Judgment and the Crisis of Legitimacy (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 3)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as mention of plot elements from The Dark Knight Rises, though not major spoilers.

I ended the last segment by remarking on the fundamental ambiguity about Batman’s vocation in relation to Gotham—is he still a vigilante, a private avenger, or has he really become somehow a public agent of justice?  As we shall see, this reflects a deeper ambiguity about Gotham itself—is Gotham a community capable of enacting justice, a community which Batman may represent in some way?

It seems like Batman wants to have it both ways.  He desires to work with Gotham’s formal structures of justice, yet outside them; he wants to have a free hand to beat up criminals who need it, but he draws the line there—he will not, like Ducard, take it upon himself to kill them.  He remains masked and hidden, waging his fight against justice in the darkness, rather than in the light of public knowledge, where true judgment must be enacted.  He wants to hang up the mask and cape,* but is repeatedly forced to take them up again.   Read More


Judgment: Public and Private, Finite and Infinite (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 2)

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, and Memento, but NOT The Dark Knight Rises)

We ended the first installment asking why Rachel’s admonition to Bruce in Batman Begins that revenge is “never the same” as justice should always hold true.  What if the public system of justice is broken, and only the private individual can set wrongs right?

Here we can turn back to O’Donovan for illumination.  The proper object of judgment, he says, is a “new public context, and in this way judgment is distinct from all actions that have as their object a private or restricted good.”  Harvey (or Wayne at the beginning of the trilogy) might contend that they do have the public good in mind, however much it may appear to be a mere private vendetta.  But in any case, this is not enough for legitimacy: “A political act with political authority occurs where not only the interests of the community are in play, but the agency of the community as well.”  Why is this so important? 

“Political judgment prevents the fragmentation of the public space into myriad private spaces, each construed according to the differing perceptions and emotions of individual agents.  This is necessary because the dissolution of the common world into mutual incomprehension is always possible.  The alternative to public judgment is not no judgment, but private judgments, multitudinous and conflicting, frustrating each other and denying everyone the space of freedom.  ‘There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judg. 21:25).  A private person acting only on his or her own behalf could not establish a new public context, and so could not perform an act of political judgment.  The private act of vengeance, even if it is intended to serve the common good, is not done ‘on behalf of’ the community.  There was a popular story-line used by more than one author in the heyday of the detective story, which concerned a public-spirited individual resolved, in a spirit of disinterested justice, to settle society’s unpaid debts by killing off its unpunished murderers.  The pleasing paradox in the idea was that the objects of this disinterested justice inevitably became victims rather than executed criminals.  Such informal dealings could never give society what it needs in response to crime, which is judgment.” (23-24)  

This “popular story-line” is of course one construal of Harvey Two-Face’s determination to hunt down the corrupt cops who colluded with the Joker’s schemes.  Such a resort to private judgment, “construed according to the perceptions and emotions of an individual agent,” cannot in the end remain a judgment according to truth, as Nolan is keen to show us. Read More


Judgment According to Truth (Theopolitical Reflections on Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Pt. 1)

Warning: This post contains major spoilers from The Dark Knight, though not from The Dark Knight Rises (although certain themes and plot elements from the latter are discussed)

The haunting and acclaimed film The Dark Knight ended with one of the most arresting and morally provocative twists in Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre (and for anyone familiar with his films, that is truly saying something).  Confronted with the awful truth that Gotham’s “White Knight,” Harvey Dent, the city’s last best hope for order, justice, and redemption, has in fact succumbed to the Joker’s nihilistic message that the only justice is that which we make for ourselves, Batman makes a heroic decision.  He will take the guilt of Harvey Two-Face’s crimes upon himself.  He will bear the guilt, he will become an outcast.  He will be the Dark Knight so that Harvey can remain the White, and Gotham can sustain the faith she needs to conquer injustice.  A greater sacrifice, perhaps, than bearing physical death for the sake of the city, for Wayne has already poured himself out, given up his own life to pour it into the symbol that is Batman—now he must accept the death of that symbol, as it becomes an image of evil, that the city might be freed from evil.*

It is as profound an image of the Atonement as one can find in recent cinema—the hero becomes guilty in order to make his would-be killers innocent, takes evil upon himself so that his people would not have to bear its curse and stain.  And yet, something is amiss.  For this noble act of self-sacrifice is a lie.  Nolan makes no effort to hide from us this rejection of truth:

“It’s what needs to happen.  Because sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.  Sometimes people deserve more,” says Batman.  

