Batman Agonistes

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I originally wrote my last blog post exactly the day before the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Since my post was a cultural analysis of The Dark Knight Rises, I withdrew it once I learned what happened out of respect for the victims. I return to the topic of Batman now, because the tragedy has made me think further about the cultural significance of the entire Batman franchise.This revised blog post differs from what I wrote originally; its subject is not any particular Batman movie, graphic novel, or comic book, but Batman himself, the passions that he raises, and what it all might mean. Even before Aurora, the new Batman movie was raising passions. Rotten Tomatoes had already had to take the unusual step of closing its comments section when the responses turned especially nasty after a couple of reviewers panned the movie. Now, one rule of thumb for cultural semiotics is that if people start getting passionate about something as trivial as a cartoon superhero who runs around in a bat suit, then maybe things aren't so trivial after all. Something is going on. I've been pondering this, and realize that we can see Batman as a signifier within a cultural terrain that has been called the "posthuman condition" by a number of cultural philosophers. Though there is a great deal of disagreement about the precise meaning of the word posthuman, I think that it actually works pretty well when looking at a figure like Batman. For Batman is posthuman if we see "posthuman" as being equivalent to "transhuman," for with his body armor and arsenal of machines Batman is indeed something of a cyborg, and the transhuman cyborg is one of the tropes of posthumanity. There is plenty of evidence, from the 1970s Six Million Dollar Man to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, The Terminator, and beyond, that the posthuman cyborg is a figure with a great deal of cultural resonance, and with whom people identify. At the same time, the fact that Bruce Wayne disguises himself as a bat is consistent with a posthuman fascination with crossing the lines of conventional species classification, with the Pandorans probably standing as the most popular current avatars (pun intended) of cross-species popularity, but vampires could fit in here as well.  Heck, even zombies are posthuman in their way. But I think that there is something else going on with batman beyond the posthuman dimension. For one thing, not everyone equates the posthuman with the transhuman. That is, in the opinion of cultural theorists like Cary Wolfe, the celebration of the transhuman cyborg is an extension of Enlightenment attitudes toward science and technology, and ultimately reflect a Eurocentric and anthropocentric concept of humanity that goes back to the Renaissance and the dawn of the modern humanities. For such philosophers, posthumanism breaks from that tradition, deconstructing the European tradition of viewing man both as the "measure of all things" and as a white heterosexual male existing in a hierarchical opposition to the rest of the world. From this perspective, then, Batman is anything but posthuman. A rich white male who runs his own crime-fighting empire, Batman is a hero whose ethics are entrepreneurial and whose power comes from his successful position in a market-driven world (he's a rich banker). One might say, accordingly, that Batman is something of a "neoliberal" figure, someone who conforms to the neoliberal socioeconomic ethos that prizes entrepreneurial initiative, deplores governmental planning or intervention, and worships the "market." And here, I think, lies an important clue to at least some of the passion that surrounds this otherwise comical figure. For a culture war is raging in our society between those who embrace a posthumanist vision for humanity (that is, environmentalist, feminist, anti-Eurocentric, animal-rights-embracing, Queer, and so on) and those who cling to a neoliberalism that values technopower, market capitalism, individualism, and anglocentrism.  Batman is a hero to the latter—an often-youthful audience that also frequently holds libertarian views that are quite consonant with neoliberalism—and his fans who identify with him don't take kindly to any criticism. Of course, most people don't use such terms as neoliberal and posthuman (conservative and liberal, respectively, are the common equivalents), so to put this in more ordinary terms (and cultural studies scholars should always be prepared to do that), Batman is a hero to those (often young men still in school) who are aware that their values, while widely embraced by society at large, are not shared by all their classmates or professors (the professoriate is universally regarded as "liberal" or "socialist"). And when fundamental values get challenged, that usually leads to passionate resistance. So we don't have to get involved in a hopeless discussion about gun control and violence when it comes to the significance of Batman (after all, Batman eschews the use of guns, and he is hardly the only violent figure in contemporary entertainment). His meaning goes beyond violence into differing visions of what America should be. It is probably no accident that this latest Batman tale has Batman defeating someone who is metaphorically exploiting the Occupy movement; that's what any good neoliberal superhero would want to do. To put it all only half-jokingly, we might expect a new Batman story soon in which the villain's name sounds suspiciously like "Obamacare." I only hope he doesn't wear tights or wear a silly mask.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.