“Do I really look like a guy with a plan?” In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker, magnificently impersonated by the late Heath Ledger, wants to make everyone believe that there is no motif for his neurotic sowing of destruction and mayhem in Gotham City. “I’m an agent of chaos”, he explains to Gotham’s new district attorney Harvey Dent. He seems to appear from nowhere at the exact moment, when Gotham is on the verge of convicting its few remaining criminals. He has no history whatsoever, as commissioner Gordon resignedly admits: “No matches on prints, DNA, dental, […] no name, no other alias.”
No rational explanation can be found for the sheer purity of his evil deeds, for the rigor of his seething rage. Even Batman, alias Bruce Wayne, is at an utter loss of accounting for this kind of absolute evil. When he unconvincingly claims that “criminals aren’t complicated Alfred, we just need to figure out what he’s after”, it is his butler who puts into words what Bruce was probably thinking anyway: “With respect master Wayne, but perhaps this is a man you don’t fully understand either. […] Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Yet, that does not mean that there is no structure, no plan underlying the Joker’s actions, even if he claims the opposite. The structure is to be found in the violence itself. René Girard claims that we live in an age, where we are forced to choose between absolute non-violence and violence without end. What the Joker does is nothing less than creating situations in which people are faced with the utter dilemma of either having to die themselves, or to commit an act of violence and survive. One such example is when the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital, if Colman Reese, who is about to reveal Batman’s true identity, is not dead within 60 minutes. This all-against-one setting is the structure of scapegoating violence that René Girard has revealed in his oeuvre. The choice of the victim is completely arbitrary, as Reese is not the one to blame for the blowing up of the hospital. The Joker is thus first and foremost the manipulator of the satanic expulsion of one victim in order to create peace. The label on the Joker’s truck confirms this reading: “Slaughter is the best medicine.”
The Joker seeks to proliferate this principle of expulsion. Most of all, he wants Batman to abandon himself to this type of scapegoating violence. This explains Batman’s astounding passivity throughout the movie and the relatively little screen time Batman-actor Christian Bale gets. The problematic nature of Batman’s own violence is already hinted at in the closing frames of The Dark Knight’s predecessor Batman Begins, when the threat of the Joker dawns on Gotham’s horizon. “What about escalation”, asks commissioner Gordon right before the end of Batman Begins. Batman eventually understands the full course of violence, as it necessarily gets out of control: “Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
With Batman-imitators running wild, Bruce understands that it is his own example that has brought the escalation of violence on Gotham. If he kills the Joker, he would be exactly like him. Evil is not limited to the person of the Joker but is found in the principle of arbitrary violence against one victim. This becomes clear, after Batman eventually captures the Joker. When he resists the impulse to kill the Joker, the latter is amused: “You didn’t think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a Fistfight?” Being defeated himself, he has planted the seed of destruction into Gotham’s “white knight”, Harvey Dent. With half his face burnt off, the latter becomes Two-face. In despair, after his fiancé is murdered by the Joker, Dent hunts down all the corrupt officers in Gordon’s police department and tosses a coin to decide their fate.
Dent has surrendered to the Joker’s evil logic: “The only morality in a cruel world is chance, unbiased, unprejudiced, fair.” But what he means, of course, is not fairness but arbitrariness. It is the arbitrariness of violence against the victim that is continually brought up in The Dark Knight. When in another of the Joker’s constructed situations, the passengers of two ships, one of which is a prison ship, refuse to blow up the other ship to save themselves, it is not because, as Batman believes, “they are ready to believe in good” but because they recognize that the other passengers have not done anything to deserve their violence.
The all against one mechanism of scapegoating is maimed in a world that recognizes the arbitrary position of the victim; the impulse to violence, however, remains. Batman himself becomes the scapegoat, when he takes Dent’s blame onto himself to save the myth of the white knight, by becoming “the dark knight”, hunted down by the whole of Gotham. The Joker is right when he states that “madness, as you know is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” The Joker has lifted the protective veil of culture from Gotham that allows people to think of themselves as good. By forcing situations of scapegoating on them, however, he reveals the primordial urge to violence within them: “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” To avoid self-destruction in a struggle of all against all and to preserve their sanity, the people of Gotham need to find a scapegoat. Batman is the only one left in whose guilt they can believe, who seems not like an arbitrary victim – for now, that is. For as Gordon’s son remarks utterly puzzled: “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
Originally published September 16, 2008 on the Raven Foundation website.