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 But why must TDKR obfuscate its true historical reference?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
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?”
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
I have always been peculiarly baffled by the co-authored article of Deleuze and Guattari, “How do you make yourself a body without organs?”. For those unfamiliar with the work, it is severely masochistic. Merely sampling a short passage immediately gives away its idiosyncratic character:
You begin sewing, you sew up the hole in the glans; you sew the skin around the glans to the glans itself, preventing the top from tearing; you sew the scrotum to the skin of the thighs. You sew the breasts, securely attaching a button with four holes to each nipple. You may connect them with an elastic band with buttonholes… […] You sew my buttocks together, all the way up and down the crack of my ass. Tightly, with a doubled thread, each stitch knotted. (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 151)
At least, this quote is representative of what I remember of my first horrific encounter with this piece—utterly bizarre. I have since invested a significant amount of time devoted to studying Deleuze, but this particular work continued to haunt me. It yet remained to be recognized as an identifiable concept. In other words, borrowing the phrase of Deleuze, “How do you make yourself a body without organs?” was for me an object of encounter.
It was not until my spouse and I recently went to the theater to watch Aronofsky’s Black Swan that the enigmatic section of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus became illuminated for me. As with all of Aronofsky’s films—Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler—Black Swan is complex, compelling, and never recognizable to common representations of existence. In fact, coming out of the theater we were discussing what we thought of the film and I made the comment that I was having a particular difficult time processing what I thought of it. My spouse responded by making the insightful comment that that seemed to be the point of the movie. More particularly, Black Swan was unlike what people most often watch and uncommon to habitual ways of encountering films. This is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point—and, I think, the purpose of the film—is to create a novel experience for the audience; one, in this case, that includes body horror.
Again like other Aronofsky films, there is a traversal and blurring of standard demarcated boundaries separating madness and genius in Black Swan. This downstairs mixup of imagination and reality centers round Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers, “a woman who has dedicated herself so completely to the ballet and the art of dance, that it has stunted her development in many ways. She is cold and isolated, and has difficulty relating to people, while still retaining a purity and naivety that teeters between innocence and cowardice” (see here). But in order to perform the ballet ‘Swan Lake’ Nina must not only play the role of the White Swan Queen—a role she easily fits—but the seductive and dangerous Black Swan as well. Indeed, Nina is perfect in grace and technical ability, but it is quite apparent that she significantly lacks passion and creativity. In order to achieve the dark existential side of the Swan Queen duality Nina undergoes a psychological transmogrification by subjecting herself to mental and physical torture. However, given Aronofsky’s famous style, the audience is left clueless what is real and what is imagined, but this confused state of both Nina and the audience contributes to the experimental nature of Aronofky’s films that teeter between genius and madness—a space clearing gesture that makes room for thinking otherwise than we currently do.
Although this postmodern-typical boundary crossing is certainly interesting and animates thinking beyond its common restraints, it is significantly overdone. What I find more fascinating with the films that Aronofsky produces is his penchant for featuring body mutilation motifs, “be it by drug use or razor blade” (see here). More specifically, his films depict artists “destroying themselves in pursuit of their art”. This is no less true of Black Swan. “Every single frame of Black Swan echoes the theme of the destructiveness of the artistic process and proves that Aronofsky, in his thrilling story about a woman seeking perfection, has found it himself.” What seems lacking in this description, however, is not that artists destroy themselves in spite of their art, but must destroy themselves exactly for their art.
This theme of “full-blown body horror” is again echoed on one of my favorite blog sites, ‘The Pinocchio Theory’. According to Shaviro “the tortured flesh of Natalie Portman is at the center of the film” (see here). Shaviro suggests that this sort of masochism is the necessary condition of possibility for the breakthroughs required of Portman’s Nina, an insight that I believe confirms what we discover articulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s “How do you make yourself a body without organs?”. Not only does the body torture function as a safeguard from “high-minded and self-congratulatory elitism”–a gesture which would reify the status-quo of institutionally accepted standards of “good” art and therefore would be unable to transcend beyond the common to the genuinely original—but more significantly, such a breakthrough must pass through a particular form of breakdown in order to be achieved. As Shaviro puts it, “Portman’s character finally learns that she can only fulfill her quest for aesthetic perfection at the price of her own existential self-destruction”. I find this right. Of course, this is not a self-annihilation or breakdown as such, but only such in terms of the old conservative scheme of things. In the new valuation of things, the previously described revolting bodily metamorphosis would not be considered horror or failure but success. In this sense, I think Shaviro gets what most others miss in their review of Black Swan.
