The Dark Knight Decides: Sovereignty and the Superhero, Part I

by Ajay Chaudhary

The-dark-knight-risesHave you finally learned to do what is necessary? – Ras al-Ghul, Batman Begins (2005)

Oh, you. You just couldn't let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever. – The Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)

Don't talk like one of them, you're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me. They need you right now. But when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper. See, their morals, their code… it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you, when the chips are down, these… these civilized people? They'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster, I'm just ahead of the curve. – The Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)

Bane: Leave, you. Daggett: No, you stay here. I’m in charge. Bane [gently places his hand on Daggett’s shoulder]: Do you feel in charge? Daggett: I’ve paid you a small fortune. Bane: And you think this gives you power over me? – Bane and Daggett, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

When Gotham is ashes…then you have my permission to die. – Bane, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Tell me where the trigger is…then you have my permission to die. – The Batman, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Sovereign is he who decides on the exception. – Carl Schmitt, “Definition of Sovereignty”, Political Theology (1922)

The pivotal moment in Christopher Nolan’s recently-completed Batman trilogy arrives in the second movie. The Batman is riding a rather ominous motorcycle of monstrous proportions at the Joker, who is armed with a gun and a bad suit. But the Joker is not shooting at the Batman. Instead, he squeezes off a few rounds into the ground and repeatedly mumbles, “Come on, I want you to do it, I want you to do it. Come on, hit me.” It’s iconic, it’s deeply disturbing, and there is a wonderful ambiguity to the statement. Is the Joker trying to make the point that he extols throughout the movie? Are order and morality – any morality, including Batman’s one rule against killing people – a bad joke? Or is this an inward, psychological self-hatred exploding outwards as rage? Does the Joker merely want an aggrandized, but surely final, death? Suicide-by-Batman? The horror of Nolan’s version of the Joker as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger is that we simply can’t know. It’s a lingering and terrifying vision. However, Nolan clearly communicates to us via his prologue, Batman Begins, and his conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises, that he is primarily interested in the first question: is order a bad joke? If not, how and why? This is the question that these three films tackle and, ultimately, the one they seek to answer. So it is something of a puzzle as to why so much critical writing on the most recent film has focused on questions of explicit economic theories and American partisan politics. I will attempt to explore this puzzle here.

51Fj2lohHCL._SL500_AA300_Carl Schmitt: The Trilogy

I saw The Dark Knight Rises on the Sunday of its opening weekend. I watched the first and second movies on the previous two nights. I’m a nerd; this is the kind of thing I tend to do. This is also the kind of thing that allows a little perspective regarding the message of a series of films which are explicitly linked as an overarching structured argument. I left the movie that Sunday feeling disturbed, but also fairly confident in my conclusions. When I arrived home after a post-movie dinner, I didn’t hesitate to post to Facebook: “finally finished seeing Carl Schmitt the Trilogy and it turned out that Carl Schmitt won.” They may as well have called the movies, Batman: The Problem of Sovereignty, Batman: The Definition of Sovereignty, and Batman: The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. No, I do not think Christopher Nolan actually read and adapted Schmitt’s essays. Rather, I propose that in trying to come to terms with the problems that the superhero genre presents – which are not unique to Batman – Nolan ended up recapitulating these questions and supplying deeply unnerving answers. Nolan is an extraordinarily literal director, and this quality has served him poorly in many of his own films (Memento, for example, with its reductive, jigsaw-puzzle approach to human memory, or Inception, a movie so uncreative about the unconscious and dreams that the plot literally turns on the physical orientation of bodies in space and the consistency of material totems). However, this two-dimensionality and laser-sharp focus has allowed him to make arguably the best Batman films and to tell one of the better Batman stories. Nolan discarded the psychological route (better dealt with in an actual comic book series, Batman: Arkham Asylum, A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean and in the two Tim Burton films from the 90s) and went straight for the political theological jugular: who is sovereign in Gotham? What is the nature of sovereignty in Gotham? Is there sovereign authority in Gotham?

