The Dark Knight Returns

In the movie The Dark Knight, district attorney Harvey Dent, a former crusader against lawlessness who has been seduced by the evil villain known as The Joker into going over to the dark side, jeers at Batman and the police commissioner when they confront him in an abandoned warehouse. “You tried to be decent men in an indecent time,” he jibes, epitomizing what is the controlling theme of this psychologically complex and morally ambiguous Hollywood film. Besides the ongoing and taunting spectacle of a violent road to hell littered with good intentions, the movie explores the complexity and corruptibility, if not at times the folly, of dogged political idealism. Dent, who despite his seemingly unbreakable will to bring justice to Gotham City is finally and tragically turned by The Joker following the untimely and all-too-avoidable death of his girlfriend, is until this particular scene the “one” who stands for not only truth and righteousness but also for heroic resistance to the temptations of cynicism and self-dealing.

Now Dent is exposed not simply as the antithesis of everything he was supposed to be in the eyes of his admirers, but as someone whose own core self-definition was always flabbier and more tainted than his public persona was designed to convey. Now that inner mush is disclosed in sardonic soliloquy as a kind of gritty and ruthless “realism” that appears to resonate with the already jaded indulgence of the viewers in gratuitous killings, pervasive official venality, and spineless acquiescence to the reign of criminal terror. Dent was the last “decent” man at an orgy of indecency, but at this point in the film, decency seems less a virtue than a form of dementia. Even Batman himself seems by now to have wilted as an ethical paragon. The complete disfigurement of one side of Dent’s face does not indicate that he is “two-faced” in the conventional sense of the word. Although the film does not explicitly reveal why Dent refuses plastic surgery and facial reconstruction, it becomes evident that his choice is crafted to make a public statement of how his former pretty-boy mediagenic profile has concealed all along the palpability and ubiquity of the vicious toxicity to which public idealism must in the end succumb. Dent is no longer the last decent man, but that gives him a true authenticity that contrasts strikingly with Batman himself.

Batman, whom Dent still does not recognize as his patron, Bruce Wayne, does not in this context attain any authenticity, only ambiguity. He has truly established himself as “the dark knight.” He crusades without chivalry, without romance, in a desperate way without any recognizable identity. The mask becomes superfluous. In contrast to The Joker, whom we in a perverse way have come to trust, even while we despise him, Batman is the genuine “wild card.”

If film is always in some way a commentary on our age, then The Dark Knight can be seen as an ironic prophecy of postmodern politics, particularly the complex cultural undertones and shifting social issues of the present presidential election. The 2008 election has already been filled with surprises and ironies, including its protractedness, the amount of dollars spent on particular candidates despite our sagging economy, the eclipse of the Clintons on the Democratic side, and finally, the selection of a woman vice-presidential candidate with an unconventional profile by the Republicans. Both presidential candidates in their own way represent something new and relatively unprecedented with respect to the history of American politics over the last sixteen years. Even while Barak Obama seemed early on to master and improve upon playing the Clintons’ successful triangulation game of the 1990s with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, his “post-political” image of having risen above politics as a whole crumbled when confronted with the reality on the ground, particularly after he had cinched the nomination in the spring.

Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est la Meme Chose

As veteran, Democratic-leaning Washington Post columnist David Broder bluntly put it, no one who heard Obama’s acceptance address at the Democratic convention in Denver “is likely to argue that the speech [. . .] ‘changed politics in America.’ His jibes at John McCain and George Bush were standard-issue Democratic fare, and his recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee from Walter Mondale to John Kerry.” Broder added that “the Denver speech, like many others he has given recently, subordinated any talk of fundamental systemic change to a checklist of traditional Democratic programs.”1 Obama’s bare-knuckled, slash-and-burn acceptance speech, which starkly defined the supposed socioeconomic “divide” that he sought at one time to overcome, had all the earmarks of a Chicago ward-heeling politician. The irony, of course, is that the only real underclass in America to whom Obama appeals these days is ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans, while the bulk of his supporters come from the educated, non-church-going professional elites, who identify themselves with the underprivileged. That the demographics of the last twenty years clearly indicate that globalization and the rise of “knowledge workers,” including the digital finance wizards, as the new world ruling class—at least within the developed, Western world—has shifted both economic and political power in the Democrats favor seems beside the point.

However, if Obama (and McCain, perhaps even more assiduously) continues to work through the semiotic game-planning of variable political imaging and messaging that captures for the strategic moment the ensemble of political desires and malleable identities that can be mobilized for electoral success, then his tactic for the general election would seem to be the reinvention, or recustomization, in earnest of the John F. Kennedy myth—a new vision, if not a “new frontier,” for a new generation of Americans.

