Theses on The Dark Knight

The following post was co-authored with Kelsey Craven, a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Northwestern University.

  1. The Dark Knight is a critique of Batman, and precisely because of this, a critique of the neoliberal order. Here neoliberalism is understood as the combination of authoritarian politics, either the rather clumsy Republican version or the slick managerialism of the Democrats, in the service of the ever-greater concentration of capital by means of primitive accumulation (“privatization”) and financialization.

  2. Batman and Harvey Dent are the two sides of neoliberal politics. Both depend on the wealth of Bruce Wayne in order to operate. That wealth is of course inherited, but it is greatly augmented by a stock issue in Batman Begins—surely a strange plot point for a comic book movie. Under Bruce’s father, the Wayne fortune underwrote both the water and transit systems of Gotham, effectively privatizing central government functions. Bruce simply continues this trend by privatizing law-enforcement, driven initially by his thirst for vengeance against the ungrateful “criminal” class.
  3. Batman’s alleged project, to wage a war against “criminality,” must necessarily be a war against Gotham’s citizenry within the context of Gotham. This too is a major theme in Batman Begins, wherein the League of Shadows boasts of their capacity to infiltrate every level of government and considers this fact a legitimation of their intent to drug Gotham’s inhabitants, inciting them to destroy their city from within. Gotham is decadent. This theme re-emerges with the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline; when the female cop, who seemingly works directly under Commissioner Gordon, is confronted by Two-Face as to her role in the murder of Rachel Dawes, her response is: “They [the mob] got to me early, my mother’s hospital bills!”
  4. It follows that:
    • Batman’s fight against “criminals” is a fight against the working class.
    • Within Gotham, a civil servant is incapable of supporting herself and her family without outside financial assistance.
    • All wealth within Gotham is concentrated within one of the following two organizations: the mob or the Wayne Estate. It follows that the citizens must then serve one, the other, or both so as to survive within the existing social structure of Gotham.
    • Should the mob be defeated (criminality), Bruce Wayne will quite literally own Gotham.
    • With regards to this power structure, the citizenry are seemingly complicit.
  5. Batman’s elaborate show of keeping his hands clean by refusing to use guns is accompanied by tremendous “collateral damage”—in Batman Begins, the emphasis is on direct property damage, particularly the very water/transit system his father built, while in The Dark Knight, the focus is on “social chaos,” which in practice amounts to the refusal to submit to Batman’s sole authority. In response to the chaos he himself generated, Batman shows a decided willingness to torture, while still maintaining the pose of holier-than-thou pacifism. The most extreme example is when he pushes a mob boss off a roof—when the mob boss points out the fall will not kill him, Batman responds, “I’m counting on it.”
  6. Batman’s main tactic in his pet crusade is the inspiration of fear, hence the bat, the animal that frightened him as a child. He learns this tactic from the League of Shadows in Batman Begins and, as an aside, it makes his lamentation to Alfred in The Dark Knight—“This is not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people”—that much more ironic. Bruce Wayne is truly delusional. Insofar as fear is what he seeks to inspire, he is something of a counterpart to Scarecrow, and both must be considered at once psychopaths and terrorists, with the latter being only more honest with himself concerning his desire for power by way of fear.
  7. That “reducing crime” is not Batman’s true goal is clear: the “criminals” he fights early in the film are in fact imitators. One would think that people standing up and defending themselves and others in a situation of social chaos would be positive, but Batman derides their efforts: not only do they forfeit their ethical purity by using guns, but they’re also poor and tacky, running around in hockey pants.
  8. The Joker is the protagonist and hero of The Dark Knight. He is the only truly ethical character in the film. As he repeats three times, he is “a man of his word.”
  9. The Joker’s response to the neoliberal order of Gotham City is the only human one: he wishes for its destruction, initially symbolized by Batman. He enacts that destruction with joy, taking full responsibility for his actions in a way that Batman never can.
  10. In Gotham, just as in our present socio-political context, mental illness might be seen as a legitimate, individual rebellion against patriarchal law and its resulting hierarchy. (What better response to capitalist multi-tasking than autism?) It is thus only fitting that the Joker should seek allies in the mental instituion, that is, the one instiution that effectively falls outside of the mob/Wayne axis.
  11. “Terrorism” is not the appropriate description for the Joker’s actions, because terrorism is a strategy used by weak political actors (like the pitiable Batman) to advance their ends. The Joker wants to destroy the entire framework within which ends can be pursued, as shown by the following quote:

    I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drops of gas and a couple bullets. You know what, you know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because that’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everybody loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.

  12. Yet it’s not a sheer negativity—or better, it’s a negation so thorough-going that it becomes its own kind of positivity. The Joker’s plots require huge amounts of labor and creativity, and he calls forth a community characterized by loyalty and fearlessness. Already in the very attempt to destroy the neoliberal order, an alternative spontaneously begins to take form.
  13. Aside from the Joker, Harvey Dent is the only other character who escapes sheer bad faith: he is the “good liberal.” Dent actually believes in the spectacle, as is clear in his participation in and enjoyment of the theatricality of the courtroom scene—and this despite the fact that this very theatricality points up the bankruptcy of the judicial system, including a corruption that extends to allowing a witness to carry a gun into the courtroom. His betrayal by the system he sought to reform was arguably even more painful to Dent than the loss of Rachel.
  14. In the end, the Joker succeeds only in forcing a slight reorganization of the power structure—Dent’s murders are covered up and Batman is scapegoated. The symbol of the brave vigilante watching over everyone is replaced by the symbol of the brave martyr to whom society will be forever indebted. In both cases, the people remain passive spectators. However, were the Joker’s project to be comprehended by the populace, a more thoroughgoing destabilization would be achieved by default—for it is the Joker who consistently addresses the populace at large, demanding action and above all the assumption of responsibility. In sharp contrast with the practitioners of the “noble lie,” the Joker is not only a “man of his word” but attempts to drive others to be the same.
  15. To allay any suspicion that this interpretation is motivated by a contrarian’s willfulness, we conclude with some words of wisdom from the loyal Alfred. We are referring here not to his oft-quoted characterization of the Joker as a man who “just wants to watch the world burn,” but to his final solution to men who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” The famous quote occurs in the context of an analogy between the Joker and a Burman jewel thief who steals from the British colonialists and throws his spoils away—a situation that is only revealed when soldiers find a child playing with a ruby the size of a tangerine. Much later in the film, when Bruce Wayne asks how the soldiers finally defeated their foe, Alfred replies: “We burned down the forest.” Who, then, wants to watch the world burn? Alfred himself says it: the lawmen, the money men, the punishers.
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101 Responses to “Theses on The Dark Knight”

  1. Theses on The Dark Knight « The Weblog Says:

    [...] on The Dark Knight At AUFS, I have posted a piece with the above title. I co-authored it with Kelsey Craven, a friend of mine from Northwestern. It [...]

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Isn’t the dark point of Alfred’s thesis of the two burnings that they burned the world for law and order and the Joker burned it “just because”?

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Meaning, to parody a scene from The Big Lebowski, say what you will you about the police, but at least they have a telos. Of course, I’m with you guys on this point, and this is an obvious example of the autoimmune character of the law. It is willing to destroy the very conditions of law for the sake of carrying it out.

  4. Kelsey Says:

    To Anthony: Well, The Big Lebowski is “Say what you will about the tenants of National Socialism, atleast it’s an ethos!” I sound nit-picky here, I don’t mean to be, that’s just one of my favorite films. However, the dif in quote kind of does spin your argument. How is Batman “lawful”? How is Commissioner Gordon? Dent is the only “good liberal” and he is betrayed by Gordon’s “people.” Further, I think you have to define “world.” The Joker is interested in destroying a very specific “world,” with very specific laws. Does that mean he wants to watch just any world burn? Who, indeed, will be most inclined to burn the forest?

  5. Brad Says:

    The Joker is interested in destroying a very specific “world,” with very specific laws. Does that mean he wants to watch just any world burn?

    Agreed. The point made over and over and over again in the movie seems to emphasize this. There would be no Joker — who is less a person or a singular identity than a kind of performativity — w/out Batman. His is, therefore, a nihilism that is unthinkable beyond the context of world that exists.

  6. Brad Says:

    Also, re: The Big Lebowski. Extra points go to whoever can successfully implement one of my favorite lines: “You’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole.”

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    We do try to indicate the direction in which a “negation of negation” w/r/t the Joker’s “nihilism” might go.

  8. Jared Sinclair Says:

    An interesting comparison should be made between the Joker and Anton Chigurgh from No Country For Old Men, the latter of whom also is “a man of his word.”. What are we to make of this Selflessly Evil Hero, as a category or an idea? Whoever said it above on the comments was right in calling it a “performativity” as opposed to a person. After all, only two characters in TDK wear masks and go by nicknames. The difference is Batman’s persona is a mask and a lie, whereas the Joker…there is nothing behind the mask (or as M. Derrida might say, “There is no behind-the-mask”).The Joker proves this to us in his satirization of the tortured-childhood-turned-criminal story that most storybook villains have; by changing the story of how he got his scars with every telling, he is signaling that any attempt to explain him via psychologizing is fruitless. The Joker simply happens, in the same way that Anton Chigurgh happens, as the latter says in one of his final scenes, “I got here the same way as this coin.”

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    A really telling detail is that the one time the Joker appears without his make-up, it functions as a disguise.

  10. David Says:

    In a world consumed by nihilism, the moralistic distinction between good and evil might be up for grabs, but the ethical distinction between good and bad is not. To favor the Joker and castigate Batman – as Adam, together with the citizens of Gotham, and together with the denizens of the society of the spectacle who attended The Dark Knight en masse – is no contrarianism, but mere foolishness. Indeed, it is to give in to the maxim that anything that doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger, rather than stronger. Adam’s patron saint, the unmistakable joker of contemporary philosophy, exemplifies this predicament: There is no doubt that Zizek sometimes manages to call a spade a spade, but then he quickly turns to another one of his card tricks that leaves the audience gasping. A magician can supply good entertainment only by means of deception. When the truth behind the sleight of hand is revealed, the audience rushes to demand its money back. The box office revenues of the movie in question prove that the Joker’s illusion was successful: at the end Christ looks like the Antichrist. But this is only a magic trick, and everybody should know that.

