Batman (The Dark Knight) and Social Zeitgeist

After reading the New York Time’s cleverly but inaccurately titled article “Art of Darkness” byJonathan Lethem, I realized something about the interplay between the Joker and Batman, especially after watching “The Dark Knight” for the second time at a friend’s house and then again on a trip. In my previous post on the movie I briefly talked about “The Dark Knight’s” contingencies with current politics, which Lethem somewhat touches on in his article, but my views on the movie have been prompted by a new notion of how popular culture, the public itself, fits in with the movie. But to complicate matters more, I have found that the simple logocentric binaries that Lethem uses to analyze the movie (the left and right, good and bad, dark and light, or morally productive and immoral) are not adequate to thoroughly understand and comment on what the movie “does.” I have also been reading Derrida, specifically excerpts from his book “Of Grammatology,” which exhorts me to question Lethem’s black versus white, conservative versus liberal reading of the movie, especially concerning deriving coherent meaning from the movie.

Wishing to dispel a binary reading of the movie, and using literary critic/cultural theorist/metalinguist/anthropologist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival, I will provide a useful analysis that contrasts and refutes a few points that Lethem , the novelist and NY times author, makes, specifically in regard to the intrinsic and varying dialogical relationships between the two powerful characters: Batman and the Joker. These two characters, the Joker representing, the centrifugal, outward moving, chaotic forces of society, and Batman, representing the centripetal, logocentric order hoping to keep Gotham society in check and under control, must be examined as two mere contingencies, voices, within a closed system. The two characters exist to exemplify the range of pathos, desires, chaos, and desired order existing in a society, and their carnivalistic exchanges serve to show the audience the possibilities for chaos and disorder, the possibility for true social change, regardless whether its for the better or worse, and also the effects of stolid thinking.

In his article, Lethem initially focuses on the correlatives that the movie makes to contemporary culture, talking about fearing the unknown, the other. I think these are fine points to make as they are quite valid. I can easily agree with Lethem’s argument that Batman’s plight is that of the conservative upholder of values of what he considers to be “right.” I can even agree with the author’s reading of the dark knight’s calling card correlating with the former president (the “W” shaped spotlight the chief traces across the sky when Batman is needed); although I don’t understand how useful this metaphor might be to understand the movie. However, Lethem notes that the movie may be making a pat statement on the contrivances of society when he says “Perhaps I’m too prone to bear down on ‘The Dark Knight’ as the tea leaves in the dregs of a political season’s cup,” but then goes on to state that the movie’s final statement was its incoherence. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I can agree that incoherence begins to seep into the movie as the movie builds towards its climax in the form of building un-reason, but what does this mean?

Noting the movies supposed incoherence and “tide of contradictions” (emphasis mine), Lethem loses the movie’s underlying comments on society’s perennial method of creating clear-cut binaries such as good/bad, right/wrong, win/lose, and so on, for the purpose of making meaning of something that is confusing or contradictory. Derrida explained this faulty method of thinking decades ago. In the end, Lethem states that Batman does not represent us as a society, but that the Joker does. This supposedly clever bifurcation does not work for me; Lethem’s assessment loses the important contingencies that attach the Joker and Batman to each other. Lethem states that the Joker does not expose his “real” face, yet he may be forgetting that the joker wears face paint which does indeed reveal his “face,” but only changes its color and causes him to look like a freak, both to the general populist and to criminals. In a number of scenes the Joker’s face paint becomes smudged and in the Hospital explosion scene he doesn’t wear any at all. In all these cases the Joker is easily recognizable, but it’s his behavior that he uses obfuscate.

More importantly, the Joker does not reveal his history. Lethem’s explanation of the Joker as as a man behind the mask does not allow for an interplay between these two supposedly allegorical characters. And interplay, especially contingency, is something that the Joker realizes to be the reality of his and Batman’s dialogical relationship. When someone like the Joker can operate effectively in a world in which he can orchestrate indiscriminate death and destruction, while also causing the most upright and code-driven citizen–Batman–to have to choose between saving two lives, those of Rachel and Harvey–thus subverting Batman’s perceived upright role in society–then we see prime examples of the subversionary ritual that Bakhtin terms carnival. The Joker obviously represents the low, grotesque, revolutionary aspect of carnival’s riotous uprising. He says while Batman interrogates him, “The only sensible way to live in this world is to live without rules.” Here, without rules, the Joker is the outward moving, centrifugal, entropic force that wishes to overturn everything that Batman holds dear to show that the threads holding it all together are much weaker than what Batman thinks.

