Exiting Plato’s Cave
Perhaps there are few who haven’t heard about Plato or his famous allegory of the cave. The influential 5th century Greek philosopher – whose commitments to strengthening the nascent intellectual traditions of philosophy as a systematic means to enlightenment – had a famous distrust of human perception. Plato simply couldn’t bring himself to trust our error-prone, undependable, and unfiltered biases and opinions to tackle the sublime questions regarding meaning, justice, truth and beauty. What does it mean to be alive? What is worth knowing? What does it mean to be wise? Who can live the good life? Such questions animated Plato’s world, magnetizing bearded men into huddles, swirling around celebrated teachers and writers like him, moths to the flame. Plato desired to demonstrate that our perceptions tell us nothing about the actual world, and that only a dedicated approach to philosophy could disclose the world as it really was – little wonder Plato’s idealized republic, Kallipolis, privileged “philosopher kings” as benevolent rulers over the citizens.
Plato wrote the allegory of the cave, depicting prisoners chained up in a cave, a bonfire flailing behind their backs casting ghastly shadows and flickering images upon the cave wall that faces the prisoners. The wall is their only reality. As objects pass by, throwing their shadows on the cave wall, the prisoners (who have spent all their life in the cave, facing this one wall) try to identify the objects believing their perceptions to be accurate in describing the ‘entities’. It is not until one prisoner is freed, sent into the disorienting light and self-evident glory of a bright day, and forced to consider the complexities of solar illumination and representation that he comes to realize that what he once thought was ‘real’ was just a shadow of the real. A secondary phenomenon that hints at something truer. An illusion. True education and true knowledge begins here, wrote Plato, when one can distinguish the real from the fanciful. But, he cautioned, many would prefer the incarceration of their illusions than face the paradigm-disturbing discipline of the ‘sun’.
This essay is not about Plato’s allegory of the cave – at least not yet. There might be a different space and time to think through the assumptions about representation and appearances that led Plato to write The Republic and formulate his theory of forms. For now, the idea of the allegory of the cave itself seems like a poetic antecedent to, and a shadow of, a different, perhaps more pressing, parable in these times of upheavals and electrifying activisms: the allegory of the pit. And I take my inspiration from that most formidable of modern day philosophers, who – unlike Plato – has no qualms with shadows and dark places: Batman.
Bruce Wayne makes the jump
The premise of Christopher Nolan’s masterful filmic thesis on the caped crusader, Batman – comic book hero par excellence – is not simple. For Batman aficionados, the required elements of a good Batman origin tale are already familiar: a young rich boy blames himself when his parents are gunned down in a dark alley somewhere in the crime ridden cracks of Gotham city. His inability to master his fear sparks off a cascade of events that leads to him staring at his dead parents, kneeling by their bodies, alone in the dark. He grows up tortured by these memories of loss, traumatised by a sense of his weakness. He embarks upon a pilgrimage, trains his body to master his fear, and returns to his city of birth, Gotham, to dedicate his life to defeating not just criminals like the one who birthed him in that dark alley years ago, but staving off the interminable insurgency of rage and fear that he has learned to shut away behind the mask of a man-bat. With a billion dollar fortune to his name, Bruce Wayne performs the expected role of a playboy businessman by day, but prowls the city by night – often retiring to a cave after the day’s business (read that as beating up people he perceives as evil).
But that’s not all there is to the Batman, as is evident in Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy (2005-2012). Nolan uses the trope of the super hero to explore themes about fear, about hope, about the constant struggle for wellness and the veneer of sanity that hides a raging wilderness of nameless wild things, about the animism of becoming bat, about coming out into the light and retreating to the darkness – or, to put that more accurately (given the chiasmus of worlds we have come to in meeting Batman), coming out into the dark and retreating into the light. Nolan doesn’t shirk the cave; he infuses it with a dark illumination, with a sweltering heat, with yearning. There is a kind of education available only to those who affectionately embrace the shadows.
As expected, Nolan’s world of Batman opens up unexpected treasures that speak to more than just the concerns of the caped vigilante, the corrupt Gotham Police Department, and the masked villains Batman’s shocking emergence occasions. In the last instalment of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has been exposed by his most formidable opponent yet: Bane, a hulking beast who knows the shadows with even more urgency than Mr Wayne does. Bane takes Batman’s broken body to an underground prison after defeating him philosophically and corporeally. This prison, called the Pit, features a cylinder-like structure which prisoners are free to climb through to their freedom (talk about leaving Plato’s cave of shadows!). There are no bars, no guards, no restrictions. All a prisoner needs to do is step up to the daylight flooding through the ‘well’, secure himself with a rope, and make the climb using the ledges along the sides of the structure. But leaving the pit behind proves near-impossible for the average man.