    In Judaism, the Messiah is considered to be the “Son of David,” a direct descendant of the king who exemplifies the image of the sovereign. Hence the Hebrew syntagm “melech mashiach,” or “King Messiah,” which is closely linked to the Christian “Jesus Messiah.” The Jewish yearning for, and the Christian belief in, this messiah, this “King of Kings,” is therefore very problematic, since it implies that the people cannot do without a sovereign power above them. They simply swap the earthly king with a heavenly one, like those heroin addicts that are now dependent on methadone. Here lies the justified skepticism in the figure of the messiah: the fear that he is just another, or the ultimate, power grabbing monster. This is what stands behind Adam’s critique of Batman, who is, like any superhero, an obvious Imitator of Christ. It is true, from this perspective, that Batman, in an attempt to defend lost causes, makes authoritarian executive decisions which have nothing to do with the so called established law, and everything to do with the state of emergency, or the civil war, in which Gotham finds itself.

    There is, however, a very simple litmus test that distinguishes the false messiah from the true one, the Antichrist from Christ, the dark and the light knight: the question is whether, at the day after the last day, the “Messiah” remains in power or not. If he steps down, then the end of days has truly arrived. Otherwise, the lie is revealed, though a second too late, and history only repeats itself. The sovereign (like the [biblical] Adam) is therefore a figure of the Messiah, but only as long as the sin of the former is overturned by the deeds of the latter. The “King of Kings” is not a king, and “King Messiah” is meant to atone for the horridness sins of all the previous kings.

    Kafka claims that “the Messiah will come only when he is no longer needed.” Bruce Wayne is Batman only because Batman is needed. When he will no longer be needed – when Gotham will be more like New York of the present – Wayne promises that he will hang the suit. We still don’t know whether he is “a man of his word” or not because we are not omniscient. This is why political decisions are always risky. But to remain skeptical about everyone, to take zero risks, and to trust no one, is a proved receipt for the continuation of Gotham. Politics that is not driven by fear is indeed at hand. But politics without a little faith is like bread without yeast (this is why, by the way, you can eat matzo only for the week of Passover, since anything more than that is a gastronomical nightmare).

    All things considered, the Joker was right about one single thing: anyone that has a plan is a schemer. Even though Adam mysteriously overlooks this thesis, it is one of the strongest argument against liberalism in sight. Everyone has a plan: the cops, the mob, and, most importantly, Harvey Dent. Hence, everyone are schemers. The Joker insists that he doesn’t have a plan, and I believe him. But there is one person that he intentionally leaves out from his long list of planners/schemers: Batman himself. I believe that Batman’s sole destiny is to stop being Batman, that there is no plan involved, and that hence no scheme to take over the world is to be feared. The choice, then, is between a “dog chasing cars” and a Batmobile chasing dogs. Adam chose the former. I choose the latter.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The evidence of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s bad faith is overwhelming — the most notable example being his instinctive decision to save Rachel over Harvey Dent. As Kelsey said last night in our conversation about this piece, “Do your fucking job!” There is absolutely no reason why Gotham needs Rachel Dawes more than Harvey Dent. She tells Bruce that she doesn’t believe there will be a time when he doesn’t need Batman, and the mixing of personal and (quasi-) professional is strong evidence that her instincts are right. It’s really all about Bruce Wayne, who is definitely not going to step down as the wealthy power-broker of Gotham even if he does retire as Batman.

  12. Dave Belcher Says:

    Brad,

    I vote that whoever can use that line at the Grandeur of Reason conference is owed a beer (at least): “You’re not wrong. You’re just an asshole.” Well, really, any conference appearance where this is a response should warrant gifts of plenitudinous amounts of alcohol. I would be the first to lavish the whiskey, wine and beer on he or she who “takes one for the team” (though I of course cannot say that I would be “first” to actually “take one for the team”).

  13. Scott McLemee Says:

    I saw TDK with someone who had no sense of the Batman mythos and didn’t much care for the movie. She later told me she assumed that Commissioner Gordon was supposed to be one of the bad guys.

  14. Alex Says:

    A few things. Numbers don’t correspond, sadly. I do think though that the anime shorts Gotham Knight really do soften the character of Batman and provide a corrective to the material that allows anti-Bat readings in the Nolan-verse, particularly here when Batman is thought to be showing general distant for the citizens of Gotham at large.

    1. Your emphasis on the city as place for neoliberal restructuring is spot on, in particular the place of New York, the template for Gotham, in this. David Harvey’s overview and numerous studies other studies all concur on this point, for example Jamie Peck’s volumous work on this and his co-edited Contesting Neoliberalism: Urban Frontiers collection, as well as From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present by Kim Moody, The Assassination of New York by Robert Fitch and Remaking New York: Primitive Globalization and the Politics of Urban Community by William Sites among others. Of course, one cannot deny that on the neoliberal shopping list of reasons given for their interventions is that a city is corrupt and ungovernable.

    2. I’m unsure that Batman as enemy of the working class. Even though one could see in some cases (as Anthony pointed out to me) the mob as a legtimate response to a denial of power among the working class (though this argument itself viz. economic power has a neoliberal ideological bent – Gary Becker’s work on criminality paints criminals as simply utility calculators like everyone else, who are prepared to take more risks), the mob, through racketering and generally decaying the cityscape, is ultimately the enemy of the working class. As with many portrayals of the mob on screen (The Sopranos included), the mob are merely hyper-capitalists – note their obsession with money and abstract accumulation in contrast to the Joker’s complete lack of care for it. Throughout the films and in Gotham Knight, Batman’s problem is organised crime which harms the citizens of the city, not simply people taking what they need when starving – bear in mind he is locked up in the Tibetian jail for stealing fruit. Especially with regard to their connections between them and corporations and local government. Gotham City is unbelievably corrupt at all levels, the judicary, the police, the major’s office (implied but never overt – they hardly have a concern for justice when Gordon and Dent haul the criminals in and off the street) and vitally, in many of the corporations also, including Wayne Enterprises before Fox is re-instated. The latter case is displayed in the first film by the very running down of the facilities Wayne Senior provided by under-investment (public works don’t turn profits) as well as the corrupt Hong Kong corporation, which I imagine was probably the latest in a string of attempt to catch out financial criminals with links to the mob, judging by Fox’s reaction to Wayne’s plotting. It is not clear that Wayne Senior was effecting a privatisation – these were rather a gift to the community that had worked for him and often been his employees – bear in mind, I think it was implied in the first film that they were free. Without going too far in endorsement of corporate philanthropy, it is important to note that before Bruce returns to Gotham, the Wayne Enterprise have let them run down along with the rest of the city – there is no profit in their upkeep for the hard headed profit orientated executives and that this is maybe, if pushed, an indictment of corporations, subject to the sway of market conditions and the whim of their boards, controlling public works.

    3. This reading assumes a bit too much that Bruce Wayne is the more real face of the Batman/Wayne dyad. Hence Batman is a front for Wayne’s desire to make private security normative. However, as has been the case in the comics, and is emphased by the Joker noting his similarity to Batman (which also problematises the idea that they are all too oppositional) who remember, has no knowledge of his alter-ego, that Batman is more the truth and Bruce Wayne more the front. Therefore, the entire operation of Wayne Enterprises is in service to Batman, not the opposite way around. The primary reason Wayne continues his place in Wayne Enterprises is to fund his extra-ciricular activities, he buys up the shares so Lucius Fox may not be fired and research into cool toys may be continued (supplementary reason: if Wayne Enterprises is a large employer in Gotham to make sure it is in the spirit of his philanthropic father rather than the sharks of the board, again, critiques of corporate philanthropy in hand). He is clearly unconcerned with wealth, initially turning his back on all of it to go travelling the world looking to learn in part how to become Batman, shedding his comfortable background and even expensive clothes to assume some degree of poverty. Only when he is ready to be publically be Batman does he bother restoring himself to the head of Wayne Enterprises as he realises only it will allow him to do so and even then he reluctantly plays the playboy, and is far more focussed on being a Bat, crafting his own weapons etc.

    3. As for Harvey Dent depending on Wayne to operate his political campaign, I’m not entirely sure the donation we see from Wayne on screen is necessary for the continuation of Dent’s campaign. Dent is already running blanket advertising at this point, which Wayne mentions. Now obviously he has to have money from private donors to fund it, with Wayne Enterprises being one of them.

    4. While the Joker is not a terrorist and your point here is spot on, I really disagree with the painting of the Joker as a hero, standing up for the rights of the citizens and requiring their responsibility, calling forth a creative community. In the latter case, he is manipulating the mentally ill to his cause and has little regard for their safety or well-being – allowing them to be captured and potentially tortured by Dent, shooting his own henchmen in the robbery at the begining, putting a bomb inside one of them in the jail. The Joker is an absolute leader, dictating his will from the top and denying autonomy to his henchmen through pure brute force (take the money burning scene as an example). Quite obviously, he repeatedly places innocent citizens in huge danger, from bombs in the boats, to blowing up their public facilities, to being dressed as his henchmen in front of police spiners – I can’t see how these actions are any less destructive to the citizens of Gotham the majority of which are poor than the mob or Wayne, though perhaps they are more immediate (and perhaps this also reflects the bad collateral damage Batman causes – the Joker is simply more Batman than Batman). Indeed, his actions undermine the notion that any community is possible – any stable community, even one that is fortunately not regulated by neoliberal biopolitical control can be destabilised by a simple command or exercise of fear. This is particularly true in the boat scenario (note the game theory overtones of this). Here, Batman is confident that the Joker’s plan to get the boats to destroy each other will be foiled (‘There won’t be any fireworks’), affirms the goodness of the general citizenry and that they won’t set aside their basic decency and submit to his madness. Bear in mind the two boats made the decision is outside either of their influence – BM ‘This city just showed you it’s full of people ready to believe in good’ J ‘Till their spirit breaks completely’.

