Monday, September 7, 2015

Reflections on Revolutionary Gotham: Counter-Revolutionary Batman

A recent post in Modern Medevialism, Gotham's reckoning: Bane, Burke, and the French Revolution, develops a previous interpretation of Batman as the aristocratic prince of Gotham by thematically situating the final installment of Christopher Nolan's the Dark Knight Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution. The author views the series as representing a ‘microcosm of history’: the prosperous days of Gotham for Bruce Wayne’s parents represents the glory days of Medieval Catholic Europe; the League of Shadows, the Protestant Reformation; the Dent Act, the Westphalian state-system after the wars of religion; Bane, Robespierre leading the Jacobin terror of the French Revolution; and Batman, a latter-day aristocrat who, like Edmund Burke, opposes it to conserve the traditional moral order. However, as I have described in my essay Comics Capitalism and Christ, the comic book superhero genre cannot be read as a merely Christian allegory because it functions as an essentially Gnostic re-fantasticization of secular modernity for the purpose of justifying capitalist democracy. Since the comic book genre has as its essential purpose to fantastically justify modernity to itself, any aristocratic halo cast around the Dark Knight must transcend the thematic polarities of the sacred and the secular, royalist and republican, ancient and modern.

As a character who reflects this essentially modern self-understanding, Batman does not merely seek to conserve a long-lost pre-modern, medieval, and Catholic aristocratic moral order, but, by a new kind of symbolic terror, initiates his own escalating cavalcade of counter-revolutionary terror. Batman’s counter-revolutionary crusade is directed against the old order of liberal democracy which Ra’s Al Ghul describes as a “breeding ground for suffering and injustice.” Once the legal order becomes complicit in the very crime that it prohibits, Bruce Wayne must become a criminal vigilante to combat both crime and law. Becoming a criminal requires the imitation of criminality, and the internalization of criminal violence. Batman externally reflects this criminal violence to combat criminality with criminality. Since, moreover, the law itself is complicit in criminality, Batman’s opposition of criminality to criminality produces a self-opposition of crime and a self-contradiction for the law: for he is both a criminal vigilante whose work is necessary for the law to punish criminality, and also a living symbol of the impotence of the law to punish criminality. Batman may restore the old aristocratic order, not by conserving the legal order of liberal democracy, but only by accelerating its latent contradictions through revolutionary violence.

Make no mistake: Batman is a revolutionary whose criminal vigilantism against crime is also terrorism directed against the liberal democratic state. This revolutionary violence is first initiated by Batman, escalates throughout the film series, and finally demands the sacrifice of Batman for its narrative resolution. The sacrifice of Batman, at the conclusion of The Dark Knight Rises, discloses, from the subterranean depths of post-secular consciousness, the sacramental dimension of Batman as the sovereign and the sacrifice. Where in Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne must make himself a symbol of imminent retributive justice by internalizing, imitating, and combating criminal violence; The Dark Knight escalates the polarity of criminal chaos and retributive order into a cascading crescendo of criss-crossing conflagrations; and, in the The Dark Knight Rises, this muffled maelstrom explodes both externally on the political-economic plane of Gotham and internally in the psyche of Bruce Wayne.

The Joker is Batman’s essential opponent and grand maistro of this symphony of chaos. Nolan suggests that he has been dialectically summoned forth as necessary consequence of Batman’s caped crusade when, at the conclusion of Batman Begins, Commissioner Gordon introduces the sign of the Joker: “What about escalation?... We start carrying semi-automatics, they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds… you're wearing a mask. Jumping off rooftops. Now, take this guy. Armed robbery, double homicide, has a taste for the theatrical, like you. Leaves a calling card. [the card of the Joker]"

Batman and the Joker are thematically joined together in an essential unity-of-opposites: Batman's chaotic crusade for justice against criminality can only be recognized as justified, heroic, and not merely criminal if he has an equally chaotic opponent; and the Joker's chaotic cacophony of crime can only be warranted in opposition to Batman's crusade for justice. Hence, the Joker's eulogy for Batman, in what is perhaps the most tragic moment of Batman: The Animated Series, is not merely about the death of his life-long opponent but about the death of himself; for while Batman has a tragic biography, the Joker has no biography except in opposition to Batman. In the Dark Knight, the Joker likewise confesses “I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you [Batman] you complete me.” Conversely, since the final victory of justice in Gotham would also mark the end of any compelling social need for Batman, his caped crusade to combat criminal violence with the faceless fear of imminent retribution can never successfully restore justice without at the same time annulling itself. A world without the Joker would be a world with no need for Batman.


