story’s plot are here a mere pretext to express what the film is really about; a family or a couple in need of reconciliation.

The production of the couple in Hollywood is most strikingly apparent, argues Žižek in In Defense of Lost Causes, through all key Steven Spielberg films. ET is the story of a boy who was abandoned by his father but is provided with a new father (“the good scientist who, in the film’s last shot, is already seen embracing the mother”) through the mediator of ET. Empire of the Sun similarly focuses on a deserted boy, though in China, who is helped by an ersatz father to survive. Even Jurassic Park tells the story of threatened children becoming reconciled with a paternal figure. In the middle of the film,

Neill and the two children, pursued by the monsters, take refuge from the murderous carnivorous dinosaurs in a gigantic tree, where, dead tired, they fall asleep; on the tree, Neill loses the dinosaur bone that was stuck in his belt, and it is as if this accidental loss has a magical effect—before they fall asleep, Neill is reconciled with the children, displaying warm affection and tenderness towards them. Significantly, the dinosaurs which approach the tree the next morning and awaken the sleeping party, turn out to be of the benevolent herbivorous kind.

Žižek rightly notes that Schindler’s List is, at the most basic level, a remake of Jurassic Park. Here the Nazis are the dinosaur monsters, the ghetto Jews the threatened children, and Schindler the parental figure. The story the film tells is the transformation of Schindler into a caring and responsible father who was previously (at the film’s beginning) a “cynical, profiteering, and opportunistic” business man. The War of the Worlds too is written in terms of a family narrative; in this case, the bloodthirsty aliens provide the backdrop to what the film is “really about” at its most elementary level: “the story of a divorced working-class father who strives to regain the respect of his two children.”

The same interpretive key fits Hollywood films that stage great historical events as the pretext to a family drama. The greatest cinema hit of all times, James Cameron’s Titanic, is not really “a film about the catastrophe of a ship hitting an iceberg” as much as a narrative about the brief formation of a couple. However here the love story serves the purpose of telling another tale, “that of a spoiled high-society girl in an identity crisis.” Leonardo Di Caprio is a kind of “vanishing mediator,” like ET, whose function is to restore purpose and meaning to the life of Kate Winslet; once his job is done, he can then disappear into the freezing North Atlantic.

If the standard Hollywood product relies on the basic formula of producing a couple under the façade of larger spectacular events, then where does one look for the real Hollywood Left? Surprisingly, Žižek finds an exception to the family motif and an instantiation of revolutionary politics through Hollywood productions in Zack Snyder’s 300. The racist parallel here with the free West against the despotic East is evident: the story is of a small, poor, and “terrorist” country (Greece) invaded by a much larger and more technologically advanced state (Persia). As Žižek puts it, “are the Persian elephants, giants and large fire arrows not the ancient version of high-tech weaponry?” He goes on to say,

When the last surviving group of Spartans and their king, Leonidas, are killed by the thousands of arrows, are they not in a way bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like today’s US soldiers who at the push of a button launch rockets from the warships miles away in the Persian Gulf?

What remains for the Greek Spartans to defend themselves with against the Persian occupation is their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, not wholly unlike Iraq and Afghanistan defending against the invasion of the overwhelming military supremacy of the US. Such ruthless self-discipline is not jogging and body-building, characteristic of the New Age myth of realizing the self’s inner potential, but a form of corporeal discipline and collective training when the only possession one has left his her body. To quote Alain Badiou,

We need a popular discipline. I would even say…that “those who have nothing have only their discipline.” The poor, those with no financial or military means, those with no power—all they have is their discipline, their capacity to act together. This discipline is already a form of organization.

In fact, says Žižek, this is true freedom—freedom gained “through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything.” Unlike the freedom of choice made from a safe distance, like choosing between different products at a shopping mall, true freedom is the apparent absurdity of sustaining extreme military discipline. As Žižek concludes, re-invoking the political juncture expressed in Snyder’s 300,

one makes a truly free choice when one’s choice puts at stake one’s very existence—one does it because one simply “cannot do otherwise.” When one’s country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, the reason given is not “you are free to choose,” but: “Can’t you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?”