    5. The Joker has tried to break their spirits by destroying Harvey Dent, a man who the central triad believe is ‘the best of them’ and also the least damaging route from their corruption crisis. The Joker is hardly the man on the side of the people – rather he ‘has to do everything himself’ ultimately because people won’t go as far as he wants to. In the end Batman wants to give up his mantle precisely because of the collateral damage caused by his actions and the escalation of overall violence therein – the point of the copy cats is not that Batman wants the monopoly of power, but that ultimately weaponed vigilantism will, like him, only escalate the situation. What annoys him about the gunned up Batmen is that they reflect the problems of his own cause – putting more violence into the system overall, even though it is an attempt to reduce it, hence his comment to Alfred that he didn’t want this. He precisely wants to put the power back in the hands of public servants, including those who are democractically elected (hence his support of Dent), he wishes to give up the mantle and assume a normal life with Rachel, but cannot. This is in part because he is the mantle and Wayne is in almost all his public faces – other than with Rachel who knows he is Batman after all and hence knows the real him – is a mere front and in part because Dent is made into Two-Fac). Rather than wanting Gotham to submit to his sole authority he wants them to have their power back. Batman wishes to be the vanishing mediator to a fairer Gotham in the hands of local government, free of corruption and mob influence on that government – at the start of Batman Begins it is said that the Mob run the city. Again, spinning it out to the comics, in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns it should be remembered it is Batman who forms a group of like minded militants for the citizens of Gotham and Superman who is the lapdog for power. Also in same comic, an influence on this film, Batman cannot give up the mantle and be a plain old citizen even well into his 50s.

    6. Playing the film very much as an ensemble piece shows Batman not as a lone vigilante secretly forwarding his finally neoliberal agenda, but one co-operating with public servants almost seamlessly to work toward a better Gotham – Gordon is assembling a team of good cops within the husk of the old force (see the second animation in Gotham Knight, Dent constructing a more powerful judicary with Rachel et al – if anything this represents a far more legtimate creative community than the . Without the corruption of Gotham, which in the first place resulted in the death of his parents, there would be no need for him as the authorities would function effectively and justly. Rather than being outside justice, Batman, Gordon and Dent is the spirit of justice in a situation where all existing assemblages that at least aim at justice are compromised. The identification in a number of readings with Dent with the law is overstated, since even he acknowledges the law is an ass that cannot even put criminals who are deserving away, but thinks of it as one tool that may achieve some justice, much like Batman, who ultimately wants to hand over to him. Remember Batman is blamed for escalating violence at the press conference and elsewhere, but the White Knight is quite popular among the citizens.

    7. Not wishing to stray from the films too much, there is an interesting section of Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth on the Joker which may be relevant here. The film makers said this novel was a resource for them, and the Joker as a nurse (gender-ambiguity) reflects one of the things Morrison wanted in the book (but DC were squeamish about at the time). Here the Joker suffers not from madness, but from a form of super-sanity, a life, said in text, to specifically formed by modern consumer capitalism. Lacking the kind of Kantian-esque perceptual ‘filters’, the a priori structures of the mind, that sort and make coherent the flux of incoming images – the flux of incoming advertising, stock market signals, data etc. Hence the Joker’s chaos is a reflection of the chaos of the market itself, unregulated and untotalisable and not wanting to too much throw in with teleology, lacking any stable ends, even when the end is simply the continuation of a community over and against neoliberalism. This ties in with what Jared said – if sanity is neoliberalism, then the Joker is sane, supremely rational.

    8. The Joker is just a dog chasing cars, he wouldn’t know what to do if he got one. I think your reading, that the Joker is a doing the humane thing and reacting against capital, that is actions have a overall teleological goal, the destruction of the neoliberal order of Wayne and the mob gives him too much direction, too much consistancy. In short, it implies the Joker has a plan, which as your quote and that entire sequence shows, he is against all plans and just wants chaos.

    There are numerous ambigiuities to Batman’s character, many of which you have noted here. It just goes to show how good this film is if we can throttle this number of readings from it.

  15. Alex Says:

    Opps “than the” = “than the one you claim the Joker makes in the wake of his criminal acts.”

  16. Kelsey Says:

    Alex: There’s too much for me to respond to here. But I will say this: “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message.” The Joker is no neo-liberal and no capitalist fantasy. When the Joker describes himself as a man without a plan it is only insofar as he cannot be bought, bullied or reasoned with… within the framework of Gotham. Let’s be very clear here. He’s not a reformist, and the Batman has a plan wherein (were one to believe he was willing to give up his batsuit… I am not in any way convinced) Bruce Wayne will take on the role of benefactor to all of Gotham. There is an economy here that the Joker is very much trying to destroy, and that one must destroy should anything approximating democracy be given the chance to emerge. Dent is the hope of the people, the neoliberal hope. And finally, I think “Anti-Oedipus” and “the schiz” would be apropos here… and the following DeLillo quote from “Cosmopolis” (pages 104 to 115 are particularly interesting):

    The scene is an anarchists protest in Times Square and Eric is a hugely successful modern day capitalist talking with an advisor, Kinski, of his in a limo while watching the spectacle… it touches on some of the issues your post suggests —

    “‘You know what capitalism produces. According to Marx and Engels.’ [Kinski]
    ‘Its own grave-diggers,’ he said.
    ‘But these are not the grave-diggers. This is the free market itself. These people are a fantasy generated by the market. There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.’
    [...]
    ‘The market culture is total. It breeds these men and women. They are necessary to the system they despise. They give it energy and definition. They are market-driven. They are traded on the markets of the world. This is why they exist, to invigorate and perpetuate the system.’ (104)
    [...]
    ‘You have to understand.’
    He said, ‘What?’
    ‘The more visionary the idea, the more people it leaves behind. This is what the protest is all about. Visions of technology and wealth. The force of cyber-capital that will send people into the gutter to retch and die. What is the flaw of human rationality?’
    He said, ‘What?’
    ‘It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds. This is a protest against the future. [...]‘ (105)
    [...]
    he thought there was something theatrical about the protest, ingratiating, even, in the parachutes and skateboards, the styrofoam rat, in the tactical coup of reprogramming the stock tickers with poetry and Karl Marx. [...]
    Now look. A man in flames. Behind Eric all the screens were pulsing with it. And all action was at a pause, the protesters and riot police milling about and only the cameras jostling. What did this change? Everything, he thought. Kinski had been wrong. The market was not total. It could not claim this man or assimilate his act. Not such starkness and horror. This was a think outside its reach.” (115)

    I’m sorry I can’t adequately link it all up here. This post and quote is already too long and I want to be done with the computer for the day… but it’s something to think about, perhaps.

  17. Alex Says:

    Sorry for the lengthy reply, its a substitute for writing on my own blog! I’m not convinced that Batman could give up the Batsuit either, for my reasons above.

    Bruce Wayne will take on the role of benefactor to all of Gotham. There is an economy here that the Joker is very much trying to destroy, and that one must destroy should anything approximating democracy be given the chance to emerge. Dent is the hope of the people, the neoliberal hope.

    I don’t really know if this is the case. Firstly you are assuming that Wayne Enterprises is a kind of monopoly capitalist over all of Gotham and that it has no rivals and that it could therefore control the city. I’m not sure this is right and also for the reasons that Batman wants to step down and allow him to be replaced with public servants who are elected – I don’t see why this is neccesarily neoliberal, since representational democracies do exist (and can exist) that aren’t so.

    Again, by thinking the Joker is trying to destroy something you are giving him too much teleology, more than he gives himself.

    Finally, if the actions of the Joker you believe ultimately want to establish a radical democracy (though there is little evidence of this, he hardly cares for his henchmen supposedly building it), but en route one requires torturing large groups of people psychologically (what is the boat scene but this?) and encouraging acts of murder against people who are innocent such as the hospital, then I want none of it. Yes, there are certainly radical acts that are not easily appropriated by market forces, but this doesn’t make them good. If anything this idea that wanton destructiveness and violence is warranted (and in the case of the Joker it is entirely gratitious) as long as it ends in the slim hope of liberation is justified buys into the same quasi-utilitarian and teleological logic that structurally re-adjusts whole economies to the detreminent of those within it. In short, it could not be more neoliberal.

  18. Alex Says:

    Once more with feeling, the community of henchmen the Joker forms isn’t one of egalitarian radical democracy, but a top down system run by him, enforced by either violent power (in the case of his relation to the mobsters), money (though he doesn’t want it, he realises it still has a grip over others) or exploitation of people with mental illnesses, who are easily plyable.

  19. Kelsey Says:

    We have very different views of mental institutions. The county actually locked me up in one when I was 14 as a 5150… it sucked. And no, it wasn’t because of my pliability.

  20. Alex Says:

    I’m not sure we do, I didn’t mean to be offensive to people with mental illnesses or to those wrongly incarcerated as such and I am sorry if I did. I’m just saying that the Joker’s creative community in your post is as based on coercion and bad structures of hierachical power as the supposedly civil society that surrounds it. Its also inherently violent with little regard for people as such – the Joker put a bomb in one of his henchmens body seemingly without his knowledge and blows all of them up at the police station to make his escape.

  21. Kelsey Says:

    Right. And that henchman was screaming bloody murder and the cops did nothing save taunt him and tell him to shut up. The establishment had plenty of time to save that man and the entire dept. The Joker can only exist by virtue of the hierarchy he’s seeking to topple.

    I’m not offended, I’m exhausted, and I do find it difficult to believe that pliable people are the ones thrown in padded cells… which is why there’s one waiting for Batman. I mean, am I wrong here dude? Am I wrong?

  22. Kelsey Says:

    Or if you prefer: And they’re gonna kill that poor henchman.

  23. Alex Says:

    No I don’t think you are, pliable was a bad choice of words on my part and I was trying to back down from this position.

    In conversation with Anthony I think that what I’m trying to say here has been misunderstood, so I’ll try and be brief to sumarise the meat of my problems and try and generate something a bit more constructive.

    1) I think your reading implies too much teleology on the behalf of the Joker – he recognised the neoliberal order and attempts to bring it down, drawing attention to its contradictions. But he’s just a dog chasing cars by his own admission, ‘I’m an agent of chaos’. The Joker is against ‘the plan’ (from what he says globally not simply in Gotham) it kind of implies he is against this plan also – to bring the general economy of Gotham down – “The Joker wants to destroy the entire framework within which ends can be pursued”.
    2)

    The Joker’s plots require huge amounts of labor and creativity, and he calls forth a community characterized by loyalty and fearlessness. Already in the very attempt to destroy the neoliberal order, an alternative spontaneously begins to take form.

    The community is not characterised by loyalty, but by bad power relations, fear and belief that the Joker is the new sovereign boss in town, as per Adam’s earlier post. Neither is it creative, apart from for the Joker, who just has his minions to set it all up for him. To him they are entirely expendable (Joker gets them to beat each other to death to join him) and exploited and hence hardly a community from which a better alternative could emerge – obviously, it is also quite ready to kill people. If anything, the values it fosters that you mention, loyalty and fearlessness, could easily be ascribed to either the police, the mob or any neoliberal faction – people as nothing, including the Joker himself who doesn’t care if he dies, is tortured, tortures etc.

