The dark (k)night of a postmodern world

Tina Beattie
21 August 2008

Forget the gadgetry and stunts in Christopher Nolan's brooding Batman film, The Dark Knight. Clever though they are, they are only the visual props for a multi-layered philosophical reflection on our post-9/11 world, scripted by Nolan and his brother Jonathan. Shortly after seeing the film I read Slavoj Žižek's essay, "Whither Oedipus?" (contained in his book The Ticklish Subject), and I was struck by the resonances between Žižek's theory and Nolan's film. If what follows titillates your appetite, then I recommend you take a deep breath and plunge into Žižek's infuriating, obscurantist and elliptical writings, to discover their shards of gleaming insight into the times we live in. What follows is indebted to him, although it is my own interpretation of the film - one which also reveals details of its narrative, such that potential viewers may prefer to defer their readerly gratification....

Tina Beattie is reader in Catholic studies, Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)

The two sides

The Dark Knight unmasks the crisis of values in which America, and the west more widely, finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century. Cultural theorists portrayed the late 20th century in terms of "the postmodern condition": an era in which traditional values, identities and social institutions were disintegrating and being replaced by proliferating narratives, conflicting truth claims and multiple identities. For those secure and wealthy enough to enjoy the opportunities presented and the illusory freedoms offered, it was a time of parody and play; of irony and iconoclasm; of extravagance and experimentation. But since 9/11, the postmodern fantasy has become more nightmare than dream, as the rootless and drifting societies of the modern liberal democracies have come under assault by the violent forces of radical Islamism, and have in turn responded with war and the threat of war, and with new forms of terror and torture, surveillance and repression.

This is not the clash of civilisations between Islam and the west predicted by Samuel Huntington, although liberals and conservatives alike take refuge in this thesis because it offers at least some sense of stability, an "us" and "them" scenario which still allows for goodies and baddies, heroes and villains, the defenders of freedom and democracy against the forces of fanaticism and fundamentalism. However, what terrifies us is the dawning awareness that we are facing widespread social meltdown in which law and anarchy, heroism and terrorism, sanity and madness, are becoming more and more difficult to tell apart. It is this shifting, sliding, disintegrating world that Nolan evokes in The Dark Knight. Gotham is the postmodern state and we are its citizens. The choices we face are not those which are ranged around good and evil, right and wrong. They are the vicious and dreadful dilemmas we face when our own survival is a gamble which pits us against shadowy and unpredictable enemies who infiltrate and infect all our social and political institutions with fear and mistrust.

Gotham City is plagued by the Joker (not, in this film, explicitly identified as such), a role which Heath Ledger pushes to a psychopathic extreme. Ledger's untimely death is an unintentionally paradoxical epilogue to a film full of paradoxes, intensifying the stunning impact of his performance. His Joker is beyond the human, because he is outside all the conventions and values upon which our understanding of the human is formed. There is a moment early in the film, when the Joker first appears, when a character says, "Criminals in this town used to believe in things." This Joker is an analogy for anarchic, suicidal terrorism - an elemental force unconstrained by any glimmer of humanity, fear or vulnerability. It seems as if we can identify no object, no goal towards which his desire is directed; so we cannot placate him, bribe him, make deals with him, threaten him or subdue him. In the words of Bruce Wayne's loyal butler, Alfred (deftly portrayed by Michael Caine): "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

The Joker's invincibility rests not just on his ruthless cunning but on his knowledge that he is unique in his absolute freedom, not only from pain and the fear of death but from every human emotion or attachment which might limit his destructive power. Witness his manipulation of the sympathy of his victims as he explains how he acquired his ghoulish smile. We, the audience, are similarly manipulated. Only slowly do we realise that we have been "had". Or have we? Do we still want to rescue the Joker from the moral anarchy with which he confronts us? Do we want to believe that he is damaged rather than evil, wounded rather than wicked? Do we find ourselves incapable of staying in the psychopathic vacuum which his character represents, the abyss of the human which forms the dark heart of our most primal desires? This Joker simultaneously seduces and repels, fascinates and horrifies, and he provides the inescapable force to which Batman's own persona is tethered.

The relationship between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker is one of mesmerising psychological complexity; it is not entirely fanciful to imagine them as two sides of the same human coin. As the Joker says to Batman, "I complete you." The relationship between the hero and the villain is here subverted and rendered deeply ambiguous. Just as the Joker is a villain who does not observe even the basic rules of criminality by which society might identify and punish him, so Batman is a hero who does not observe even the basic rules of heroism so that society might recognise and glorify him. The Joker is correct when he says that they are both "freaks".

