Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Todd McGowan: The exceptional darkness of The Dark Knight

The exceptional darkness of The Dark Knight
by Todd McGowan
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Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben sees the great danger inherent in the exception. It leads not just to abuses of civil rights but to large-scale horrors like the Holocaust, which functions as a major point of reference for Agamben’s thought. Exceptionality, for Agamben, launches a legal civil war and thereby plays the key role in the transition from democracy to fascist authoritarianism. The declaration of the state of exception attempts

“to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.”[10]

The problem is that the exceptional time never comes to an end, and the disappearance of the distinction between an emergency and everyday life pushes the society toward a state of civil war that the very exception itself was supposed to quell. Rather than acting as a temporary stopgap for a society on the brink of self-annihilation, the state of exception actually pushes the society further down the path to this annihilation by undermining the distinction between law and criminality and thereby helping to foster a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which every act of sovereign power becomes justified in the name of order.


The logic of the War on Terror waged by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney derives entirely from the idea that they rule in a state of emergency where the normal rule of law will be insufficient for safeguarding the U.S. populace. One must thus carve out an exceptional position outside the law. One of the ramifications of this idea is the legitimization of torture as a normal practice during the interrogation of anyone suspected of having a link with a terrorist organization. But the other ramification touches directly on the actions of Batman in The Dark Knight. The War on Terror, as conceived by Bush and Cheney, is being fought with increased surveillance more than with additional weapons. The nature of the emergency calls for exceptional measures of surveillance, including eavesdropping on telephone calls, spying on emails, and using satellites to track movements, all without court authorization. When Batman uses the device that Fox builds for him, the film's hero elevates himself to an exception in the Bush and Cheney sense of the term. This is one of the points of resonance that led conservative writer Andrew Klavan to link Batman and Bush. But there is nonetheless a fundamental distinction between the two figures and between Batman’s relation to exceptionality and that displayed by Bush.

One might assume that the difference lies in Batman’s readiness to abandon the system of total surveillance after he catches the Joker and the emergency ends. Batman arranges for the system to self-destruct after Lucius Fox has finished using it, and as he walks away from the exploding system, Fox smiles to himself, cheered by Batman’s ethical commitment to abandoning the power Batman had amassed for himself. This image does certainly seem to contrast with the image of the system of surveillance established during the War on Terror, which increases rather than self-destructs as the September 11th attacks move further and further into history. Neither President Bush nor his successor will call an end to the War on Terror or revoke all of the aspects of the Patriot Act. But Klavan can nonetheless see a parallel between Batman’s restoration of full civil rights and Bush’s intention to do so after the emergency ends. The difference between Bush’s version of the state of exception and Batman’s — between the conservative and the leftist — does not ultimately reside in the fact that it is temporary for Batman and permanent for Bush. Both figures view it as temporary, but what separates Batman is the attitude that he takes toward this violation of the law: he accepts that his willingness to embrace this type of exceptionality constitutes him as a criminal. Because he views it as a criminal act, Batman is quick to eliminate it. But this is precisely what Bush would be loath to accept and why he views the War on Terror as a quasi-eternal struggle.

The superhero film has emerged as a popular genre when the problem of the state of exception has moved to the foreground historically. That is not to say, of course, that superhero films owe their popularity to George W. Bush, but that they attract an audience when the relationship between exceptionality and the law has increasingly come into question. As Agamben notes,

“The state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics. This transformation of a provisional and exceptional measure into a technique of government threatens radically to alter — in fact, has already palpably altered — the structure and meaning of the traditional distinction between constitutional forms.”[11]

The state of exception, for Agamben, is the path by which democracy falls into fascism. The exception becomes confounded with the rule and soon takes its place. From that point forward, a total authority emerges who exercises control over the people with their own security as this authority’s justification. Because the heroic exception is written into the generic requirements, the superhero film exists within this political context.

Most superhero films simply affirm our need for the heroic exception and don’t call the status of this exception into question. This is true for John Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (2008), to name just two films released around the same time as The Dark Knight. As a result, even when they have some critical content about the ruling ideology — as with the (albeit limited) critique of the military-industrial complex in Iron Man — their form employing the heroic exception vitiates this content and ends up justifying the conservative direction of contemporary politics. In these films, even if the heroic exception causes certain problems, it is fundamentally necessary for the cause of justice, which would simply be overpowered without it.

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