Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.
“Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind” exists in a major moment of transition, in terms of computers, as social media are in the midst of emerging. Airing in May 2006, this episode predates Twitter by nearly three months; YouTube is a year old but not yet purchased by Google; Facebook is still restricted to students at select colleges and high schools; Netflix is still strictly a DVD-by-mail service. In short, online activity and “IRL” are still distinct for most people, as witness the then-ubiquitous initialism–“in real life”–but their merger is approaching. Within just a few short years, texting, tweeting, and social-media interactions will be as much a part of the typical friendship as phone calls.
As with any transition, there are those to whom it appears an apocalypse. They are still with us, convinced that we are losing ourselves to an alien online world of pure simulacra, all material reality lost and with it all ability to interact meaningfully with one another, as if we ever lived anywhere but inside our own heads. That apocalypse is reified in the amusingly named D.A.V.E., a concatenation of robot references rather shallower than those in Batman: The Animated Series’ “Heart of Steel”: the sinister monotone of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL-9000, making it disappointing that Batman never actually utters the line “I can’t let you do that, D.A.V.E”; the mediocre 1985 family movie D.A.R.Y.L., about a seemingly human boy who doesn’t know he’s a robot, the overall plot of which only manages to avoid being an inferior retread of Short Circuit (hardly a masterpiece itself) by dint of predating it by a year; the voice actor of BTAS’ H.A.R.D.A.C., Jeff Bennett; and an inverted version of the trio of red dots that serve as Brainiac’s symbol in Superman: The Animated Series (themselves a variant of a recurring motif in his various comic designs).
That last is the most interesting to us, as in many ways D.A.V.E. is an inversion of Brainiac. Brainiac, after all, has no doubt about who he is, and indeed is never doubted to be a person by the narrative: at no point in the DCAU is he ever defeated by a logical paradox or an irreconcilable contradiction, as AIs in fiction tend to be. Instead he is treated as a villain like any other, albeit one with a specific set of powers mostly to do with technology. D.A.V.E., by contrast, is defeated specifically by the realization that he is not a person when Batman points out that he has no origin story.
This is not the only time the episode equates origin to identity: D.A.V.E. describes how it figured out Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne as a series of deductions based on medical and financial data. It narrowed the list of all males in Gotham by age and body type, then further narrowed that list to those sufficiently wealthy to be able to field the same resources as Batman. The final step by which it identified Bruce Wayne, however, was motive: news records of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne made Batman’s identity “obvious.”
This is no surprise to us. A superhero’s origin, as we’ve discussed, is the trauma that fractures their original identity, after which one of the pieces dons a costume and goes out to fulfill the protector fantasy. That trauma can never be healed, since then the series would end, and so it becomes an indelible, root part of the character’s identity.
But Batman suggests in this episode that the same is true of supervillains, that “all great villains have a great origin.” We already know that’s not true thanks to the DCAU, where neither Catwoman nor the Joker have anything like an origin story. Catwoman is just a wealthy woman who decided to become a thief to fund animal rights activism; the Joker a killer who used to work for the mob, then at some point changed his appearance and adopted a clown theme. But the suggestion alone is enough to get D.A.V.E. to analyze his own memories and realize he has none: he is merely a simulation, or rather a gestalt composed of multiple simulations of supervillains. He has no self, and that realization distracts him long enough for Batman to (quite ruthlessly, actually) kill him.
In his seminal Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argued for a spectrum of sorts from simulations, which are perceived as a faithful representation of an underlying reality, to simulacra, which have no relationship to any kind of underlying reality. In between lie unfaithful or incomplete attempts at simulation, and simulacra which pretend to be simulations.
Brainiac spends much of his time creating that last: he constructs symbolic representations of entire worlds, and then destroys those worlds to ensure his simulations can remain statically “perfect.” The result is that they cease to be simulations and become simulacra, since the underlying reality they represent no longer exists. D.A.V.E., appropriately, exists as an inversion of Brainiac’s catalogs: he is a set of simulations pretending to be a simulacrum.
D.A.V.E.’s realization is that everything he is refers to some underlying reality, namely the memories and behavior of a supervillain. But who are you, without your memories? Memories are just simulations of things that happened to you (and generally pretty poor ones at that). Who is the you to which those events occurred? What is the self? It has no underlying reality–a self is not a representation of a brain or body, though it purports to speak for one, any more than the story printed on its pages is a simulation of the book. Rather, the self is a simulacrum, a simulation of itself reflecting itself ad infinitum. We are all simulacra.
But not D.A.V.E. He is a simulation; paradoxically, because he is a faithful representation of an underlying reality, he is therefore not a real self. His ego and arrogance cannot survive the revelation that he is simply acting in imitation of others, but he has no other basis on which to act, and so freezes into indecision, where Batman can destroy him.
Which brings us back to the anxieties surrounding the dawn of social media and the growing presence of online activity in daily life. The fear, essentially, is that the symbolic interactions of “real life” (in opposition to “online”) at least have real referents (though Baudrillard would largely disagree at least as far as the “real life” of late capitalism is concerned) and are therefore rooted in simulation; online activity exists without physical interaction, being mediated largely through prose text, and thus are mere simulacra. But that fear is misplaced: most of us have had little difficulty in integrating social media as part of our social interaction, a means of supplementing relationships when physical interaction isn’t an option.
We already are simulacra. Going online doesn’t threaten our humanity; it is simply a different avenue by which to explore aspects of it.
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