Also in openDemocracy on films and filmmakers:

Geoff Andrews, "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

Tom Nairn, "The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, "Letters to the past: Iwo Jima and Japanese memory" (23 February 2007)

Maggie Gee, "Babel: worlds within worlds" (17 January 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa Fé: between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

Grace Davies, "One day of life: a Romanian odyssey" (13 March 2008)

Tarek Osman, "Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)

Indeed, at the end of the film, Batman and the Joker are monstrous aliens outside the closed ranks of the social order. But while the Joker is there willingly because of his own calculating inhumanity, Batman is the scapegoat, the reluctant outcast who takes upon himself the violence of society and its corrupted institutions, in order that its illusions of law and order might be preserved. (Here, one must read René Girard as well as Žižek to tease out the philosophical implications of this theme). If there is a messianic hint to this, it is one that is discovered not in some theology of a transcendent God as law-giver and judge, but in the humanity of the persecuted and reviled individual who sacrifices all in order to save people from themselves.

The cost of freedom

Batman's vulnerable and compromised humanity means that he is not a superhero. He must struggle with his inability to predict or control the sometimes disastrous outcomes of his well-intentioned actions. His refusal to violate his own ethical code allows the Joker to unleash terrible destruction on the city which he has dedicated himself to protecting. It is not entirely correct to say that the Joker has no identifiable desire. He is driven by the desire to corrupt and destroy goodness wherever he finds it, to show that, under extreme pressure, even the most noble individual can become a torturer and a murderer. The psychological compulsion of the film hinges on this dilemma - on power and its abuses, on the limits of the law in the face of anarchic terror, on the fragility of goodness when confronted by overwhelming evil.

This compulsion is exemplified when the Joker infiltrates a police force already infected with corruption and apathy - where the institutions which exist to protect the city have thus become its enemies, and terror is a miasma which spreads mistrust through all levels of society. The district attorney (DA), Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), is a rare example of courage and integrity in this institutional swamp, so that it seems as if he might take over the role of Gotham's protector, allowing Bruce Wayne to shed the terrible burden of being Batman. But with an act of destructive genius, the Joker turns Dent into a mutilated and murderous monster on a vengeful rampage against the police force for the death of his lover, assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is also the lifelong love of Bruce Wayne.

Thus Dent's loss is also Wayne's/Batman's loss, but while Dent abandons himself to the forces of vengeance and violence, Batman retains his ultimate freedom to choose an alternative path. The film's final message - simultaneously tragic and redemptive - is the cost of such freedom and the paradox at its heart. Even as Batman resists the system which Dent represents, he must uphold its illusory moral authority, for the loss of that authority would in itself be a capitulation to the forces of anarchy and chaos.

The terror within

This means that Batman becomes the humiliated victim of society's lust for vengeance, one who fits Žižek's description of the victim of terror as "destitute, unable to recompose the narrative of his life." This is what Žižek describes as "the monstrosity of heroism, when our fidelity to the Cause compels us to transgress the threshold of our ‘humanity'." Batman's fidelity to Gotham City demands his persecution and rejection by that same city, his positioning of himself as the destroyer of the very values which he is committed to defending, and his willingness to accept the role of the excluded other which is the price for the city's survival.

Žižek has this to say of the hero figure:

"In political terms, the difference between classical tragedy and modern tragedy is the difference between (traditional) tyranny and (modern) terror. The traditional hero sacrifices himself for the Cause; he resists the pressure of the Tyrant and accomplishes his Duty, cost what it may; as such, he is appreciated, his sacrifice confers on him a sublime aura, his act is inscribed in the register of Tradition as an example to be followed."

However, in "the domain of modern tragedy", the sacrifice takes place not in the space of conflicting opposites - right and wrong, good and bad - but in the context of moral quandaries in which, in order to preserve what we depend upon, we must destroy our own dependence upon it, our own place inside it. That is the terror. It arises not from any external threat, but from within the systems by which we order our lives. We experience an irreconcilable conflict between the symbolic order with its laws and institutions, its ethics and values (a value system which is associated with and underpinned by a God of universal law and order, of prohibitions and commands), and the individual imperative to act in response to a different calling and a different form of divine command, in the context of an "absolute singularity that suspends the dimension of the Universal". Žižek explores this in the context of Søren Kierkegaard's reading of the story of Abraham, but the same dilemma resonates through The Dark Knight. Like Kierkegaard's Abraham, Nolan's Batman is "the knight of faith [who] dwells in the horrible domain beyond or between the two deaths, since he (is ready to) sacrifice(s) what is most precious to him".