    3.

    There is an economy here that the Joker is very much trying to destroy, and that one must destroy should anything approximating democracy be given the chance to emerge.

    Okay, agreed. But to endorse the manner in which the Joker is effecting destruction and his aims for doing so (if we admit he has an aim) – he has no desire to liberate the citizens of Gotham, but would rather play games with them to try . Just keeping it within the plot, if you are saying that the ends (the end of the economy of Gotham), justifies the means (the Joker’s actions within the film), then this is of.

    4. Finally, given the very obvious duality established between the Batman and the Joker in this film – that they are the same (will share padded cell together), that the Joker doesn’t at all want to kill Batman (if he represents the neoliberal order), that they somehow need each other, that Batman even created the Joker via escalation (he says “this is how crazy Batman has made Gotham” while killing that fake Batman) and that they will keep doing this forever. This all problematises the reading of the Joker as outside the economy, or trying to subvert it. If Batman is in the economy and the Joker recognises him as his double, then the Joker can’t be that radically outside, no?

    At one point the Joker says “Don’t talk like one of them-you’re not even if you’d like to be. To them you’re a freak just like me…they just need you right now.” More importantly “You. Complete. Me”. The only difference is Batman has a very minimal set of rules, in fact one rule and is useful to the powers that be at the moment. The Joker and the Batman are therefore basically the same, both outsiders, but the Joker is “ahead of the curve” in realising that a world without rules is better and that ordinary civilized people under the surface will ‘eat each other’. I’ve just realised that the reason that the Joker does the whole boat scene is in order to prove this is the case to Bats…in fact this might be thrust of their entire relationship – to convert his other, Batman, into thinking the same way as him. Couple also with the way in which Batman is the true ‘chaotic’/violent face of Wayne.

  24. guest Says:

    The intellectual energy invested in interpreting the Batman movie is interesting. The movie is a simplistic representation of what ‘we’ (the people) are supposed to think of the global ideological/political situation. Good guy using violence for the sake of law and order vs. an entity seemingly without human qualities equally willing to use violence, not for a greater good though, but because he is simply evil, or loving of chaos, etc. The latter sounds like that ‘islamo-fascism and terrorist threat’ i’ve been hearing so much about (they hate us for our way of life, right?). The former sounds like a state’s justifications for violating civil rights (“it’s a tough call, but we do it for the greater good”). Discussions about the ‘politics’ of Gotham City as if they were on the same level as say… current politics in the USA, exemplifies one of the ideological functions of the popular culture industry: providing an opiate. i wonder what would happen to the affective investment evident in these discussions, if it were not just attached to asserting opinions on the attributes of commodities? (in my utopian dreams). i’m sure an article on the politics of Batman would be publishable in an American cultural studies journal.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Guest, your comment annoys me. It seems to fall under the category of “presenting conventional wisdom as though it’s a startling new insight.”

  26. Alex Says:

    Hello guest.

    Holy serious discussion Batman! Not only do you provide a well rehearsed, but false reading of the film, you seem to identify our lengthy analyses as evidence of decadence, and energy wasted which might be better spent battling the real forces of political oppression. But this creates a false dilemma: either one can spend a few hours having fun, shooting the academic shit about a film most people really enjoyed which had sufficent depth to justify some degree of decent discussion or you can spend time discussing really serious political stuff. Why can’t you do both? Why can’t I unwind from a hard day at the reading grind stone (and I read about, you know, real political stuff) by coming up with elaborate readings of Batman films? Additionally, many of the discussions elsewhere have linked up this film with real world contemporary political situations, using a film which many people have seen to focus these discussion. Indeed this very discussion has made me think about, through thinking about the film and Adam/Kelsey’s reading of it, the actual nature of actually existing neoliberalism. Come on, join in the Bat fun!

  27. Kelsey Says:

    Alex: I understand this better and I’ll think on it.

    And as an aside, I can’t believe no one took the opportunity to tell me I wasn’t wrong, just an asshole. Slooooooow!

  28. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Alex, I think you’re making some really interesting points, and we’ll have to think that through as we work on the full article version. I wonder if it would be clarifying, though, to present Dent-Batman-Joker as existing on a continuum of methods of social change. Dent represents reform, obviously, and Batman ostensibly represents “emergency measures” geared ultimately toward restoring normalcy. The Joker represents revolution — and every revolution must begin with the negative gesture of rejection.

    Yes, a lot of “innocent people” die because of the Joker — though really, how many? — but people die because of Batman, too. It’s just that it’s always “collateral damage.” He even kills Harvey Dent in the end, and that fact is nowhere noted in the dialogue. I just watched Batman Begins again last night, and I note that he even kills the fake Ra’s al Gul “by accident.” And he consistently shows a reckless disregard whenever he’s driving.

  29. Alex Says:

    I’m glad I communicated what I meant more clearly. I have quite a bit of sympathy for your reading – my horizontalist Deleuzian friend said many of the same things about the Joker’s anarchism in discussion and it was something that people who aren’t obstensively philosophical agreed was a fair reading when we were chatting about it.

    Adam, I think the problem with seeing Dent-Batman-Joker as different forms of social change is the film, as I mentioned before is very much an ensemble piece – Dent, Batman and Gordon are portrayed consistantly as a team – take the action to bang loads of gangsters up at the start of the film. Perhaps in your framework they all represent reform, through police, judicary and a little bending of the rules, but ultimately, they lose – Harvey dead, the Batman having in the eyes of everyone (remember its all about perception this thing – people of Gotham are ambigious about the Batman at best) having broken his rule (he has also broken it literally, killing his white knight he put hope in).

    As emphased in the final scene, it is all three of them. Dent says “We thought we could be decent men in an indecent world. You thought we could lead by example. You thought the rules could be bent but not break….[and this bit leads back into the Joker's thing about Batman not breaking his own rule, to not kill, which he does]but you were wrong” – eventually coming over to the Jokers view that the only morality is, like the Joker says viz Chaos, chance – he even mirrors the Jokers line saying it is ‘Fair’ (Batman replies nothing fair came out of the barrel of a gun – pace Mao). Now here is the important bit. Face with the destruction and death, particularly in the case of Rachel, the Joker has caused Batman reminds Dent that (after a preamble about chance versus voluntary control “We all acted as one. Gordon. Me. And you.” Dent replies “Fair Enough”, they will all take his coin toss to decide who lives and who dies as a result of their collective crime.

    Batman, unlike the Joker, is actually concerned about collatorial damage and, you are right, he does cause a fair bit of it – he is probably only concerned all too late. p 83 of the script he tries to give up his mantle, so no one else will have to die (Gordon has just ‘died’ as has that lady Judge and others), because he has blood on his hands and because he sees in Harvey’s almost torture of the henchman (and his own of Moroni) “what I would have to become to stop men like him”. People are dying because of the escalation he has caused, he wants out, burns his records and shuts the temporary Batcave, Alfred saying “I told you so”, he had warned him about escalation – but is prevented from giving himself into the authorities, because Dent pretends to be Batman. To not protect Dent when he is being attacked by the Joker on his way to jail would allow the person he believes is the future of Gotham to also be lost – he is forced to resume the mantle and then is forced to resume it again when Dent is out of the picture.

    Thats enough for now.

  30. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    So Batman is a concern troll?

    It is unclear to me from your first paragraph how there is a problem in Adam’s reading of Dent-Batman-Joker as a continuum of social change.

  31. Alex Says:

    To put it hypobolically, there is no such thing as a Batman-Dent-Joker, because the acting triad for reform is Dent-Batman-Gordon – they, not I. I’m not saying Adam’s reading doesn’t work, but that this needs to be thought about as it is these three characters who take the reform agenda on.

    Interesting side note: both the Joker and the League of Shadows want to absolutely level and destroy the society by spreading fear and chaos, the latter because it has become so decadent and corrupt, the former because, well, maybe, just because it is better for their to be chaos. In Adam’s schema where do they fit in: destruction with a plan for the aftermath or something?

  32. Kelsey Says:

    Please refer to number 6, 14, and 15 of our points.

  33. MD Says:

    I wandered here through the weblog link and also find the intellectual discussions interesting…although I’m no huge fan of the batman comics or movies. I think that an article, as outlined, would be an interesting way to teach neoliberalism through the viewfinder of popular culture. However, I have been discouraged several times from the attitude present in these comments (and those I’ve witnessed on the weblog) from the proprietor of said blogs. It seems that any challenge (and this ‘guest’ did not seem rude) to the opinions presented by Adam and others in the ‘clique’ is met with derision. Instead of alienating a commenter, why not either ignore their suggestions or incorporate them into further discussion? Perhaps you have the ability to bring this dissenter on board with your way of thinking! He even suggested that the political discussion of Batman would surely be publishable in an American cultural studies journal…isn’t that a compliment? I wonder if the author of this blog has as much difficulty with alienating others in his private life, if so, I’m sorry for that.

  34. Alex Says:

    Still in the minds of the people of Gotham he isn’t a martyr just a now certainly violent, cop-killing vigilante, perhaps as much of a threat as the Joker, Gordan and his son are the only people who know the truth and even they still have to hunt him down. And yes, Batman’s use of fear, that then people are afraid he is surprised is odd. I’ve always maintained that Batman should never been seen as a hero by Gotham, but profoundly ambigious figure in the eyes of the public, not even known to them, but a kind of urban legend that is only half believed by the criminal fraternity, the kind of bogey man that kids are threatened with when they do not behave

    Viz point 13, Dent still takes extreme and unneccesary, often para-legal, or certainly risky lengths to pursue his goals of “getting the mob”, not really letting anything sensible stand in the way and causing lots of ‘collateral damage’. IE he is ready to bend the rules, after all, he seeks out Batman seeking collaboration to get the job done – hence my point that you cannot prise apart the Batman-Gordon-Dent triad so easily – as the Joker says when he tempts Batman, both Gordon and Dent need the Batman to achieve their ends, but should he become inconvinent they would drop him like a sack of potatoes.

    God I am a bore.

  35. Kelsey Says:

    But he *is* a violent cop-killing vigilante. See “Batman Begins.” Also, “in the minds of” is irrelevant; image is a lie, P.R., an attempt to manipulate the for-others, and precisely why representative democracy is a crock. The minute Bruce Wayne decided to “be a symbol,” he was an ass.

