The Dark Knight and René Girard

Last week, I saw The Dark Knight. It was incredible, easily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year and probably in my Top 10 overall. It had a wonderful balance of action, good writing, amazing acting, thoughtful plot, and provocative questions. The questions it raises (and answers?) are, as you would expect from a good Batman movie, all about justice and violence and how much of the latter is permitted in search of the former.

A few months ago, that would have been all I perceived in the film. Recently, however, I’ve been going through René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, since I’d wanted to get a taste of his thought through one of his books rather than from a secondary source like Walter Wink. Anyway, I was nearly done with the book when I saw The Dark Knight, and was surprised when I saw the film explode with new meaning for me, unlocked by Girard’s concepts! I thought a brief exposition of the connections could be illuminating (and maybe inspire someone to read Girard, whom I now believe to be one of the most important thinkers of our time).

Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly, but here we go: his main idea is that there is a hidden principle that ties together all of human society, which stems from the fact that as creatures we are prone to mimetic desire, that is, we are prone to mimicking others’ desires, or desiring what others have. This naturally creates ever-building conflicts (which he calls scandals), and these scandals mount and mount until a moment when there is so much intrasocietal tension that people come to the verge of the “war of all-against-all”, since the only logical conclusion of “mimetic rivalry” is murder. In order to prevent such a catastrophic degradation into pure bestiality and to restore order, Girard thinks these tensions and energies are collectively focused in a spontaneous and unanimous redirection to a swift and violent “war of all-against-one”. This “one” is referred to as the scapegoat, initially demonized then subsequently divinized for his “ability” (through sacrifice) to bring calm to the community. This whole process, Girard says, is ritualized and then mythologized in such a way that the actual violent mechanism (the “single victim mechanism”) is veiled and invisible to the contemporary participants then the later receivers of the mythological tradition. In other words, the citizens who pick up the stones actually believe that the one they are about to murder, even though a moment ago he was one of the crowd, is now worthy of death.

Girard goes on to base some astonishingly profound claims on top of this foundation, which are worth exploring further if you have the time to read his work. He also supports his powerful anthropological claim in a way that I clearly don’t have the space to outline here – it truly is amazing when he examines the myths of the ancient world and compares them to the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition (which he thinks is the only tradition to see and expose the single victim mechanism for what it is – a second-rate and temporary solution to the main problem of human existence). Of particular interest for Christians, he unlocks a new and compelling way of reading Jesus’ words and the history of early Christianity radically nonviolently, particularly the Crucifixion. (Girard loves treating Jesus’ willing death, not so much a “blood sacrifice” in the sense as all the other ritual sacrifices which mask the single victim mechanism, but as an action that looks enough like it to dupe the “principalities and powers” into triggering the mechanism, only for it to backfire via the Resurrection and Jesus’ powerful exposition of their hidden secret for maintaining power). Finally, Girard thinks that in our modern society, thanks to the insights of Christianity, we tend to be characterized by “concern for victims” rather than a subconscious willingness to sacrifice them.

Obviously, a lot more could be said, but sooner or later we have to get to The Dark Knight. In the movie, Batman is wrestling with some essentially Girardian questions (common to superheroes, it seems). He sees the fundamental problem of society (Gotham) clearly – disorder, violence, and inaction, and attempts to counter these problems with his own brand of nonlethal (rather than lethal or nonviolent) crime-fighting. He soon discovers, unfortunately, that his actions only heighten the tension and spawn nemeses of greater caliber. This corresponds, I’d say, to Girard’s description of the multiplication of scandals and the move to a breaking point.

The breaking point comes in the form of the Joker, a mysterious individual who describes himself primarily as an agent of chaos, which is extremely interesting in a Girardian sense given that “chaos” is exactly what the single victim mechanism evolved to counter – so already we can imagine that perhaps one of the Joker’s roles in the film will be to instigate this societal mechanism. In fact, he does this on a number of occasions! His favorite games all seem to involve forcing supposedly-upright citizens into situations where it looks like sacrificing one (or a few) of their number will bring calm and restore order (the call to murder the Wayne Enterprises employee about to reveal the identity of Batman, the ferry dilemma, his speech to Harvey Dent, etc…). In other words, he is inviting the triggering of the single victim mechanism, even explicitly, as a way for Gotham to regain peace. But tellingly, this “peace” is only temporary – the next day, the Joker will be back with another escalation of tension and another demand. This is exactly how Girard describes the single victim mechanism – a violent and temporary reduction of societal tension.

It’s also interesting to examine the Joker in the light of Girard’s thoughts about Satan as the principle (rather than the “person” – Girard doesn’t want to award Satan with real existence-in-himself) behind mimetic violence (the violence generated by mimetic desire and resulting in the single victim mechanism). Girard sees Satan as maintaining power precisely through the operation of this mechanism (as the Joker does).

