Posted by: Dan | July 23, 2008

America: Our ‘Dark Knight’? Watching Batman with Zizek

In contrast to the simplistic opposition of good guys and bad guys, spy thrilers with artistic pretensions display all the “realistic psychological complexity” of the characters from “our” side. Far from signaling a balanced view, however, this “honest” acknowledgement of our own “dark side” stands for its very opposite, for the hidden assertion of our supremacy: we are “psychologically complex,” full of doubts, while the opponents are one dimensional fanatical killing machines.
~ Slavoj Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes

The same, I think, could be said of superhero movies with artistic pretensions. Take The Dark Knight. Batman’s psychological complexity, his struggle with the moral ambiguity related his own actions, and his status as a “Dark Knight”, do not level the playing field between Batman and the evil he resists. For the Joker is, in his own words, “a dog chasing cars”, he is evil and violent, simply for the sake of being evil and violent. He promotes chaos for the sake of chaos. The Joker has no psychological complexity, no internal moral struggle, he is a “fanatical killing machine”. He is thus completely, and utterly, insane. Hence, Batman’s inner turmoil functions as a sign of his supremacy over the forces he resists, personified in the Joker.

Of course, many people have noted that this moves Batman from the realm of the heroic, into the realm of the anti-hero, and that’s all well and good (i.e. that’s where Batman has always belonged), but it doesn’t take us very far.

You see, Zizek’s remarks about “our side” refer to the ideology of the liberal democratic West, and the United States in particular. The Dark Knight functions as a powerful spectacular (think Debord) defense of that ideology.

In today’s world, America can no longer hold on to her heroic pretensions. It is clear that she is waging an illegal war, breaking UN Charters, and refusing to respect decisions made by the World Court. America can no longer be sustained with stories of innocence, and heroism, and fictions about cowboys and savages. That innocence has been lost, and many of the actions America has engaged in appear morally ambiguous (at best — in reality they only appear morally ambiguous to Americans and their allies, the rest of the world is aware that those actions are morally deplorable!). Thus, according to contemporary American ideology, things go like this: aware of the ways in which she will be (unjustly) villified, America still shoulders the burden of engaging in necessary violent actions for the sake of others (like going to war to save the world from terror), even if those others go on to condemn her for those very salvific actions!

Thus, America has become an anti-hero. She is a vigilante, engaging in actions that others condemn, actions that are illegal, for the sake of the greater good. Like Batman. And The Dark Knight ennobles this ideological (but utterly false) vision of America. Batman represents America and her allies, while the Joker represents all the forces of terror that America is fighting. Not only does this become clear through moments in the film — say when Batman is standing at the site of an explosion, a scene that looks a lot like Batman imposed upon ‘ground zero’ in New York, or when Batman decides to covertly use communication technology to spy on others (an act like phone-tapping), a deplorable but necessary act given the Joker as the creator of ‘the state of exception — it is also clear in the way in which the film was marketed. On one of the posters advertising The Dark Knight, we see Batman standing below an office building. Some of the windows of the building have been blown out, and a fire is burning inside. It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the shape created looks more like a bat-symbol, or more like the gap created by a plane flying into a building (cf. Significantly, this scene never appears in the movie.

Note, then, some of the things that are masked by this ideology, and its recent spectacular defense in The Dark Knight.

(1) Bruce Wayne, Batman in ‘real life’, is portrayed as one of the wealthiest men in the world. This is significant, not only because it allows Batman to have the best technology for his suits and other toys, but because it portrays Batman as a person without any needs. This, then, highlights the altruistic nature of his character. Wayne acts, not for his own sake, or in his own defense, but in defense of others — especially those who cannot defend themselves. Now, when Batman is used as a stand-in for America, we receive the myth of an altruistic America, acting solely out of her desire to see others living free and democratic lives.

This is a complete reversal of the reality well expressed by Henry Kissinger: “America doesn’t have friends. America only has interests.” Granted, like Bruce Wayne, America is one of the wealthiest powers out there today. But, unlike Bruce Wayne, she is not independently wealthy. She is wealthy because she has been plundering other nations for decades — all the while posing as if she had those other nations’ best interests in mind!

Therefore, although the altruistic Batman is unjustly reviled, and becomes something of a martyr for the sake of the masses he loves so much (or so the story goes), we must not be so foolish as to draw the same conclusion about America’s actions on the world stage today. America is reviled because she is plundering and killing the innocent and those who are without defense against her power, so let us be careful that Hollywood doesn’t confuse us on this point.