Meanwhile, John McCain, despite the Democrats’ effort to tar him as just another Republican in the mold of George W. Bush, has artfully, deftly, and sometimes theatrically played to Obama’s cultivated lack of definition, at first by slyly undercutting his “celebrity” image, and then by upstaging his own convention anointing with what the German press, which had ballyhooed the Democratic candidate in Berlin, within hours was applauding with a certain admiration. Der Spiegel, Germany’s counterpart to the New York Times, called it a “daring” and “brilliant,” albeit risky, Schachzug or “chess move.”2 This observation was echoed by various blog responders, particularly women. A columnist for Der Tagesspiegel wrote that “McCain has changed the dynamics of the American election” and that “Germans,” who earlier were banking on the election of Obama, “must brace themselves for a disappointment.”3 Indeed, the Germans, who may or may not be a bellwether state in the American election but seem to admire good chess-playing, seemed initially more dumbstruck by McCain’s choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate than even many Republicans in the United States.

The Bi-Directionality of Identity Politics

One of the key features of the postmodern scene has been the bi-directionality of identity politics. Identity politics, amplified by nonstop media coverage, has flourished—gender, race, class, and religion have driven electoral loyalties regardless of the unstinting hue and cry about the need to address issues. At the same time, the proliferation of recognizable singularities that can be harvested through electoral strategizing has confused the nature of identity politics itself. In this election, no presidential candidate fits a familiar profile, other than to represent a pure differentiality that rejects whatever has been the previous norm. “Change,” even if in its specificity it turns out to be meaningless, is the global desideratum. The “maverick” or “outsider” image, as what one wholly and sometimes exclusively is, is what one expects of a candidate, only because the reasons for voter discontent are no longer simple or even obvious. The norm is normless. The goalposts of political satisfaction are always being moved.

Ronald Reagan, the first postmodern U.S. president, started this trend when he asked the electorate in 1980 if they were better off than they had been four years before. It was a rhetorical question: the answer was obviously no—no one is ever better off. Perhaps they are better off materially, or perhaps they are not, but either way they are worse off transcendentally. That is why the voters largely dumped Gore and elected Bush in 2000. The wages of prosperity were moral rot, as exemplified in the Clinton sexual scandals. The greatest happiness for the greatest number is eminently deconstructible. Invariably, politics is not the art of eudaimonia or “happiness,” as Aristotle thought, but the art of what Jean-Francois Lyotard dubs the differend, a “rule” that acknowledges the irresolvability of the rules of discourse where different syntaxes of meaning are propelled in radically different directions. The rules of postmodern politics take this kind of differentiality into close account as opposed to the essentialism of the old democratic politics, which was based on the search for consensus and rules of agreement. It is differentiality itself, the use of differences to further differentiate, that rules.4

“Change”—the differend, or differance, in the postmodernist philosophical lexicon—is thus the political vernacular for the postmodern project. It is itself bi-directional. The unresolvable differential calculus of change, liminality, outsiderness, or “otherwiseness”—autrement in Levinas’s terminology—drives politics. The differend can either point us back to a theme-park or kitschy past, as in the case of Reagan’s Disneyfied America, or forward into an inarticulable but very real future, real only because it is future, not because it is real in any sense (that is, “more real than real” or “hyperreal,” as Baudrillard would say). In the former case we have the original signification of the postmodern theme. Charles Jencks, architectural theorist and popularizer, if not the inventor, of the word postmodern, in the mid-1970s saw that the design world, especially the design of public spaces and buildings, was beginning to succumb to a “radical eclecticism” that communicated a bi-directional cultural shift. Playful and ironic, rather than merely nostalgic, “quotations” from the past were employed to suggest the melting of the ice caps of formalistic modernism. Jencks called this procedure a “double coding,” in that it employed signs and allusions of patently anachronistic, or incongruous, “classical” traditions in the service of the powerfully unclassical, or untraditional.5

Jencks’s principle of double-coding constitutes an esthetic statement of Gilles Deleuze’s “logic of sense.” The logic of sense, as Deleuze argues, is an Alice-through-the-looking-glass categorization of “very special things: events, pure events.” Eventness in the case of grammar and syntax, and of cinema (on which Deleuze has written extensively) and politics, moves bi-directionally through a process Deleuze calls “manifestation,” an idea he refurbished from the granddaddy of all French postmodernist philosophers, Henri Bergson. According to this manifestation process, we only know the meaning of the past when we “go retro” and reincarnate it in the present. Meaning, or “sense,” is “the simultaneity of a becoming whose characteristic is to elude the present. Insofar as it eludes the present, becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future.”6