In the first film, Ras al-Ghul (Liam Neeson) challenges Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to join the League of Shadows, and Wayne balks at the moment when he is asked to execute an accused murderer. Wayne has already made the decision to become “more than a man,” but he cannot countenance the notion that this necessitates him operating not only outside the corrupt laws of Gotham, but outside of any (recognizable) moral code whatsoever. Although he has already decided to set aside the laws of state, he cannot view himself as a God-like figure who can “miraculously” alter the laws as he sees fit. Our Bruce Wayne, it turns out, while not quite a full-blown Kantian, is something of an individualist and deontological thinker. He has a few rules that cannot be crossed even in his quest for justice, the most important of which is: do not kill. Ras al-Ghul is far more interested in some kind of supermoral, trans-historical “balance” which must constantly be restored. This is expressed quite clearly in every line Neeson speaks in the film, which have a simplified-Nietzsche-cum-Bhagavadgita-turned-up-to-eleven quality. All that matters is the “will to power” and “restoring the balance”; everything else must be ignored. Every millennium or so, the League swoops in and does a city in just when it’s become so odious, so rotten, that it offends this grand balance of justice. Wiping this sad polis off the face of the Earth helps set everyone else back on the right path and the big wheel keeps on turning. If this sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. To be fair, this makes a lot more sense in the comics where Ras al-Ghul is actually several millennia old, has a “lazarus pit” where he can continually rejuvenate himself, and has had the time to develop this bizarre, detached view of the universe. But that is, in some ways, beside the point. If you’ve come to The Dark Knight Rises looking for realism, you’ve clearly been led astray.

Genre fiction excels at the construction of elaborate thought experiments. Every variable can be controlled for. In this way, it can sometimes feel closer to philosophy or allegory than to what we have come to regard as high literature. This does not make it irrelevant to reality; far from it. These lines are a lot blurrier than they appear at first glance. It can become a creative test-chamber for some of the most vexing questions. Want to test the limits of a constitutional democracy and explore questions of faith and politics? Have some hyper-intelligent, monotheistic robots wipe out 99.9% of the human race (Battlestar Galactica, for a recent example). Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises likewise function as a thought experiment: can a person remove himself from the legal order and still a.) help retain that order and b.) remain loyal to a strict individual moral code – beyond mere whim or survival? To put it in more general terms: can a legal order exist without sovereign authority? It’s a pretty complex question, so I’m probably one of the few people who didn’t mind that Nolan took about 8 hours or so to supply his answer. But before we run through the experiment, let’s see what variables have been excluded.

It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

The economy in Batman does not work like our economy. It just barely functions as a symbolic representation of it. From the very first movie, we are told that Gotham’s depression – depicted in quite extensive detail in the first movie, which some critics seem to have forgotten – was engineered by the League of Shadows. This is total crazy town. This is not Marx or Smith or Hayek or Friedman or von Mises or Keynes or whoever your favorite economist is. This is a powerful, eternal network of mountaintop ninjas making sure that the unemployment rate stays high. This is David Icke territory; this is lizard-people, Illuminati, or House of Rothschild conspiracy nuttiness (things which, not incidentally, tend to get a bit more credence in the dark corners of the contemporary libertarian and anarchist world than their fellow travelers would like to admit). This should have been a gigantic, flashing neon warning sign to any would-be critic, indicating: structural economics is most definitely not a thing to take very seriously in this text!

Economics plays a role in the Batman series only symbolically and – as many comics critics have noted over the years – as the “superpower” of the otherwise all-too-human Bruce Wayne. Many critics of the most recent Batman have stretched their imaginations far across the ocean and deep back in time in trying to understand Bruce Wayne. Is Wayne a true member of the haute bourgeoisie? Is Wayne an Old World aristocrat? Is Wayne, in fact, a monarch? No, Bruce Wayne is “the good rich guy.” Just choose your favorite American financial dynasty with a penchant for philanthropy and you’re on the right track. Now, you may not entirely believe in that category in the first place, and that’s a fine thing. But the film does, and, I will argue, not for the nefarious, capitalist reasons that some have proposed. The Dark Knight Rises helpfully provides us with Roland Daggett, “the bad rich guy,” just in case we were tempted for even a moment to make a category mistake. Same process as above; just replace the philanthropic with the plutocratic and you’re well on your way. Daggett was originally created in the wonderful, widely lauded 1990s television serial Batman: The Animated Series, in which he was responsible for the creation of some two or three of the actual super-villains that the Batman fights. Symbolically, he represents rapacious capitalism at its evil finest.** And his all-too-brief recreation in The Dark Knight Rises (hereafter TDKR) does the same. Daggett snarls at Miranda Tate for “wasting” her money with Wayne and his “save the world” cold-fusion project. Daggett hires Bane to knock over an unnamed foreign power so Daggett can begin a mining operation unimpeded. And, finally, of course, Daggett is the one who brings Bane to Gotham itself, who helps him build a vast mercenary network and provides unlimited monetary resources in what amounts to some kind of harebrained ultra-aggressive bid for corporate takeover. To be fair, this is awfully similar to the explanation used by Ras al-Ghul to enlist the aid of Dr. Ethan Crane, aka the Scarecrow, in the first film. Both times it was a ruse. Gotham is apparently so full of criminality and corruption that even its worst elites are duped again and again by the League of Shadows or, in the case of TDKR, the League of Shadows 2.0. Bruce Wayne is utterly uninterested in money. Roland Daggett is only interested in money. But this is not a question of good “inherited money” vs. bad “earned money,” as it would be in a truly aristocratic drama. It would be quite easy to map these films onto an aristocratic vs. bourgeois frame, if not for the fact that the movies are bashing us over the head with a much more salient point: Bruce Wayne is not interested in money, just like the Joker is not interested in money; just like Ras al-Ghul is not interested in money; just like Bane is not interested in money.