Epistemology of the closet

In Rosy Martin’s photographic project Unwind the Lies that Bind, a fairly straightforward two-image phototherapy work of the 1980s produced in response to Martin’s coming out, the viewer is presented with a definitive and emotive visual addressing female sexuality, specifically “beyond externally-imposed and debilitating stereotypes of passivity, objectification and/or deviance” (Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 98). “[T]he first image in the series shows Martin’s body and face bound by bandages on which words such as ‘pervert’, ‘predator’, ‘evil’, ‘disease’ and ‘dyke’ are written and the second image sees the artist breaking free of her text-laden bondage, like a chrysalis emerging from a cocoon” (Ibid., p. 100). This accessible and evocative political narrative gives a startling account of subjectivity, one that is neither acquiescent to socially determined stereotypes of sexuality nor one that merely appraises a marginal status. Rather, Unwind the Lies that Binds steers a course beyond these two positions of identity towards one that is open to change and development.

According to standard queer theory, of what I understand of it, a common strategic maneuver in response to denigrating terms such as ‘queer’ is not to openly resist them but to appropriate them as one’s own, valorizing such designations as constitutive of one’s identity. However, as the author here shows, such inversion or valorization of terms often has the deleterious effect of keeping the normal order of things fully in tact, specifically the boundary demarcating ‘normal’ sexual orientation from more ‘indecent’ forms.

‘Coming out’ offers both potential empowerment and further ghettoisation; its immense individual and political significance for many gay men and lesbians is a function of its dangerous transgression of the boundary between inside and outside. Coming out demonstrates what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has famously called the ‘epistemology of the closet’, which, in an important sense, describes an exclusionary theoretical border between those ‘in’ and those ‘out’. Performing the self as ‘out’ can thus reinforce the privileged status of the heterosexual/homosexual binary as a ‘natural’ or authentic locus of identity even as it interpellates a resistant and alternative subject (Ibid., p. 100)

Simply to re-describe “the names which defined lesbian sexuality negatively” as a positive set, therefore, is not political enough. Gone, then, is any political security of a ghettoized margin, one that seeks to carve out an autonomous identity against the world. What is required, rather, is to engage directly with the relations that make up the socius in an incessant bustle of experimentation. Granted, there are very real difficulties in re-composing the political; this is certainly not a politics of optimism. But the becoming of subjectivity, as signalled above, “is able to live with, even be nourished by its incompleteness, its difficulties, and its ‘impossibilities’” (Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx and Politics, p. 148). It can be said, in other words, that the performative process of subjectivity is not gridlocked by cramped conditions but is actually animated and cultivated by such space. It is in this sense that Unwind the Lies that Bind, as a collaborative, therapeutic practice, “provides the space for subjects to experiment with staging themselves within and through competing visual tropes” (Women Making Art, p. 102). As with other forms of narrative, phototherapy allows us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one subjective assemblage over another, offering us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without one having to experiment with our own lives. Or again in the case of Unwind the Lies that Bind, one’s subjectivity, though interpellated by the socius, is always open to negotiation and maneuver, signalling ‘a speaking subject’ rather than a ‘mute object’.

 

Becoming-subject

In an older post, Dave Allen gives an account of ‘creatureliness‘ that I am willing to do business with. Responding to an interview with Simon Critchley, Dave agrees that our culture is unable to adequately face the fact of death but diverges with Critchley as per the solution to the ‘problem’ of our finitude. According to Critchley, though summarizing too quickly, we respond appropriately to our mortal condition by accepting and coming to terms with our own mortality and ‘learning how to die’. Although Dave considers this ‘active acceptance of finitude’ or ‘meditation on our mortality’ preferable to unreflective aversion to death, he envisions a kind of immortality viz. a ‘commitment to a universal cause’. Invoking such heavy hitters as Žižek and Badiou, Dave describes a figuration of the human being equivalent to a subject of truth–that is, an identification with an ‘eventual rupture’ and its subsequent consequences. Or to raise a parallel account of becoming-subject as per Deleuze, as Dave considers elsewhere, an agent may identify with any one line of flight constitutive of the windy chaos inhabiting all seemingly stable systems and follow it to its ruptural implications. The point is that the irruption of the uncommon qua human practice is always-already integral to the parameters of any given situation, albeit in too weak a degree for it to be detected. Both of these accounts requires us to insist that ‘we have a capacity to participate in something greater than ourselves, to engage in collective subjectivity and to find meaning not solely in the contours of our individual lives but in the unfolding of a process which transcends any individual and which outlives us’, or as Dave also refers to it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

