Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Joker

[A reply to Adam's Theses on the Dark Knight]

In a world consumed by nihilism, the moralistic distinction between good and evil might be up for grabs, but the ethical distinction between good and bad is not. To favor the Joker and castigate Batman - as Adam, together with the citizens of Gotham, and together with the denizens of the society of the spectacle who attended The Dark Knight en masse - is no contrarianism, but mere foolishness. Indeed, it is to give in to the maxim that anything that doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger, rather than stronger. Adam’s patron saint, the unmistakable joker of contemporary philosophy, exemplifies this predicament: There is no doubt that Zizek sometimes manages to call a spade a spade, but then he quickly turns to another one of his card tricks that leaves the audience gasping. A magician can supply good entertainment only by means of deception. When the truth behind the sleight of hand is revealed, the audience rushes to demand its money back. The box office revenues of the movie in question prove that the Joker’s illusion was successful: at the end Christ looks like the Antichrist. But this is only a magic trick, and everybody should know that.

In Judaism, the Messiah is considered to be the “Son of David,” a direct descendant of the king who exemplified the image of the sovereign. Hence the Hebrew syntagm “melech mashiach,” or “King Messiah,” which is closely linked to the Christian “Jesus Messiah.” The Jewish yearning for, and the Christian belief in, this messiah, this “King of Kings,” is therefore very problematic, since it implies that the people cannot do without a sovereign power above them. They simply swap the earthly king with a heavenly one, like those heroin addicts that are now dependent on methadone. Here lies the justified skepticism in the figure of the messiah: the fear that he is just another, or the ultimate, power grabbing monster. This is what stands behind Adam’s critique of Batman, who is, like any superhero, an obvious Imitator of Christ. It is true, from this perspective, that Batman, in an attempt to defend lost causes, makes authoritarian executive decisions which have nothing to do with the so called established law, and everything to do with the state of emergency, or the civil war, in which Gotham finds itself.

There is, however, a very simple litmus test that distinguishes the false messiah from the true one, the Antichrist from Christ, the dark and the light knight: the question is whether, on the day after the last day, the “Messiah” remains in power or not. If he steps down, then the end of days has truly arrived. Otherwise, the lie is revealed, though a second too late, and history only repeats itself. The sovereign (like the [biblical] Adam) is therefore a figure of the Messiah, but only as long as the sin of the former is overturned by the deeds of the latter. The “King of Kings” is not a king, and “King Messiah” is meant to atone for the horridness sins of all the previous kings.

Kafka claims that “the Messiah will come only when he is no longer needed.” Bruce Wayne is Batman only because Batman is needed. Bats, by nature, are creatures of darkness. When Batman will no longer be needed, when a new day will dawn on Gotham (which will then be more like New York of the present), Wayne promises that he will hang up the suit. Since men, in opposition to bats, do not act according to a specific nature, and because men, in opposition to animals, can lie, we still don’t know whether Wayne is “a man of his word” or not. We are not omniscient. This is why political decisions are always risky. But to remain skeptical about everyone, to take zero risks, and to trust no one, is a proved receipt for the continuation of Gotham. Politics that is not driven by fear is indeed at hand. But politics without a little faith is like bread without yeast (this is why, by the way, you can eat matzo only for the week of Passover, since anything more than that is a gastronomical nightmare).

All things considered, the Joker was right about one single thing: anyone that has a plan is a schemer. Even though Adam mysteriously overlooks this thesis, it is one of the strongest arguments against liberalism in sight. Everyone has a plan: the cops, the mob, and, most importantly, Harvey Dent. Hence, they are all schemers. The Joker insists that he doesn’t have a plan, and I believe him. But there is one person that he intentionally leaves out from his long list of planners/schemers: Batman himself. I believe that Batman’s sole destiny is to stop being Batman, that there is no plan involved, and that hence no scheme to take over the world is to be feared. The choice, then, is between a “dog chasing cars” and a Batmobile chasing dogs. Adam chose the former. I choose the latter.


Anonymous said...

I second that! (Though I would like to be given more options...) RBS

Mute said...

Interesting. I have a slightly different take--
The Joker is not the villain, nor the hero. He is, quite simply, God, nature, karma, a mirror. The Joker is simply a neutral agent, a reification of a universal principle, showing us the cause and the effect, the consequences of our choices and actions. He forces us to make impossible decisions (the only kind of decisions), condemning us to be free. Contrary to what he says to Batman: 'You are Order; I am Chaos', it is actually the reverse: while Batman is always 'morally complex', conflicted, eternally torn between this-side-and-that-side, the Joker's focus is intensely singular.

The Joker is Order, or, to put it another way, he is the embodiment of our true fear, not of the universe being ultimately chaotic and of our efforts having no necessary results (with of course those who are never so worthy as us being the ones who are rewarded in the end), but, deep down, of actually having to take responsibility for what we say and do. This is what is unbearable. We hope we never have to face the Joker, to be 'put in that sort of situation', but we always and already are.

Brenda said...

I kind of a agree however I think the Joker has another function. I think the Joker is a "touchstone" for Batman, something for Batman to measure his actions against to determine if they are good or bad and in turn allow Batman to validate his ethos and his style of existence. Without the Joker Batman has nothing to test his mode of life and therefore no way to examine his life as truth or as a true life. Batman needs to engage with the Joker in a game of truth.