The order of the lie

Yet The Dark Knight is not a story about divine laws and faith in transcendent if conflicting imperatives. It is rather a film about two forms of nihilism, both of which are consequent upon the disintegration of the truths of religion and then of reason which underpinned the traditional social order and created trust in its institutions and structures. The Dark Knight is played out in the context of what Ulrich Beck calls the "second Enlightenment" which, in Žižek's interpretation, is "the exact reversal of the aim of the ‘first Enlightenment'": to bring about a society in which fundamental decisions would lose their "irrational character and become fully grounded in good reasons". But, suggests Žižek, "the ‘second Enlightenment' imposes on each of us the burden of making crucial decisions which may affect our very survival without any proper foundation in Knowledge."

The Dark Knight explores this "second Enlightenment", in which the disintegration of universal reason and transcendent truth means that each of us bears the full weight of moral responsibility for the decisions we make and the actions we initiate, sometimes in the face of terrifyingly irrational forces. For example, there is a breathtaking variation on what is known in game theory as the Prisoners' Dilemma, when two shiploads of people must decide whether to blow up the other ship and thus preserve themselves, or take a chance on neither side activating the detonator and both dying. These are moments when ordinary individuals must choose between two equally devastating options with no knowledge to guide them and no absolute moral code to call upon.

In such moments, the film does not offer us nihilism versus meaning, the lie versus the truth. Rather, it offers us two different faces of nihilism - the nihilism of meaninglessness, nothingness and futility represented by the Joker, or the kind of nihilism we discover in Albert Camus's novel, The Plague, in which individual acts of goodness are our only defence against futility and despair. Ultimately, the redemptive promise of The Dark Knight depends upon the quiet dignity of individual acts of courage, even - or perhaps especially - when these are cloaked in the guise of the criminal and the outlaw. The will of the people here is not the rational foundation upon which freedom and democracy are built, as it was for the thinkers of the Enlightenment, but a brute force which demands its own survival, whatever the moral cost. This is a parable for our time, and the citizens of Gotham city give us a bleak insight into the moral bankruptcy of democracy in a post-9/11 world.

The law-abiding, morally complacent citizenry will condone extremes of violence as the condition of its own self-preservation, while looking to politicians to manufacture the mythical heroes and illusions of goodness which sustain its belief in its institutions and identity. We want heroes, but for this we need scapegoats. Here again, Žižek provides a lens through which to interpret the film's message. We collude in our own deception because, although we know that the political values which govern us are lacking in legitimate authority and corrupted by abusive power relations, we still depend upon the legitimacy they confer upon our actions and values. The symbolic order of modernity is "the big Other", an empty and foundationless illusion of power which we experience as a form of alienation and repression, but nonetheless we are compelled to respect and obey its laws and institutions, and so it is, to quote Žižek, "the order of the lie, of lying sincerely". We invest in its symbols of authority and conform to its demands, even as we recognise its degeneracy and its impotence.

The haunted space

The Dark Knight invites reflection upon the cost of survival and the limits of goodness in a world of corrupted and decadent institutions, in which nonetheless we have no alternative but to preserve and uphold those same institutions. The Joker may be a metaphor for radical Islamism, but he is also the enemy within, the annihilating impulse which is woven into the fabric of society and the individual psyche, as its seductive and destructive other. Only our ability to recognise and accommodate this chaos will enable us to avoid the Manicheism of a world divided between good and evil, and to negotiate a space of fragile survival within the corrupted and vulnerable institutions of our modern liberal societies. We are bereft of viable alternatives. As John Gray has argued in his book, Black Mass, post-Enlightenment societies have been vulnerable to utopian and idealistic revolutionary urges which have unleashed waves of destruction, for they too readily translate into totalitarian and fascist regimes.

This then is the dilemma of our postmodern condition. We know that the political and economic institutions upon which we depend shelter behind a masquerade of legitimate authority which barely conceals their deceitful and manipulative operations. The very agents who are responsible for defending our freedoms and our securities have become agents of repression and violence. But we also know that neither anarchy nor revolution can deliver the society we long for, and therefore we must work to mend the social fabric through individual acts of resistance and courage, recognising that it is not capable of affording us the protection it promises.

The Dark Knight ventures into this haunted space of political and psychological terror. It taps into our deepest and most unanswerable fears, the world of adult nightmares in which there is no happy ending and no resolution, just an unending and anguished question posed to each of us: who am I, what do I value, and how far am I willing to go in order to feel safe, to belong, to survive? If this is a question which presses upon each of us with growing urgency, it is an unbearable question for that bright and hopeful politician, Barack Obama. What price is he willing to pay to become part of the system? And what price might he yet have to pay to resist its corruption?

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