This mode of becoming-subject is similarly expressed in Elizabeth King’s Pupil, a fascinating ‘one-half life-size’ sculptural configuration of a machinic stylized upper torso and an ‘astoundingly life-like’ head (Marsha Meskimmon, Women Making Art, p. 124). Drawing from a diverse set of materials, this multi-media installation piece represents an elaborate figuration analogous to the human subject. Accordingly, the sculptural gesture of King’s Pupil primarily suggests the co-existence or double bind of individuality and collectivity, thus refusing the binary either/or opposition between subject- and object-positions. The becoming-subject of this figure does not possess a fixed identity or meaning but is an embodied exchange of mutable parts. Given her complex figuration, Pupil is simultaneously animate or spirited (read: eyes and head) and inanimate or machinic (read: neck, arms, hands, and upper torso), thereby enabling a kind of ‘productive reconfiguration’ of her multiple affinities. This dynamic assemblage ‘epitomizes the logic of configuration’ insofar as corporeal agents exist as a ‘modulation between and within the individual and the collective’ (ibid.). Crediting Balibar with this particular account of interconnected subjectivity, the mobile and invested subject is described as ‘transindividual’–that is, he exists as a nomadic identity always in process. Otherwise stated, the tale of subjectivity is ‘utterly personal and social at once’ (p. 126). In fact, it is impossible to think of individual selfhood in isolation or in opposition to the collective. Subjective identity is always-already implicated and wrapped up in the collective. Such determination, however, is not a one-way street. As with King’s Pupil, the diverse and mutable character of the corporeal agent emphasizes ‘the experimental nature of the self, constantly negotiating its own parameters within the world’ (pp. 127-28). The self is, after all, an assemblage-like instrument capable of combining, producing or shuffling a diverse set of objects, images and concepts in the the service of negotiating concrete processes in actual situations.

The concept of processual identity described above is again encountered in Ann Hamilton’s lineament or balls of wound text, also known as ‘bookballs’. As Hamilton displays, reading is a productive act. Although an obsession with the critique of written texts is growing out of favor, especially among those who have enthusiastically joined the speculative materialism movement, Hamilton’s ‘altered book works’ reinstates the performative space open to the interactive, generative process of texts. Her work is straightforward yet compelling. ‘In lineament, the reading gesture ‘unwound’ books and recomposed them as ‘bookballs’, or, as Hamilton began to think of them during the course of the installation, ‘bodies’. Books were carefully pre-sliced so that the lines on each page formed a continuous strand of physical text, a ‘narrative thread’ made material. In performance, Hamilton and attendants extracted each of these filaments from the books, unwinding their narratives, and re-winding them as a ball of printed thread’ (pg. 155). As Meskimmon goes on to say, here invoking the instrumental power of literary criticism as concerns Derrida and feminists, ‘women negotiate the ostensible universality of texts through their situated knowing, recovering the eccentric, marginal meanings inscribed in even the most canonical works. When lineament deconstructed the conventions of disembodied, gender-neutral reading, it re-made the very matter of the text’ (ibid.). The labor of knowledge as per reading, touching, un-making, and re-making texts joins the kind of becoming-subject agency previously considered in which individuality is a resultant process intertwined with a cumulative collection of diverse partial- or quasi-objects, an identity that can break with the parameters of a given situation and open onto a new mode of being, or as Dave named it, ‘a very real kind of immortality’.

Mythic trickster narrative: Articulating the ‘truth’

Tricksters are known for telling great lies that contain a good deal of truth, but to understand their craft we must get past easy opposites that would differentiate falsity from veracity in the simple sense of contradicting truth. For what the trickster accomplishes in a “lie” is the subtle disruption of boundary markers erected to mark off the line between what passes as reason and fantasy. Rather than simply transgressing truth boundaries trickster artists call into question “assumptions about how the world is divided up” and skillfully remake “truth” on their own flexible terms (Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, p. 72).

Take the confidence man for instance, the covert American “reborn trickster” hero who gains the trust of others only to con them. Even though he violates the legal order he also “embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need)” (Ibid., p. 11).

