Monday, July 13, 2015

SuperEgo Super Heroes

F*ck the Law! We Demand JUSTICE!
In a sense, the basic plot structure of the Batman trilogy was never really about the tortured psyche of a billionaire playboy working through the childhood trauma of the violent death of his parents by dressing up in a bat costume by night to fight (and produce, as the familiar Foucaultian axiom runs) crime. It could be amusing, if admittedly a bit facile, to submit Batman to a sort of wild psychoanalysis. Bruce Wayne, in this scenario, would figure as a kind of psychotic, working through the loss of paternal authority/ the phallus (the nom du père is blazoned across a sky-scraper at the heart of the city in the first installment of the trilogy, after all) by identifying with his reviled phobic object. In his analysis of Little Hans, the phobia of being bitten by a horse who would fall down – and the motif of the fall is cortical to the “origin” story of Batman – revealed to Freud the role phobias played in the Oedipal complex as narratives for imposing order and containing the traumatic real of desire.

To be sure, the tortured psychodrama of a melancholic billionaire undeniably forms the surface content of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. At the level of what we might call its absent narrative center, however, this film series has always been about two, interrelated dilemmas. First, crises in the institutions of the democracy: the press (which the Joker manipulates to carry out his plan of mayhem; the social welfare state (hospitals and schools); endemic corruption and dishonesty amongst elected officials and the police (the overriding theme of all three films); and, finally, the problem of popular sovereignty itself – that is, the theme, or question, of vigilante violence as a kind of exception to democratic rule of law. Perhaps, as Chris Boge noted in a recent conference at the Birkbeck Institute, this is why, in the second film (released in the aftermath of the NSA spying scandals of the latter part of the Bush administration), Harvey Dent appears to be citing Rousseau’s discussion of dictatorship, the suspension of law and the state of exception in ancient Rome (Boge 2012: unpaginated). When asked, “Who appointed the Batman?” Dent quips: “We all did, all of us who stood by and let the scum take over our city” (a city we might take in a broader sense as the polis).

These themes are inextricably interwoven, however, with a second, intractable dilemma to which Nolan’s cinematic work only really alludes but which constitutes its invisible core: the crises of capitalism. We shall return to this hypothesis, but before we turn to the representation of “the people” in The Dark Knight Rises, consider the following thread running through the trilogy, and which seems to support our hypothesis that, at some disavowed level of narrative knowledge, the Batman films are about the contradictions between democracy and capital. In Batman Begins, the “League of Shadows” discovers a force vastly more efficient in its destructive capacity than, say, fires or plagues: capitalism; in The Dark Knight an international bank based in Hong Kong, in an eerie anticipation of the HSBC scand al, launders money for the mafia all while doing “respectable” business with the Wayne Corporation; finally, in the third film, the impoverishment of the masses drives them, with more than a little help from Bane, to the creation of a revolutionary Commune.

So with whom can we, and with whom must we not, identify in The Dark Knight Rises ? Who is the “bad guy”? The most obvious answer is Bane, the hulking villain who seizes control of Gotham city, unleashes a wave of anarchy, breaks Batman’s back and has him imprisoned in a pit, and threatens Gotham with nuclear annihilation. Of course, this is standard Hollywood fare; any alternative to capitalism or parliamentary regimes is invariably and nebulously referred to as anarchy – an - archos in the strict sense of the absence of law as such (above all, the absence of private property and due legal process). Whence the spooky scenes of the wealthy being expelled from their mansions and brought before revolutionary tribunals – tribunals no doubt meant to evoke the French Terror’s comité de salut public, and which are presided over by Hollywood’s iteration of Saint - Just: the Scarecrow. (Let us resist the temptation to read too much into this choice of character, but suffice to say it may be something like an ideological parapraxis: the Scarecrow holds the key to unlocking and exploiting his victims’ deepest fears. It may after all be only too fitting that such a character would represent revolutionary justice.) Then there is Miranda Tate/Talia Al Ghul, of course. The problem here is that, in its final moments, the film actually invites the spectator to explicitly identify with these two figures by (narratively and visually) suturing our point-of-view with that of the “villains”: Bane is at heart little more than the familiar trope of the misunderstood monster, who sacrificed life and limb to rescue (the ideal of) an innocent child from the daily hell of the prison in which he languished. (In a flashback scene to this episode, furthermore, the camera adopts the point of view of the child – revealed to be none other than Miranda Tate/Talia Al-Ghul – looking down upon her savior as he is overwhelmed by a swarm of prisoners who were ostensibly seeking to violate the little girl.) If in the final analysis our sympathy for, if not identification with, the devil is elicited all - around in The Dark Knight Rises, who is ultimately the “bad guy” in Nolan’s DKR – the point of torsion which the films imaginary and ideological structure forecloses as a position of spectatorial sympathy? The answer, at first glance, seems simple: the people.
- Robert St. Clair, "The Bomb in (and the Right to) the City: Batman, Argo, and Hollywood’s Revolutionary Crowds"

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