Who will watch the Watchmen? God, Biopolitics and the secret truth of Christianity’s homo sacer revealed in the Watchmen movie

In Michel Foucault’s 1975 Discipline and Punish, he tried to trace the processes and effects of power as they relate to discourse; that is, the systems of power that extend not merely from above (as in an authoritarian regime) but also from below (power that is internalized, and thus less obviously perceived as an influence at all). The aim of power, in Foucault’s terms, is to exercise power “at the lowest possible cost (economically, by the low expenditure it involves; politically, by its discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses); secondly, to bring the effects of this power into their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible, without either failure or interval; thirdly, to link this “economic” growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial, or medical) within which it is exercised; in short, to increase the docility and the utility of all the elements of the system (Discipline and Punish 218).

As Agamben relates in Homo Sacer, “In the last years of his life, while he was working on the history of sexuality and unmasking the deployments of power at work within it, Michel Foucault began to direct his inquiries with increasing insistence toward the study of what he defined biopolitics, that is, the growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power (Home Sacer 71).

For me, the optimum site of locating Foucault’s “biopolitics” – or power over and throughout the lives of human beings – is religion. More than political or cultural systems of discourse, I find religion to be a far more deeply ingrained thought-process, cultivated from a young age, and nearly impossible to distance oneself from. Religion use as a tool with which to control the masses has long been noted, from Marx’s infamous “religion is the opiate of the people” to Aristotle’s much earlier ruminations on the subject:

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side. (Politica BK V)

Napoleon Bonapart later affirms, “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet.”
Regardless of whether or not religion is “true” or even “worthwhile,” we may confidently make the assertion that it is particularly useful and effective at reaching into the hearts and minds of mankind and preventing undesirable behavior that falls either outside of or under the nose of the Law. However, religion is almost by definition exclusivistic: by offering a system of ethics or morality, and consequential judgment or retribution, it is implied that not everyone is able (or even permitted) to take part in the power system. Many religions even thrive on the idea of a chosen people. Those outside the religious discourse – which usually incorporates social and cultural value judgments or elements of racial superiority – are depicted as “other”, and often less- or sub-human. The ethical standards that are often demanded in religious discourse, paradoxically, often do not extend to human beings who are place outside of it.

This is the sense of Agamben’s homo sacer or “bare life”: the man who may be killed but not sacrificed (Agamben, 10). It is interesting to note that the original meaning of homo sacer, which may be translated both as “sacred man” and “accursed man”, was the figure who was devoid of all civic rights and all functions in civil religion. Thus while it is tempting to simply define this figure as someone outside of the existence-defining social discourse, and hence unprotected by the relevant ethical codes (such as “thou shalt not kill”), the original concept refers usually to an oath-breaker. Oaths were sworn to various gods and goddesses; so to break an oath would necessarily imply blasphemy and warrant divine retribution. It was considered reasonable to take all civic and religious rights away from such a figure, because those rights were given, guaranteed and justified through religious discourse: mankind’s diverse truths have almost always appealed to universal veracity, and the “rightness” of mankind’s laws are supported by the claim that they were given by or ascribed to the gods, who are eternal and omnipotent.

One example of the concept could be the Jewish genocide of the races populating Israel, but also Aaron and Moses’ slaughter of their own kinsmen, Israelites, who had turned from Yahweh and worshipped the golden calf. The moral commandments – which are divinely given and universal – can be abrogated. When the gods’ demands and expectations are not met, their protection is not revoked. In other words: morality is conditional.

