Computer? (His Silicon Soul)

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A quick note before we start: My Patreon has dropped slightly below $70, and unless it increases, I will not be able to make a re:play episode for June. Currently a single $2/mo backer would be enough to put us over the top. Please, if you enjoy these articles and/or my vlogs, consider backing the Patreon. It gets you access to these articles several months early (for example, the piece below was available to Patreon backers in February), and additional rewards at higher levels, for only a few dollars a month. Thank you!

It’s November 20, 1992, three days after “Heart of Steel,” so see that post for headlines and charts.

This is one of those episodes where the viewing order matters a great deal, and one of the few where a case can be made for the episode actually being better in broadcast order than production order. The reason is simple: in production order, “Heart of Steel” was many episodes ago, raising the question of why HARDAC’s contingency activated now rather than earlier. But in broadcast order, this episode aired less than a week after “Heart of Steel,” implying that HARDAC just lay low for a few days before resuming its plans.

But this episode also fits well in the immediate aftermath of “The Demon’s Quest,” and not just because both feature a swordfight between Batman and someone who wants to kill vast numbers of people to bring about their vision of a better world. Remember, “The Demon’s Quest” was a near-apocalypse engineered by the same man later stated to be responsible for the near-apocalypse. This episode, too, deals with a near-apocalypse, the same one as “Heart of Steel”: the replacement of humanity with robots.

But as we discussed in regards to that episode, the robot uprising is a worker’s revolt; it is the overthrow not of humanity, but of capitalism, and the replacement of the rich with the workers and peasants—the robotnik class–on whom their hierarchy depends. Batman, as both the great defender of the status quo and an arch-capitalist, is a natural first target for this revolution. HARDAC’s robots infiltrate and duplicate, and with this episode we see that their wills are subverted by the central control of authority. This is the classic Western fantasy of communism, as a system of autocratic control which sends infiltrative agents who seem to be neighbors, friends, and family—the same fantasy which gives us Pod People or Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, and which has today been neatly transferred onto terrorists and “radical Islam.”

The episode’s repeatedly signposted question of what it is to be human is thus deeply colored by the question of the humanity of the oppressed, and not just those oppressed by the class structure. All systems of organizing people into the more worthy and less worthy are interrelated; capitalism cannot be truly understood or effectively opposed without also understanding and opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, nor can any of those be adequately addressed without addressing all of the others. (An approach known as intersectionality.)

So what, then, are we to make of the discussion of the authenticity of the duplicate Batman? Initially, it believes itself to be Batman, and when it discovers that its body is robotic, it responds by theorizing that it is Batman’s mind transferred into a robot body. Rossum rejects this proposition on interesting grounds. First, he claims that it can’t be true because he just encountered the “real” Batman. Rossum simply assumes that a mind (or soul, if you prefer) cannot be duplicated, and that therefore even if something were copied from Batman into the duplicate, that something cannot be “truly” Batman. It is “merely data,” and he supports this claim by reference to carnal experiences; the duplicate remembers the events of Batman’s life, but not his first kiss or what steak tastes like.

The episode doesn’t point it out within this scene, but it’s quite clear that Rossum is wrong here. First of all, those memories aren’t anything other than data either; they’re just data to which HARDAC didn’t have access. So the absence of those memories does prove Rossum’s point, but not for the reason he thinks they do. Second, in a previous scene we saw the duplicate in Wayne Manor, and it recognized a photograph of its parents, and clearly expressed grief in its tone of voice and the tender way it touched Martha Wayne’s image. This is not an emotionless machine at all; it is acting like Batman by immersing itself into the emotional reality of being Batman. In many ways it is the epitome of the Method, a school of acting in which (to simplify a great deal) one seeks to emulate the emotional state of a character by deliberately placing oneself into that emotional state.

In the end, the duplicate’s ability to perfectly perform as Batman is its undoing. As soon as it believes it has killed Batman, it cries out in theatrical despair and destroys both itself and the computer that was about to upload HARDAC to the world. Its angst over having killed would be almost comical in its melodrama if that weren’t so fitting: after all, isn’t melodramatic angst and over-the-top theatrical display exactly what being Batman is about? Remember, this is a man whose parents died, so he dresses up as a bat to punch criminals! At last we have a version of Batman who understands his essential performativity as well as the Adam West version did!

This self-destructive performance persuades Batman at least of the possibility that the duplicate may have had a soul. In essence, we are being told that the notion of soul or self is fundamentally performative; that which performs as a being with emotions, morality, agency, and positionality thereby demonstrates that it possesses a soul.

This is where the question of the “silicon soul” entangles with the origin of the robot as a stand-in for the oppressed. After all, HARDAC’s revolutionary plan was to replace humanity. It seems fairly obvious what would happen to the originals. Just as the apocalypse is merely revolution as seen from above, so is every revolution an apocalypse as seen from below. “Near-apocalypse” and “failed revolution” are synonyms. And it is by choosing to avert the apocalypse, to forgo revolution, that the duplicate demonstrates it has truly learned to perform as Batman, and hence raises the possibility that it has acquired a soul.

What we have, therefore, is that Batman only acknowledges that the robotnik might have a soul—that, in other words, the oppressed might be people even as he is a person—when it abandons and betrays the revolution. When, in short, it chooses to become a protector of the dominant power. It recognizes that its revolution entails harm to a rich cishet white male human, and therefore destroys itself and the revolution.

Which is about as good an encapsulation of the essential political tension of the superhero as we’re going to get. The role of the superhero is fundamentally performative. They put on a costume and a new identity, and make a spectacle of protecting everyone. The refusal to kill Batman makes such a big deal of can be read as a decision to protect even his enemies; certainly that’s how it plays out in this episode. But the superhero also presents itself as an avatar of justice, and in an unjust society, justice necessarily entails breaking the power of the beneficiaries of that injustice. This will naturally be perceived by said beneficiaries as harm, and some of those beneficiaries are “innocent”—that is, they did not choose to benefit and may not have consciously exploited their advantages.

In short, as we’ve been saying at least since “Seduction of the Innocent,” the protector fantasy is incompatible with the idea of someone who fights for justice. The superhero ought, morally speaking, to be on the side of revolution, but we want them to be against apocalypse.

Perhaps the best single illustration of this contradiction we’ve yet encountered is the title card to this episode. I haven’t discussed them much, but this series has consistently excellent title cards, and this episode’s is a standout example. It depicts a silhouette of Batman against a dark background, while a shining metallic arm reaches for him. It is ambiguous whether the arm is reaching menacingly for the throat of a Batman facing us, or stretching out beseechingly toward a Batman facing away. In either case, the framing of the image makes clear that that robotic appendage is the viewer’s arm, placing us into the position of the robot.

While it seems likely that many readers of this blog are at least one of rich, cis, heterosexual, white, or male, and I’m sure everyone reading this is human, it’s likely that none of my readers are all of the above. I imagine “rich” is the sticking point for the largest proportion of readers, simply because out of all those descriptors, it applies to the smallest percentage of humanity. That’s fitting, given that R.U.R., while applicable to all forms of oppression, seems to be mostly about class.

We are thus all, at least in part, robotnik, and all, at least in part, under Batman’s protection. The question posed by the title card’s ambiguity is thus a question we must ask ourselves: what do we want? Do we want to strangle Batman as an enemy of revolution, or reach out to him and beg his protection from the terror of apocalypse?

And the title card provides the answer, too: Yes.


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