And so Gordon duly tells his lie.  Tells how Dent was a hero, and how Batman, a vigilante with his own agenda, turned on him in the end and murdered him (the truth precisely in reverse, of course).  Batman becomes an outcast, Dent a hero.  And Dent’s death provides the city a new start.  Upon this murder a new political order is to be forged, justice is at last to be realized.  What neither Harvey nor Batman could bring to pass on the basis of truth is at last to be achieved on the basis of a lie.  The film thus leaves the viewer with sharply divided sympathies, torn with the moral ambiguity of the situation, as so many of Nolan’s films do.  The nobility of Batman’s abnegation stands in irreconcilable tension with the sense that justice founded on falsehood cannot succeed.

It also renders deeply ambiguous the otherwise deafening Christological resonances.  For while Christ takes the guilt of his people, including those who want to kill him, upon himself, and thereby restores the possibility of a community of justice, his judgment is a proclamation of the truth about us and about himself, and the justice that he establishes is a justice dependent upon truth-telling.  While he may appear to be the Sinner, this is only temporary, and with the resurrection he is vindicated as the Righteous One, who does not merely take the guilt of the people upon himself, but buries it forever so that he may share with them his righteousness.  The ending of the Dark Knight, to be sure, does not foreclose the possibility that the scapegoating will be temporary, that the Dark Knight will rise and receive his public vindication, but it certainly leaves us with an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs.**

  Read More


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Climate Change

This past weekend, while tens of millions sweltered and withered in the triple-digit heat and all-time heat records snapped like matchsticks across the eastern United States, I had a small epiphany: We need climate change.  Just think about it.  What would our society do without it?  

In our day, records, we might say, especially if preceded with that scintillating qualifier “all-time,” are the opiate of the masses, and hence the lifeblood of the media.  In every area of human endeavor, increasingly sated by the sheer ubiquity of entertainment and “news,” we have come to require an extra source of stimulus to keep us interested.  Merely winning a game or an award is not enough—“unprecedented” feats must be achieved, records must be broken.  But of course, the problem with records is that, almost by definition, they should usually become more and more difficult to break as time goes on, and hence more and more rarely broken.  It is relatively easy to establish a new record when they’ve only just started keeping them; rather more difficult when they’ve been tracking for a couple hundred years.  (I was reminded of this recently when a garden-variety warm spell in Scotland prompted a newspaper headline to exclaim “Record-breaking heat hits Scotland”; upon looking more closely, I learned that one recording station had managed to beat its record for that date, and that station had been established in 2007.) 

And so we have had to come up with ways of outwitting the recalcitrance of the record books, and the ways in which we have done so are a testimony to human ingenuity.   

The simplest, cheapest, and most versatile means of “record inflation” is of course inflation itself, usable in any context where the records in question are economic (which nowadays, means almost any context).  The simple fact that money is forever becoming less valuable means that, for any record measured in dollar amounts, one can indefinitely keep establishing new records.  “The largest bankruptcy in history”; “the largest IPO in history”; “the largest budget deficit in history,” etc.  This fact has proven particularly useful in the entertainment history, which thrives on the collective buzz we all receive at the mention of the word “record.”  Box office statistics accordingly give the impression that we are forever being overwhelmed with brilliant, immensely successful films, each more wildly triumphant than the previous, despite our nagging sense that today’s films feel more like an epidemic of mediocrity.  Indeed, box office statistics, not content with the benefits of inflation (and ticket prices have risen faster than the average inflation rate) and of ever-increasing populations and theater counts, have resorted to additional stratagems, such as premium-priced 3D and IMAX tickets, gimmicks like midnight showings, and more, to make sure they are always establishing new records.

 

In pursuits where physical rather than financial achievement is at stake, the record barriers cannot be so easily swept aside.  After all, the human body does not naturally inflate in its capacities as time goes on, and medicinal and nutritional advances can only do so much.  The bluntest way of confronting this problem is the steroid, by which human muscles can indeed be inflated by artificial means.  This has proven baseball’s preferred means of supplying the needed record inflation; unfortunately, however, it tends only to achieve consistently positive effects on batting statistics, so baseball has increasingly lagged behind in the record generation race, perhaps part of the reason for its decline in popularity. 