I would argue that a distinction should be made between homo sacer and Murray’s reference to patria potestas – the right of the father of the family to dispose of slaves and children, to “take life or let live” (Murray 197). While it is true that a ruling party may dispose of life indiscriminately – in fact this is rarely the case. While those in authority may have this right, it cannot be enforced arbitrarily or without at least some justification, however slight. Moreover, the status of homo sacer does not mean that my life is up to the whims of whoever has patria potestas over me, and that I must endeavor to please my master, but rather that anyone and everyone have that power over me – and that no justification for my death is needed. At the same time, this implies that for the homo sacer there is no reason to put him to death. It might be more appropriate to say that nobody has the right to “take life or let live”, because all ethical relationships between the homo sacer and other citizens has been undone. There is no reason for anybody to care about or take notice of – much less to kill – the homo sacer.

In terms of religious discourse, we could borrow terms from postcolonial studies, such as Spivak’s “subaltern”: the homo sacer may simply be those who are not included in the religious power structure. Cain, for example, by committing the first murder against his brother Abel, is “cursed with alienation.” Although this should make him easy to kill, in fact Yahweh gives Cain a mark, so that those who kill Cain will “suffer vengeance seven times over.” We may recognize, however, that Cain’s violent act against his brother was due to his jealousy for being treated as inferior: both brothers attempted to please God by offering sacrifices. Abel’s was accepted, while Cain’s was refused. The motivating element in the story, therefore, is the capriciousness of the deity. Often, especially in terms of religious discourse in relation to racial identity, certain races, cultures and practices are inferior because God simply doesn’t like them.

It is interesting to examine the literature of Christianity, and ask “Whose voices are being silenced in the production of the discourse of power?” This is an especially useful field of inquiry because, due to Christianity’s continued survival as a living faith with adamant supporters, critical interpretations of Christian literature remain sources of controversy.

On the one hand, commentators of Foucault make it clear that it is important to recognize the operations of power, which are everywhere:

Power is not imposed from “above” a system or socius, but consists of a series of relations within such a system or socius; there is no “outside” of power, no place untouched by power; in the end, power produces desires, formations, objects of knowledge, and discourses, rather than primarily repressing, controlling, or canalizing the powers already held by preexisting subjects, knowledges or formations. Resistance, then, doesn’t primarily function “against” power, trying to eradicate it altogether; rather, resistance attempts to harness power otherwise, in the production of different effects. (Nealon 24)

On the other hand, the point of Foucalt is that “these functions of power should be aggressively resisted whenever and wherever they are found” (Nealon 37). In other words, the ethical act is not to blindly follow the dictates of power, but to seek a way out. At the same time, with reference to postcolonial studies, we’ve come to recognize that majority narratives always do violence to the minority’s whose voices are silenced in the telling; that there is always another side of the story; and that these voices often offer a more authentic or genuine experience (or at least a variation of the “reality” we’ve grown accustomed to.

In applying these insights towards Christian literature, we would expect to see the same trend of thought – an inversion of classical narratives and a celebration of the minority discourse, freed from the silencing power of authority. In fact, such a reading has yet to be produced. A literature review of responses to Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, shows that scholars almost unanimously support a theologically appropriate, Christ-centered worldview. In fact many readings appear to deliberately resist and safeguard against what is now called the “perverse” reading of the romantics, who saw Satan as a tragic hero and God as a tyrant king. There is a refusal to see Satan as a victim, who suffers a deliberate and conscientious campaign of abuse, or God as a Machiavellian dictator manipulating the other characters in order to propagate his regime of power; yet in light of modern theory, such a reading would be implicitly more satisfying.

Recognizing especially the fact that the character of God is the winner – both in terms of modern theology and also in terms of the book’s outcome – it should be obvious that (in Foucault’s conception) this power discourse needs to be resisted and also (as supported by modern literary theory) that the text needs to be unraveled to reveal the minority discourses.

In terms of homo sacer, we may ask which characters in Paradise Lost were cast outside of the power structure and therefore beyond ethical consideration. In terms of politics of struggle or revolution, we could look for those characters who were willing to defy the power structure even in the face of dire consequences, for values such as freedom or autonomy. When dealing with any other text, such a character – even if ultimately unsuccessful – would quite easily be identified as the hero or protagonist.

