Mid-Term Essay Question for Students of IR6901: Simpsons or South Park? Take your pick :)

By Farish A. Noor ~ April 27th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Mid-Term Essay Question for Students of IR6901: An introduction to Discourse Analysis.

Taking into account all that we have covered thus far, and in particular with reference to the late Wittgensteinian theory of language-games; Saussure’s fundamental principles of Linguistics and the discussion of religio-political discourses in Laclau/Mouffe and Bobby Sayyid, here is your mid-trimester essay question:

‘With a special emphasis on the concept of nodal points/master signifiers and chains of equivalences, map out the discursive structure of either of the following narratives, and in particular elaborate on:
1. The discursive treatment of the notion of the good and/or right life,
2. The discursive construction of identity and difference,

In EITHER: a. The Simpsons or, b. South Park (Any episode/s / series)

Total word length (including footnotes/ endnotes): 2,000 words.
I do not require a bibliography but do note specific episodes if/when quoted. (All quotations to be marked with inverted commas),
Deadline: 17 May 2010.

Below is a sample question and answer for you to consider:

Sample Question: Do a discourse analysis of Batman and discuss the following: the discursive treatment of the notion of the good and/or right life, and the discursive construction of identity and difference.

Sample Answer:

Batman as the ‘Dark Knight’: Normalising Violence and Erasing the Violent Genesis of Capital and Society

By A. Nony Mus

For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the Batman comic character as well as TV series, and the subsequent cinematic renditions of the comic book hero leading up to the latest films based on the character, including ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’. I will also take into consideration the later revisionist renderings of Batman as attempted by graphic artists such as Grant Morrison, Dave McKean, Kevin O’Neill etc. (in Batman: Arkham Asylum for instance).

Let us begin with a cursory overview of Batman’s biography: Batman is the alterior character of Bruce Wayne, a rich businessman who inherits the wealth of his parents who were murdered in his youth in one of the seedier quarters of Gotham city, a metropolis that was described as a ‘den of sin and vice’ in many of the renderings of Batman. Bruce Wayne plays out his public role as a wealthy businessman in the corporate world and is sometimes presented as a man of easy fortune and leisure. In later cinematic renderings of his character, he is depicted as someone who deliberately exaggerates the extent of his wealth and life of ease, cavorting with beautiful women and playing up the stereotype of the bachelor-playboy.

In his private life however Bruce Wayne dons the costume of Batman, a masked vigilante dressed in the form of a bat – The choice of disguise not being an accidental one as he deliberately wishes to inspire fear in his adversaries. In the earlier comic renderings of Batman the villains that he confronts tend to conform to a standard typology of criminal delinquents and miscreants: petty thieves, bank robbers, kidnappers and the occasional sociopath who harbours malevolent intentions towards society.

Batman also enjoys an ambiguous relationship with the forces of law and order as well as the justice system and the state, for he is – by his own admission – a vigilante who literally takes the law into his own hands. But whose law is Batman protecting and whose interests are being served by his deeds?

Justifying unilateral vigilantism and the principle of private property? Batman’s class subject-position and the appropriation of ‘Justice’ by the rich:

In earlier versions of Batman, the moral economy of the hero is fairly straightforward: Batman’s existence is rendered necessary, as is his vigilantism, on the grounds that Gotham city is a ‘den of sin and vice’ and the failure of the Gotham city police force to arrest this slide to chaos and decadence. (In the earlier comic and TV series, Batman often works closely with the Gotham police force, and is often called upon to carry out unilateral actions of vigilante violence that cannot/will not be done/condoned by the police and justice system.) In this respect at least, despite his legally ambiguous status, Batman errs on the side of the law and the state’s institutions of law-enforcement. Furthermore it ought to be noted that if and when Batman defeats and apprehends those who are deemed as ‘criminals’ by the state, he then hands them over to the law enforcement agency, thereby confirming Batman’s partisan support for the institutions of state power, social policing and legitimised violence by the state apparatus.

