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Ideology critics are a superstitious, cowardly lot

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.