Thursday, January 1, 2009

On Apollo, Dionysius, and Batman

In response to Paul's post on The Dark Knight:

The gap between the illusion/"hope" of justice, represented by Dent, and the ugly reality of enforcement and extralegality, represented both by the Joker and Batman, connects to some of the most fascinating issues I've been grappling with lately. It seems related to the Birth of Tragedy, as the division between the Apollonian and Dionysian is in one sense that between a comforting illusion of order and sanity on the one hand, and the brutal confrontation with the fundamentally chaotic nature of existence on the other. It ties in even more closely with a discussion I was recently having with my brother, who is a nascent libertarian. My argument to him (though I didn't put it in these terms) was that, ironically, libertarianism is founded on an assumed Apollonian worldview. That is, you can only argue for libertarianism if you believe that the world is subject to an emergent meta-order that develops from the unrestrained actions of many individuals. My contrary position, as a socialist, is essentially dionysian - that we live in a world and society that are ultimately chaotic, and that the important thing is to construct institutions that combat that chaos.
The Dent/Batman duality puts that division on slightly different ground, since Dent's status as the Lawgiver is both personal and institutional - he represents both humanity as Apollonian, and the forces of the state maintaining order in the face of the Dionysian, which is embodied in the Joker, but which implicitly exists in all of us (even Dent).
These two forces have historically traded off - a book like "A Canticle for Leibowitz" shows the episodic nature of human history, achievement followed by collapse ad infinitum. The solution proposed by "The Dark Knight," one that seems to accord with contemporary socialist thought, particularly Laclau, is that one possible way to eliminate this cycle is to make sure that the Dionysian and the Apollonian remain in balance. This requires that the Dionysian remain fundamentally 'outside' but still imaginatively accessible. This is the point of the end of the film - the best way Batman can help maintain order is to remain ultimately outside of order. All of the bat-imitators, even the bat-signal, are symbols of the integration of chaos into order, and that integration ultimately leaves the ordered universe itself less stable. I’m reminded of the chapter from “Freakonomics” about promiscuity – the point that large amounts of celibacy actually makes sex more dangerous by reducing the number of participants and increasing the risk for each one. Stricter and stricter order leads inevitably to its own cataclysmic collapse.

1 comment:

Shef said...

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