Voyou Désœuvré

Two bad reviews of The Dark Knight: bad in the sense that they’re poorly executed reviews, as well as being highly critical of the film. There are a number of annoying things about John Pistelli’s review, but the politically important one is the claim that:

Batman, operating outside the law to protect the defenseless people, represents a kind of Bush/Cheney figure, doing what he has to do for the good of the homeland.

He seems to have somehow forgotten that George Bush is the president of the US, and so he can hardly be said to be “operating outside the law”; indeed, the Bush administration’s particular mode of employment of the law is one of its distinguishing features.

Lenin’s review also struck me as kind of wrong, but it took me a while to figure out why. Part of the problem is a lack of specificity. Lenin argues that the film is fascist because it foregrounds an exceptional individual, an extra-legal strong man. But these are the things that define the superhero genre, so saying that they apply to The Dark Knight doesn’t tell us anything specific about the film. A statement doesn’t simply mean something on its own, it gets its meaning from its relationship to a range of standards and conventions; so the meaning of generic conventions lies not in their literal meaning, but in how they are deployed. What is it about this Batman film that makes the use of superhero tropes fascist?

More generally, both these reviews frame their critique around a claim that the film embodies or reflects capitalist ideology of a particular sort, rather ludicrously in John’s case, where the problem with the film is held to be its limitation of political options to the American mainstream: “What’s on the menu in The Dark Knight? The same thing that’s on the two-party American political menu, year in and year out.”

But again, this fails to sufficiently distinguish the film, and raises a more general question about the point of left-wing criticism. What critical edge is there in saying that a film reflects capitalist ideology? What else could a film produced in a capitalist world do? To say that a film embodies capitalist ideology is not a criticism, it’s a banal fact, true of every film ever made. Both these reviews, it seems to me, exhibit a deeply flawed understanding of ideology. The thought seems to be that a film has a message, which is conveyed, perhaps with more or less resistance, into the mind of the viewer; the problem with ideology, then, is that this message is a lie that serves the interests of capital. The problem is that this makes the mechanism by which both ideology and ideology-critique work into something magical. Where is the “meaning” located in the film? How does it travel from the celluloid to my head? How do I, the left-wing critic, resist the power of this meaning? How do I know it to be false?

Materialism provides a way out of these questions. Ideology is not something foreign, something in a film with a strange power to impose itself on our minds; ideology is what we and the film share, what allows for the transfer of specific meanings between film and audience (a transfer which is not one way). As Žižek puts it, ideology is made up of “unknown knowns”; that is to say, the problem with ideology is not that it is a falsehood of which we might be persuaded, but because it is a truth that we already accept without knowing it. The point of ideology critique, then, shouldn’t be to try and ward off the dangers in what the film is trying to tell us, but to try and figure out what the film can tell us about ourselves.


  1. a b, 3:34 am, August 5, 2008

    The claim that “George Bush is the president of the US, and so he can hardly be said to be “operating outside the law” doesn’t quite convince; you have a certain point there–there is a serious difference between a rogue freelance vigilante and a cowboy president–but the whole tenor of the Bush presidency has been a contempt for legal constraints in a way that makes the parallel inescapable for so many readers. In fact, since you’ve just paraphrased the John Yoo line of reasoning (that the president cannot break the law, b/c president), it should be significant that such reasoning has, in theory, been roundly rebuked, right?

    Your deeper point about ideology, though, seems spot on. But I’m not sure I’m willing to follow you all the way to the point of dismissing ideological critique in the way you have. For example, one of the DK’s ideological biases is against new deal liberalism, the failed policies of Bruce Wayne’s father. This claim is intensely ideological, but it exists at the level of realism (the storytelling claim that what happens in the film is a representation of reality) and it adds to the stock pool of common knowledge that Americans have about the ineffectiveness of government when it tries to do things like build mass transit or public water. Recognizing that as “ideological” isn’t quite the same thing as making the superhero=fascist fantasy connection, but something more akin to calling out Rush Limbaugh on using false facts and figures.

  2. http://chainedtothecinematheque.blogspot.com/, 8:20 am, August 5, 2008

    perhaps the formatting will work this time:

    I can’t agree with “To say that a film embodies capitalist ideology is not a criticism, it’s a banal fact, true of every film ever made.”[emphasis mine]. Would you say that about every book ever written? About Kapital? The relative invisibility of films that resist may be a fact, but so is their existence.

  3. voyou, 10:35 am, August 5, 2008

    I didn’t mean to say that the president qua president can’t do anything illegal; just that his actions can’t be straightforwardly outside the law in the way a vigilante’s are – the lengths John Yoo and others go to to give legal grounds for the administration’s actions seem like a good example of this. Rather than just disregarding the law, the current administration seeks to instrumentalize it in various ways.

