Batman and Girard, Part 3--Hope to Poison Their Souls

I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope. So, as I terrorize Gotham, I will feed its people hope to poison their souls. I will let them believe they can survive so that you can watch them clamoring over each other to "stay in the sun." You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra's al Ghul's destiny... We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to die.


We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you... the people. Gotham is yours. None shall interfere. Do as you please. Start by storming Blackgate, and freeing the oppressed! Step forward those who would serve. For an army will be raised. The powerful will be ripped from their decadent nests, and cast out into the cold world that we know and endure. Courts will be convened. Spoils will be enjoyed. Blood will be shed. The police will survive, as they learn to serve true justice. This great city... it will endure. Gotham will survive!

--Bane, The Dark Knight Rises

So, after a long delay, back with more on the Dark Knight trilogy and Girard.  I promise that I will move this series along more expeditiously than I have been doing.

Any discussion of The Dark Knight Rises should begin by acknowledging that it is the weakest of the three movies in the trilogy by far.  There are serious plot problems and discontinuities.  The character of Catwoman/Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is completely wasted, and becomes nothing more than a device to drive the plot forward.  And, most unforgivably, the ending provides the very deus ex machina that the trilogy had stubbornly, steadfastly resisted up until that point.  It is a serious let down after The Dark Knight. 

Still, upon a recent re-watching, there is good stuff among the weeds.  The two antagonists--Bane and Miranda Tate/Talia al Ghul, show an understanding of  and ability to manipulate "the system" to achieve their ends, which is the destruction of Gotham City and the fulfillment of Ra's al Ghul and the League of Shadows' agenda.  In doing so, they are (to use Marxist terminology) "heightening the contradictions" inherent in "the system."  These contradictions, Girard would tell us, are baked into "the system," because "the system" is just one more manifestation of the Sacred.  Like the Joker, though from a different direction, Bane and Talia are pointing out realities in our comfortable system of law and order that we would prefer not to see.  It's for this reason that I consider Bane and Talia to be "hybrid" villains--utilizing some of the "chaos" tactics and insights of the Joker in service of the "order" agenda (such as it is) of Ra's al Ghul.

To see this in action, it is helpful to bring in a Girardian-influenced theorist that I have mentioned before--Jean-Pierre Dupuy, and in particular his book Marks of the Sacred.  This book is packed with interesting insights, but one of the most provocative has to do with the nature of civil society.  Those of us in the West, especially in the United States, like to think that our societies are meritocratic and egalitarian.  Sure, most of us understand that our societies don't fully live up to that standard, but we look at such failures as problems to be solved on the way to society being what it can be and should be.

Dupuy turns this on its head.  A purely secular civil society should never be seen as fully meritocratic and egalitarian, and in fact can't be such if it wants to survive for very long, he argues.  It needs some perception of injustice and inequality in order to function, because that "slack" in the system gives people hope that they will be able to overcome their own situation.  They have to believe that some outcomes are arbitrary and capricious and unfair, because to think otherwise is to fall into despair about their state.  And people who fall into despair have no choice but to result in violence.

Consider another movie--Gattaca, a 90s science fiction movie starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.  The premise of Gattaca is that in the future "designer children," children optimized using genetic engineering, will become the norm.  As a result, all of the important positions in society will be determined by one's genetic excellence, and natural born children become the underclass.  Ethan Hawke's character is a natural born person who wants to be an astronaut, so he concocts an elaborate scheme to pretend to be someone else (with an excellent genetic profile) to get into astronaut training.  A couple of police officers are trying to discover whether someone has infiltrated the program, while the powers-that-be believe this to be impossible, as no one who is genetically inferior could ever excel in the program.  Hawke does excel, of course, and so he has to keep his real identity secret.

Both the police officers and the astronaut training authorities think that it is important to preserve the idea that only the genetically superior can succeed at something like astronaut training, and that it would be destructive for people to learn that the non-optimized can succeed as well.  That's not quite right.  Imagine the alternative, one where the designer children are truly superior in ever way, such that Hawke has no chance to compete.  If the rhetoric of genetic superiority is really true, then if Hawke wants to be an astronaut, the only option he has is to destroy the system entirely, probably including killing the genetically superior.  If the upper class is truly better than you in every way (and the system is thus 100% "fair") the only way to increase your station is to get rid of  your betters so you can replace them.  And, eventually, people will realize this, and opening the door to social violence.

The problem with Gattaca, though, is that it swings too far in the other direction, and suggests that the social structure is actually arbitrary.  After all, Ethan Hawke is just as good as the genetically enhanced and is able to make it through training with a bit of moxie.  If it really is the case that people like Hawke can will their way to changing the system, eventually people will realize that the Emperor has no clothes.  A truly arbitrary social system is very fragile, especially once we get a little bit of understanding about the Sacred.  It's just as subject to being torn down as one that everyone believes to be completely meritocratic.

What you really want for a stable society, Dupuy would argue, is for people like Ethan Hawke to believe that they can overcome the system, but not be actually able to do that.  If you believe that the system is arbitrary and you have the chance to compete with your betters, you are incentivized to try, and thus incentivized not to blow up the system.  But if the system is solidly grounded, the Ethan Hawkes of the world will never be able to actually change anything, and instead flail away uselessly.  So, a perception of arbitrariness, even if the system is not in fact arbitrary, is actually the most stable one.  The perception of unfairness becomes a means of social control.

This, I think, is what Bane is talking about when he speaks of "hope to poison their souls."  Bane stages a series of provocations to encourage the population of Gotham to believe that they can "flip" the society of Gotham, as seen in his Occupy Wall Street-esque speech quoted above that he gives immediately after taking over the city.  All of these power structures are completely arbitrary, Bane says, so all you need to throw them off is desire to do so.  The only thing you have to lose is your chains, one might say.

Bane doesn't really believe this, of course.  It's 100% cynical; all of this quasi-Marxist agitation is just a way to distract people while he completes the destruction of Gotham pursuant to the League of Shadows' gameplan.  He understands perfectly well that overthrowing oppressive institutions usually results in the formation of new, equally oppressive institutions, exemplified by the kangaroo courts in Blackgate prison.  The great Communist project of the 20th Century teaches us that popular revolutions quickly devolve into a new set of elites oppressing a new set of peasants, often using the same techniques as the old elites against the old peasants.  We are trapped within this system.

But, as Bane understands, you have to believe that this time it will be different.  It is that belief that keeps you running inside the hamster wheel.  It's why the Susan Sarandons of the world think that this purging fire will be different from the endless procession of previous failed ones.  That is also what Bane is trying to do to Bruce Wayne in the prison--show him the tower that he thinks he can climb, but actually can't.  The tower is to Wayne what all of the Marxist talk is to the people of Gotham.

But for this strategy of Bane's to work, you have to be sure that the hope you are offering cannot actually be fulfilled.  There cannot be any Ethan Hawkes who can truly take the baton of the hope that is offered and run with it.  You have to be sure that no one is able to escape from the prison of hope that you have created.  Bane failed to understand this lesson when he presented the tower to Wayne--he knew that Talia once escaped the tower, so he should have known that someone else could do it again.

Hope that can never be fulfilled will poison your soul.  Hope that presents a true opportunity for redemption is the path to liberation.  Our job is to figure out which is which.  


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