This internal opposition of Batman and the Joker that is operative within Bruce Wayne's psyche is symbolically externalized in the explosive spectacles of the Dark Knight that ultimately costs him both the lives the woman he loves, Rachel Dawson, and his best friend Harvey Dent: Batman produces the Joker; the Joker immolates Rachel; and her death drives Harvey to a spree of murder. His resulting schizophrenia, as Two-Face, is but a further realization of the escalation, externalization, and explosive symbolic opposition initiated by Bruce Wayne. The Joker merely makes explicit, through Two-Face, the explosive polarity of lawful order and criminal chaos that was already implicit in Bruce Wayne’s own schizophrenic internalization of criminality to combat criminality. He explains how his escalation of retributive violence has assimilated Harvey Dent to the madness of the Batman and the Joker: "I took Gotham's white knight and I brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!" 

Batman accepts the guilt of Two Face and tells the noble lie that he has murdered Harvey Dent to save Gotham by saving himself from recognizing the truth that the justice of the city has been founded upon and perpetuated by violence. Since Batman is essentially united to and vicariously responsible for the Joker, and the Joker’s crimes transformed Harvey Dent into Two-Face, the guilt of Harvey Dent redounds upon his own conscience. But since the purpose of Batman’s criminal violence is to preserve the legal order, and it can only be preserved by perpetuating the fiction of final justice, Batman can only save the city of Gotham from the same madness that has destroyed his family and his friends by assuming upon the himself the guilt of the entire city. By thus assuming the guilt of the moral cosmos, Batman is transfigured from an individual criminal vigilante into the absolute bearer of guilty conscience. He thereby becomes an absolute individual who is blackened by exile from the political community, but remains the indispensable agent of its symbolic preservation. Commissioner Gordon concludes “he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now… he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

The Dark Knight personifies a moral paradox in which, after the White Knight symbol of justice has been transformed by the Joker into an agent of crime, Batman must become the Dark Knight so as to betray the conventional sense of morality for truth in order to preserve, in the innocent memory of the Harvey Dent, an immortal symbol of the belief in the finality of justice. This belief in justice requires an innocent symbol, but its innocence can only be preserved through the injustice of the noble lie. Ordinarily it is believed to be morally good to tell the truth, and never good to tell a lie; but for Batman, as for Plato's Guardians, there are certain exceptional moments of political crisis in which it may be better for the polity, and hence morally right, to tell a lie rather than to tell the truth. This moral license may be permitted to the political guardians because they have been initiated, as by the League of Shadows, into a super-moral insight of the paradoxes of conventional morality. The Joker can thus ironically excuse himself from the ordinary conventions of law and morality because he, like Batman and Bane, is just “a little ahead of the curve.”

The initiation of Batman into the Dark Knight elevates him beyond the people of Gotham to a higher caste of super-moral political actors. After Batman is transfigured into the Dark Knight by a super-moral act of injustice for the purpose of justice, Commissioner Gordon axes the bat-signal to mark a decisive rupture between Batman and Gotham. Where formerly Batman had acted as an instrument of police violence to preserve the principles of liberal-democracy in Gotham, thereafter he no longer serves but exceeds its political parameters of violence. Yet since he remains the absolute individual who alone may bear the guilt and preserve the justice of Gotham, the Dark Knight initiates a symbolic revolution in the economy of violence. Once the aesthetic finality of justice symbolized by the police has been unmasked as contradictorily complicit in criminal violence, only the Dark Knight can aesthetically re-center in himself the economy of political violence. By re-aestheticizing the political, Batman makes himself its supreme political actor. Neither the mafiosos, nor the police, nor even the mayor, but Batman alone is the true prince of Gotham. He rules the city in secret with his cowl as his crown and his cave as the throne of his symbolic counter-revolution.

