Self and Identity in Gotham
By Darian Shump
In Season 2 of Gotham, we are introduced to Theodore Galavan, a descendent of the once-powerful Dumas family and new claimant to the mayoral seat. He arrives in Gotham with a plan to return his family to power and exact vengeance upon the living legacy of the Wayne family, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Foiled by Penguin and Jim Gordon, Galavan meets his demise.
Almost immediately afterward, though, we learn that his body is recovered by Professor Hugo Strange, the Chief of Psychiatry at Arkham Asylum. For years, Strange had performed a number of experiments on inmates and other injured or deceased criminals at Indian Hill, a secret facility located below the mental institution. While many of these served different purposes, he was primarily concerned with developing a way to revive humans after death. After forty-three failed attempts, Strange prepared Galavan for the procedure. And succeeded.
The only problem is that the newly-resurrected Galavan appears unstable. He does not know his own name and brutally murders the orderlies sent to subdue him, painting the walls with their blood. Strange’s assistant, Peabody, considers the experiment a failure. According to her, Galavan is effectively useless without his sanity.
Strange, however, argues that their subject is simply having trouble piecing together his previous life, and claims that identity and sense of self are merely stories that humans tell themselves. Galavan no longer has a coherent self-identity because his death and rebirth shattered his psyche. As a result, he is incapable of distinguishing between flashes of real memories and accounts of the lives of his ancestors detailed in a semi-sacred history known as The Will and Order of St. Dumas. The solution, Strange suggests, is to simply give him a great, heroic story from the latter, one which will allow his mind to accept renewed life after death. The professor settles on the figure of Azrael, a twelfth-century knight heralded as a champion of the Dumas family, and convinces Galavan that he has been reborn to once again serve the Order of St. Dumas.
Strange’s understanding of identity is not entirely incorrect. Many of us tend to define ourselves in terms of nationality, race, or religion, as well as countless other categories like musical preference or dominant-handedness. In some cases, such markers are the product of biological circumstances (skin tone, for example), but even then the significance of the difference between markers is socially constructed. Thus, we give meaning to differences in skin tone, sex, gender, or religion and thereby create (and cast) our own narratives of belonging or exclusion. We write the story, and we determine where we fit within its pages.
More troubling is the idea that an identity or self can be installed, or forced upon, an individual. If this were possible, it would suggest that agency is a much less important part of the process of identity formation than we would like to believe. Our stories would be reliant upon the actions of others, and we would become little more than bits of clay shaped by their hands.
But is the creation of a coherent self really a wholly internal process? Are the thoughts and actions of others entirely unimportant? Or do they perhaps play an equally important part in the ways in which we view and understand ourselves?
As mentioned above, self-categorization is an inevitable part of the human experience. But while we identify with the groups to which we belong, we also (consciously or subconsciously) separate ourselves from those from which we are excluded—from the “others,” for lack of a better term.
The concept of the “other” can be traced throughout history, even if it was not always explicitly referred to as such. Labels for ethnic groups and civilizations, for example, typically imply some sort of separation, regardless of whether it is geographical, political, or religious in form. Linked to these are the countless persecutory acts, ranging from the Crusades and Spanish Reconquista to the Holocaust and Bosnian genocide(s), during which specific peoples were targeted on the basis of religion or ethnicity.
In terms of specific applications of “other,” the most relevant stems from the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770-1831). In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel writes that self-consciousness “exists only as a recognized being” in that it “exists in and for itself by way of its existing in and for itself for an other” (161; emphasis in translation). Meanwhile, “the other exists as an inessential object designated by the character of the negative” (164). In short, then, the self and other are inextricably linked, not least because both exist in relationship to one another. Their encounter essentially enables them to realize what they are and what they are not.
The birth of Gotham‘s Azrael mirrors this process. Without Professor Strange, Galavan is incapable of forming a coherent identity or self. Strange himself notes that the former mayor lacked a context within which he could situate himself. Without a point of comparison, it was impossible for him to grasp the ends of his existence (that is, where “he” ended and the “other” began).
As soon as the doctor provided him with that context, though, Galavan/Azrael had little problem understanding himself. His new identity was technically different from his old identity, but the fact remains that he came to accept his existence in relation to that of Hugo Strange. Azrael was as much a product of another as he was a product of his own memories and experiences.
So, it would seem that there is at least a philosophical precedent for external influences upon the creation of a self (or identity formation).
But now we find ourselves forced to ask whether or not this holds true for the real world as well. Gotham might not clash with Hegelian conceptions of the self or other, but what about the experiences of the average human? Can our perceptions of self really be defined by those around us?
More often than not, the answer is yes.
One example can be found in the formation of racial or ethnic identity. For the most part, it consists of an individual’s willingness to self-identify as a member of a particular group. This is typically supplemented by the presence of one or more cultural factors, such as genetic background (i.e., blood), language, religion, and nationality or place of birth. For example, one individual might identify as Korean because he was born in Seoul, whereas a second-generation immigrant from New York might identify as Korean based on her knowledge of the Korean language and inherited customs. Each determines the cultural factors that he or she considers to be most important in a broader narrative of belonging.
To outsiders, though, all of these internal processes might be overlooked in favor of observable qualities. In other words, they might simply be labeled “Asian” as a result of their skin color or other stereotypical attributes. Their own perceptions of self would therefore be considered irrelevant in comparison to the perceptions of those around them, leaving both largely incapable of determining their own position within a given society. Each would instead be forced to either accept or react to the options given to them, rather than be allowed to choose from those that they create. Like Galavan, they are told what they are and what they can become.
So, we might conclude by treating the creation of Azrael as a sort of cautionary tale.
While the forced installation of a self seems a terrifying and fanciful prospect, it is not as unlikely as we would expect. Identity formation is an inherently relational process, one that cannot take place without an “other” as a point of reference. Of course, this also means that it is impossible to define oneself without simultaneously defining the “other” in opposing terms, regardless of her own view of self. The result is an image based on preconceived notions that minimizes any real agency she might previously have possessed.
In a world faced with a resurgence of nationalist sentiment and xenophobia, applying stereotypes in this way, even when seemingly harmless, risks normalizing the dehumanization of the “other.” At best, such attitudes reinforce the differences between both parties, creating feelings of mistrust and raising questions about their ability to co-exist successfully. Taken to the extreme, they lead to outright persecution and violent subjugation.
With this in mind, then, we can see that the processes involved in the creation of Azrael are not limited to the realm of fantasy.
External influences on our perceptions of self may be easily overlooked, but are rarely inconsequential. The real problem is that they have the potential to be just as troubling, and harmful, as the experiment performed by Strange himself. And since we cannot ever truly understand ourselves without the “other,” our only solution is to remain aware of the ways in which our attempts at self-identification impact those around us. Only then can we learn to recognize the potential for harm, as well as the existence of further opportunities for dialogue.
Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by Terry Pinkard. October 30, 2013. terrypinkard.weebly.com/phenomenology-of-spirit-page.html.
Darian Shump is currently pursuing an M.A. in Religion at Florida State University. Although his primary research focuses on religious identity in China, he also enjoys exploring the ways in which comics are used as a medium of social expression.