Thus, The Dark Knight’s truly postmodern, ambiguous, and thematically reticular interpretation of the old DC comics character re-energizes while spinning cloudly cataracts across the previous blunt-edged renditions of Batman. Deleuze quips: “Alice does not grow without shrinking, and vice versa.”7 Strangely, Jencks’s doubly coded sign language, or Deleuze’s Lewis-Carrollesque logic of sense in which any “idea” exhibits “infinite action” in both directions, was evident in the controversial stage used for Obama’s acceptance speech, a stage which to many resembled the Greek Parthenon. McCain made fun of it, including the fact that it was made by Britney Spears’s designer, but the ploy was perhaps intentional. It was visual Jencksism. It was aimed at expressing the sense, not a resonant political message, of Obama’s deliberately hard-to-define political mission. It took us back to Kennedy, back perhaps to the eighteenth-century inauguration of American constitutional “republicanism,” but also forward into ever protean political action that would mobilize the voters and aspirants of the ever-deconstructible “tomorrow.”

Los Angeles Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne, in contrast to the claque of clueless commentators, got the point when he wrote that Obama’s strategists were keen on “inserting a neoclassical backdrop into a steel-and-glass stadium. That meant they were moving against the grain of history, a fact that produced the most jarring meeting of the night between visuals and rhetoric. When Obama, near the end of his speech, declared, ‘America, we cannot turn back’ and then repeated the line for emphasis, I found myself thinking about those columns and their echoes of the deep architectural past—about how they were employed primarily to suggest time rolling backward all the way to the Greeks. Somehow, for Obama, a candidate whose campaign is sleek and modern in the same way Kennedy’s was—whose appeal is based in large part on his youthful energy and the freshness of his image—sleek and modern architectural symbolism simply will not do. His charisma needs some balancing heft, and in Denver his campaign found it in the solidity of classical architecture.”8

One should put “solidity” in inverted commas. There is nothing solid in postmodern politics. If it is not the Truman Show, it is a pastiche of identities, iconicities, ciphers, and stylistics—“quotations” from the past and subliminal signals from the future—that cannot be locked down, typecast, or manipulated, except for a brief moment of semiotic shock and retroversion intended primarily to energize and to provide a new impetus and momentum.

McCain’s choice of Palin, which of course was a surprise, served the same purpose. In contrast to the pundits who gauged it wrongly as a play for unmollified Hillary supporters, then tut-tutted over how shallow that appeared on the surface, the effect was not at all a symbolic appeal for an uncommitted constituency. It was semiotic shock—pure and simple. There was, and is, something about Palin that not only “broke the mold” but roiled the roles—an evangelical Protestant that barely mentions faith in the political arena, a mother and moose-hunter, a free-marketeer that challenges corporate America like a grass-roots community activist and muckraker, a Republican with close family members who carry union cards, a polite PTA member who carries from her days in competitive sports the nickname of “Sarah Barracuda.” With Palin there is less rhetoric of “fighting evil,” and more language of the “public good,” a vocabulary some consider unfamiliar to the party of Reagan and George W. Bush. Where these trends will sweep us in the current presidential election is, as Derrida would phrase it, an aporia or an “undecidable.” The name of the game is the differend.

Pure Differentiality

The pure differentiality of ever-changing identity gambits and options that are time-vectored in seemingly incompatible directions is what The Dark Knight communicates. But out of this differentiality emerges a relativity that is too fluid even for the charge of relativism. Moral or political actors do not do whatever they do because it all comes down somehow to “anything goes” and “what’s good for me”—the relativism option which in reality is a cartoonish abstraction that few people actually use as a criterion for decision-making. They do what they do because they believe they are following the right course of action, however they may conceive it. Very often, as ethicists will tell you, the failure of moral choice has more to do with lack of adequate information about what is the likely outcome of a decision, a blindness to both the big picture and to context. The relativity of moral outcomes, rather than the relativity of moral principles, is what the postmodern saga really amounts to.

Consider the Iraq War. The relativity of outcomes arises from the differentiality of the countless, and often contradictory, roles one is expected to play in the contemporary political world—champion of the weak against the strong, skilled diplomat, effective communicator, sensitivity to the “diversity” of profiles and personal views, tough executive, et cetera.