  36. Adam Kotsko Says:

    MD, Alex disagrees with us, and we’ve had a long and respectful conversation. And if you say that Alex is part of our “clique,” well, I also disagreed with David, someone I’ve never talked to before, and responded respectfully to him. I explained why guest’s comment annoyed me, and it wasn’t simply because it disagreed with our interpretation.

    (I was inclined not to approve your comment because it was so personal and “meta” in character rather than actually contributing to the conversation — but I think it’s good to respond to these kinds of accusations directly every once in a while. It consistently shocks me that the proper response to my supposed sins in comment threads is apparently to attack me personally.)

  37. Alex Says:

    This has been fun, but I think we’ve kicked the ball around enough on this one, and I’ve said waaay more than enough so for now I’m gonna leave it for a bit and maybe let others have a say.

  38. Alex Says:

    “be publishable in an American cultural studies journal…isn’t that a compliment?” Judging by the tone of the rest of the post, I think it was meant as a slur against cultural studies as a subject generally.

    PS Just a clarification of what I said earlier about Adam’s three types of social change thing. What I meant is that Dent, with his reform agenda, never stands alone in enacting it, but has to make a network with Bats and Gordon for it to work (and fail in the end). So those three want social change, but actually can’t do it without actually bending those rules with the use of Batman – ie him getting that guy from Hong Kong. The Joker, however, standing in for revolution, is kind of Batman unbound – if he rejected the framework altogether and broke all the rules so to dispense with rules entirely. The Joker wants Batman to actually be himself more, unchained and muzzled by the rules, he isn’t like them…or something.

  39. Kelsey Says:

    MD: Adam has never alienated me and we met just this summer. I don’t even read this blog. But Adam is “good enough, smart enough, and doggone it people like” him! I’m sorry you don’t, but then, you do end somewhere, you know. As to the compliment, it’s lovely and we appreciate it, but Adam can’t be bought.

  40. Kelsey Says:

    Alex: I agree entirely with you PS, save that the binding (of Batman) is bad faith and his revolution would end in divine right. Rest and relax and think on it. It’s been fun!

  41. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Kind of a different topic: watching Batman Begins, I found Batman much more sympathetic. From that perspective, then, maybe one could say that The Dark Knight is an example of the problem of the “morning after.”

  42. Adam Kotsko Says:

    With regard to the “you could publish an article on the politics of Batman,” I read it as saying that it would be a really good idea for us to write something based on guest‘s interpretation of Batman.

  43. MD Says:

    I’m sorry that my comment seemed attack-like, the comment to ‘guest’ just seemed harsh. Kelsey, I’m sure that Adam is all the things you say he is most of the time, but when he’s not he comes across quite severe. You are lucky that you have been taken into the fold, I guess.

    Adam, it shouldn’t be a shock to you that when your comments come off as rude (a personal quality in communicating that you are displaying) people would critique the manner in which you run your blogs. I guess I shouldn’t have said anything, but I do think that what you discuss is worthwhile and you are obviously an intelligent and extraordinary thinker. Perhaps knowing how someone who doesn’t know you and is removed from the situation reads your comments can be eye-opening. Coming off as self-absorbed may ‘work’ for you in most blogging contexts, perhaps it’s your ‘shtick’, but I can see how this attitude can be alienating to people that you could influence. Enough said. Go on to your debating of TDK!

  44. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    MD- now that’s a concern troll. No?

  45. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Oh my God everyone is so fucking stupid and I’m better than you ALLL!!!!!!!!!!!!! BOW BEFORE ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!111111 ROAR!

  46. MD Says:

    Wow, we really do see things differently. I apologized for the ‘attack’ and explained why I wrote what I did. I guess that everything you read is read in a tone of extreme sarcasm. What I wrote was not written in such a tone. Perhaps you should actually read the comments and not just skim them. I was actually quite complimentary to you.

  47. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Well, I’m glad we’ve had this little heart-to-heart. Hopefully we can, as you’ve suggested, get back to discussing topics other than me.

  48. MD Says:

    Was all that sarcasm intended or are you rubbing off on me?

  49. Kelsey Says:

    mwahahahaha.

    But seriously, Adam, you found Batman more sympathetic in “Batman Begins”? He’s Paris Hilton with dead parents. He was going to kill the hungry guy who killed his parents and served 14 years until the mob did it for him. He destroyed the highway system and killed cops willy-nilly (public property, I’ll remind you). He left his home and was poor with full-fledged financial back-up (financial in a way neither of us would ever dream or even want; he doesn’t even open a soup kitchen or recycling center on the side: wink, wink.) He’s a narcissist of the most epic proportions!… we’ll debate this in person… but you’re sooo wrong. I hated this Batman series until TDK and the hope of some alternative to his recklessness, wealth, and self-absorption. Poor, little, rich boy. (Imagine, here, me making the sore shoulders/bruise face.)

    MD – I get it. But reading Adam’s comments, I actually think he’s more considerate, tolerant, and fair-minded than I ever could be (which is a really good thing). Imagine all the flak he catches… think of running a blog. Nightmare!!! And his response to guest was open and very much good ol’ American free speech. Why didn’t guest have the courage to follow up, which, as an aside, I do commend you for. I really don’t think he has an attitude. Guest’s post was self-referential, smug, and… obviously… masturbatory.

    Was it good for you, guest?

  50. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, seriously — talk about the topic or don’t comment.

  51. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I think that in Batman Begins, his insanity gives him a bit more nobility, whereas in The Dark Knight he’s basically been worn down to nothing. That’s why I characterize it as a “morning after” problem — in Batman Begins he hasn’t yet realized that his quest is just not going to work. (The rebuke in the previous comment was directed toward MD, not Kelsey. It cross-posted with Kelsey’s comment.)

  52. Kelsey Says:

    Hey Adam, Ok, I can see the “morning-after” scenario. I still think he’s grossly spoiled the night of. Who could be so entitled as he is as a rich college drop-out wanting to shoot the hungry guy? I was really repulsed by this… and his public property damage.

    (Have you seen “Born Rich”? Queue it, if it’s available. There’s a boy, and I do mean “boy,” who intends to get a PhD to show “them.” I presume his parents? To earn it! cough, buy it! Like George W.!!!.. and allow me to attend NU. -vomit- I need to brush my teeth…. This is all he has to do with himself. And likewise, Wayne with his self-righteous, unstudied narcissism. If we weren’t Batman, what then?)

  53. Kelsey Says:

    Wow, I’m drunk. If *he* weren’t. I guess I’m taking the insults to heart… pout, pout.

  54. Daniel Says:

    “God I am a bore.”

    I find your Batman analysis non-boring. Where I can find the “Gotham Knights” shorts? They sound interesting.

  55. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Daniel, I believe you meant to say, “Bat-nalysis.”

    Kelsey, Yes, he is grossly spoiled the night of, too.

  56. guest Says:

    I wasn’t trying to provide information that nobody knew. Besides, I think history has shown that consciousness-raising doesn’t work. I’m not sure that what I wrote is necessarily conventional wisdom though. One comment described it as a “false reading”. Anyway, what I was making reference to was the affective investment evident in the desire to show the movie to be a critique of neoliberalism, and debate over how the Joker is a (anti)capitalist fantasy. The margin for small differences of opinion on the drama/story of the film is secondary; the film itself is a neoliberal fantasy. My observation was just about the enjoyment in having and expressing such opinions. I didn’t mean to imply that spending the energy discussing ‘really serious political stuff’ would better. I think it’s pretty much he same thing.

    Speaking of which, I don’t think not spending the evening glued to a computer waiting to respond to comments on the batman movie shows a lack of courage. Also, what’s wrong with masturbation? Isn’t that largely what the blogosphere is about? I don’t think it can be denied that the discussion itself is masturbatory, so the puritanism seems out of place.

    I should also admit i’m not coming from some high-minded position of cultural asceticism. I’m just personally not that excited by the batman movie.

  57. Adam Kotsko Says:

    With the exception of the Joker scenes, I do think the movie is definitely more interesting to analyze than to watch. And I still maintain that your basic interpretation amounts to the “conventional wisdom,” despite the fact that three people reading this blog explicitly disagree with it. Mainstream liberal commentators, left-wing commentators, and right-wing nutjobs have all put forward an interpretation that follows the basic outline of yours, though with different emphases. I don’t think that, again, three people is enough to outbalance that, but maybe I underestimate our influence.

    I’m not sure what you mean by affective investment — which is presumably clouding our judgment in some way? — because the person in this discussion who is most invested in Batman in general appears to be Alex, who disagrees with us on pretty fundamental points of interpretation.

  58. Alex Says:

    I’m just personally not that excited by the batman movie.

    I and the commentators here and elsewhere clearly are for a whole variety of reasons. Why bother hanging around on detailed Bat-threads making snippy comments when you aren’t that excited about it? Weird.

  59. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Tempting as it is, let’s try not to psychologize other commenters, since it leads back into the black hole of “meta.”

  60. Daniel Says:

    “Daniel, I believe you meant to say, “Bat-nalysis.””

    Bat-correct. Bat-typo.

  61. MD Says:

    Thank you ‘guest’.

  62. Brad Says:

    I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to really get into this discussion. Better late than never, I guess.

    First … great post. Second … great rejoinder by Alex, esp. the early bits about the Joker’s complicity with the neoliberalism against which he revolts. This could, however, be a part of the critique — namely, that neoliberalism is most insidious in that the revolution never quite takes place. It does not expose neoliberalism as much as it is neoliberalism exposed … namely, as holding nothing on the far side of its ambition. Which is to say, I don’t think your theses are wrong — though, yes, you are both assholes — but that the critique itself incorporates the revolution. Joker as a hero, perhaps; but only as a tragic hero who cannot win.

  63. Kelsey Craven Says:

    Woo-hoo! Thanks Brad. And yes, any potential article will have to address what may, or may not, be incorporated within the limits (should they exist) of neoliberalism.

  64. Josh Says:

    Fascinating thesis and discussion. I would like to point out one thing, however, that a lot of people analyzing TDK’s complexities seem to miss, and that’s that the Joker is emphatically NOT a man of his word. In keeping with his make-up (and like Wayne), Joker presents the appearance he needs to present on a situational basis. His explanation of his scars are different to different people (and don’t just vary randomly, but are targeted to the person he intends to menace); he riles up the cop in the interrogation room; he hides his identity among the bank robbers in the beginning; he plays up his scary clown image to the public (it’s clear that the line “This is how CRAZY Batman’s made Gotham!” is intended to get the public to turn on their hero); and so on and so forth.