Another of the themes in the movie is Batman’s wrestling with the Joker’s argument that they are basically the same. Nemeses, true, but both costume-wearing crazies: one out to promote order and the other to destroy it. It seems that the Joker’s argument is really intended as a temptation for Batman to give in and use the same tools as his enemy (using lethal rather than nonlethal force). Girard’s theory speaks to this situation as well, when he talks about “mimetic rivalry”. Two people who desire the same thing eventually become hard-and-fast rivals – that much is pretty obvious. But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other. And so the Joker invites Batman to succumb to this cycle, to descend into the facelessness of mimetic rivalry where the combatants have more in common with each other (via their combat) than not.

In all of this, Batman has to make decisions about whether to play the game offered by the Joker (and indeed, it seems the only option), or whether to reject the Joker’s starting assumptions. These questions are put not just to him, but to all the people of Gotham, especially in the ferry trial. The options: order at the cost of other people’s lives, or pure chaos (everybody dies). It seems sadly obvious to us, the viewers, that the former option is better than the latter. But Batman (and the people on the boats) decide to believe in a third option – the path of nonviolence and the willingness to be sacrificed. Of course, that path doesn’t always lead to a happy ending – though it did in the movie because of Batman’s skill in trapping the Joker.

But how does that help us? What if we were in the same situation, except without a Batman to perform our miracles? This is where faith in God is put to the test (or rather, where faith in God puts him to the test), and we find out what Jesus (and so many other innocent victims) felt like before being torn apart by the mob… But perhaps I should leave that an open question!

Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that there are some cool resonances between The Dark Knight and Girard’s theories. I haven’t done any research or exploration to see if the writers / director of the movie have read Girard or intentionally used any of his ideas in making the movie. Either way, The Dark Knight stands as a powerful representation of these important themes, and asks us to confront within ourselves questions about violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.

Author: Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan is a Director of Engineering at Sauce Labs, leading a team of open source developers to improve the web and mobile testing ecosystem. He has worked as a programmer in tech startups for over a decade, but is also passionate about academic discussion. Jonathan has master's degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively. Living in San Francisco, he's an avid rock climber, yogi, musician, and writer on topics he considers vital, like the relationship of technology to what it means to be human. Visit jonathanlipps.com for more.

15 thoughts on “The Dark Knight and René Girard”

  1. “Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly…”

    Not THAT silly;) I think you did a fairly stellar job. I should be getting your book recommend in the mail via amazon.com any day now. I’m looking forward to reading it…

    On “mimetic rivalry’: “But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other.” I thought this was best epitomized when the Joker tells Batman “you complete me.” I laughed at this line, but perhaps that quip was a more profound commentary that reveals the dualistic nature of this “mimetic rivalry.”

  2. Where to start?! I wholeheartedly concur with the resonances you have articulated, Jonathan.

    Much of my reply will be informed by a review of Batman Begins I posted at the beginning of ’07. You can read it at: http://www.teleios.us/weblogs/ntbott/139

    I am making the provocative claim that Christopher Nolan understands Batman’s actions at the end of the film as an intentional submitting to the scapegoat process outlined above. Such actions place Batman squarely within the vicious cycle of human violence, signaling the ultimate failure of Bruce Wayne’s flawed strategy.

    I must admit that it was disconcerting when others saw in Batman’s final actions heroic, even Christ-like acts of substitution on behalf of humanity. This interpretation was disconcerting not from a lack of material that could be construed in such a way; rather, it was disconcerting because such an interpretation had not even entered my mine. Great shades of Jeremiah 19:5-6, where the Lord articulates his view of child sacrifice to Israel swept over me! “They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal – which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never [even] came into My mind.”

    Given these two divergent interpretations of Batman, the one casting him as distinct from the violent origins of humanity, the other as fully submerged within its grip, I would like to offer some supporting evidence for my interpretation. To begin, Girard makes clear that the actions of one willingly submissive to the scapegoat mechanism and one unwilling to take part in its violence are virtually indistinguishable. Both easily become scapegoats for a hysterical mob. For the former, as Girard puts it, “the spontaneous act of will is the same as the irresistible hypnotic power of the example” (The Scapegoat, 64). For the latter, the rejection of violence exposes the violent origins of every facet of human life, origins the mob will take great pains in suppressing, even death.

    Enter Batman. At the end of the movie Commissioner Gordon and Batman are huddled over Harvey Dent’s corpse, Dent’s disfigured side the only one visible. Gordon is ready to tell the truth to the public. Dent had become a homicidal maniac and Batman stopped him. But this will not do for Batman. Remember, for Batman Dent is the hope for the humanity of Gotham, a symbol of humanity’s underlying virtue. Batman was originally dawned with this intent. “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man…I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol…As a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” Earlier in the movie it had appeared as if Bruce Wayne’s dramatic example had paid off, as Dent fought violence through the non-violence of the courtroom. (I see the courtroom as the non-violent option and Rachel as the true hero of the movie, whose steadfast refusal to take part in violence whilst remaining utterly opposed to it through her belief and commitment in justice as embodied through the law.)