Such a profusion of roles and identities means, in effect, that it becomes increasingly impossible to perform the role or to possess for any length of time the identity that is assigned by the political process, if only because these multiple labels and expectations cancel each other out and erode rapidly beyond recognition. Hillary, the would-be breaker of the glass ceiling in politics, fades to Hillary the would-be catty spoiler of the moment when the first African American ascends to the nomination of a major party, and then she is revived suddenly as the gracious facilitator of party unity. Obama, the genteel, Lincoln-like, and lofty speaking unifier of a nation, comes to be rapidly perceived as an arrogant manipulator with a messiah complex, yet who upon entrancing 85,000 onlookers in a stage-crafted, purely political, Wagneresque Gesamtkunstwerk or “total artwork,” is suddenly transfigured again into a true-grit crusader for the cause of the marginalized and dispossessed. The very day after the “woman thing” has been put to rest in the Democratic Party, it is revived the next day in a completely rococo manner by the Republicans themselves, playing out again mostly among Democrats. She’s supposed to be Hillary, but how cheap and dirty of you to suggest she is! Worse, she’s an evangelical Christian! That makes her a Republican, but disqualifies her as a woman politician. And so on.

But those sorts of catcalls, like the Republican charge that Obama is really a liberal, miss the point. Obama is as liberal as Palin, or John McCain, for that matter, is conservative. But neither is neither; that would require an essentialist imagination. Everyone who is “elsewhere,” who is “other” in terms of where any one of us is situated in the differential play of political signifiers, we try to essentialize, only at our peril. For we are not standing on solid ground either. We desperately struggle to essentialize ourselves as having a position in order to differentiate ourselves for the instant that it is possible. Identity politics is not a zero-sum game. There is no sum at all, only the differential equation. This points to both messianic hope—what Derrida in his later works describes as the messianism that is always differentiated with respect to the present but is not the future in any essential way, that is forever avenir, or “to come”—and to the terror of any postmodern politics. But there remains a profound danger in this messianic longing that is compelled by the accelerating force of the differential. The differential, which in Lyotard’s view is constantly pressing us to “present the unpresentable,” also reveals the yawning dark abyss of a totalizing and—dare we say “eschatological”?—madness. If the ethical demand appears impossible, it is even more demanding, he tells us. Amid the silence of the collapse of metanarratives, “we can hear the mutterings of the desire for a return of terror.”9

Postmodern Heroism

The Dark Knight is about politics, but it is about a political order that becomes ultimately confused because the consequences of playing the familiar roles in the end turn out to be paradoxical, illegible, and incalculable. Batman as the caped crusader can be neither victorious nor vilified. Increasingly he does what he seemingly has to do in sequentially tainted situations, a progression which taints future circumstances even more profoundly. Yet the movie does not amount to some kind of campy, nihilistic celebration.

The two words concerning the postmodern, which are often released in double-barreled fusillades by ignorant and all-too-mindless critics, are of course relativism and nihilism. These words are intended to rhetorically comprise an inductive chain—the would-be default of absolutes means that the lack of absolutes turns out to be absolute by default. This latter absolutism is what is suggested by deployment of the theological n-word.

The labyrinthine progression in the film of ethical ambiguity, violence, and an ambient spiritual darkness, lightened only by a curious, almost ethical, determination on the part of certain characters to stand down when ethics itself seems impossible, becomes a strange attractor for a true, already deconstructed heroism that Batman signifies. He is the dark knight not at the beginning but at the conclusion of the entire, complex cinematic logic. The dark knight moves in darkness but is not in himself dark. He is the postmodern, post-Hegelian “owl of Minerva” that takes flight when moral philosophy “paints its gray on gray.” He is the still unspecified pure differend of stage-crafted, substanceless, hyperreal identity politics. He is the spirit of power that falls upon the postmodern political warrior—a Deborah or a Samson—who perhaps has some of the enigmatic undecidables and momentary singularity of Nietzsche’s “overman,” who can only say “yes” where nihilists cry “no.”

Where is Batman? That’s the familiar question from the older version of the Batman comic strip. To locate Batman today we must look for a dark horse in the current election. From one perspective the dark horse is a nightmare; from another perspective he or she is a horse with no name mounted by a rider with no name. “And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse.” The rider on the horse had a name “known only to himself.” Yet, this nameless name is “faithful and true.”10 The nameless name, we know, is neither Republican nor Democrat. It is what we mean when we say the differend of all historical epochs, when we say “Christ.”



3.;art692,2604342 (translated from the German).

4. See Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. Georges Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

5. See Charles Jencks, The Language of Postmodern Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1984).

6. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 1.

7. Ibid.


9. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 82.

10. Revelation 19:11–12.