Joker's Wild, or Batman Degree Zero: The Dark Knight (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, August 10, 2008 10:36pm | Post a Comment
The Joker

There is an old story about a worker suspected of stealing: every evening, as he leaves the factory, the wheel-barrow he rolls in front of him is carefully inspected. The guards can find nothing. It is always empty. Finally, the penny drops: what the worker is stealing are the wheelbarrows themselves ... -- Slavoj Zizek, p. 1, Violence

I just happened to start reading Slavoj Zizek's new book, Violence, shortly after I saw Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and found both to serendipitously complement each other. Zizek begins his book with the little tale of theft quoted above, which he uses as a grounding metaphor in analyzing our approach to violence. Too often we're concerned with its subjective effects (who was hurt and by what, i.e., what's in the wheelbarrow), rather than its objective status (the symbolic order that gives form and definition to the violent act, i.e., the wheelbarrow itself). For example, an anti-semitic remark doesn't constitute hate speech -- isn't violent -- for a Nazi who exists in a context where "the Jew" is defined outside of humanity, and thus moral concern. It is the functioning symbolic order that allows everyday people to exist in a system perpetuating violence on others without seeing how their own normality is defined by what it violently excludes. This is what the Joker is getting at when he says to Harvey Dent:
Nobody panics when they expect people to get killed. Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plans are horrifying. If I tell the press that tomorrow a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will get blown up, nobody panics. But when I say one little old mayor will die, everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, you upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos, Harvey? It’s fair.
Sure, we (represented here as Gotham City residents) might see the gangbanger's death as violent, but always as subjective violence, an act by an individual on another individual, not as a sign that the cultural system itself is violent. The difference between the violence against a gangbanger and against the mayor is that only the latter is perceived to be a threat to the normal order of things, whereas the former is already written into the cultural bill as the price of doing business as usual. The Joker is an agent of chaos, because he's the embodiment of pure objective violence. That's why he assures Harvey that killing his girlfriend, Rachel (Bruce Wayne's love interest, as well), and leaving him horribly disfigured as Two-Face was "nothing personal." As such, the Joker's actions can only be read as chaotic, senseless, or just plain nuts. He doesn't put Gotham's citizens (including its criminals) through a series of terroristic spins on the prisoner's dilemma for personal gain, revenge or as the result of some childhood trauma -- he's an ascetic without a real history. Rather, his only goal and source of pleasure is in making his victims face up to the abstracted violent substructure around which their culture is configured. Sounding like Jack Nance and looking like he's spent time in A Clockwork Orange and Ichi the Killer with fashion tips from Malcolm McLaren, the Joker provides a scarred face to the invisible logic of capitalism, with cracking make-up and a forced smile. He's pure desire without an object, paradoxically making the impersonal personal and invisible visible. Regarding this invisible and "fundamental systemic violence of capitalism," Zizek writes:
[M]uch more uncanny than any direct pre-capitalist socio-ideological violence: this violence is no longer attributable to concrete individuals and their "evil" intentions, but is purely "objective," systemic, anonymous. [Some stuff about Lacan's Real versus reality that I will spare you.]  We can experience this gap [between the reality of people and what's being defined as reality by the logic of capitalism] in a palpable way when one visits a country where life is obviously in shambles. We see a lot of ecological decay and human misery. However, the economist's report that one reads afterwards informs us that the country's economic situation is "financially sound" -- reality doesn't matter, what matters is the situation of capital ... -- p. 12-3, ibid.

Stocks wouldn't keep rising for a corporation that exploits third-world misery if that repressed misery took on a subjective quality for the investors. For capital to keep growing, said misery has to remain purely objective, an abstract cost that's been symbolically excluded out of our day-to-day concerns. The Joker is the same unbounded desire that drives capitalism. Without any object or goal to satisfy him, he exists outside of our rational system and can only be stopped with violence. He can't be beat, however, only beaten, because the solution to the problem he presents is the problem itself: repression of systemic violence. (Batman once tried to reason with him -- understand him -- in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke with miserable results.) At best, Gotham City can return to the status quo by forgetting him -- define him out existence as insane and lock him away in its local Id repository, Arkham Asylum. Or they could kill him, but Gotham's local hero of repression has only one rule: he doesn't kill.
The Batman

It is an enigma to me how a theologian can be praised because he has struggled his way to unbelief. The achievement that always struck me as most heroic and praiseworthy was struggling through to belief.  -- Karl Kraus, #421, Dicta and Contradicta

There's many parallels that Nolan uses to show Batman and Joker as two sides of the same systemic coin, with Two-Face serving as their dialectic. At a fundraiser being thrown for the still intact Harvey Dent by Bruce Wayne, the latter is shown throwing out champagne while pretending to drink it. When the Joker shows up at the party, he does the same thing, but stages the pretense for all to see. Bruce has to pretend to drink in order to hide his identity as the Batman and keep functioning within Gotham's high society, whereas the Joker wants nothing more than to lay bare all such pretenses. While the Joker has no determinate psychological beginning (he changes the tale of his scars with a change in victims), Batman is bound by his origin. Bruce would've never become the Batman without being from Gotham's wealthiest family. Conversely, Gotham needs him as a stopgap mechanism to continue functioning at all.  The city got the hero that it needs through an act of subjective violence on the Wayne family. In turn, Batman perpetually fights evil doers on a case-by-case basis, giving Gotham the illusion that something's being done about its pervasive corruption. As the always astute Dave Fiore says of the Caped Crusader:
All he wants to do is hang on. Exercise virtue and excise "corruption." Keep the money in the hands of the people that are already ("legitimately") rich, and the underclass in its place. The only "systemic" critique this concept is capable of generating is a law n' order screed against legal loopholes that allow the criminals to go free.
Bruce has to believe in his subjective cause, lest his whole origin be called into question. Just where do all those billions come from if not from the same rapacious practices of the real world's most successful capitalists? To help explain the Bruce/Batman duality, Zizek provides, once again, a telling example-- that of the liberal communist. The unbridled desire of capitalism is masked by the charitable communitarian deeds of many of its most successful practitioners. While remaining ruthless in their business practices, men like Bill Gates and George Soros find enlightenment and meaning by giving away much of their wealth to needy causes. The inspirational figurehead for the liberal communists is Andrew Carnegie, who gave away a good deal of his wealth to fund humanitarian causes while using a private army to suppress organized labor. Capitalism needs charity in the same way the Batman "justifies" Bruce Wayne's wealth.  Capitalism qua Gotham City creates the problems and then provides the repressive mask by which those problems are to be solved.
Gotham City