There are plenty of moral attitudes expressed in TDKR concerning money. Bane’s utter contempt for the stock traders he brutalizes when he ‘occupies Wall Street’ (more on that later) is clear. “There’s no money here for you to steal,” pleads one financier, who only moments earlier we see gleefully reveling in the pure gambling thrill of the stock market. Bane’s reply is perfectly crafted: “Oh? Then why are you people here?” The League of Shadows 2.0 sees criminality everywhere, especially at the top. Bruce Wayne’s probably pathological paranoia seems particularly attuned to what the richest and most powerful might be up to; this partly explains his near lunatic caution when it comes to his “cold fusion reactor.” Selena Kyle’s ressentiment is palpable when she whispers in Bruce Wayne’s ear at a gaudy gala ball, “Do you think this is gonna last? There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” This is not a critique of capital, nor should it have to be. It is an expression of class antagonism, not an explication of structural contradictions. This line directly mirrors a line that the Batman tells then-Sergeant Gordon in Batman Begins. As the Batman begins his fight against the mob, he says to Gordon, “Storm’s coming.” It is difficult to tell whether he means his storm or the storm of blowback from the mob. But the storm motif in this Batman trilogy is always a question of the expansion and exaction of justice. It is Selena Kyle who says this to Wayne, not Bane. Perhaps she believes Bane’s paper-thin (and always openly self-denied) leftist rhetoric. Perhaps she is simply pointing out the untenable nature of the current Gotham situation, much as the orphan child does to Officer Blake in the film. It does not, in the end, matter. Kyle is telling Wayne that gross inequality of the kind that exists in Gotham is inherently unjust and that his simplistic definition of justice must expand. But it is important to remember that these are moral claims and morality – at least explicitly – plays little role in traditional Marxist critiques of capital. There is something else going on here.

In Which it is Demonstrated that Something Else is Not Occupy Wall Street

News-batbegins1-1Gotham may appear to be “clean” and in “peacetime,” as the mayor and deputy commissioner state at the beginning of TDKR, but the malcontent and resentment that Kyle expresses to Wayne expose the seemingly sturdy foundation of Gotham’s peace and prosperity as the teetering house of cards that it is. The Batman got lucky in the first film. Ras al-Ghul challenges him multiple times to “do what is necessary,” i.e. make the decision of life and death outside the bounds of law. But the Batman gets away on a technicality: “I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you.” It’s a bit of a cop-out, but not a wholly unearned one, in terms of the story that Batman Begins tells us. The League of Shadows’ plan for Gotham depends heavily on earning the loyalty of Bruce Wayne, as we are told early on in the film: “As Gotham's favored son you will be ideally placed to strike at the heart of criminality.” Apparently, Ras al-Ghul is not a very creative thinker and doesn’t update his plan, which relies heavily on a series of Wayne controlled apparati, most crucially the elevated train and Wayne Tower. This gives the Batman a bit of a stacked deck coming into the scenario. He knows these places and these particular pieces of Gotham’s infrastructure far better than Ras does. So it’s no surprise that he gets to have his cake (saving Gotham) and eat it too (not breaking his moral code). But this is no matter; the important point is that the film establishes the Batman’s desire for this arrangement in the first place. He wants it to be the case that this is possible. This is the best possible outcome for the Batman. It just so happens to be the perfect setup for the second film as well. The Joker takes his position more or less straight from Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals when discussing the attitudes of the so-called “freethinkers” of his day:

They are far from being free spirits: for they still have faith in truth. When the Christian crusaders in the Orient encountered the invincible order of Assassins, that order of free spirits par excellence, whose lowest ranks followed a rule of obedience the like of which no order of monks ever attained, they obtained in some way or other a hint concerning the symbol and watchword for the highest ranks alone as their secretum: “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

It is important to note that this motto is not what Nietzsche endorses. It is, however, fairly close to what the Joker is doing. The Joker is a true nihilist, which is also to say that he is a true anarchist. The Joker is out to show the internal contradiction, the empty faith, in the convenient arrangement achieved at the end of Batman Begins. Along the way he will show the similarity between that arrangement and all other existing legal orders. As he says to Harvey Dent, as Harvey begins his transformation into Two Face:

HeathJokerDo I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! You know, I just, do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon’s got plans. You know, they’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how, pathetic, their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say, ah, come here, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.