Tricksters thus are a cut-above the common thief and liar; while they might appear to be foolish or clownish they certainly are not bereft of intelligence. This is because trickster is of two minds, at home in a neutral state of things, in contrast to criminals who merely violate previously decided rules (Ibid., p. 70). As a result of challenging culturally biased assumptions surrounding modern binaries and patriarchal mechanisms of sacrifice, for example, tricksters extricate themselves and others from some cultural traps, shed a crack of light on the ambivalent limbo of reality and create a few alternatives.

Sending Levinas to Where the Wild Things Are

What would happen if Emmanuel Levinas sailed across an ocean to an island where ‘Wild Things’ lived? I fear Levinas’ story would turn out not much different than Max’s adventure in Spike Jonze’s cinematic adaptation of the iconic children’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Wild Things are uniquely and absolutely Other. They overflow and escape our categories of representation. As such, Wild Things solicit a spontaneous and singular response; one without prior preparation. For who could anticipate the epiphany of a Wild Thing? We might suspect that Levinas would be perfectly suited to “existing in a world of alien things” as his own rhetoric suggests, but Levinas does not travel all too well on Wild Thing tours.1

Read More…

Mythic trickster narrative: Overcoming monologues of dominance

In response to a recent post in which I favorably argued that tricksters, the leud quasi-divine taboo breakers, are agents of social change, using wit rather than power to overcome and ameliorate the gravest social faults of society, Matt Martin noted that my account of trickster mythology was mis-representative of its treasured wisdom, apparently a concern deconstruction-like thinkers such as myself do not register. On the contrary, I take the accusation that I disregard trickster wisdom quite seriously. Martin’s particular annoyance is the way in which I cast a glowing light on the irreverent and idiotic horseplay of tricksters, noting that crafty subterfuge can have a “devastating impact” on society, thus highlighting the importance of moral rules and social boundaries to ensure a harmoniously functioning community. By valorizing the malicious and narcissistic behavior of mythic tricksters, in effect I endorse immoral solipsism and the inevitable disaster it brings about. While this may be an accurate though crude over-generalization of my position, an account that requires much more development on my part to be sure, I would like to briefly address the problem at hand concerning whether Native American trickster mythology in fact encourages boundary crossing in practice and to what extent.

According to Gerald Vizenor and a key point Martin alluded to, “The trickster arises in imagination and the trickster lives nowhere else but in imagination” (Gerald Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse: Comic and Tragic Themes in Native American Literature” in Lindquist and Zanger, eds., Buried Roots and Indestructible Seeds, p. 68). Tricksters belong in tribal stories, for instance in North American Indian literature, because they serve an important teaching role in the communities they are shared within. The lessons and wisdom to be learned indirectly from trickster discourse, commonly by negative examples of Trickster discovering the hard way, are used to train and motivate others how they ought to act and caution against certain actions (William G. Doty, “Native American Tricksters: Literary Figures of Community Transformers” in Reesman, ed., Trickster Lives, p. 11).

While tricksters certainly are social critics and rebel rousers, more often than not they function as models for society who reaffirm order and rules through instructive entertainment. Therefore, these stories are remembered and liturgically passed down from each generation for the purpose of forming the ethical imaginations of individuals, thus leading listeners to embody the kind of character the community has deemed honorable to inhabit. Mythic narratives also contain the added bonus of allowing us to experiment in our imaginations with the probable effects of acting on one set of convictions over another; testing to see whether we can turn things around for the better rather than make things worse. “In this respect, narratives offer us a relatively safe way to explore our ‘options’ without our first having to experiment with our own lives” (Michael Goldberg, Theology and Narrative, p. 234).

If it was not for these hermeneutically creative tales that offer different ways of imagining and transforming our circumstances we would be sublimated to the flat and stifling “monologues of dominance” (Vizenor, “Trickster Discourse”, p. 67). Literature therefore transgresses the presumed bounds that reason and speculation should remain in autonomous fields. In this way literature avoids a lot of the hang-ups of the Enlightenment insofar as imagination integrates the reflection and contemplation of reality (primary) with the bending and modification of it (secondary). So while human representations of literary tricksters may diminish tricksterdom in its textual purity, betraying the very essence of the trickster, the urgency required of social agents to reform historical consciousness reveals that there is no innocence in indecision either. Their hands are dirty either way. At the very least, convention disturbing bunglers play the part of Trickster when they preach disarmingly imaginative stories that trick their hearers and readers into thinking that which is unfamiliar or uncommon and into becoming tricksters of transformation themselves.