The discursive economy of Batman therefore works by stringing together a number of inter-related and mutually-supportive signs, themes and tropes: Batman – whose costume is meant to inspire fear – is a fearful character but whose fearfulness applies only to the enemies of the social order. Batman is therefore discursively linked to that social order that he tries to uphold and defend, as well as to society’s normative interpretation of justice, law and morality. A neat chain of equivalences is formed where Batman is – through a series of recurrent discursive and narrative devices – constantly equated with the law (to which he stands at the very extreme periphery), society, order, morality, and righteousness.

The discursive device that animates this chain of equivalences and presents it as justifiable and morally necessary is the leitmotif of Gotham city being a ‘den of vice and sin’, teetering on moral and structural collapse, and vulnerable to the malevolent attacks from a host of social evils. It is this narrative device of social breakdown and disharmony that provides Batman with the discursive rationale and justification for his unilateral acts of violence that furthers the cause of the law (in spirit) but which occur outside the law (as he is a masked vigilante). The Law’s tacit support and passive compliance to allow Batman to do what he does points to its acceptance of Batman as a tool of the law (an extension of its capacity for inflicting violence) when it serves the law’s interest.

However the blind-spots in the narrative of Batman are numerous, not least the obvious conflation of interests between Batman the ‘crime’-fighter and Bruce Wayne, the billionaire businessman in whose interests Batman also acts. Batman’s constant ‘crusade’ against ‘crime’ does not elaborate upon what constitutes criminality and criminal behaviour as far as the moral economy of Batman is concerned. But it is interesting to note that many of Batman’s earlier enemies were themselves poor petty thieves, robbers and burglars – whose ‘criminality’ is defined thus according to the logic of private property ownership and the unstated principle of wealth accumulation that runs through the narrative of Batman but which remains hardly spoken or critically discussed. Many of the ‘criminals’ of the earlier Batman TV series are what in Marxist terms may be described as ‘class criminals’ – i.e. the poor, the disenfranchised, socially marginalised and downtrodden – but they remain ‘criminal’ entities as the definition of justice and righteousness of the earlier Batman is both narrow and simplified.

In later cinematic renditions of Batman the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne is complexified further as we learn that Wayne industries – apart from being a multinational conglomerate that transfers its exploitative practices to poorer countries in the world – is also involved in hi-tech arms development and has links to the security and arms industries. (In the Dark Knight, for instance, Batman uses the same technology that Wayne Corp has developed for the CIA in its weapons research department.)

If this be the case, then the character of Batman serves a number of other utilitarian purposes that go beyond simply serving as an appendage to state power and violence: Batman the ‘masked crusader’ also plays the role of the extra-legal vigilante who seeks to defend and secure the class interests of the rich and powerful (including Bruce Wayne, the corporate giant and arms-manufacturer) against the encroachment of the poorer sections of society, whose ‘criminal’ activities are deemed criminal not according to some universal moral/ethnical normative standard, but rather – as stated again and again in the Batman comics and TV series – by the Law, i.e. the law of the state and its ruling elite.

Whose ‘Good’ does Batman serve?

Batman – through an array of discursive and narrative devices that he employs in his own super-hero rhetoric – claims to be a ‘crusader’ for justice and the ‘Good’, but the definition of both categories remains firmly located in the moral and political economy of private property and Capital.

Bruce Wayne the billionaire corporate figure therefore undergoes the change to Batman in order to allow the latter to serve the interests of the former: Batman’s crusade for ‘Justice’ and ‘the Good’ is fundamentally a discourse of regime-maintenance, with the aim of preventing any radical change to the socio-economic status quo. Batman ‘protects’ Gotham city and maintains its normalised standards of social norms and its social rites and rituals of membership and association by policing the standards of acceptable social behaviour, and those who fail to conform or willingly chose to turn against this established social order are those deemed dangerous. Batman’s vigilantism is an extra-legal means to uphold the integrity of the law, but this is a law that does not speak at length or critically about the economic and power differentials that leads to social revolt and ‘criminal’ behaviour in the first place.