    Most importantly, he does this in his scene with Harvey Dent. You can’t simply take his explanations at face value, first because some of them are obviously wrong, and second because they’re intended specifically to create an effect in Dent. In saying “I’m an agent of Chaos… and chaos is fair”, and “I’m a dog chasing cars”, etc,. he’s trying to convince Dent not to blame him for Rachel’s death, and to set Dent on the idea of killing other people. Some of these ideas are patently untrue–the Joker IS a planner, and lays extensive plans. Look at the opening scene, where he and his henchman quickly, efficiently, and in an organized manner take down an entire bank, kill each other, and escape before the police arrive. Look at the moment when he knows exactly when and where the bus will arrive to kill the remaining man. It’s even acknowledged in the dialogue, as when Gordon says “He planned to get caught! He wanted me to put him in the MCU!”

    And he knows exactly what he’s trying to do, and what to do with the “cars” he is chasing. When he has Batman unconscious in front of him in the street, he’s not puzzled; he takes out his knife. In his final scene, he discloses that he planned to destroy Dent, and his goal of showing the populace as morally wrong and of corrupting Batman.

    In other words, the Joker is as much of a “schemer” as the people he points the finger at, if not more (remember, all the “good guys” spend most of the movie reacting to things the Joker has done).

    The Joker lies, plain and simple. He lied about Rachel and Dent’s addresses; he lied about helping the mob get their money back; he constantly misrepresents himself in order to achieve his own goals.

    It is foolish, therefore, to take what he says, particularly in his scene with Dent, at face value for the purpose of this or any other thesis.

  65. Leo Says:

    Josh: Even a man who lies can be a man of his word.

    It is not simply a dichotomy between truth and fiction: it’s about being consistent with what one actually believes. And while the Joker’s words “at face value” don’t necessarily match his actions, they themselves fully serve the pursuit of his greater goals, i.e. the truly ethical salvation of Gotham.

    On the other hand, while Batman and Dent purport to be the saviors of Gotham, both have other motives that too often interfere with their stated goals.

    Or look at this way: the Joker is fully aware of the “mask” he dons in different situations. He knows it’s a mask, a tool, a joke. Batman, however, takes his own mask much too seriously, believing it to be a symbol of inspiration and all that baloney. But who in the end is more consistent with his stated purpose? This is the deep irony that much of Gotham and many people watching, too, can’t seem to grasp. This is why there is a “Why so serious?”.

  66. Puneet Gupta Says:

    Interestingly, the quest of Lex Luthor is quite similar to this. The mob being destroyed in the city of Metropolis leads to the citizenry being ruled by Luthor(directly or indirectly). In fact, I vaguely recall this being part of a debate between Luthor and Superman, that Superman is turning out to be Luthor’s agent. He cannot destroy Luthor because of some self-righteous principles, but by putting the mob in jail he has eliminated all the competition for Luthor. Luthor also point out to Superman that if he would resort to stopping Luthor (through extreme means), completely, then he would end up having to control the populace to avoid anarchy, thus, playing Luthor himself.

  67. guest Says:

    sorry for the overly long delay in responding. here’s my untimely last comment:

    “I’m not sure what you mean by affective investment — which is presumably clouding our judgment in some way? — because the person in this discussion who is most invested in Batman in general appears to be Alex, who disagrees with us.”

    I don’t mean to suggest that enjoyment is clouding judgment, but that the debate over matters of taste is a means to the end of the enjoyment. This is related to Brad’s observation that both positions are correct. It’s an example of the Hegelian notion of identity in difference. The difference is one of opinion and the identity is at the level of shared enjoyment in the neo-liberal fantasy.

  68. Kelsey Craven Says:

    Guest: I think Adam is way too generous in allowing you to even exist on this site. So, insofar as I co-wrote, I have this to say: Get bent. You’re not smart, “Hegelian notions” permit you to think you are, everyone had forgotten all about this crap until you came up with a response that is so belated and unwelcomed it’s pathetic, you won’t go away, you insist on posting so as to affirm that you are above posting, you are a damned nuisance. Everyone has been more than patient with you. If you want to write about identity in difference do it elsewhere. If you want to assert that we enjoy neoliberal fantasy, ditto, and link us. I’m all for freedom of speech and you most definitely are entitled. Your comment is not merely untimely, it is ungainly and in the way. – Wow, I feel more like Kelsey already! – Now, fuck off.

  69. Matt Says:

    A conversation with someone years ago about Nietzche, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”, well psychology tends to suggest that it makes you more unwell, you don’t really recover, is retold as “That which does not kill you makes you stranger”.

  70. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Another point, to add to Kelsey’s remarks: literally any cultural artifact produced under neoliberalism could be called a “neoliberal fantasy.” It also seems bizarre to characterize a reading that seems to reinforce neoliberal ideas and a reading that challenges them as being equally “neoliberal fantasies.” Guest seems to have confused Hegelianism with meaningless tautology.

  71. It endureth « The Weblog Says:

    [...] The AUFS post on The Dark Knight continues to generate discussion, two weeks later. We sure love our neoliberal [...]

  72. guest Says:

    Kelsey: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be that offensive. My comment was late because I was out of town. I don’t think I’m above commenting and didn’t mean to give that impression. I’m interested in the politics of enjoyment and popular culture. I’m not a regular here and didn’t mean to try everyone’s patience.

    Adam: I think that the capacity to incorporate opposing views (and critiques in general) is perhaps the ‘evil genius’ of neo-liberalism and especially evident in the ambivalence of its fantasies. This is maybe related to Zizek’s criticism of humanitarianism and multi-culturalism.

  73. MD Says:

    seriously, guest, I didn’t read any of your comments with such negativity or think that you were a nuisance. You were simply answering a question that was asked of you. Wow, I said I wasn’t going to comment again, but that was before I came here. I think that Kelsey is completely out of line and if Adam is ok with that display, that’s their ‘thing’. But, Jesus Christ!

  74. Brad Says:

    While I think I might be vaguely sympathetic with Guest’s perspective here, inasmuch as it relates to neo-liberalism and the movie itself, I’m unsure how or if its meta-critique of the critique Adam/Kelsey offer is particularly helpful or any more resistant to neo-liberalism. S/he seems to invite us to keep spinning our wheels — or, at the very least, reject the idea that forward motion is at all possible.

    On the contrary, what I tried to articulate in my own comment above was not an equivalence between Adam/Kelsey & Alex, but to throw out the idea that the movie-as-critique already critiques itself and its aim. A classically Romantic understanding of critique, and indeed one that seems to bring us again to the Agambenesque view we’ve kicked around here about the practical value of theory. Now, one could argue that this keeps any such critique within the field of that which it critiques (as Guest argues to be the case w/ Batman); but, if resistance, too, as it seems reasonable, emerges only from that which it resists, or that which cannot contain it, then I don’t see why this necessary relationship should be considered automatically a damnable offense.

  75. Kelsey Craven Says:

    I like coming here and seeing exchanges like those between Josh and Leo. I absolutely adored Adam’s post, “Peace in Our Day.” I like that this is a place where people work through ideas, and while Guest’s point can most certainly be made, I don’t see why it has to be made more than once, nor eclipse real exchange. Guest, I think your point has been understood. MD, I don’t find the nursing of wounds terribly interesting. As such, and to get us back on track, I like that the Joker alters his sob story and I believe that it underscores the ridiculousness of Batman’s beginning as the poor rich orphan.

  76. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The solidarity on display between MD and guest is touching.

  77. MD Says:

    the solidarity on display between Adam and Kelsey is psychotic. You knock a ‘guest’ down, then ask him to explain himself, then when he does you knock him down completely again. You can hardly ask for clarification and then not really expect an answer (no matter when that answer comes). If you don’t want to entertain someone’s thoughts because you view them as not interesting, don’t respond. Then no one gets their panties in a twist! See, it’s so easy!

  78. MD Says:

    You’re so easy.

  79. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is now the most-read post ever on AUFS.

  80. Kelsey Craven Says:

    MD – You’re a hall monitor at a school you don’t even attend. I think your suggestion that I be edited is a fine one, along with the entire thread that spun off guest’s first comment which s/he only ever repeated thereafter. This would further effectively eliminate you, the sole person who has said nothing of any content concerning the actual blog post. In the meantime, maybe change it up, get some fresh air, and try your hand at directing traffic.

  81. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If MD isn’t going to leave on-topic comments, maybe we can force them into the topic — based on what MD has written, would the Joker be a fan? Why or why not?

  82. MD Says:

    Most read post ever! Perhaps it’s the exchange in comments;) I mentioned it was ‘interesting’ and I gave a compliment as to where this could be used effectively in an educational context in my first post. (I believe that is somehow related to the topic)

    I think discussing how I could be quite like the joker would be an interesting offshoot of these comments. And perhaps, my point. Give it a think!

  83. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Right, your point is to behave like the Joker — he’s nothing if not the Niceness Police.

  84. Kelsey Craven Says:

    The Joker hates being bored. He also hates squealers. And he’s a big believer in content. So, why so serious?

  85. MD Says:

    The joker is about getting people riled up…making them their ‘worst’ versions of themselves…making people take a cold hard look about what assholes they are. (i.e….you) You quite blatant irritation at my repeated comments show that my tactic worked;) Of course your head is so far up your ass that you can hardly see what a fucking asshole you are, Kotsko.

  86. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I suppose I’ve underestimated you. Though the content of your comments was the same as hundreds I’ve gotten over the years, on the performative level they were radically different and more complex — indeed, even revolutionary.

  87. Kelsey Craven Says:

    Empty mewlings in a cold blogosphere. Bleat, bleat…. bleat, bleat… bleat? Not much of a performance, really. Does it depress you MD, to know how alone you really are? Your consistent fixation on Adam would indicate that it does. You’ve even betrayed Guest.

    Cumbaya, my lord, cumbaya…

  88. Kelsey Craven Says:

    Guest: In the off-chance that you see this, I’m sorry for the harsh, sudden reaction. Part of my anger was that your argument permits you to ignore all the posts that have followed the initial post, and it seemed that you were doing that quite willfully. Meaning, people have said interesting things since, and you don’t even care. And that really *is* rude, far more so than “fuck off” or “get bent”, as I’m actually acknowledging you. Your final point concerning neoliberalism was, to my mind, covered by Alex, and acknowledged by both Adam and I as a real problem for us to consider. So you were posting without considering the thought that others were putting into it, without reading what others had said. That strikes me as quite entitled, and still does.