To my mind, I am not confident that Aronofsky has read Deleuze and Guattari, but it would by no means be surprising. In truth, the two have had an enormous impact on the art world in general. This is not altogether astonishing given the concepts they provide and their own indebtedness to art, cinema, literature, etc. As I have recounted elsewhere, the Deleuze of Difference and Repetition “identifies” a univocal ontology in which difference is ontologically fundamental. More generally, every existent entity is created, sustained by, and ultimately collapses back into a virtual intensity. Thus, all individuals, animate and inanimate alike, are stable structures that are simultaneously suspended over a hydraulic flux, what Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus call the “plane of consistency”, “plane of immanence” or “body without organs” (BwO). So while every actual body expresses a consistent “set of traits, habits, movements, affects, etc.” as faithful Wikipedia tells, every existent organized body possess “a vast reservoir of potential traits, connections, affects, movements, etc.” at the same time. What is relevant here is that to “make oneself a body without organs” requires one “to actively experiment with oneself to draw out and activate these virtual potentials. These potentials are mostly activated (or “actualized”) through conjunctions with other bodies (or BwOs) that Deleuze calls ‘becomings’.” As Deleuze and Guattari put it in A Thousand Plateaus, a body without organs “is permeated by unformed, unstable matters, by flows in all directions, by free intensities or nomadic singularities, by mad or transitory particles” (p. 40).
Is this in any way what Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers undergoes in Black Swan? In point of fact, I think it is. As Leroy the ballet director fears, Nina is ostensibly incapable of releasing and transcending herself enough to become the impassioned black swan. As Leroy recounts and the audience witnesses, Nina dances in an overly frigid and stiff way. She is the exact opposite of the dynamic, heterogeneous, and unorganized forces of desires that seem to overwhelm Nina’s antagonist Lily who is all passion and sloppy in technique. What is required of Nina to transfigure into the black swan is to embody a little crowned anarchy into her “organisational” life in order to be a creative force in her own right, independent and irreducible to the purposive and unequivocal goal-directed techniques of the ballet economy. What Deleuze and Guattari ultimately affirm is not after all the completely rigid body or the purely chaotic one but the full body that is teeming with life. What is needed to create oneself a body without organs, according to Deleuze and Guattari, is to introduce the dynamic and experimental nature of the virtual intensity into striated existence. This is in effect what Nina does in the film. She is on an endless becoming of perfection, forever attaining it, undertaking a continuously unaccomplished exercise of experimentation.
Of course, as Deleuze and Guattari warn and Nina discovers for herself, creating a body without organs can be highly dangerous. Therefore it is a task that must be accomplished with caution. As Deleuze and Guattari say, “overdose is a danger. You don’t do it with a sledgehammer, you use a very fine file” (p. 160). This then is completely unlike committing suicide. As they go on to say, “You don’t reach the BwO…by wildly destratifying. […] If you free it with too violent an action, if you blow apart the strata without taking precautions, then…you will be killed, plunged into a black hole, or even dragged toward catastrophe. Staying stratified – organized, signified, subjected – is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which bring them back down on us heavier than ever” (pp. 160-161). As anticipated earlier, the experimental body that Deleuze and Guattari push is not construed polemically between the body without organs and the organism, or pure chaos and complete order. What they seem to esteem are bodies at the threshold of intensity that are nonetheless stable, even if flexible. What is attacked by the two then, as Ansell-Pearson notes in Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze, is a particular sort of organism that is intractably hierarchized. As stated in an illuminating commentary by Torkild Thanem, one that is still a work in progress, and at his request not to quote, the danger or challenge of experimenting with a body without organs is that we go to far too soon, that is, too much is exposed at once. The experimentation that Deleuze and Guattari seem to suggest on the other hand is a patient and careful working of the body that attempts to form new habits in unpredictable ways that disturb our common notions of how bodies function (see here). This is further confirmed in a paper by John Sellars, drawing significantly upon the work of De Landa, and worth quoting at length:
For Deleuze and Guattari the organized organism and the fluid Body without Organs always exist side by side. To make oneself a Body without Organs does not involve destroying the organism but rather experiencing the organism from a different perspective. The schizophrenic does not undergo a physical process of de-organization but rather undergoes a process in which he no longer experiences himself as an organism. This is possible because any level of organization or stratification is always relative to a particular perspective. So, although from the perspective of a human lifetime a mountain seems permanent and unchanging, from the perspective of geological time it continues to flow, if only slowly. (“The Point of View of the Cosmos: Deleuze, Romanticism, Stoicism”, p. 4)
What it means to make yourself a body without organs then, as I have presented it here and in tandem with Aronofsky’s Black Swan, is to experiment with what is always-already integral and vital to oneself. Or again, it is to open oneself to the pulsing creative force internal to oneself but merely blocked. Indeed, it seems quite clear that Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers experiments throughout the film of loosening herself from her own self-restraints, which is not the same as discovering an immediate inner self that is simply given but must merely be found lying in wait.
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.