But Bruce Wayne is no average man. He is a warworn warrior, yes. He has faced more severe tasks, he thinks. He can do this. In one scene, Bruce steps up to the rope, and the curious economy of support the underground cave has spawned in the bleakest of circumstances surrounds him with limbs and a chant. Tortured men like him gather around him. They urge him – like they have urged hundreds of failed others before him – to rise, to take the bait, to escape. Perhaps he might make it, and if he can – maybe they can too. Bruce goes far enough and then comes to the threshold: a gap between two ledges too far apart for even the most seasoned of vigilante-ninjas to traverse. He must make the jump to go on. With rope fastened around his waist, he leaps…to failure. Dangling in the void. Again and again.
He cannot despair. He does not fear death. He will keep trying.
The night before his umpteenth try, as he steels himself for the ritual, an elder man, the Prison Doctor that has tended to Bruce’s broken back this whole time, tells him a story about a child that escaped – the only inhabitant of the Pit that ever did. How did he do it? The elder speaks about the fear of death. I am not afraid of death, Bruce shoots back. It is true. He has honed his skills and fortified the borders of his emotional world so thoroughly that no emotion can overwhelm him that he does not allow in the first place. But that’s the problem, the doctor insists. You can only do this when you ally with your fear.
Make the climb…as the child did…without the rope. Then fear will find you again.
Here we happen upon one of the more complex themes of Nolan’s treatise. Bruce Wayne has spent most of his adult life mastering his fear, beating it into the tortured visage of a man-bat, cauterizing his wounds by opening new ones on the bodies of the unjust. Now, he is being invited to open the gates, to tear down the Trumpian walls, to allow the caravan of emotional immigrants access to his rationalized and carefully controlled psychic city – the Gotham within that his fists imposes on the faces of the reluctant without.
Bruce heeds the doctor’s advice and climbs without the rope. He comes to the impossible chasm, the punch of the joke that is written into the architecture of escape. He has no security. If he is to make the jump, he must truly become a creature of the night. He must do more than jump: men jump. He must fly: only man-bats do that.
And fly he does.
The Bruce Wayne that climbs out of the Pit does so because, instead of controlling his fear, he has learned to partner with ‘it’. He shapeshifted into a monstrous assemblage of fear and yearning, a queer kind of body that Bane’s system of oppression could not maintain. He left the cave – not to gain illumination ‘outside’, but because he had already tasted of a strange knowing only the dark can provide.
When escape is a deeper prison
In the Pit, we find an unexpected figure or deep metaphor for the politics of hope and the materiality of responsivity in critical times. The Pit shows us how oppressive systems endorse their critique, and how hope ironically strengthens the conditions we want to leave behind. Put differently, bodies (whether political bodies, biological bodies, conceptual bodies, or other kinds of bodies) often gain such weight and deep intelligence that defeating them only adds to their size. Notice that in Nolan’s treatment, the Pit tempts the prisoner to escape: it offers a way out. It says, keep hoping. Look at the bright sky. Leave the cave behind. Come hither. Defeat me. By offering a way out, by illuminating a path of justice, the Pit obscures the entangling relationships (the performative links) that tie the prisoner to its own economy.
One interpretation of quantum mechanics suggests that objects do not precede their measurements. It is in the context of a measurement that the attributes of a ‘thing’ becomes determinate. This is what Professor Karen Barad, a friend-mentor of mine and fellow Batman aficionado (I cannot confirm that last part), calls intra-action. Distinct from an interaction, in which two already pre-existing objects come into a relationship (relata preceding the relationship), an intra-action tells the story of a relational universe where things do not exist as such, only relationships. The ‘thinginess’ of a thing is a performance of intra-acting bodies. Relationships precede relata. An orange’s orangeness, roundness and citric ‘nature’ are not inherent to the orange: they are an intra-action of eyes, tongues, bacterial critters, light, and etcetera. In the same way a piece of string has no length until it intra-acts with a ruler, the Pit is not a prison until one tries to escape it.