    Caveat – This is in response to Guest’s original response to me, from one adult to another.

  89. guest Says:

    Kelsey,

    Looking back, I guess my entry into the discussion was dick-ish, which was compounded by the fact that my point was sort of meta. In that sense it’s true i didn’t engage directly with the other comments after the post. However, I don’t feel I ignored them, as my initial comment tried to encompass what had been said up to that point. My subsequent comments were attempted clarifications, some in response to questions put to me. I thought that your responses to what I wrote were intended to be simply insulting as opposed to substantive. I thought they were overly personal and psychologising. I suppose the matter of what is ruder is subjective. As is the question of what constitutes ‘interesting things’.

    Anyway, hopefully there has been no harm done. The apology is appreciated and I hope you’ll accept mine (from my previous comment). I’m glad to have found this blog as the content is smart and interesting. I’m not a frequent blog commenter, but I’m sure I’ll comment here again in the future.

  90. Kelsey Craven Says:

    I only responded to you once, quite suddenly, and it was obviously not intended to be substantive. I was insulting, and it was in response to what I had perceived to be you talking over others. This could be merely my perception. Of course I accept your apology, I’m glad to hear you accept mine, and that you’ll be posting in the future. Take care.

  91. On Heideggarian Re-Thinking and The Dark Knight « Press The Action Button Says:

    [...] Gotham, there are ultimately two powerful estates, theorizes Kelsey Kraven, in her theses on The Dark Knight. The mob and the Wayne estate are ultimately the only two power structures in Gotham. [...]

  92. Alex Says:

    Looks like DVD commentaries and interviews might give us some interesting insights into these kind of philosophical discussions…see for example, videos 2 and 3 with Nolan on The Joker as “a purposeless criminal, the enemy who has no rules, is not out for anything and cannot be understood”. Wouldn’t it be really interesting if one special feature was a load of people throwing their political interpretations into the pot.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2008/nov/12/the-dark-knight-batman-christian-bale-heath-ledger

  93. kevin sanchez Says:

    in as brief a manner as possible,

    i agree that the film is in part a critique of batman and that the film critiques neoliberal order, but disagree that these are the same.

    first, the authors miss the biggest critique of batman – he excludes criminals from the political order *and yet a criminal ends up defeating the joker’s possible massacre at the two ferries* (the criminal who throws out the detonator).

    it’s not dent and batman that are the two faces of neoliberal order, but dent and gordon – ‘the good liberal’ and ‘the good conservative’, respectively. the joker and batman are on another plane (very roughly, nietzschean nihilism versus leninist communism).

    batman’s is not a war on the working class: he’s fighting corporate oligarchs (the mob)! batman doesn’t desire to ‘own gotham’ – he wants to return it to the people, but the problem he runs into are much like the historical problems run up against by ‘the dictatorship of the proleteriat’ (as lenin goes through in ‘state and revolution’, you have to institute a dictatorship in order to bring about democracy, but how does the transition work and when does it end? who gets to be in the transition team?, etc.).

    the symbol of vengeance isn’t bruce wayne (who is cold and calculated, takes no joy in hurting people, and only gets angry once and subsequently takes measures to check his own desire for power – e.g., giving lucius the keys to the super-surveillance machine). it’s rather harvey dent, who DEFINES bad faith (the world wronged him so now he’l wrong the world). the joker doesn’t take responsibility for his actions either – he claims to be ‘just a dog chasing cars’ and is in a relation of hysterical provocation to batman (who he does NOT seek to destroy).

    the message of the film (whether the script-writers intended it or not, and in complete contrast to the above authors) is that ‘the good liberal’ is the real terrorist (so i agree that the joker isn’t the best symbol of terrorism in the film) and also that communism must take nihilist lessons into account and cut all ties with neoliberalism

    …which is precisely where batman ends up – on the run from johnny law (ain’t no trip to cleveland).

    ‘burning down the forest’ is the fascist solution (see d&g’s analysis of nazism as pursuing ‘a line of flight that’s a line of annihilation’). we have to salvage what we can, even though it means sacrificing our good names. that’s the communist ethic, it’s one of kantian duty which accepts full responsibility for our contingent decisions in a messy world, and its a legacy worth defending.

  94. Hill Says:

    I just found this thread. If this entire thread were published in (attractive) book format, I would buy it for as much as $14.

  95. kevin sanchez Says:

    (i felt the authors deserved a more thorough response, so i wrote what follows…)

    ‘The Dark Knight’ indeed critiques neoliberal order, but the authors apparently forget that, by movie’s end, Batman is a criminal to this order. The film is a story, and I will thus refrain from attributing any ideological message to it. However, the lessons I derive from the film, I find more accurate and consistent than the authors’ interpretation. They are thus: that those of us interested in liberating our cities from the rule of corporate oligarchs – symbolized in the film by the mob and their corruption of government officials – must not repeat the mistakes of past communists. We must refrain from investing hope in individual leaders – ‘white knights’ like Harvey Dent or Barack Obama. We must stop pretending that legal rules are sufficient to save us – ‘majority rule’, for example. We mustn’t repeat the Stalinist mistake of thinking that certain blocs of people – criminals, for instance – act in predictable, predetermined, and fixed ways. The high point for me is when a criminal – someone who Batman might well have called ‘garbage who kills for money’, but certainly someone cast out of the political community – dramatically foils the Joker’s possible massacre on the two ferries. Here a prison guard wavers on whether or not to kill an entire boat-full of innocent people, and someone whom Jacques Ranciere might call ‘a part of no-part’ convinces the guard to hand over the detonator, subsequently throwing it out the window. Recall also that on the other boat, a large majority of civilians votes to push the button. Had their popular will been automatically enacted, this is precisely what would have occurred – again demonstrating that rules alone are no substitute for a moral conscience. Batman must learn this lesson the hard way – by becoming a criminal himself.

    So Batman and Harvey Dent are not two sides of neoliberal politics – Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon are. Jim Gordon is the tough conservative who makes compromises to fight organized crime – he runs a secret prison, for instance. Harvey Dent, the authors are quite right to point out, represents ‘the good liberal’. The conflict between Dent and Gordon reflects the narrow range of political debate operative in today’s capitalist countries. Harvey Dent : Barack Obama :: Jim Gordon : George Bush. The most important lesson of the film for me is that ‘the good liberal’ is the real terrorist we have to fear. The Joker’s terrorism can never succeed as long as we don’t turn on one other, since it’s his goal to demonstrate the self-interested and morally corrupt nature of ‘the people’. Dent, on the other hand, represents the barbaric desire for retribution at the heart of law & order itself. The Joker does not act out of any desire for revenge (what Nietzsche would refer to as ‘the man of ressentiment’). This is the crucial critique of neoliberal order missing from the authors’ analysis. Al-Qaeda terrorism and ‘Third Way’-Liberalism are, in fact, two sides of the same face: an eye for an eye making the whole world blind. The burning off of one-half of Harvey Dent’s face did not disfigure him so much as it revealed the dark side always-already hiding beneath the surface. It’s the young, brash attorney, so skilled at legal maneuvering, so confident and self-certain, who, by the film’s end, threatens to blow an innocent child’s head off. Not even the Joker, for whom reality is merely a video game, stoops so low. Likewise, it was L.B.J. who escalated the slaughter of two million Southeast Asians in the Indochina wars, and it may be Obama who escalates the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Neo-cons and artist-tryants are misinformed and misguided, but the level of depravity accomplished by liberals is without rival.

    Two-Face is incapable of the self-doubt and self-questioning that Batman consistently wrestles with. Watch ‘Dark Knight’ again and look at Christian Bale’s eyes closely. You’ll see there guilt, regret, empathy, unrequited love, and pangs of conscience. No other character in the movie has such depth. The authors are 180-degrees wrong in calling his war on criminals “a fight against the working class”. Batman offers to surrender himself so that the Joker’s killing spree (targeting everyday people) will end. He risks his own life time and again to save working class people, even those who endanger him – Coleman Reese, for example. (The authors’ thesis #4 is unadulterated crap. There’s no warrant for claiming that “All wealth within Gotham is concentrated within one of the following two organizations: the mob or the Wayne Estate” – that’s twisting the facts to fit your preconceived interpretation. ) If Batman truly wanted to ‘own Gotham’, why would he ever hand over the keys of the super-surveillance machine to Lucius Fox? And why would he ever destroy such a machine once inventing it? What the authors fail to grasp is that Bruce Wayne is the fake identity – a mask Batman wears. Yet this is a continuous theme throughout the movies and the comics, so there’s truly no excuse for such shallow reading. Batman’s emancipatory project has to cost an awful lot of money and Wayne Enterprises generates the capital to make it work. Without that cash, Batman would have as much chance of stopping mobsters as those counterfeits in hockey pants from the very beginning of the movie. Batman sacrifices the dignity of his public image, acts the role of a rich, decadent playboy, so that no one thinks to investigate him as a vigilante. He pretends to be a bourgeois so he can liberate the proletariat from the class that has taken control of their neighbors and their state. It’s the mob that is only interested in further concentrating their inherited wealth. If the authors’ take the Joker on his word, then perhaps they should trust his honest assessment of Batman: “You truly are incorruptible.” (I could even extend this analogy to the movie itself: just as Batman must pretend to be a capitalist to disguise his communist emancipation, so the ‘Dark Knight’ must pretend to be a neo-conservative defense of the war on terror to disguise its communist message, and just as Bruce Wayne is a billionaire, so ‘Dark Knight’ is one of the highest-grossing films of all time. =)

    Now, does revolution generate ‘social chaos’? Of course. Since the mob is on the side of maintaining the status quo, they are also on the side of social equilibrium. As Salvatore Maroni says when informing on the Joker to Jim Gordon: “This craziness. This is too much.” (A perspective I found note-worthy was Natascha’s, the lead ballerina for the Moscow Ballet: “How could you want to raise children in a city like this? …the kind of city that idolizes a masked vigilante…”. There is something to this, an authentic conservatism that wishes to put the brakes on any revolutionary movement which brings about societal change too fast. Nevertheless, taken to its logical extreme, such a stance justifies complacency in the face of injustice. Do we want our children to live in a world ruled by corporate criminals? Do we want to teach them that violence is okay as long as it doesn’t disturb our place in society and is conducted against people who we don’t really care about?) So yes, there’s tremendous ‘collateral damage’ involved in dethroning the self-appointed rulers of Gotham, and this explains why Batman’s eyes are so wracked by sadness. This is a burden he must shoulder largely alone. Alfred Pennyworth’s advice is so prescient here:

    WAYNE: “Did I bring this on us? On her? I thought I would inspire good, not madness-”

    ALFRED: “You have inspired good. But you spat in the face of Gotham’s criminals- didn’t you think there might be casualties? **Things were always going to have to get worse before they got better**.”

