I finally watched Joker the other night. It was pretty good. Most takes on it seemed bad though.
For instance, I — along with about half of Reddit — kept thinking about Sisyphus throughout my viewing, particularly Camus’s absurdist Sisyphus. It is as if Arthur is the epitome of the Absurd Hero — or so the script wants us to think. This is to say that, despite all the shit he’s put through, we have to imagine Arthur happy. Otherwise why would he continue to live? He has to be able to affirm the meaningless chaos of the universe, affirm the drudgery, and find the funny in its absurdity.
The issue with this sort of analysis, of course, is that whilst it seems fairly obvious and accurate at the level of cinematographic symbolism, that’s only because we’ve let our eyes lead us and stripped out the broader context.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like Heath Ledger’s. That much was clear to me. In fact, surely Ledger’s Joker was far more of an Absurd Hero? He doesn’t have the heavy symbolism of a long flight of stairs to climb up; nevertheless, he is absurd in his defiance not of the Gods but of capitalism. In wanting to watch the world burn, we can say he wants to suffer. He flourishes in a world of conflict, which is what separates him from the other gangsters, who are supposedly thrown into a life of crime for various material reasons. The Joker, however, wants to be there. He’s made a choice.
This is what defines his character. He offers up a backstory sometimes, about his facial scars, but it’s obviously all bullshit. He knows it’s easier for these basic heroes to imagine him a man corrupted, and he toys with them in this sense, giving them reasons for existence only to cast doubt on them. Even this is just a joke to him.
The Joker (in Ledger’s portrayal at least) is such a diabolical character precisely because he demonstrates the difficulty in imagining him happy; imagining him motivated by revenge or greed is far easier than imagining him being driven purely by a sadomasochist pleasure principle.
Phoenix’s Joker isn’t like this. He laughs despite himself. He’s medicated. He phantasises. He’s not happy but unwell. He’s a Sisyphus who only makes sense if we imagine him as he is: pathological.
“What’s so funny?”
“I have a condition…”
In psychoanalytic terms, Phoenix’s Joker is a true psychotic. Whereas the classic Joker is basically just a hysterical pervert, truly enjoying the violence of the world, Arthur slips out of the symbolic order entirely. He’s not consciously subverting our value systems. He’s tragically outside of them. This is demonstrated by his jokes, to an extent. Puns and homophones are his primary comedic domain; a comedy where slippages of meaning are affirmed. But this is an innocuous glimmer of the true tendencies that lie within. In reality, his cognitive experience is some distant from this largely innocuous eccentricity. It is only through language, and grappling with it, that he is able to make sense of life. Despite what he goes on to do, his actions aren’t really a part of this.
For instance, Arthur laughs when he experiences any negative form of emotion — due to a brain injury, it is suggested — but it’s a hollow laugh. This is what makes him creepy rather than evil. He’s not an absurd hero affirming his lot in life. He explicitly refuses to affirm it, in fact. He might enjoy slippages of meaning within his own hypothetical stand-up routine but when the world at large misunderstands him, he gets violent.
In this sense, Arthur is a psychotic unable to subjectify his experiences because his experience is foreclosed, in spite of his capacity for linguistic expression.
For Lacan, foreclosure is a sort of alternative to repression, where something is ejected from the symbolic order as if it never existed. For Phoenix’s Joker, what is ejected could be — in true Lacanian fashion — a father figure (and we see this in his relationship with his mother), but instead it seems that what is rejected is sadness itself.
This isn’t just the case in terms of Arthur’s emotional expressivity; it is also the case socially. His mother calls him “Happy”, for instance, (nick)naming him after an emotion he is not destined to feel. It’s the tragic irony of the sad clown taken to an oppressive Lacanian extreme — as if “happiness” is the fantasy of the big Other that he is being forced to embody despite himself.
This is a genuinely interesting twist on the tale, even though the film buries it under a heavy symbolism that implores we give it a more superficial meaning — but, in that sense, the film, in true modern Hollywood fashion, is guilty of precisely what it is critiquing. Phoenix’s portrayal of the character may have genuine depth but the direction is likewise guilty of this same foreclosure, insisting we think of him as the Absurdist Joker that Ledger portrayed so well, when in fact Arthur is anything but. This is to say that not only is Arthur foreclosed in his world but in ours too.
Thankfully, this foreclose is not as bad as with Jared Leto’s Joker, who failed because he seemed to misunderstand the importance of this psychoanalytic slippage. His Joker is just “crazy”. It was a Joker caricature; a stylistic variation on a Joker we already know and can account for as a cliched archetype. It failed to do what all successful Jokers are supposed to, which is tell us something quietly profound about ourselves in our contemporary moment. Whilst Ledger’s spoke to a absurdist-nihilist streak within Noughties capitalism, encapsulating the decadence of a new fin de siècle, Phoenix’s Joker tells us something else about now. Not that we might choose our own happiness and nihilistically affirm our chaotic world but that the psychopathologic intrusion of modernity into the psyche gives us very little choice in the matter at all.
In this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is rightly a sort of incel icon. But that’s not to say he demonstrates himself as a viable political subject, as many incels try to portray themselves. (Before you ask: no, I haven’t seen TFW No GF yet.) Just like Travis Bickle, similarly referenced in this film so heavily that it starts to get annoying, his political activities are little more than attempts to insert himself into a symbolic order. We, as viewers, might be able to imbue it with a certain vigilante moralism but it is hardly a conscious form of activism. Bickle is a slave to his own psychosis, drawn into the underbelly of his New York neighbourhood simply because that’s where he lived. He attacks pimps through an inability to navigate his own circumstances rather than out of an ideological need to clean up the streets. He attacks them because they are there and so is he.
Given the emphasis on language and an inability to effectively communicate in the world, it is easy to see why many incels characterise themselves as violent autists but the further (inadvertent) strength of Phoenix’s Joker in this regard is that he demonstrates how their communicative impotence is acutely psychotic rather than autistic. There are many on the autistic spectrum capable of understanding politics far better than they do, for instance. No, there’s is nothing more than a pathology dressed up as an ideology and, in this sense, Phoenix’s Joker is precisely the Joker we deserve.