Basketball has discovered a more elegant solution, one that requires no physical intervention in the sport: simply invent new record categories.  After all, there really is almost no theoretical limit to the number of different records that could be tracked.  If you have the choice between reporting of a game, “The Miami Heat trounced the Lakers tonight after a sterling performance by Lebron James” and saying, “In a stunning performance against the Lakers tonight, Lebron James established a new record for consecutive games with at least 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists against teams from California!” which would you choose?  It’s a no-brainer, as the sports journalism industry has shown us.

The Olympic Games, as might be expected, has pooled the best ideas from different sports to address this problem, making extensive use of steroids and record category invention, plus its own specialty—new forms of scorekeeping.  By overhauling the scoring systems used in gymnastics and figure skating, the Olympics gave competitors a clean slate for creating new record scores, which was a boon to commentators tired of breathlessly informing the public, “That was the first time anyone’s ever landed a triple-axle, triple-toe-loop, double-jump combination in international competition, although last year we did see a triple-axle, triple-jump, double-toe-loop combination several times!”  But the Olympics’ bread-and-butter, when it comes to record inflation, is technological innovation.  New shoes and new ergonomically-designed suits can get runners to the finish line several tenths of a second faster than Harold Abrahams in those old-fashioned white shorts.  Best of all, in swimming, not only can they forever tweak the suit design, but the swimming pool design as well.  Both in Sydney and Beijing, bedazzled audiences were treated to a stunning barrage of record-breaking thanks to “the fastest pools ever designed.”  I have little doubt that scientists preparing for the London Olympics have been experimenting with ways to create frictionless water.  

 

Weather, then, is the last great unconquerable frontier.  Lying outside the realm of human manipulation (so we had thought), it seemed doomed to thwart our record-breaking ambitions.  Left to itself, nature was sure to produce fewer and fewer “unprecedented” events the longer we sat around observing it closely.  To be sure, you will occasionally get the heat wave that comes along to set a new record at a station with 200 years of observations, but unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen again for at least 200 years, statistically speaking.  Meteorologists have of course made extensive use of the record category invention strategy, so that it is not uncommon to read reports like this, “While not setting any absolute record maximums, this heat wave did establish a new record at several sites for consecutive days with a maximum above 90 degrees and a minimum above 70 degrees.”  But this strategy is heavily subject to the law of diminishing returns, especially as the media, always strangely prone to befuddlement when it comes to matters meteorological, find such records too much of a mouthful to report.  No, if the media is to whip up the masses into a frenzy of glued-to-the-screen enthusiasm, they need a steady stream of snappy-sounding new records to report.  

For this, climate change is our savior, providing a veritable ratings bonanza over the past decade or two.  Worst heat waves, worst cold waves, strongest low pressure systems, biggest blizzards, strongest hurricanes, most hurricanes, earliest hurricanes, latest hurricanes, most tornadoes, strongest tornadoes, worst floods, worst droughts, warmest months, “ever recorded”—the superlatives roll on and on.  And best of all, since climate change should keep on worsening for the foreseeable future, we can count on all these new records being broken over and over again.  What more could a weather buff want?


Suspending Judgment: Hooker the Anti-Tweeter

While reading an essay by Georges Edelen this week, “Hooker’s Style,” I came across a more prosaic explanation of my instinctive antipathy to Twitter and its ilk (expounded in recent posts here and here); perhaps Hooker is just rubbing off on me.  Hooker, of course, is notoriously the Anti-Tweeter, occasionally indulging in sentences than can run up to a page in length, and which might take a week to diagram.  His Puritan opponents accused him of “cunningly framed sentences, to blind and entangle the simple”; Thomas Fuller famously described it as “long and pithy, drawing on a whole flock of several clauses before he came to the close of a sentence.”  Indeed, Edelen’s survey of Book I reveals that half his sentences are longer than 40 words, and fully a tenth are longer than 80 words.  However, Edelen suggests that there may be a method to his madness—that in his sentence style we see the key to his thinking as a whole.   