    By the end of the movie, however, the sun has set on Bruce Wayne’s strategy. Harvey Dent, the representative of Gotham City, has become an agent of chaos himself, leaving justice to the flip of a coin. Batman cannot accept the failure of his strategy. A failure he was prepared to accept just days prior. Only one option remains. The violence and chaos of human social order that the Joker so effortlessly exposed must be covered up. But how? With the hysteria of the city verging on social upheaval only a victim will bring catharsis. Rather than exposing the heart of darkness within Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne surrenders himself to the inevitable outcome of his terrifying (and everlasting?) symbol, the Dark Knight. Humans like Bruce Wayne who willingly submit themselves as scapegoats in order to suppress the dark origins of human society inevitably attain a mythical, even quasi-divine status. Such a decision, however, comes at a high cost: their true humanity is willingly sacrificed upon the altar of false humanity. There’s no going back. There is no dawn that follows this dark knight.

  3. “But ultimately this film is about society’s desire for a scapegoat. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” say at least two of the characters, and it climaxes with Batman on the run from the authorities because people have started to blame him for what is wrong with their lives.”

    This article explores The Wall Street Journal’s attempt to make a political connection between TDK and George W. http://blog.beliefnet.com/godspolitics/2008/07/the-dark-knight-a-tribute-to-g.html Thought it interesting that he made a scapegoat connection as well…

  4. You are an amazingly coherent writer and thinker. I’m inclined to think, as a Christian, that Girard is taking his ideas from the life, death and resurrection story of Jesus (he’d concur I believe). And thus, the Batman story, along with the slightly less well developed Harry Potter modern sensation are retellings of the Christ narrative. Your blog was delicious in drawing the lines, and I’ll be borrowing it in explaining Girard to others! Good show.

  5. I’ve had the same impression, especially about the desire of the two protagonists and the end of the film based on the necessary we have of a scapegoat. I read all the books of Girard. I Know personally Girard, he’s very kind and deep. The only step that he doesn’t meet completely is the creative use of the sacrifice which is necessary. The victim can forgive but also can use the sacrifice to do his best. And this what is generally told and lived in Christian tradition. Thank you for your paper

  6. Did you know a source where I can download that book “I saw Satan fall like lightning by Rene Girard”? thanks in advance.

  7. I would add that in _I See Satan Fall …_, Girard makes the point that a functioning judicial system is the institution that fixes the problem. It is precisely the judicial system, of course, that Joker subverts and destroys by the movie’s end.

    I saw the movie before reading Girard’s book; thanks for making the comparison.

  8. Great article, and responses. But I feel that a correction is in order regarding your observation of the ferries. What I love about all of Chris Nolan’s movies (with an assist from his brother Jonah for co-writing this and “The Prestige) is that he only shows us what he wants to show us. What we know about Bruce Wayne/Batman is that he makes flawed decisions sometimes, and we as an audience know this or would say how ourselves how we don’t agree with some things he does, like pancaking cop cars or making irrational decisions like turning himself in, against the advice of his close friends.

    What Nolan does RE the ferry situation, and why the Joker is right in the end, is that Batman doesn’t know what happened on that boat. Batman says to The Joker that the civilians just showed they are good, but Batman is not entirely correct. And the Joker, deep inside, knows this. Batman doesn’t know that a majority or more of those “sweet and innocent civilians” (as the Joker says sarcastically) voted to blow up the prisoner boat. Just as that one man who stepped up to it froze (and did the right thing by not blowing up that boat), another could have gone thru with it all the way.

    The Joker, in the end, wins, because he correctly judges humanity as wanting to fight each other off, even the “civilized ones”, if it came down to it. I mean, just look at how each of those civilians responded to the situation when it happened : “We can’t die, those men had their chance!”….ect ect. The boat scene is uncomfortable to watch, because it is all too real. We all know people in real life who would act like that in that situation, but not enough of us would do what that prisoner did, by throwing out the detonator. But that’s humanity…that’s how we are.

    Batman, though, makes the true heroic sacrifice in the end. Batman, who puts his life on the line everytime he tries to stop a criminal, is more heroic than a Spiderman or a Superman, for that very reason. He’s a flawed man, who makes mistakes, and flawed for not admitting his mistakes at times. But tries to hold true to his one rule, and when faced with the test of time, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to protect all the hard work done to make things right.

    (BTW – what if the civilian blew up the prisoner boat? What would have really happened? That question gives the situation and the scene more meaning, as this is The Joker that we are talking about here. If the Joker was placing ultimate judgment on those who would go out of their way to kill out of desperation, maybe thru some sick twist of fate each of the detonators really would have been for their own respective boats)

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