Already from Kant – although the idea of righteous refusal of ruling authority is ancient – we have the idea that it is better to die than relinquish our right to self-governance or personal dignity:

Thus, for Kant, there is a higher principle than life. And this principle demands sometimes that I be willing to sacrifice my life. This principle is personhood, which is invested with dignity and a sacred value: ‘Humanity in our own person is an object of the highest esteem and is inviolable in us; rather than dishonor it, or allow it to be dishonored, man ought to sacrifice his life.’ (Murray, 200)

Many of these motifs can be found in Zach Snyder’s movie adaptation of the graphic novel “Watchmen” (2009). The movie begins 10 years after a group of superheroes were pushed into hiding by the government. After one of them is murdered, several members begin to trace the depth of a global conspiracy. Adrian Veidt, whose superhero form is Ozymandias, is the main antagonist or “villain” of the story. When confronted by Night Owl and Rorshach at the end of the movie, he explains that his plan is to unify the United States and Soviet Union and prevent the imminent nuclear war by “killing millions” in several of the world’s largest cities, “to save billions.” By using devices with Dr. Manhattan’s signature energy to destroy the cities, he knows that the world will think that Dr. Manhattan is behind all of the deaths, and will unite against him. After President Nixon states that the US and Soviets have allied, Dr. Manhattan realizes Ozymandias’ plan is logical and revealing the conspiracy would only break the peace and lead again to nuclear destruction.

Rorschach refuses to be part of the new “grand narrative”, and so he is outside of the boundaries of normal ethics. The rest of the group, who have reached an understanding concerning the lie to be perpetuated for the greater good of mankind, allow Rorschach to be exterminated. Jon kills him unceremoniously, as easily as swatting a fly.

The scenario – massive terrorist destruction and deliberate perception to unite and manipulate the public – have parallels in recent political events, most notably Bush’s “War on Terror” and invasion of Iraq, based on claims of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be entirely fictional. The US public (and to some extent world populace) relinquished many personal rights and freedoms in the aftermath of 9-11; which some conspiracists claim was likewise an orchestrated event of deliberate, intentional destruction organized by hidden forces to coerce the public into willingly allowing tighter government controls and functions.

The interesting question, I feel, is to what extent Jon as Dr. Manhattan can truly represent a god figure in this scenario; and seeking a Christian symbolism in the movie, how the main players can be assigned.

Jon, as Dr. Manhattan, is easily seen as a divine figure. He virtually omnipotent in his manipulation of matter, can read minds and transport himself anywhere. He has no need of food or air; he appears to be eternal. “God exists and he’s an American” we learn. Later Jon says, “The world’s smartest man poses no more threat to me than does its smartest termite.” At the end of the movie, Manhattan departs for another galaxy that is “a little less complicated” and says, “Maybe I’ll create some life there.”

What we have is a plausible life-generating divine figure which could easily be a model for the creation of life on earth. But how are we to understand Jon and Adrian’s deception? Adrian plans a deliberate terror campaign on humanity and Jon goes along with it, allowing himself to be blamed. On the one hand, the God of the Old Testament is no stranger to using terroristic tactics to get his way. He floods the whole world to cleanse humanity of sin; he destroys the tower of Babel because he’s afraid of humans reaching to high or progressing too far; he pours abuse upon Egypt until the Israelites are freed. Gnostics would later read these passages, conclude that the “real” God could not be so petty and violent, and blame these evil happenings on the Demiurge (the evil ruler of this world, who is actually just a lesser deity). In a Gnostic reading, we might conclude that Adrian represents the Demiurge, the cruel ruler of this world, while Jon represents the true God that is much further removed from human suffering.

A more normative Christian reading is to put the blame for these evils on Satan. It is commonly asserted that “evil” or “Satan” inspired the destruction of 9-11, although in fact the act was done by religious terrorists in the name of God. And still, in the tradition of the book of Job we can see clearly that Satan is merely God’s tempter; the function that God allows to terrorize humanity, in order to separate those loyal to him.

