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The Semiotics of Batman

The Semiotics of Batman

The Dark Knight is a semiological masterpiece. Like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Christopher Nolan’s second installment in the Batman franchise is a series of symbols; and, also like Eco’s work, The Dark Knight blurs the lines between the traditional binaries of good/evil, light/dark, and friend/foe. Nolan’s film is at once a deconstruction of the superhero ethos, as well as a sociological study along the lines of the work of Giorgio Agamben. But let us start with the most immediately interesting aspect of this film, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s recent Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men, featured an antagonist by the name of Anton Chigurh. Chigurh represented the best in villainy, for he did not exemplify the evil that seems to lie dormant in each one of us, but instead embodied the symbolic position of infinite evil within our social matrix. Chigurh was dispassionately evil. He simply followed the rules of the universe. Much like the Coen’s award-winning character, the Nolan’s Joker is a symbolic whirlwind of prudent nihilism.

The Joker’s semiotic status is upheld by the fact that he has no name, no history, and no identity. When he is finally captured by the police, he is found to be untraceable; unidentifiable (e.g. no dental records, no fingerprints, etc.). The best example of this feature in the film is when the Joker gives two completely different narrative explanations for the existence of his scars (one an Oedipal narrative, and the other a representation of a sort of guilt complex). In fact, when Batman finally seems to have discovered his enemy’s true identity, it is simply revealed to be a trap set by the Joker himself (a philosophical lesson in naming). In this sense, the Joker has become a sort of Deleuzean figure. He represents a rhizomatic figure in that he continually shakes up the arborescent territorializations of the dominant social order. He relates this very idea in a dialogue with the District Attorney, Harvey Dent, when he claims that, unlike the police, “I’m a dog chasing cars. I don’t have plans. I just do things. I’m not a schemer.” He is a deterrirotialized force of will. He is one side of Nietzsche’s Overman, having achieved the transvaluation of all values, and having rejected the current power structure of the Gotham elite. Much like Jorge, the blind monk in Eco’s novel, the Joker finds his insanity reified in insatiable comedy, a love for the breaking and blurring of semiotic/structural rules. In fact, the two most salient components of the Joker’s personality are two of the most despised components of every society: low-brow humor (bordering on sadism) and madness. And these are representatives of salvation in Eco’s novel and Deleuze’s conceptual work, respectively. It is no coincidence that the Joker’s henchmen consist mainly of schizos.

In contrast to the Joker we have our hero, Batman. In the first film, Bruce Wayne took on the symbolic status of Batman in order to become eternal (as he remarks in The Dark Knight, “Batman has no limits”). In becoming a figure of infinite justice, Batman was supposed to be able to suppress all finite forms of evil (and most superheroes achieve this end). But when faced with infinite evil, a dilemma arises, as the two become caught up in a dialectical struggle (“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object”).

The relationship between Batman and the Joker is purely differential. They need each other (even though only the Joker realizes this), and are unable to destroy each other without annihilating themselves in the process (at one point the Joker states, “I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you?”). Both are representatives of the “state of exception” in Agamben’s sociology. Early in the film, a though-provoking conversation between Wayne, Dawes, and Dent mentions the notion of the state of exception in a discussion of the merits of the Batman experiment. Dent believes that Batman represents the ancient Roman figure that would defend the city unilaterally while democracy was temporarily suspended. However, Dawes points out that Caesar was the last of these ancient heroes, and he never gave up his position, becoming a despot in the process. In agreement, Dent claims that “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

While Batman uses his excepted status to forcefully extradite criminals, the Joker correctly explains to the mob that they cannot defeat Batman because his jurisdiction knows no bounds. Therefore, they must find a hired gun, a Kurosawan mercenary who is also excepted from the rules of the game. This Man with No Name must kill the Batman, and restore the criminals to their rightful place in the driver’s seat of the city (although the Joker has other plans once his goals are achieved). What the Joker truly desires to do is to fully deterritorialize Batman (and later, Harvey Dent).

In a scene where Batman and the Joker face-off in an interrogation room, the madman reveals his plot to make an analysand out of his nemesis. The Joker understands that Batman is still structured according to a notion of true justice; one that he believes is based on lies and deceit. Therefore, he will give our protagonist an impossible decision: choose between the true object of your desire (the lack/negation represented by Rachel Dawes) and your hope for a non-excepted hero figure (the symbolic order represented by the Harvey Dent). “And tonight, you’re gonna break your one rule”, he says.

In a confusing portion of the film (this is my own interpretation), Batman chooses the object of his desire over the symbolic order, thereby breaking his one rule (an exception to his utilitarianism). However, the Joker knew this, and so he skillfully tricks Batman into simultaneously choosing the negation (destroying his identity as a hero) while actually saving Dent instead. In this way, the Joker reveals the existence of the social order as being based upon a lie (or a trick, in this instance), while also keeping Dent alive for further deterritorialization. A commanding feat, indeed.

In the denouement of the film, the Joker sets out to prove his nihilistic point to the masses (a “social experiment”, as he calls it). His desire is to fully deterritorialize the people of Gotham by showing them that humanity, at its base, is a war of all against all. When the people do not fulfill his demands, and he is captured by Batman once again, it seems as though, as Batman claims, the people of Gotham have proven their faith. They have found hope in the figure of Harvey Dent, and this will finally lead them to utopia. However, the Joker has an “ace-in-the-hole”. Transformed by the death of Dawes, Dent has become Two-Face, a hero of the people become a vengeful outlaw. In Joker’s own explanation to Batman, “I’ve brought him down to our level.” In this manner, the Joker has proven his point: “Introduce a little anarchy… Upset the established order… Well then everyone loses their minds!” Again, the Joker has proven that the hope of the demos is based on a lie (Harvey Dent is not a true hero). Therefore, Batman must become a sort of Girardian scapegoat, taking on the sins of Dent (literally) and the masses (figuratively) in order to maintain the good faith of the people. Wayne eventually excuses this decision by saying that “sometimes truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.” Like a true Girardian messianic figure, Batman has decided to uphold the lie in order to save the people from the truth. If, as Lacan has stated, the love of truth is the love of castration, then Batman has chosen to reject the truth.

Batman’s stated goal is to see a day when Gotham no longer needs a Promethean figure (the exception/cyclical messiah), but this can never be achieved, for Nolan has correctly shown that all heroes eventually become villains. My own ruminations on the film have led me to theorize that, because the Batman saga lacks a proper Trinitarian structure, there is no end besides what the Nolan’s have revealed. Any symbolic messianic character like Batman will continue to be plagued by infinite evil ceaselessly. Dialectical synthesis will only ever be met by another antithesis. Batman will never achieve his goals (“to see a day when Gotham no longer needs Batman”, and, coincidentally, he and Dawes can finally be together, a face-to-face with the Real that Dawes explains to Wayne is impossible) because he has no way of empowering the demos pneumatologically. The relationship between Batman and Gotham, despite his good intentions, ultimately falls into the Master/Slave dialectic. As Robert Jenson has argued in On Thinking the Human, it is the Spirit that breaks this struggle. As the Spirit is the One who both freely creates and freely is the love between the Father and the Son, so is he the One who binds together the broken bonds of humanity through His Church. The gospel according to Batman, though provided through a dark negation, is that “We need not hurt the one we love. Indeed we will not. For there is the Spirit.”[1]


[1] Jenson, On Thinking the Human, pg. 86.

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