    As to whether all books as well as films embody capitalist ideology, I’d say yes, although perhaps “embody” wasn’t quite the right word to choose. What I mean is, the parameters of our thought are drawn from ideology – accepting and resisting ideology both exist in relation to it. This is why Capital is a critique of political economy, rather than a positive work of Marxist economics, because it employs (capitalist) political economy in a critical way. Likewise, films that resist capitalist ideology do so by making it visible in certain particular ways, rather than being outside of or offering an alternative to ideology.

  4. voyou, 10:36 am, August 5, 2008

    Oh, and sorry about the formatting problems – they should be fixed now.

  5. a b, 3:14 pm, August 6, 2008

    The trouble with a claim like this: “the parameters of our thought are drawn from ideology – accepting and resisting ideology both exist in relation to it” is that it denies a non-ideological point of view can exist, yet somehow still holds up the possibility of “resistance” in a way that becomes very hard to define (the problem with a word like “embody”). It’s a big question, I guess, but for me, the already foreclosed nature of “resistance” in such a scenario makes it kind of a vacuous concept, especially when such an imprecisely defined concept as “capitalism” is the thing being resisted.

    On the other hand, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing simultaneously with both of your claims in that comment; maybe that only proves your point!

  6. palmer1984, 3:42 am, August 8, 2008

    It could be argued that the superhero genre is fascist – have you read The Watchmen?

    But you’re right – this doesn’t say anything specific about Batman.

    What annoys me about the left critics of the film, is they fail to see that Batman is neither particularly sympathetic or interesting. The film is about the Joker and Harvey Dent.

  7. Jasper, 7:23 pm, August 8, 2008

    Hey Voyou,

    I like what you’ve done with the place.

    I agree with the overall point of this piece. The difference between, say, Lenin’s and K-Punk’s views of the movie is really one of tone–as long as one doesn’t expect movies to deliver political effects, only political knowledge, then one can enjoy and learn from a movie that conveys a strong conservative viewpoint. The problem comes when critics commend a movie like The Dark Night for its critical and moral good sense, or when the movie engages critical positions only to neutralize them in its final 30-min. run-through of every action-movie cliche in the book. . . I think this is what irritates people about The Dark Knight, that it isn’t transparent like Transformers. None of this means I don’t find the movie interesting. Nor do I disagree with you that sometimes the “content” of ideology is a lot less important than it’s form. But content isn’t wholly insignificant, even if there is no non-ideological (in Zizekian/Althusserian terms) content that we can imagine.

    I have to agree with a b, though, about the Schmittian overtones in the film. Pistelli could have phrased his claim a bit better, but I still think it’s true that being “the law” or “the executive branch” is, also, a la Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”, being “outside the law.” And Bush’s arrogation of emergency powers to himself is pretty well-remarked. It’s probably more that saying Bush-Cheney allow for the executive to take on Batman-like powers–extraordinary rendition, black sites, enhanced interrogation. . .

    Are you around this semester? We should grab a drink or coffee.


  8. cynic librarian, 7:26 am, August 9, 2008

    jasper, Good remarks, echoing similar ones I’d like to expand on. The question is how to walk the tight-rope in explaining ideology without theory intruding. This latter phenomenon is most explicitly seen in Lenin’s review; much less explicitly in Voyou’s.

    I think this issue of theory and critiquing films is important; when doing it, one doesn’t really say it’s only objective in a reductionist way, nor simply subjectivist, but you are saying that the film takes its material and arranges it in such a way that a capitalist would not disagree and which invites viewers to accept that way of life–as depicted in the actions of the characters–as legitimate.

    Of course, once you even begin opposing subjective/objective, you create the illusion that these are somehow states of a kind or another. That’s the illusionary double-dealing language brings with it.

  9. voyou, 10:28 pm, August 10, 2008

    I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of form and content. I don’t think the problem with the two reviews I mention is exactly that they’re focussed on content rather than form – indeed, in a way, the problem is that they don’t talk about the content enough, they talk about abstractions from the content (Batman as neocon) without specifying exactly how the content instantiates these abstractions. Which might be another way of saying that you can’t draw a sharp line between form and content (the form is the form of its content, and vice versa).

    We should indeed get a drink or something.

    cynic librarian, the distinction between subjective and objective sounds interesting in relation to ideology and films, but I don’t follow your comment in detail; care to say more?

  10. Ideology « American Stranger, 8:24 pm, September 20, 2008

    […] here with some sad/hilarious examples referenced here) to discerning what superhero movies can “tell us about ourselves.” But the upshot is the permission to fall back on older theories of interpretation, most of which […]

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