For Hooker’s sentences are not merely remarkable for their length, but quite often for their suspension.  That is to say, rather than stringing together a number of independent clauses, or stating a thesis and then elaborating on it, Hooker often prefers to hold the main clause for many lines, introducing a whole labyrinthine series of dependent clauses first.  Tension builds throughout, as elements of thought are assembled but the meaning of the whole is withheld, until finally, with a triumphant click, the decisive clause snaps into place, concluding the thought.  “The suspension,” says Edelen, “forces the reader ahead into the distinctions and concessions that are necessary to an understanding of the proposition.  The structure of the sentence demands, as in the previous case, that all relevant information be absorbed before a grammatical or logical stopping-place is reached.”  Hooker, in short, does not want you to understand the main point he wishes to convey until you have understood the basis for it and the relevant qualifications, for premature or inadequate understanding can be worse than no understanding at all.  This sort of writing, says Edelen, “is a natural vehicle for the mind that insists that no conclusions can be validly reached prior to a discursive and open-minded examination of all the relevant premises, causes, evidence, arguments, distinctions, or effects. . . . Extended suspensions reflect the methodological tentativeness of a rational process whose conclusions are finally validated by their position in a logical pattern.”

A sample of one of Hooker’s suspended sentences (a comparatively brief one) may be a helpful illustration (divided out into clauses by Edelen; spelling modernized for ease of reading):

1     “Now whether it be that through an earnest longing desire

2     to see things brought to a peaceable end,

3     I do but imagine the matters, whereof we contend,

4     to be fewer then indeed they are,

5     or else for that in truth they are fewer

6     when they come to be discussed by reason,

7     then otherwise they seem, when by heat of contention

8     they are divided into many slips,

9     and of every branch a heap is made:

10   surely, as now we have drawn them together,

11   choosing out those things which are requisite

12   to be severally all discussed,

13   and omitting such mean specialties as are likely

14   (without any great labour)

15   to fall afterwards of themselves;

16   I know no cause why either the number or the length of these controversies should diminish our hope

17   of seeing them end with concord and love on all sides;

18   which of his infinite love and goodness the father of all peace and unity grant.”

 

Of course, once one draws attention to this tendency to hold in logical unity all the relevant premises and qualifications before a conclusion is reached, it is obvious that this is simply Hooker’s whole method in the Lawes in microcosm.  Hooker insists on patiently working through first principles in Books I-IV before attempting to form any conclusions about the particular matters of dispute in V-VIII, and even in these books, he repeatedly draws us back from a narrow focus on the particular to understand the wider context of what is at stake before offering his answers.  The suspension of a conclusion in individual sentences reflects Hooker’s repeated call to his opponents to “suspend” their judgments until they had grasped everything that bears upon the question.  Edelen again:

“Periodicity is, therefore, not simply a favorite grammatical construction for Hooker, but a cast of mind which is reflected everywhere in the Laws.  Not only the syntax of individual sentences but the plan of the entire word is periodic. . . . [quoting Hooker:] ‘So that if the judgments of men do but hold themselves in suspense as touching these first more general meditations, till in order they have perused the rest that ensue: what may seem dark at the first will afterwards be found more plain, even as the later particular decisions will appear, I doubt not more strong, when the other have been read before.’ . . . Suspension is thus to be understood not simply as a syntactical or organizational principle in the Laws but as an expressive embodiment of Hooker’s understanding of the rational processes by which men must seek truth.  The entire force of his attack upon the Puritans lies in his conviction that they have failed to suspending their judgments, that they have leapt to conclusions that are not rationally tenable, precisely because they have failed to take into previous account all of the relevant considerations.”

 

Later in the article, Edelen looks also at the teleological orientation of Hooker’s sentences, in which it is the final few clauses they contain and orient the meaning of the whole, drawing us inexorably forward.  This too, suggests Edelen, reflects deeper philosophical commitments.  

“The concept of final cause dominates the Laws: ‘the nature of every law must be judged of by the end for which it was made, and by the aptness of things therein prescribed unto the same end.’ . . . The flux of the world is, in reality, an orderly pattern of movement toward divinely known and appointed ends, a pattern hierarchically arranged in a chain of causality reaching ultimately to the Final Cause, God Himself. . . . The periodic sentence is itself a syntactical embodiment of this same teleological pattern.  The ‘final cause’ of the grammatical structure is the terminal resolution which exerts an attractive force on the preceding elements, rationally ordering and justifying them as means to a preconceived end.”

 

Although Edelen acknowledges that modern English usage can no longer sustain sentences like Hooker’s, we may still honor the principle that lay behind it—the conviction that there is a complex but coherent rational order to the world, from which no truth, if it is to be rightly understood as truth, can be wantonly snatched out on its own and flung about willy-nilly.