(2) As America cannot be equated with the altruistic Batman, so also those who struggle violently against America and her interests — notably groups that are labeled ‘fanatical Jihadists’ or something like that — cannot be equated with the Joker. On this point, let me mention another passage from Zizek’s In Defense of Lost Causes. In discussing the ways in which our society forces certain perspectives and presuppositions upon us, Zizek mentions the Serbsky Institute that existed in Soviet Moscow. This institute existed to torture any who internally opposed the Soviet Union, for “[t]he overriding belief was that a person had to be insane to be opposed to Communism.” Zizek then argues that the same sort of attitude was operative in response to Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic outburst in 2006. With all the talk of Gibson’s need for rehabilitation and counselling, Zizek argues that our society tells us that “a person has to be insane to be anti-Semitic”. He then draws this conclusion:

This easy way out enables us to avoid the key issue: that, precisely, anti-Semitism in our Western societies was — and is — not an ideology displayed by the deranged, but an ingredient of spontaneous ideological attitudes of perfectly sane people, of our ideological sanity itself. (To be clear: Zizek isn’t defending anti-Semitism in this passage or elsewhere — he believes that Gibson’s attitude, and the popular response to that attitude, are both problematical.)

What I think Zizek is doing in this pasage, is arguing for the importance of exploring the ideological beliefs that inspire and sustain the actions that we perform. He wants to expose those ideologies, and he wants to ask, “why is this particular ideology appealing to this person? Is there, perhaps, some good or understandable reason why this person holds to this belief (say, for example, the person who resists Communism)?” and so on and so forth.

However, this is precisely the sort of discussion that America does not want to engage in. Hence, it promotes the view that terrorists are insane, that they are lovers of death and chaos, operating strictly out of madness and inexplicable hatred. Thus, the Joker perfectly represents the ‘enemy’ as America wishes us to perceive that ‘enemy.’

However, the truth is that most of our ‘enemies’, most ‘terrorists’, are quite intelligent and are perfectly sane. Consequently, we must engage in precisely the sort of discussion that Zizek recomends. Yet, this quickly reveals that some people actually have understandable reasons for becoming militant fundamentalists — American businesses stole our land, and led my family into starvation and poverty; American planes fire-bombed my village; American companies sold weapons to the people who shot my family; and so on and so forth. This, then, is part of the reason why some people would be drawn toward a militant form of fundamentalism, but it is precisely this sort of thing that America must repress. Better to represent the enemy as a Joker. A mad dog chasing cars.

(3) Notice, also, the way in which political acts of lying and deception are justified. Apart from one moment, The Dark Knight portrays the people as always on the verge of hopelessness that quickly turns into anarchic violence and self-destructive chaos. Therefore, the people must be presented with a fictional “White Knight” in order to provide them with hope, and so that order can be sustained. Thus, continuing with Zizek’s comments in In Defense of Lost Causes, the only way to sustain Order is, paradoxically, by transgressing that Order (Agamben’s state of exception, again). But this comes with a price: “The price we pay for this is that the Order which thus survives is a mockery of itself, a blasphemous imitation of Order.”

Unfortunately, what The Dark Knight offers is a noble vision of this transgression. Sure, it may not be presented as ideal, but it certainly is presented as the best possible option for us — and it’s hella cool. Thus, how can we not agree when Dick Cheney tells us that “we also have to work… sort of the dark side… A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion.” We become incapable of seeing that this sort of Order is actually Disorder, and that this sort of structure is only the systematisation of chaos — the very thing it claims to counteract, it perpetuates (which is why America is always a nation at war, or encouraging, supplying, and funding wars elsewhere).

However, we the people — or, rather, the multitude (which Hardt and Negri carefully distinguish from the concept of ‘the people’) — should take offense at such portrayals of the public. The violence that runs just beneath the surface of us is not a self-destructive, insane expression of chaos. Rather, it is a violence that we wish to direct towards the powers-that-be, towards the political persons who lie to us and deceive us. As such, it is an expression of hope, not hopelessness. America, and The Dark Knight, would have us believe that we need to be saved from ourselves, but in reality it is the powers-that-be who know that they are the ones who may need to be saved from us. Consequently, they portray themselves as our saviours, and in this act, they continue to hold sway over us. In reality, we have nothing to lose but our chains, and the blood of others — our brothers and sisters around the world — that has been poured out over our hands, staining our clothes, the fuel we consume, and the food that we eat.



  1. […] However, nine years ago, some people did fly planes into buildings and this is what we are commanded to remember today.  This is a much better option — America, the innocent victim is born!  Yet, rising above the ash, she is still willing to sacrifice of herself in order to graciously bring freedom and wisdom (McDonald’s and Coca-Cola) to the rest of the world.  America, the long-suffering hero.  America, our Dark Knight. […]

  2. […] painting them either as conflicted – in the sense of Žižek’s conflicted spy hero (or Batman) – or as the ones who were truly victims in the situation).  What’s that Derrida said?  Il […]

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