It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did, to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hm? 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 gang banger, will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all, part of the plan. But when I say that one, little old mayor will die, well then everyone 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.

One of the least successful aspects of The Dark Knight is the rushed development of Harvey’s transformation into Two Face (and the jettisoning of the repression of Harvey’s violent anger which makes that transformation more understandable.) So it is difficult to hear the last line, about “chaos” being “fair”, as the Joker’s belief or as a morsel thrown to the developing Two Face. But the earlier lines are clear: the “schemers” are believers in control. They don’t understand just how easily order can be tipped into chaos. However, this long monologue to Harvey is also hard to understand because the Joker does not include the Batman in his list. That’s because in the Joker’s analysis, the Batman is not fundamentally a “schemer.” He is “a freak” like the Joker, someone who has seen the inherent weakness of social structures. But instead of embracing this “anarchy,” the Batman insists that order must be maintained. The Batman’s desired position introduces a paradox that the Joker can’t help but exploit because it’s just “too much fun.” As the Joker taunts, “You have nothing, nothing to threaten me with. Nothing to do with all your strength.” In the Joker’s logic, the Batman must either a.) kill the Joker (thus proving the Joker’s point that all morality is a sham, even the Batman’s) or b.) allow the Joker and/or his anarchy to continue, unabated. In either scenario, the Joker wins. In fact, by the end of the movie, both Gordon and the Batman admit that this is the case. But they are simultaneously unwilling to let this appear to be the case. So they institute a parliamentary “state of exception” (i.e. the “Dent Laws”) in place of the failed (because morally shackled) sovereignty of the Batman.

Although this appears externally as a stable and durable regime, it is the mere simulacrum of one. To borrow from Hannah Arendt’s lexicon in On Violence, in embracing expanded violence, Gotham’s political leadership have actually reduced both their power (“the human ability not just to act but to act in concert”) and their authority (“Its hallmark is unquestioning recognition by those who are asked to obey; neither coercion nor persuasion is needed.”) The Batman was the authority of Gotham, even if he wasn’t the true sovereign. As Schmitt proposes in “Definition of Sovereignty,” “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” And as he continues, “The tendency of liberal constitutionalism to regulate exception as precisely as possible means, after all, the attempt to spell out in detail the case in which law suspends itself. From where does law obtain this force, and how is it logically possible that a norm is valid except for one concrete case that it cannot factually determine in any definitive manner?” Of course, this is precisely the problem in this Batman trilogy. Despite what can be confused for various patriotic trappings – and even the flags are always tattered, the national anthem rendered utterly meaningless – the state is demonstrated to be venal, corrupt, ineffective, and, above all, impotent. This is what necessitates the Batman in the first place. It is the corruption of officials, both elected and bureaucratic, that allows Ras al-Ghul easily to provoke the crisis in the first movie. It is the self-serving and feckless police force that turns on the Batman in the second. Finally, the state itself is entirely abrogated in the third. It is an abrogation that Nolan illustrates visually with the neutering of that ultimate instrument of state power, the military, as we see advanced fighter jets turning away from the Gotham/New York skyline and the President reduced to a television personality uttering powerless platitudes of comfort.

It is here that we must make a brief excursus into the question of anarchy. To my mind, it is unquestionable that true anarchy — that is to say anarchy-in-present-conditions, or, to adapt an older phrase, actually-existing-anarchy — is precisely what the Joker introduces in The Dark Knight. Gordon and the other Gotham officials buy themselves some time with the “Dent Laws,” but actually-existing-anarchy can only be filled by the likes of Bane or, of course, an “unshackled” Batman. If you are an anarchist who believes that ultimately people may not necessarily need a state, once proper conditions are met, then you are some kind of Marxist. If you are an anarchist who believes in building competing structures within the space provided by a liberal state that work without engaging the state per se, you are some kind of reformer. This kind of activity can be extraordinarily effective (see the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for example) but results either in the reform of the state or the take-over of the state by a new power. If you are an anarchist who believes in the immediate, sudden, or deliberate precipitous dissolution or destruction of all state authority, you should probably look deep in the mirror of these Batman films. Schmitt may rely partly on a Hobbesian foundation both for his notion of authority and his picture of anarchy or “the war of all against all,” but we needn’t look far beyond many real world examples (Western Pakistan, large swaths of Afghanistan, parts of East Africa) for what actually-existing-anarchy would look like. It looks a heck of a lot like Gotham in TDKR. Actually-existing-anarchy, under present conditions, is like an unstable subatomic particle: it exists momentarily. Blink too quickly and you’ll miss the actual “true anarchy” before the emergence of new, violent patriarchy every which way you look; the onslaught of warlords, violent bands, and competing loci of private power.