    The authors cite Batman’s throwing Maroni off a roof as evidence of torture, which it certainly is in the legal sense, but this is an odd characterization given their admiration of the Joker. At the end of that exchange, Maroni tells Batman: “No one’s gonna tell you anything- they’re wise to your act- you got rules… the Joker, he’s got no rules.” Compared to Batman, the Joker is a torturer par excellence: “You know why I use a knife, Detective? Guns are too quick. You don’t get to savor all the little emotions.” For whatever legalistic critique we might advance against vigilantism (and, again, the authors can not consistently advance such a critique while defending the Joker), Batman does not *enjoy* hurting people. Rather he fits Che’s definition of a “cold-blooded killing machine” – joylessly inflicting the minimum of violence necessary to accomplish the intended goal. The Joker, on the other hand, is a sadist. (Breaking Maroni’s legs doesn’t even compare with Dawes’ and Dent’s veiledly threatening a witness-in-custody with death should he fail to testify.)

    The authors also criticize Batman’s use of fear. Here I’m reminded of the opening words of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” A specter haunts Gotham too, symbolized the bat signal. This scare-tactic, however, isn’t evidence of any psychopathology or power-hunger; it’s rather deployed to avoid the need for physical violence. It also portends a brighter tomorrow – a future where ordinary Gothamites no longer live in fear of the mob. To compare this to Scarecrow’s so-called ‘honest’ use of sheer terror is vulgar.

    The Joker calls himself ‘a man of his word’, yet he lies to Batman about the respective locations of Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent. He also lies about how he got his Glasgow smile (i.e., his various tall tales conflict). When this was pointed out to the authors, the reply was made: “Even a man who lies can be a man of his word. It is not simply a dichotomy between truth and fiction: it’s about being consistent with what one actually believes. And while the Joker’s words ‘at face value’ don’t necessarily match his actions, they themselves fully serve the pursuit of his greater goals, i.e. the truly ethical salvation of Gotham.” Yet why is this not equally true of Batman’s deceptions? I conclude that this attempted distinction is dubious. (As a footnote, the Joker did *not* lie to the mob about retrieving their stockpile of cash: if you’ll remember, he only burned his half of the money, therefore, strictly speaking, keeping his word.)

    To call the Joker “the only ethical character in the film,” one must subscribe to some version of immoral ethics (De Sade’s or Nietzsche’s or Bataille’s, for examples). Tabling this question, it remains absolutely incorrect to say he “tak[es] full responsibility for his actions in a way that Batman never can”. The authors could not have missed the classic ‘just a dog chasing cars’-monologue, wherein the Joker convinces Dent he is not personally responsible for his own actions. Whether he succeeds (or any rational person can), the Joker attempts to become an intention-less actor – a force of nature. That is the very opposite of human responsibility, and defines ‘bad faith’ as I understand the meaning of that term. (For a wonderful explication of ‘intentionless being’, see Pierre Klossowski’s ‘Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle’. Chapter 6 in particular would help clarify the authors’ take on the Joker.)

    {The authors’ thesis #10 includes a patently offensive parenthetical statement which I can’t refrain from lambasting: “What better response to capitalist multi-tasking than autism?” Autism isn’t a choice; it’s a serious neurological condition, and not an ‘individual rebellion’ against anything. Your use of it here better be metaphorical, or else it’s crass, idiotic, and inhumane, though perhaps it reveals why the authors identify so thoroughly with the Joker, a figure incapable of empathy and compassion. I ask the authors to please retract the sentence.}

    The Joker’s scheme is one of joyful destruction, certainly, but even he stops short. Why does he declare “This is my town now”? Isn’t that a bid to ‘own Gotham’? Isn’t that possessive and controlling? …The Joker as a character steals the show, due mostly to Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance. One attribute that makes the Joker such a unique villain is his ultimate recognition that he needs the hero for his own jouissance. I only put my finger on one other villain in all the books, plays, and movies I could think of who refrains from offing the hero for this reason: O’Brien in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. To make a long story short (a story involving an examination of Jacques Lacan’s statement that ‘De Sade is the truth of Kant’, which we could restate as ‘the Joker is the truth of Batman’), although the Joker makes for a piss-poor protagonist, as a villain, he towers above the rest.

    However, he is a terrorist, if the term is to keep its standard meaning. He kills innocent civilians and terrorizes the people of Gotham. The authors claim that terrorism is only a strategy pursued by “weak political actors,” but the Joker fits the bill in an objective sense: he has no army, no police force, no tanks. By his own admission, his “organization is small”. He works with “a few drums of gas and a couple bullets”. If we define terrorism as an asymmetrical strategy pursued by irregular forces who can’t compete soldier-for-soldier or dollar-for-dollar with traditional military, then the Joker and his cadre of clowns clearly head a terrorist operation.

    That said, I agree he clearly represents a positive alternative to neoliberal order. We are given three choices in ‘Dark Knight’ that roughly mirror the choices we have in our current political predicament: (1) Rortyean liberalism (Dent, Dawes, Gordon), (2) Nietzschean terrorism (the Joker), (3) Leninist communism (Batman). One feature that sharply distinguishes (2) from (3) is the regard we give to ‘the people’. For Nietzsche, the herd is only useful insofar as it produces exceptional individuals – those rare uber-mensh who justify the corpses piled across history due to their grand aims. Though the Joker addresses the people of Gotham, he talks of them as lower forms of life, incapable of transcending their environment or rank self-interest: “They’re only as good as the world allows them to be.” Batman, on the other hand, would sacrifice himself to spare the life of a single person. This suits a regulative ideal of equality which the Joker could never prefer, but which is, for Batman, an ethical imperative.

    To conclude, Michel Foucault described Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘Anti-Oedipus’ as “an Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life”. It’s an important text, glinting with Nietzschean intensity, with schizoanalysis (their counter to psychoanalysis) proceeding chiefly by way of destruction. We might see this work as accomplishing intellectually what the Joker seeks to accomplish under the authors’ interpretation in Gotham City. Yet what Deleuze and Guattari write about fascism in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ is more relevant to whether we can ethically advocate the Joker’s alternative. “It’s too easy to be antifascist on the molar level,” they write, “and not even see the fascist inside you, the fascist you yourself sustain and nourish and cherish with molecules both personal and collective” (215). In my view, only Batman grapples with this inner fascist, while the Joker joyously unleashes it. Crucially they follow Paul Virilio in diagnosing fascism as a suicidal line of flight. Here suicide is presented as the crowing glory, just as the Joker giggles as he falls from the Prewitt building. We admire such fearlessness just as the Germans admired Hitler: “Our beloved Fuhrer is dragging us toward the shades of darkness and everlasting nothingness. How can we poets, we who have a special affinity for darkness and lower depths, not admire him?” (231). We can sympathize with this impulse. All the frustration generated by the exploitation of the working classes crescendos into a longing for escape – a figure like the Joker embodies this. But Batman is right: fear the day when ‘the people’ sides with the Joker. To quote Deleuze and Guattari, “A war machine that no longer ha[s] anything but war as its object and would rather annihilate its own servants than stop the destruction. All the dangers of the other lines pale by comparison”.

  96. kevin sanchez Says:

    (…felt some of my analysis of the Joker could use some further substantiation.)

    The authors sell the Joker short. First they render the Joker’s organization virtually indistinguishable from the League of Shadows as both groups on their interpretation destroy the existing social order to clear space for a new one. Yet despite their best efforts to spin the Joker’s creative destruction in communitarian or anarchistic ways, the Joker offers us no indication that he believes in the justice of any social order at all. Rather he explicitly describes himself as “an agent of chaos”. That he seeks to reveal the moral corruption of the people of Gotham does not commit him to the moralism of Ra’s al Ghul. In fact, he claims, apropos Nietzsche, that “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”. The Joker has made the leap from ‘desire’ to ‘drive’ in the Lacanian sense: he doesn’t desire X – e.g., money; he desires to desire X – i.e., he’s driven by the battle, the chase. He embraces destruction for its own sake, not for some higher cause: “I just do things. I’m just the wrench in the gears. I hate plans. Yours, theirs, everyone’s… Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer, I show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are”. We might posit this as the distinction between revolutionary and nihilistic terror, as symbolized by the difference between Ra’s al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ versus the Joker in ‘Dark Knight’. The comparison to O’Brien in Orwell’s ‘1984’ thus becomes that much more relevant; when torturing Winston, he declares:

    “We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish a dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture.”

    The Joker uses a knife rather than a gun to savor the gruesome details of his victims’ pain. He refuses to kill Batman because he revels in fighting him. The object of his game of terror is the game itself.

    Batman, on the contrary, can never accept this. His logic corresponds precisely to ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – a temporary seizure of power to institute freedom and equality for all. If this is what the authors mean by hypocrisy, then I’ll submit to their definition, but in that case, hypocrisy is the price we pay for human responsibility. If the Joker in this sense is the only ‘man of his word’ in the film, then we might recall another sentence from ‘1984’:

    “The exaltation, the lunatic enthusiasm, was still in [O'Brien's] face. He is not pretending, thought Winston; he is not a hypocrite; he believes every word he says.”

  97. On Heideggarian Re-Thinking and The Dark Knight « Press The Action Button Says:

    [...] Gotham, there are ultimately two powerful estates, theorizes Kelsey Kraven, in her theses on The Dark Knight. The mob and the Wayne estate are ultimately the only two power structures in Gotham. Batman’s [...]

  98. Ben Schacht Says:

    I haven’t done a thorough reading of all the comments yet so I might be wrong, but I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the scene in which the criminal on the boat tosses the detonator overboard in order to halt the perverse utilitarian calculus of who to blow up. He may be a candidate for a character more ethical than the Joker, who seems more like a symptom of neoliberal social disintegration to me. If the Joker’s appeal is his apparent willingness to question the whole social framework of Gotham City, then I’d say the the criminal on the boat is at least as radical: he knows that the only winning move is not to play the game.

  99. Ben Schacht Says:

    Ha, but now I see Kevin Sanchez has already made this point. That’s what you get for not reading the comments.


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