The difficulty in a Christian reading of The Watchmen is that Jon, who actually has the power, allows himself to be portrayed as the bad guy. The world will come together by hating and demonizing him. He cannot, therefore, represent the Christian character of God, who Christians continue to revere. Instead, the best identification for Jon is, paradoxically, the character of Satan. An enormous part of Christian bioethics – that is, the manipulative tools used to effect desired action even when not directly observed – is that Satan is always trying to tempt humanity. There needs to be a bad guy for God to protect humanity from; and yet in the Christian cosmology, it is impossible for Satan to be truly equal to God. And if God is superior, Satan poses no real threat. The value of Satan, much like the value of modern day terrorism, is that it allows the authorities (God/the government) to continually inflict fear without themselves being perceived as evil.

As far as religion and biopolitics go, God may represent Foucault’s conception of the panopticon; you never know who is watching you or how they will punish you. But it is not enough. A divine power that judges and punishes has the same disability as a tyrant: eventually the public will revolt and attempt to throw off the heavy burden. For maximum control, the authority needs to be caring and loving, while divorcing fear of evil into a third party – this very common psychological manipulation is used in the classic “good cop bad cop” routine.

Satan, in the Christian epic, is absolutely essential: without the ability to blame Satan for the fall of Adam and Eve, there would be no threat of eternal damnation, and hence no need for Jesus’ restorative sacrifice. There would be no need for God at all.

Looking again at the Watchmen, we could wonder whether “Satan”, represented by Dr. Manhattan, is really the greater power, who allows himself to become the villain, to be hated forever by everyone, because he knows the fear caused will actually be beneficial to mankind, while “God”, represented by Adrian, uses this farce and his brilliant intelligence to manipulate mankind as he sees fit.

We are left only with the problem of Rorschach. The easiest identification would be to call him a sacrificial figure, a victim – and relate him to Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Rorschach is a homo sacer; he dies specifically as one who is not sacrificed – he dies for refusing to be inside the governing order and as such he simply cannot continue to exist and is snubbed out. He will not be missed, he will not be remembered or worshiped. So on the one hand he cannot be a Christ-figure. If he were remembered, or if it were known why he really had to die, the whole illusion would be shattered. His death will always be a secret. Jesus, on the other hand, is a commemoration of the death that was needed to restore the order that was broken from original sin: Christians’ remembrance of the suffering of Jesus makes them contrite and grateful. The same power can hardly be applied to Rorschach.

However, perhaps this is just a matter of interpretation. Rorschach is certainly the blood that had to be shed to seal the secret covenant between Adrian, Manhattan and Night owl. He is the dissenting voice that could not be allowed. When he is evaporated, his blood splatters in the shape of an angel on the snow; perhaps blessing or deifying him.

What if the real story of Christianity is that God and Satan agreed to team up and manipulate humanity through a deliberate plan of terrorism, and Jesus refused to go along with their plan? What if out of his love for humanity and honesty, he would not be a part of the deception and was crucified for that very reason? Then the cross of Jesus is actually a mark representing the fate of those who refuse to comply, who refuse to believe and be coerced. Those outside of the power-system set-up by the governing parties will be silenced: Jesus is the corpse hung on the gates of the city as a warning to other would-be transgressors. His eternal suffering is the fate of the homo sacer, the blasphemer, the rebel: those who dare question the authority of God or seek to get outside of the biopolitics which restrain human action will not be endured. Inside the power structure, you have no freedom; but outside, existence is impossible.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. Print.

Murray, Stuart J. “Thanatopolitics: On the Use of Death for Mobilizing Political Life.” Polygraph: An International Journal of Politics and Culture vol. 18 (2006): 191-215. Print.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. Foucault beyond Foucault: power and its intensifications since 1984. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. Print.

Watchmen. Dir. Zack Snyder. Perf. Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Malin Akerman. Warner Home Video, 2009. DVD.