The non-fictional corollaries seem clear.
We inhabit (and are inhabited by) problematic systems of oppression today. We dwell in and are indwelled by capitalist worlds that hide from view the networks of suffering that subsidize our suburban lives of privilege. We perform and are performed by concepts, gestures, rituals and practices that are not our own. There is a consensus that climate change proceeds from an intensification of anthropogenic activity on the planet, a situation that has led to the incarceration of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. In many senses then, we live in a Pit of our own making. We are trapped in a world that is increasingly hostile to the modern experiment of planting anthropocentric settlements and converting the commons into resources.
Mainstream activism and civic society seem focused on defeating these realities. We are seeking a way out. From attempts to combat climate change to emergent ‘walkout’ sub-cultures that encourage people to leave the systems behind altogether, contemporary activism is dyed in an adversarial quest to wrest power from the few, to escape neoliberal capitalism. To climb the Pit towards hope and justice.
But hope and justice often get in the way of transformation. We must learn to task our hopes into giving up their hidden motivations. And justice? Justice’s materiality is often responsive to the gravitational pull of power; that is, we think about fairness and pass around images of what justice might look like while being influenced by a powerful social unconscious that constrains imagination and domesticates/disciplines radical departures from familiar norms.
By trying to climb out of the Pit, we will often give it body, making it sturdier. Sometimes providing a way out is an extension of the project of imperial perpetuity. Recently, some activists wrote me from Spain asking for advice as they struggled with their government’s decision to burn down hundreds of thousands of almond and olive trees in order to get rid of the bacterium, Xylella Fastidiosa – one of the most feared plant pathogens in the world. My recommendations aside, their letter demonstrated how it becomes true that the way we see our most challenging problems is the problem. By reducing the Xylella phenomenon to an isolatable pathogen, independent of human bodies, delinked from agro-allied practices of creating monocultures, unperturbed by transatlantic crossings and trade, all that’s left for us to do is to try to get rid of the active ingredient, the pathogen. With our hopes and imaginations of justice tied to the death of the pathogen (never mind the irony of killing trees and replacing them with monocultures in order to save them from being killed), we perpetuate visions of victory and/or defeat that obscure the larger complexities of our relationships with the ‘pathogen’.
I wrote back to the activists, but not before happening upon the interesting examples of some farmers that were learning to cultivate a relationship with the pathogen – perhaps in the way people who suffer from auditory hallucinations are often invited to listen to, make friends with, and attend to the voices they try to shake out of their heads. Here’s what I wrote:
“Farmers who have seen the devastation brought upon their lands and have to contend with the aftermath of this senseless destruction that achieves little or nothing are presenting an option: co-existence with Xylella. From a modernist perspective, the bacterium is a discrete organism – composed of its own sovereign characteristics, independent, and separate. In the eyes of the authorities, eradicating it will solve the problem. But Xylella is not an “it”; it is not discrete or separate from, say, anthropogenic practices of eradication. It is part of a larger assembly of entities. It is part of a rhizome of interconnected realities, a phenomenon of inter-being. My inquiry into the particularities of this event and pathogen are limited, but there is some indication that the epidemiology of Xylella lies at the intersections of transatlantic trade and the use of chemicals. In a sense, Xylella is “us”. It is partly occasioned by an involution of our own agricultural practices. To eradicate it is ironically to strengthen it – and this much is evident from all the failed attempts to control it. In a sense, eradicating something so complex only creates new entanglements.
The farmers who speak about co-existing with Xylella speak about planting resistant strains of olive tree (I’m not sure if there are parallels with almond tree species). This farmer says: “It’s all wrong. You can’t cut down all the olive trees. We must seek to live with the disease, as farmers have always done.” I do not know what he means by this. But this is a much more complex relationship than merely pathologizing the ‘problem’ and seeking to eradicate it – which has proven counterproductive.”
I was speaking to the most insightful offering of the Allegory of the Pit: that when a problematic system endorses its own critique, then becoming more forceful in your opposition is likely to reinforce the stability of said system.
What one needs then is something traversal – a different kind of intelligence. Something the system cannot compute. A glitch.