However, the film is not a bildingsroman meant to uplift the audience to greater social awareness as Lethem expects it to be; achieving greater social awareness would be an incidental and subjective by-product. Instead, and this is where Lethem really misses the point, the movie serves as a showcase for the frailties and contingencies of systems of social behavior and supposed “rightness” that cause a specific yet purportedly permeable zeitgeist within a given society. Showing society to truly be a construct, as the Joker desires, becomes the bond connecting the two characters to each other, to drive the plot, but more. They pose as two pieces to the same contingent puzzle, and it is this interplay where we can get the most from the film.

The Joker operates within Gotham’s society as an a-histrionic castoff, a degenerate, an idealistic saboteur who does not fit with the populous’ socio-cultural logic. Batman, if one has watched the previous installment “Batman Returns,” has a fairly clear back story. And if “The Dark Knight” is the viewers first experience with Batman, he or she still has a clear understanding of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s socio-economic position in Gotham society. Batman sees his duty as the protector of people and values alike. In contrast though, the Joker’s history is not quite as clear, and the Joker himself obfuscates it by telling different stories to different people about how he received his scars.

However, despite existing outside Gotham’s stratified society, the Joker understands its cultural workings and uses this understanding to subvert it. The Joker momentarily resides within accepted roles of both power and respectability, and sheds each of these roles almost as quickly as he defines himself in each. When he sheds his makeup he becomes a nurse in the trade off, a societal role signify healing, nurturing, safety, science, all positive things. The Joker fills his role as nurse though, to facilitate and midwife Harvey Dent’s decent into madness, and the Joker uses the prospect of revenge to achieve this. Likewise, the Joker wears suits that intimate at respectability, business, capitalistic commerce, but he cares nothing for money. He views it as a piece of leverage with which to enact his pursuits in chaos. At times he is a respected criminal at the apex of his abilities, and at others he denounced as an illogical and dangerous freak.

The Joker desires for pure chaos to rise and take over Gotham. He gets at this goal by calling into question Gotham’s inherent values. The Joker assumes that people naturally wish to save themselves rather than look out for the greater good of society, that “good” that Batman wishes to uphold. We can see this in the Joker’s burning the huge mountain of money, as he says, “my half” to the mystified mobsters. The Joker may not have reached his goal of complete anarchy, but he does realize some change in his primary object: Batman. As the Joker hangs upside down in the final scenes he says, “…madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” This statement implicates Batman’s (and any one else beholden to gravity) natural potential for “madness” as we witness varying shades of it throughout the movie, including Batman’s desire to be framed for Harvey’s murder. The Joker does not care if he wins or loses, whether he makes some impact or none. He does what he does simply to make noise, to create disruption, yet his illogical, carnivalistic method meets greater gains than the Joker expects.

Batman finds himself, the avenger of justice, the moral driven self-imposed outcast of the world of Gotham, which contrasts the Joker only in goals; Batman wants to keep everything together to create a safe, fair and just world at the cost of his own place in the system. Likewise, the Joker seems to be a self-imposed outcast of Gotham, and does not care an iota whether he has a clear place in the system or not. He just wants to maintain order and we can see this desire in the movie’s final scenes. After subduing Two-face, and almost getting himself killed in the process the cops show up, and as they do, Batman and Gordon must make a quick decision: how to explain Dent/Two-Face’s death. The only solution to maintain Dent’s legacy, and consequently social order, is to blame his death on Batman. Batman loses his sense of justice and denigrates his image as he says, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I am not a hero, like Dent. I killed those people. That’s what I can be.” Batman willingly puts on another mask, the mask of the villain, and subverts himself once more for what he thinks is the greater good, to maintain social order, to allow the populace to believe in a hero who stands for the just and the good. Batman lies and becomes a murderer, embodying the one role he never wished to embody. Gordon realizes a truth that Batman does not–that what Gotham needs is not necessarily the hero Dent, but the anti-hero Batman. He says of Batman, “Not the hero we deserved, the hero we needed,” implying that Gotham society intrinsically looks on deviousness or destructive behavior as effective. The Joker, when one examines this scene, would feel some modicum of success, as he has succeeded in toppling Batman from his rationalist and ordered position in society.

Getting back to Lethem’s appraisal of the movie, though, I must contemplate, as he puts it, “right” and wrong to understand the “tea leaves” the movie provides at the bottom of the viewer’s cup. That the movie is arguably incomprehensible at the end has an effect on making meaning. That the movie creates questions that go unanswered have an effect on making meaning. That Batman becomes the culpable “Dark Knight” by movie’s end has an effect on making meaning. However, the movie is not a math equation and easily remains unfinalizeable as the credit roll. The writers throw two characters into a situation that cause the viewer to question what’s right and wrong that possibly incite them to look at the structures that dictate such mutable and impermanent things. To read the movie as an austere display of social allegory misses the depth of thought that the movie offers. After all, as the Joker aptly queries, “Why so serious?”

This entry was posted in Bakhtin, Carnival, Commentary, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film Review, Literature, Love.

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