Thus the character of Batman contains this irony: A wealthy corporate figure steps outside the realm of normality and normal behaviour (dressing up as a Bat is presumably rather abnormal, as the Joker notes in Batman: Arkham Asylum) but only in order to preserve the normalised and sedimented power-differentials as well as economic inequalities of Gotham city. Despite the fact that almost all of Batman’s adversaries tend to come from the poorer classes, the narrative of Batman remains silent on the question of class differentials and wealth accumulation in general. Indeed, the question of class and economic differentials is foreclosed precisely by the vigilantism of Batman who seeks to restore and maintain ‘normality’ through his unilateral policing (via violent means) of the wealth gap in his own society. Batman’s vigilantism – particularly when it seeks to eliminate and incarcerate ‘class criminals’ – serves to keep Bruce Wayne the billionaire in his comfort zone and a life of ease and security. Read from this angle, the narrative of Batman may perhaps be seen as an oblique critique of how Capital and capitalist production necessitates the extra-legal use of violence to uphold the appearance of the law and social order.

Identity and Difference: Maintaining the Social Order in Batman

The dichotomous relationship between the socially respectable Bruce Wayne (who is valorised as an exemplary model of hard work, industry and enterprise) and the ambiguous figure of Batman as extra-legal vigilante highlights the uneven power-relations and the violent dynamics of the social order in Gotham city. The squeaky-clean image of Bruce Wayne the respectable capitalist-entrepreneur and philanthropist is rendered stable thanks to the exercise of violence on the part of Batman who stands on the very limit of the law and who takes the law into his own hands.

The narrative of Batman illustrates how law-making and law-enforcement is the result of will and the exercise of violence, and that the ‘normalised’ world of Bruce Wayne and the landed propertied classes is founded upon the enactments of violence on the part of Batman and the law-enforcement agencies. If Batman stands at the edge of the social order of which Bruce Wayne is at the centre, then what lies beyond is the constitutive other to the moral, political and economic order that the world of Batman constructs: Criminality, sin and vice. Yet all these signs – criminality, sin, vice, etc. – are themselves values that have been configured and framed according to the violent hierarchical logic of capital accumulation that is at the heart of the world of Bruce Wayne.

The ‘normal’ world of Bruce Wayne – that his alter-ego Batman protects – is one where class and power differentials are never spoken and are meant to be taken for granted as natural and pre-ordained. ‘Criminality’, in such a context, includes all attempts to highlight the unspoken/unmediated aspects of the constitutive other to capital accumulation: including the attempts by the poor to challenge the system. Those who fail to conform and who resist either for the reason of economic/class rebellion (such as the Penguin, who is fundamentally a thief) or an anarchic rejection of the constructiveness of such social ordering (the Joker, who is nihilistic sociopath almost in the Nietzschean mould) are subsequently dubbed as ‘criminals’ or a ‘threat’ to society and are sent to either jail or the asylum. Normality is thus violently enforced, and all social rejects are either ‘criminals’ or ‘insane’. Nowhere in the narrative of Batman is this violent social ordering or the constructiveness of ‘Society’ questioned or challenged. (The sole exception being the later revisionist readings of Batman by the likes of Morrison, McKean, O’Neill, etc.)

In short, Batman is indeed a terrifying figure and a ‘Dark Knight’ – but he is so as he embodies the violence of the Law and violent genesis of societies that remain wilfully blind to the internal structural contradictions and inequalities of their own constitution.

3 Responses to Mid-Term Essay Question for Students of IR6901: Simpsons or South Park? Take your pick :)

  1. Ruzaini

    Fantastic writing. It lends a tremendous help to me in relating and understanding the theories in sociological jurisprudence; how the law works, the legitimation crisis that present within the institutions that we trust as the keeper of social order and etc. It is quite unfortunate that the institutions that we trust serve not the interests of the society as a whole, but merely of the bourgeoisie. I reckon it is not too radical to suggest that the bulk of the society is constituted by the people who, in the eyes of the bourgeoisie, are social outcasts. Yet, despite the truistic nature of the constitution of the social construct, the institutions that we have, more often than not, fail to take into consideration the interests of the poor and the oppressed. The law as promulgated are only designed according to the interests of the bourgeoisie. Consequently, because it is the institutions that we thought are legitimate who promulgate them, we are psychologically trained to accept that the law as enacted and enforced by the state is the universal truth representing the notion of justice and good social order. All these misconceptions have to change. Once again, a fine and well written piece.

  2. Reformis Jalanan

    Punyalah lama tak update…

  3. khairulbahri

    had listened to Kinderuni Wien on this topic.. Simpson and Philosophie.

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