Bruce Wayne’s Pit knew that a “fear-human body” assemblage would unravel it. As such, its structure instigated hope, a glimpse of victory, a proposal of security in form of a safety rope that could help more and more bodies feel confident about giving it a shot. Its very structure pathologized fear. The real bars that held the prisoners back was their lack of fear, a sense of hope, a can-do spirit, the encouraging chant of “rise”. Bruce Wayne had to seek intimacy with the filtered-out emotion. By nurturing his fear, his body changed. He shapeshifted into the bat he had for so long worn on his chest as a mere symbol. He cannibalized his fear, eating it up – becoming it, becoming a kind of body that deterritorialized the measurement of the Pit.
In what way is it true that justice often gets in the way of transformation? Why is it important to notice this? How do the systems we inhabit create us, measure us into being? How do our technologies shape us into their images? In what sense is our victory a programmed outcome of the systems we attempt to defeat? Under what conditions does hope become insidious, and what then does hopelessness allow us see and touch? How do we become like the systems we resist? Who and what are behind the stories of crisis, of trouble, and of strife that are popular today – and what arrangements of bodies, human and nonhuman, have helped reinforce those stories? Who is the agent, and how do our treasured ways of thinking about capacity enable or disable us from acting meaningfully in the world? What does it mean to slow down in times of urgency?
These questions and more assemble to substantiate an emerging field of posthumanist concern I call “postactivism”. Postactivism is not a way of dismissing contemporary activism as ‘not radical enough’; it is not a ‘sacred activism’ that often turns out to be a coupling together of eastern spiritualities with western plot points and objectives. Postactivism is instead a reframe of activism, of agency, of capacity, of accountability, of hope and victory – given the entanglements of a relational world. It basically invites us to ask new kinds of questions and nurture new kinds of intelligences that may not be possible if one started one’s analysis with the centrality of human action to social change. By rethinking the sociology of the social, and allowing the objects we often think of as mere ‘things’ around us (our phones, our laws, the environment, tables, the weather, ‘nature’) their due place in the worlding of the social, postactivism commits to a different performance of responsivity. It opens up room for other places of power. It seeks out wilder and wider coalitions of power-with the world by situating the human figure in a compost heap of other ‘equally’ powerful agencies.
With the Allegory of the Pit, postactivism notices that the way out is often the way further in. The ‘systems’ that trouble our landscapes have learned to make room for their opposition. These very systems know how to protect the rights of the protester-citizen, so long as he loses sight of the troubling materiality of citizenry in the first place. At this juncture, we need to conjure allies we once banished. Perhaps it is other ways of knowing fear. Perhaps it is sharing jealousy in facilitated circles. Perhaps it is opening up one’s home to a stranger in an act of radical hospitality. Perhaps it is grieving the untold losses and deaths of the Anthropocene-Capitalocene-Plantationcene-Nepantlacene. Postactivism shakes the whole field so that other interesting destinations, other than defeat or victory, other than solutions, become discernible.
Entering Plato’s cave
The end of Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a subtle (perhaps accidental) dig at Plato’s ideal educational trajectory: instead of beginning with the cave and ending in the open, the trilogy ends with a ritualized re-entering of the Batcave. Bruce Wayne is free from his nightly vocation. He has escaped the Pit, has become the man-bat, and must now leave behind the mask of the Batman for another to put on. His chosen successor, equipped with coordinates to the cave, approaches the world of shadows, the subterranean depths with barely a bonfire to light the way. The orchestrated sound of arrival, which has attended the film throughout the trilogy, swells with accompanying horns and swiftly edited scenes gravitating towards a final reveal. A glorious rapture. A rising that is also a descending. A welcoming into the imperatives of the darkness Plato had no knowledge of. Something shadowy emerges from the ground. A fade to black.
 In the Netflix movie, I Am Mother, another interesting study of power and the queer materiality of hope, ‘Daughter’ escapes the robotic grip of an Artificial Intelligence to find a ‘Woman’ who warned her of the nefarious intentions of her guardian. ‘Daughter’ kills her AI ‘Mother’ – but the victory is only apparent, as the end of the movie reveals to us that ‘Mothers’ defeat was part of the plan all along.
 This is not to endorse the idea that protests are wasted efforts. The world doesn’t fall easily into principled categories. Under some circumstances, protests prove very effective at holding back oppressive powers. The invitation of postactivism is not to stop protesting, but to examine how a complex and vast body/field of responsiveness and response-ability is often elided when we narrow our visions and imaginations to the one-track strip of victory versus defeat. It might just be that in paying attention differently, we build new alliances and new practices that open up other modes of engagement.