Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Fighting terror with fear

While I quite enjoyed it, I must admit the new "Batman Begins" film reads rather like Giorgio Agamben for Dummies. It's a regular pageant of homos sacer, a litany of superego excesses who all give rise to one another and then take turns clashing in hierarchical order to match the rising tensions and revelations of the plot.

Meanwhile the rank and file, body politic, cogs of codified justice, cower on the sidelines.

And just because it's such a hot topic these days, fear, or should we say terror, is the thread that holds everything -- narrativewise and theorywise -- together.

This being the first post-9/11 cinematic Batman offering, the film submits itself to all the standard questions, not the least of which is: Is Batman a terrorist?

Well, come to think of it, I guess, maybe, yes.

Bruce Wayne, once he gets his priorities straightened out, says he wants to strike fear into the hearts of those who strike fear into the hearts of the innocent bystanders of the world. The classic formula -- give them a dose of their own medecine, fight fire with fire, or more appropriately, fight fear with fear.

From the petty theif to the mad psychiatrist to the secret society hell-bent on purging humanity of its latest Babylon, Gotham City, Batman is there to out-terrorize the terrorists.

This is all so fascinating I barely know where to begin.

A bit of arithmetic seems the simplest way into this mess of superego excesses -- It is the robber who kills Bruce Wayne's parents who engenders the vigilante in Bruce Wayne. It is the poverty of Gotham City that engenders the philantropy in Bruce Wayne's father. It is Bruce Wayne's father's death that engenders Wayne Corporation's foray into high tech military R&D. It is this clandestine research that contributes in large part to the creation of the Batman persona --- but here's the key reversal, Wayne Corp., the extension of the Wayne family and of Bruce Wayne's own body, also engenders Gotham's near-destruction through its water vaporizer.

As a movie, Batman Begins is on the long side, but one really must admire how expertly it rolls the U.S. military industrial complex, the U.S. capitalist economy, urban poverty, urban corruption, the U.S. criminal justice system, vigilantism, experimental psychiatry, organized crime, and who knows what else together, bouncing them off one another and making them all give birth to one another.

Of course, any action film must be larger than life, and so the final action of the film is to stage a battle between the two greatest and most inscrutable and amorphous figures of the film -- Batman himself and the League of Shadows and Ra's al Ghul. Both are so far outside or above the law they are considered criminal, yes -- terroristic, yes -- but most importantly they are highly ideological forces. Thus we have one superego excess, the vigilante, Batman, who believes the U.S. legal system is more or less OK but needs a little help now and then, versus another superego excess, the League of Shadows, which holds that any civilization must be brought low after reaching a certain threshold of decadence. A supplemental force versus a countervaling force, both beyond the scope of the real, both opposed in the finer points of their ideologies of justice.

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