Following the 2009 Academy Awards and the posthumous bestowal of an Oscar on Heath Ledger for his role as the Joker in the latest Batman film, Dark Knight, the general consensus seems to be that Ledger’s rendering of the character was the most compelling in its representational history. Myself, I like Jack.
But the important point is that, whoever assumes the part, the Joker has become an archetypal figure with a garish resonance for our times. We see him all around us, in our politicians, our NGO officials, our editors and journalists, and the majority of our public intellectuals. But he makes his presence felt most prominently among the members of another kind of Academy, cavorting in mock-solemn lectorial fard before a captive and impressionable audience.
It is no exaggeration to say that our contemporary professoriate has come to behave like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 film Batman, trashing the Flugelheim Museum in Gotham City to the sound of raucous transistor music. I am also reminded of the demon Belphegor, that other cinematic Joker, who demolishes the Louvre in the iconic movies circulated in France.
These are characters with a liberal-left mission: to vandalize the repository of the past and to lay waste the cultural storehouse by wiping clean the slate of memory and “restoring” it with a pastiche of fantasies and suppositions. In this way, they pursue their agenda, to use the current jargon, of “problematizing” the very notion of truth. This is their revenge on the burdensome concepts of honor, integrity and intellectual responsibility. This, in short, is the postmodern quest and vocation, the joking around with once serious ideas, turning the life of the mind into a vaudeville performance no less ominous for its inherent frivolity.
In classroom and auditorium, a new kind of theater has supplanted the old proscenium of scholarly presentation. Its “actors” are rewarded not for striving to bring truth out of the complexity of things, but for dissipating the very idea of truth and replacing it by spectacle—by displays of expository improvisation. Forget “truth,” we are instructed by our avant-garde academics, everything is a matter of “interpretation.” After all, we have the authority of Friedrich Nietzsche and his disciple Michel Foucault on the subject, two Jokers par excellence.
But not everything is a matter of “interpretation,” as in our postmodern intellectual climate we have been taught to believe. Taking refuge in equivocation, our academic elite has put its very mandate at risk, classically defined by John Milton as: “Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies.” But the countenance of truth has been mottled over with greasepaint and the atmosphere of study riven with the clamor of politicizing rhetoric.
The postmodern heresy, so ardently embraced by the Jokers and Belphegors of the academic Left, looks at reality as if it consisted primarily of narratives; a nation, for instance, is understood as an anthology of stories a people tells about itself, whose function is not only consolidatory but exclusionary. But narratives imply content, however interpreted, and content derives from the historical world. The postmodern view favours the narrative at the expense of the event, almost as if the event had never happened. But the fact is that events do happen prior to the narratives in which they are organized for public consumption and that such events, no matter how they are tweaked, are real and irreversible.
Two examples should suffice to make the point. The Holocaust is not a Jewish narrative but a European atrocity. It happened. It cannot be interpreted out of the historical muniments. Or take the historical fact of Colonialism, which has generated an entire academic counter-discipline. It was not only a ruthless imperial venture, as the post-Colonial storyboard has it, but in many different places a civilizing duty whose political, juridical and social structures are still palpably in force, as in India and many of the Caribbean islands, not to mention other countries associated with the Commonwealth, and the United States as well. These structures are manifestly there. They cannot be interpreted out of existence.
The issue for the responsible historian, teacher or intellectual is not merely to examine the narratives that are assembled, embroidered and recounted in order to craft an alternative reading of historical circumstance, but to discriminate, so far as this is possible, between those narratives which are provable fabrications or rife with lacunae and those which, after a thorough marshalling of empirical evidence, may be assumed to reflect, however ambiguously, the actual course of events.
The problem is that postmodernism is not keen on facts and evidence but focuses instead on plot and allegory, which the evidence is then made to fit. The much-ballyhooed postmodern movement, epitomized by the druidic incantations of the university crowd, is only a sign of a culture languishing in the void, suffering from a wholesale collapse of sustaining values, cheapening the concept of truth and surrendering, whether it knows it or not, to inchoate despair. For the Joker despairs as he wreaks havoc about him.
Ironically, there is one “truth” that the Academy (and its intellectual outriders) espouses, and that is the “truth” of Israeli perfidy and Palestinian rectitude. As a result, it is guilty of bad faith twice over: discounting the idea of truth while defending a blatant falsehood as incontestably true. It should go without saying that “academic freedom” does not sanction outright lying. Yet on campus after campus, the student body is being politicized in favour of the Palestinian potboiler by a revisionist professoriate which has not allowed its “hermeneutics of suspicion,” its “problematizing” of the concept of truth, to stand in the way of adopting a historical lie as an axiomatic verity.
This has rapidly become an international phenomenon as the University has opened its gates to a parade of gesticulating Jokers, featuring speakers like Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt, Jimmy Carter, Ward Churchill, Johan Galtung, Tariq Ramadan, Neve Gordon, John Pilger, Tom Paulin, Judith Butler and Norman Finkelstein, offering a platform to Holocaust deniers, dotting the academic calendar with Israel Apartheid Weeks and study sessions sponsored by the anti-Zionist International Solidarity Movement, and so on ad nauseam. Despite its placing all our assumptions in the solvent of doubt and its proclivity for the spurious replication of historical and political facts, when it comes to the taboo against Israel, Academia has stood firm in its adherence to a lie cloaked as a certitude.
But the University’s attitude to Israel is only a symptom of a much larger problem. With its mimosa administrations, Jacobin unions and an energetic left-wing professoriate, it has become the new industrial farm for the production of ideological madness and intellectual obscurantism. “Those reverend Bedlams, colleges and schools,” in the words of the Earl of Rochester from his A Satire Against Mankind, are filled “with frantic crowds of thinking fools.” The academic defunding of critical reason is as pronounced today as it presumably was in Rochester’s day and probably far more so. The “thinking fools” are capering in the halls of learning. Belphegor is on the rampage. The Joker runs riot.
According to the the 19th century occultist Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, Belphegor was Hell’s ambassador to France—and no doubt still is. Similarly, the Joker is the plenipotentiary of the academic-intellectual Left to 21rst century Western civilization, busy at the task of relativizing and reversing truth, rewriting history and erasing or retranscribing memory.
The joke is on all of us.