: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, pea... Shut up! -- Monty Python's The Life of Brian
Following Brecht, Michael Wood suggests Gotham City has to be a pretty miserable place if it needs Batman. Well, yes and no. On the one hand, Gotham's repressed elements are always more on the verge of surfacing than in an average city, hence the reliance on a vigilante. On the other hand, like any capitalist center for civilization, there's going to be a good many people who are helped along, with all the repressive mechanisms in place to make their existence a fairly smooth one. People wouldn't have the time to earn doctorates and write for the London Review of Books about comic book characters without a certain level of bourgeois complacency. There is value, even a sense of existential heroism, in the Batman's Sisyphean struggle to return the city to a state of equilibrium (even if it's doubtful that Gotham has ever been in such a state). Gotham would cease functioning altogether if it could no longer hide the systemic violence that the Joker represents under Batman's mask of rationalization. The Joker's chaos might be "fair," but the have-nots wouldn't be helped in the slightest by reducing all the haves to their status. Therefore, Batman can't give in to the Joker's demand that he remove his mask in order to stop the latter's killing spree. This need to "keep the mask on" is demonstrated on multiple levels:

It's telling that the main criminal power brokers ultimately side with the uncorruptible (will to status quo) heroes Batman and soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon. Even Gotham's gangsters realize the Joker operates outside of their ratio-economic structure and has to be repressed. They choose Batman's law and order to a fellow criminal willing to burn their sole raison d'etre, money. The Joker is just plain crazy.  Crime wouldn't pay -- wouldn't make sense -- if the system of criminalization went belly up. What would be the point, for example, in being a drug dealer if all drugs were legalized? The criminal rationale is just as dependent as bourgeois comfort on the extant symbolic order.

In order to test the limits separating Gotham's law-abiding citizenry from its criminal underworld, the Joker rigs two ferryboats with explosives and gives the detonator for each to the other boat. On one boat are the citizens and on the other, a group of prisoners. If neither group chooses to execute the other by midnight, the Joker makes it clear that he'll blow up both. Batman manages to stop the Joker's ability to carry out the double execution before the deadline rolls around and neither boat has exploded, but why did neither group push the button? In the corniest example of his Eastwood growl, Batman claims it's because these people are "good." He wasn't privy to what we viewers got to see, however. On the criminal boat (a significant proportion of whose occupants were, in all likelihood, put there by Batman), a single black man cons his way into possessing the detonator, only to throw it overboard, determining the fate for all. Contrary to a popular religious myth, one lone martyr is hardly an argument for the good of all. On the law-abiding boat, the passengers take a vote, and overwhelmingly elect to kill the criminals. The button isn't pushed because of virtue, but due to a lack of resolve. Violence to restore stability is fine when done abstractly through a representative (an executioner or a soldier), but not when it takes on a personalized meaning. The "goodness" that saves Gotham's (or Batman's belief in Gotham's) dignity turns out to be cowardice.

Finally, when the Joker gives Batman the forced choice between rescuing Rachel (the girl he loves) or Harvey Dent (the white knight of supposed systemic change), Batman chooses the subjective. Because the Joker lied about the location of the two victims, Batman mistakenly rescues Harvey, while Rachel goes up in flames. The Joker has Batman's number. For all his scientific-detective rationality, all he really has to fight the problem of the Joker with are his fists. He continually pounds the Joker, to which the latter knowingly replies with something like, "you've got nothing on me." As I discussed with Iron Man, superheroes can only address systemic threats on a personal level. Their serialized nature requires such a palliative solution in order to heroically continue. (The one superhero story that does effectively address systemic change is the never completed fascistic-utopian Miracleman by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman.)  Bruce Wayne pays lip service to possible systemic change by funding Dent, but as Batman he puts his subjective interests first. Thus, like DC Comics' stockholders, he doesn't really desire a Gotham without a need for the Batman.

As a heroic figure of repression, Batman remains unchanged by the Joker's games of pitting objective violence against its subjective counterpart. Like the Joker, he'll just keep on keepin' on. Harvey Dent, however, is thoroughly contaminated. With Rachel dead and his face now horribly disfigured on one side (dripping pustular goo all over his suit), he becomes the stochastic angel of vengeance, Two-Face, meting out violent retribution with a flip of the coin. The only system of justice left to him is chance, where everyone's (even Gordon's kids') guilt or innocence is determined randomly. Can there be any doubt that the Joker has won? Rather than allow the truth about Gotham's corrupted hero get out, Batman takes the rap for Dent's crimes, further perpetuating the illusory hope that real change is just around the corner.  Batman is certainly the hero Gotham needs, but Two-Face is the one it deserves.

Relevant Tags

Violence (12), Christopher Nolan (5), Capitalism (5), Summer Movies (9), Slavoj Zizek (3), The Dark Knight (3), Batman (7), Joker (3), Cinema Criticism (32), Comic Book Criticism (10), Superheroes (7)