Bane’s kitsch repetition of Jacobin demagoguery merely recapitulates, on a broader political plane, the symbolic revolution already accomplished by Batman. Once Batman had escaped into the depths of the night, Bane brings this symbolic revolution to the daylight. His greatest crime is, then, not his heist on Wall Street, nor even his dynamiting of the city, but – most explosive of all - his exposure of Batman’s noble lie. Bane summons the people of Gotham to storm Blackgate prison, the imminent embodiment of police-power, by bringing light to the noble lie told by and on behalf of Harvey Dent that justice is final and “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” In the Dark Knight, Batman still believes that Gotham "is full of people ready to believe in good", but this innocent belief could only be hypocritically sustained by his own costumed charade of the law triumphant over crime. Batman had only tentatively resolved this self-opposition of crime by internalizing, externally reflecting, and further escalating its inner dynamic polarity. But even during the interregnum of Gotham’s uncrowned prince, its explosive force continued to collect in the chambers and channels of discontent. Then Bane appeared, like a voice crying from the sewers, as a costumed pretender to the throne of Gotham. Bane breaks Batman upon the knee of this contradiction - that Gotham is potentially justified but hopelessly depraved - by exposing this belief to be, not merely false, but a deliberate deception that has been perpetrated by Batman to protect Gotham by protecting Bruce Wayne from his own guilty conscience.

The Modern Medievalist writes that “If Bane is Robespierre, Batman is Edmund Burke.” Bane is no doubt a late-born recapitulation of Robespierre, but Batman is not merely a Burkean conservative who seeks to preserve "the method of nature in the conduct of the state." He is, more radically, a Maistrean counter-revolutionary who seeks to transfigure the symbolic order of politics through the subterranean power of violence and sacrifice. Edmund Burke was an English Whig politician who sought to conserve English society from the violence of the French Revolution, and Joseph De Maistre was a Savoyard diplomat who believed that France could only be saved from the unprecedented upheavals of the Revolution once it had been cured of its folly by the furthest acceleration of revolutionary violence. Where Burke viewed the Revolution as a miscalculated human endeavor that could be corrected by merely human means, De Maistre smelt in it the putrid sulfur of Satanic rebellion against the divinely established moral order for which no earthly hope was possible save for by the guiding the hand of divine providence: "There is a satanic element in the French Revolution which distinguishes it from any other revolution known or perhaps that will be known. Remember the great occasions… these all leave the ordinary sphere of crimes and seem to belong to a different world… the great criminals of the Revolution can fall only under the blows of their accomplices.” (Considerations on France)

Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre, 1753-1821

Criminal violence is for De Maistre so pervasive that it spoils every merely human attempt to teach and practice goodness: “Man in general, if reduced to himself, is too wicked to be free… There is nothing but violence in the world; but we are tainted by modern philosophy which has taught us that all is good, whereas evil has polluted everything and in a very real sense all is evil.” (Considerations on France) The violence of man can only be purged by the countervailing violence of sovereign punishment: “The whole of creation bemoans its fate [Rm. 8:22] and strives, with effort and grief, for a new order of things. Observers of great human tragedies must be led to these sad conclusions, but let us not lose our courage; there is no punishment which does not purify, no disorder which the eternal love does not turn against the principle of evil.” (Considerations on France) The executioner is the exemplar of sovereign violence because the death-blow of his ax is a super-moral act through which he sacrifices his own innocence for the restoration of the moral order: “All greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and in a moment order gives way to chaos, thrones fall, and society disappears.” (The First Dialogue)

