Critics weren’t sure how to categorize Joker: is it just a piece of entertainment (like other Batman films), an in-depth study of the genesis of pathological violence, or an exercise in cultural theory? From his radical leftist standpoint, Michael Moore called it ‘a timely piece of social criticism and a perfect illustration of the consequences of America’s current social ills’, pointing out that it explores the protagonist’s origin story, examines the role of bankers, the collapse of healthcare and the divide between rich and poor. However, Joker does not only depict this America, it also raises a ‘discomfiting question’ in Moore’s mind: what if one day the dispossessed decide to fight back?
Before Joker was released, the media and the FBI warned us it may incite violence from incels, though in the event there were no such reports. Rather than feeling inspired to commit acts of violence, viewers ‘will thank this movie for connecting you to a new desire — not to run to the nearest exit to save your own ass but rather to stand and fight and focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day,’ as Moore puts it.
But does it really work like that? The ‘new desire’ he mentions is not Joker’s desire – at the film’s end, the anti-hero is powerless, and his violent outbursts are just impotent explosions of rage, expressions of his basic powerlessness. The paradox is that you become truly violent (in the sense of posing a threat to the existing system) only when you renounce physical violence. This does not mean that Joker’s actions are futile – the lesson of the film is that we have to go through this zero-point to liberate ourselves from the illusions that pertain to the existing order.
Among other things, our immersion into the dark world of Joker cures us of politically correct illusions and simplifications, like sexual consent for example. In this world, you cannot take seriously the idea that consent to sexual relations makes them truly consensual. The ‘consent discourse’ is itself a huge sham. It is a naive effort to overlay a neat-and-tidy intelligible egalitarian language of social justice over the dark, discomforting, relentlessly cruel, traumatic realm of sexuality. People do not know what they want, they are disturbed by what they desire, they desire things that they hate, they hate their mothers but want to fuck their mothers, and so on, for eternity. We can easily imagine Joker reacting with wild laughter to the claim that ‘it was consensual, so it was OK’, since that’s how his mother ruined his life.
To quote Arthur from the film: ‘I’ve got nothing left to lose. Nothing can hurt me anymore. My life is nothing but a comedy.’ This zero-point is today’s version of what was once called a proletarian position, the experience of those who have nothing to lose. This is where the idea that Trump is a kind of Joker in power finds its limit: Trump definitely did not go through this zero-point. He may be an obscene clown in his own way, but he is not a Joker figure – it’s an insult to Joker to compare him with Trump.
Trump is obscene in acting the way he acts, but in this way he merely brings out the obscenity that is the obverse of the law itself. There is nothing suicidal about Trump’s boasting of how he breaks the rules, it is simply part of his message that he is a tough guy beset by corrupt elites, and that his transgressions are necessary because only a rule breaker can crush the power of the Washington swamp. To read this well-planned and very rational strategy in terms of death-drive is yet another example of how it is the left-liberals who are really on a suicidal mission, giving rise to the impression that they are engaged in bureaucratic-legal nagging while the president is doing a good job for the country.
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker is the only figure of truth: the goal of his terrorist attacks on Gotham City is made clear. They will stop when Batman takes off his mask and reveals his true identity. What, then, is Joker who wants to disclose the truth beneath the mask, convinced that this disclosure will destroy the social order? He is not a man without a mask, but, on the contrary, a man fully identified with his mask, a man who IS his mask – there is nothing, no ‘ordinary guy’, beneath it. Nolan’s Joker has no back-story and lacks any clear motivation: he tells different people different stories about his scars, mocking the idea that he should have some deep-rooted trauma that drives him.
Joker becomes Joker at a precise moment in the film, when he says: ‘You know what really makes me laugh? I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a fucking comedy.’ Because of this act, Joker may not be moral, but he is ethical. We should take note of the exact moment when Arthur says this: while, standing by the side of his mother’s bed, he takes her pillow and uses it to smother her to death. Who, then, is his mother? ‘She always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She says I was put here to spread joy and laughter.’ Is this not maternal superego at its purest? No wonder she calls him Happy, not Arthur. He gets rid of his mother’s hold on him (by killing her) through fully identifying with her command to laugh. His propensity to compulsive and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter is paradoxical: it is quite literally extimate (to use Lacan’s neologism), intimate and external. Arthur insists that it forms the very core of his subjectivity: ‘Remember you used to tell me that my laugh was a condition, that there was something wrong with me? It isn’t. That’s the real me.’ But it is external to him, to his personality, experienced by him as an automated partial object that he cannot control and that he ends up fully identifying with. The paradox here is that in the standard Oedipal scenario, it is the Name-of-the-Father which enables an individual to escape the clutches of maternal desire; with Joker, paternal function is nowhere to be seen, so that the subject can outdo mother only by over-identifying with her superego command.
At the film’s end, Joker is a new tribal leader with no political program, just an explosion of negativity – in his conversation with Murray, Arthur insists twice that his act is not political. Referring to his clown makeup, Murray asks him: ‘What’s with the face? I mean, are you part of the protest?’ Arthur replies: ‘No, I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe in anything. I just thought it’d be good for my act.’ And, again, later: ‘I’m not political. I’m just trying to make people laugh.’
There is no militant left in the film’s universe, it’s just a flat world of globalized violence and corruption. Charity events are depicted as what they are: if a mother Theresa figure were there she would participate in the charity event organized by Wayne, a humanitarian amusement of the privileged rich. However, it’s difficult to imagine a more stupid critique of Joker than the reproach that it doesn’t portray a positive alternative to the Joker revolt. Just imagine a film shot along these lines: an edifying story about how the poor, unemployed, with no health coverage, the victims of street gangs and police brutality, etc, organize non-violent protests and strikes to mobilize public opinion – a new non-racial version of Martin Luther King. It would be an extremely boring film, lacking the crazy excesses that makes Joker such an attractive film for viewers.
Here we get to the crux of the matter: since it seems obvious to a leftist that such non-violent protests and strikes are the only way to proceed to exert efficient pressure on those in power, are we dealing here with a simple gap between political logic and narrative efficiency? To put it bluntly, brutal outbursts like those of Joker are as damaging as they are effective, but they make for an interesting story. My hypothesis is that you have to go through the self-destructive zero-level for which Joker stands – not actually, but you have to experience it as a threat, as a possibility. Only in this way can you break out of the coordinates of the existing system and envisage something truly new.
In his interpretation of the fall of East European Communism, Habermas proved to be the ultimate left Fukuyamaist, silently accepting that the existing liberal-democratic is the best possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, et cetera, we should not challenge its basic premises. This is why he welcomed precisely what many leftists saw as the big deficiency of the anti-Communist protests in Eastern Europe: the fact that this protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future – as he put it, the central and eastern European revolutions were just what he called ‘rectifying’ or ‘catch-up’ revolutions: their aim was to enable central and eastern European societies to gain what the western Europeans already possessed, i.e., to rejoin the Western normality. However, the ongoing wave of protests in different parts of the world tends to question this very frame – and this is why figures like ‘jokers’ accompany them.
When a movement questions the fundamentals of the existing order, its very foundations, it is almost impossible to get just peaceful protests without violent excesses. The elegance of Joker resides in how the move from self-destructive drive to a ‘new desire’ for an emancipatory political project is absent from the film’s storyline: we, the spectators, are solicited to fill in this absence.