So, how are we to understand it then when Bane ‘occupies Wall Street’? What does all this have to do with Occupy Wall Street? Not very much, unless you are a complete believer in everything Fox News tells you about OWS, or if you are a certain brand of OWS-anarchist elite that looks at Bane and his band of well-armed zealots as fellow travelers. So, yes, Bane does ‘occupy Wall Street.’ But he does so with tanks, assault rifles, bombs, and a band of mercenaries and true believers (it’s hard to tell which is which). But the OWS signifiers float freely; when Commissioner Gordon lights the Bat-signal that burns across an otherwise non-descript Gotham building, it is a note-for-note recreation of one of the most recognizable “actions” of OWS last fall: the November 17th projection of various slogans and the “99%” symbol onto the side of the Verizon Wireless building. Is this the Batman appropriating the legitimate class aspirations of the people into fascist unity? Quite possibly. But now we have OWS signifiers on both sides of the equation and they seem to cancel one another out as little more than reminders that the moral concerns that drive the film are part of our world as well.

As for the people of Gotham? We barely see them. Bane’s kangaroo court is run by the Scarecrow and kept under the watchful eye of Bane’s armed bandits. There is no ‘storming of the Bastille’; all we see of “the people” of Gotham at that moment is a crowd of journalists and onlookers running away in sheer terror as Bane uses tank fire to blast open the walls and release the prisoners, who seem to be the only Gothamites to legitimately join Bane’s cause (his false cause, let us remind ourselves). At best, then, Bane is Louis Napoleon, not Robespierre. These prisoners are also the only Gothamites (beyond Officer Blake, but more on that later) who seem receptive to Bane’s speech about Commissioner Gordon’s Big Lie about Harvey Dent. These people have every reason to believe Bane’s rhetoric, since they have spent the last eight years incarcerated under at least partly dubious circumstances. Beyond some looting and some ransacking of the houses of the wealthy – all committed under the watchful guns of Bane’s army – we don’t see the people of Gotham participate in much of Bane’s pseudo-revolutionary state. Like any sane population under the siege of a ruthless and possibly insane warlord, they hide. We hear a few words of half-hearted satisfaction from Selina Kyle’s life-partner and that’s pretty much it.

But let there be no doubt about it: the film presents a fascist solution to this problem by any useful definition of the word that is not a mere reduction to the most basic Marxist talking point. Similarly, any notion that this is some kind of traditionalist “Tory” response is completely absurd. The Batman is no Cincinnatus and he’s certainly no Edmund Burke. If we must make an anachronistic and largely imperfect analogy, Batman is Caesar, complete with the line of succession to his “adopted” successor. But this excursus has led far away from the original question. Let us return to the nature of sovereignty in Gotham.

[Part II of this essay can be found here.]

*This is essay is intended to stand alone, but is written with at least three other essays on the most recent Batman film in mind: Gavin Mueller, “The Dark Knight is No Capitalist,” Jacobin Magzine, July 2012; Aaron Bady, “Do not go Gently into that Dark Knight,” The New Inquiry, July 2012, and Ross Douthat, “The Politics of the Dark Knight Rises,” The New York Times, July 2012. As I discuss here, most of my observations concerning The Dark Knight Rises were formed by the time dinner was over on the night I saw the film. However, I do think of these essays as part of the background of my commentary on criticism. Each is worth reading in its own right.

**And I say “evil” here quite specifically. There is no sense in this version of the Batman universe of the disinterested movement of capital in history. There can be no “scientific socialism,” just as much as there can be no “scientific capitalism.” Everything in Batman is about morals. That’s the point.

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He is currently a Fellow at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society through the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. He holds an M.Sc. in Culture and Society from the London School of Economics, an M.A. and M.Phil in Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University, and a B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, Religious Studies, and Government from Cornell University.