Once the negative procedural operations of liberal democracy have been deprived of their positive ground in divinely ordained sovereign authority, De Maistre contends that men alone are incapable of preserving justice: “Every conceivable institution either rests on a religious idea or is ephemeral. Institutions are strong and durable to the degree that they partake of the Divinity. Not only is human reason, or what is ignorantly called philosophy, unable to replace those foundations ignorantly called superstitions, but philosophy is, on the contrary, an essentially destructive force." (Considerations on France) Where Burke believed that violence was unnecessary and harmful to the conservation of the old order, Maistre believed the acceleration of revolutionary violence to be woefully necessary to purge the polity of its crimes. Their decisive difference is most clearly exhibited in the narrative sequence of escalating symbolic violence in the Dark Knight Trilogy: in response to the impending collapse of Gotham from Chicago to Detroit, it was Batman rather than Bane who lights the first fire of revolution. Where in the French Revolution the Third Estate, Girondists, and the Jacobinists, were the saboteurs who subverted the symbolic sovereignty of the crown by convening the National Assembly and dissolving the Estates General, in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it is Batman who is the lone arch-provocateur who revolutionizes Gotham by dismantling the old alliance of mafia bosses and corrupt judges.

After Gotham has been inundated by a deluge of wanton criminal violence, Bruce Wayne must make himself more of a criminal than the criminals themselves, as an avenging symbol of invisible terror and imminent retribution. His symbolic revolution is, moreover, not clumsily directed, like the san-culottes, squarely against the conservation of the "order of the world”, but, with the oblique polish of the Scarlet Pimpernel, against the long-established but quickly disintegrating post-revolutionary order of liberal democracy. Batman begins, not by combating the exceptional anarchism of the Joker nor even the radical jacobinism of Bane, but rather the ordinary criminality that proliferates once democracy’s “myths of opportunity” have proven false. This symbolic transfiguration requires Bruce Wayne to internalize within his own psyche the criminality that has been engendered by the political-economic failures of liberal democracy. Since his criminal combating of criminality externalizes his own essential self-opposition between lawful justice and chaotic crime and escalates criminal violence in a spiral of polar opposition, Batman’s must continually re-internalize his own self-externalized criminality. This repeated re-internalization of self-externalized criminality requires Batman to sacrifice the order of his psyche for the order of Gotham: the external violence that threatens to destroy the order of Gotham must be internally re-directed within himself as a sacrificial victim. Joseph De Maistre describes this function as a universal law of sacrifice:
“Man being thus guilty through his sensuous principle, through his flesh, through his life, the curse fell on his blood, for blood was the principle of life, or rather blood was life… [for] heaven grew angry with the flesh, and blood could be appeased only by blood.” (Enlightenment on Sacrifice)


“The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be sacrificed without end, without restraint, without respite until the consummation of the world,the extinction of evil,the death of death.” (Saint Petersburg Dialogues)
Batman is the sovereign executioner and sacrificial victim who aesthetically preserve the political community by repeatedly re-internalizing and externally reflecting criminal violence. Sacrifice violently annuls the finite integrity of its offering to propitiate the vengeful retribution of supersensible powers and restore symbolic order to the invisible economy of violence. It is a sacred act because it exceeds and restores the symbolic integrity of the world. Batman’s self-reflection of criminal violence thus transfigures him into a sacred person who exceeds even as he is required for the preservation of the moral community. And as the uncrowned prince of Gotham who exceeds so as to overpower the political, he is doubly excessive – more and less than a man - as both the sovereign priest and sacrificial lamb of the political community. His Christological significance in The Dark Knight Rises is thus not merely an adventitious allusion to the religious predilections of the audience, but is already essentially implicit through his self-sacrificial and sovereign function within Gotham’s symbolic economy of violence: Batman operates as a caped crusader to restore the long lost social function of the aristocracy by transfiguring himself into the Dark Knight which, no less than the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis, is a counter-revolutionary symbol of the re-internalized externalization of revolutionary violence.

The Dark Knight Trilogy climaxes in a spiritual torment to prepare Batman for his final sacrifice. Bane explains, immediately before defeating Batman, that Bruce had merely “adopted the dark” whereas he “was born it, moulded by it”, and after his imprisonment that “your punishment must be more severe… not of your body [but] of your soul.” Once he has been exiled from the heavenly heights of Gotham to the hellish pits of Ra's Al Guhl's prison, Bruce Wayne can only restore the moral order of Gotham by re-learning the fear of death. The blind prisoner explains that “you do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak… you [cannot] move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death… [Climb] without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” Batman must pass through the shadow of death, of total self-obliteration, to rediscover within his own dark night the spiritual ladder to believe once more in the finality of justice.

Since Batman's caped crusade can only externally escalate his own inner self-opposition of lawful order and criminal chaos in an endless Manichaen cycle of crime and retribution, and Bruce Wayne's internal psychological opposition has been externalized to the whole city, which symbolizes the moral cosmos, Gotham’s final justification requires the Dark Knight - as the absolute individual, sovereign executioner, and sacred person - to offer himself as a sacrificial offering to atone for the guilt of the city. The seed of Original Sin is symbolized by the power of clean-energy turned into the destructive blast of an atomic bomb; the final countdown, Batman’s Via Delorosa; and its blast, the Cross that is at once the altar and throne of his new Golgotha. Batman reflects on his impending sacrifice when Catwoman demands "Come with me. Save yourself. You don't owe these people any more. You've given them everything." and he answers, in the imitation of Christ in the Garden of Gathsemene, "Not everything. Not yet."

Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight Trilogy is not merely a Christian allegory but also a post-Secular attempt to narratively justify by re-fantasticizing modern capitalist democracy. Where Christian allegory may presuppose an extrinsic correspondence between the secular signifier and the religious signified, Nolan’s films thematically dissolve the stable signification of secular reality. His style has been favorably contrasted as a psychologically introspective and grisly realist alternative to Tim Burton’s ‘dark-noir’ and Joel Schumacher’s ‘camp-baroque’ adaptations. But by making this ‘reality’ the ideal site of Bruce Wayne’s opposing and exceeding spiritual conflict, Nolan consistently renders its factiveness porous and open to psychological fantasy: Bruce Wayne internalizes criminality to become Batman who externally reflects criminal vigilantism against crime; Batman’s escalation of self-opposed criminality produces his essential opposite in the Joker; the Joker accelerates this opposition until it explodes upon his lover, his friend, and his city; but Batman saves Gotham by assuming the guilt of the city in his noble exile as the Dark Knight; until frustration for the absence of his symbolic sovereignty boils over into the political revolution of Bane, who breaks Batman by exposing the contradiction that Gotham is possibly good but necessarily evil; which requires Bruce Wayne to pass through the fearsome night of self-obliteration to offer himself as a final sacrifice for his absolutely individuated guilt.

Nolan’s post-Secular re-fantasticization of the real is thus coded as a fascistic re-aestheticization of the political. Since Secular progressive politics has been traditionally determined by the Enlightenment promise of the positive disclosure of factive reality, Nolan’s dissolution of a stable system of signification for real intelligible facts equally marks for Nolan as much as for Batman a symbolic rupture between Secular liberalism and the fascistic restoration of theological fantasy. Like Bruce Wayne, Walt Disney, and Benito Mussolini, he uses the full technical panoply of mass-media semiotics to aesthetically transform and mythically re-imagine political possibilities. The aesthetic possibility of Batman is the political possibility of aristocratic counter-revolution: it imagines that once liberal-democracy has become terminally corrupt and its law complicit in its crime, the martial elite must internalize its criminality to externally reflect, oppose, and conquer crime, law, and liberal democracy itself. This conquest of liberal democracy is also post-secular because it can only be accomplished by summoning the subterranean power of sacrifice to sacramentally transfigure its new lords into its dark knights.

For more theological analyses of the comic book superhero genre, see my essay:
Comics, Capitalism, and Christ: American Heroes and Gnostic Gods

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