Lacanian Review Online: Joker

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When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do

(Leonard Cohen, The Partisan)

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LRO 185
23rd October 2019




Joker
Ana Beatriz Freire – Isabel Barata Adler

Joker is not just a movie about the genesis of the supervillain of Batman. Nor it is a comic book movie on the Clown of Crime that denounces the America of those marginalized by the current government. This America, as affirmed by Michael Moore, where the dirty and rich get richer and dirtier. Joker is also the story of a subject whom, painfully, tries to localize himself, to find points of support, suppléance of stabilization in face of a violent world and invasive Other.

The movie is set in a not so fictional reality. The oppressive background is located in a dark and filthy subworld, around the 80’s, in Gotham City. Brilliantly interpreted by Joaquim Phoenix, the story, more than a dejá vú, rebuilds and reinvents the origin of the supervillain through the story of a common man, Arthur Fleck, who dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. With a hole in the shared language, the character laughs, and laughs a lot. It’s an unmotivated laughter, would say the psychiatric discourse, that reveals the dissociation between words and things, signifier and signification, shared feelings and the expression that affects him. It’s a laughter that marginalizes him in face of a shared fantasy based on the ideals of the American Way of Life, of the unstoppable productivity expressed by “you can do it”.

Along with the poor subworld of Gotham, Fleck tries to dance with the flow and he does it quite well, aesthetically and intimately. In this battle, however, in this tightrope walking, he tries to constitute himself as a subject in face of the Other and finds a lot of obstacles along the way. Obstacles that witness not only the human survival in a corrupted and inhumed society, but rather the construction of a name to get out of the anonymity of the Other’s desire. Anonymity that marked Fleck since his infancy – at the orphanages and through the process of adoption – and later, à posteriori, in face of his parents’ desire: be it for the mistreatment of the mad maternal other or for the anonymity of the paternal function that he longs for in recognition and which, eventually, drops him down.

In this controversial course of crime and madness, trying to overcome violence with violence, we see something that is very current, that is, the imposition of mass psychology. It’s a movement around an S1, an unary signifier that everyone will identify with, Joker, a card that can ironically function in the place of any other card and with which one can violently play in order to survive. In this case, being identified with the father’s worse version, it’s in response to an oppressive, violent, and persecuting society that placed him in the anonymity of the beaten and marginalized object, that the main character constructs a name, Joker. A nomination that takes him out of the anonymity and makes him an “antihero”. The supervillain becomes a kind of hero. The audience begins to identify with this subjective construction, sharing with his ironic laugh and caring for what Joker was able to invent, turning over what devastated him, the gaze of the Other, turning it into a sinthome[1] – a place that has function of leadership, of mastery. It’s about the treatment of the gaze object: from looked upon as a persecuted object, he becomes admired. The semblant of the capitalistic world, of the unethical consumption at any price, is denounced. Acting out and killing the TV presenter who mocked his condition and made him an object of injury, Jocker goes from victim to “hero”.

The move from Arthur to Joker also involves the murder of his mother, and not his father. In face of the failure of the paternal function and the dismantling of the precarious place Happy incarnated for his mother, Arthur constructs a savoir-faire with his dark and overwhelming kakon[2]. His aggression takes on a signification that aims to break with the oppression of the external world and, killing his mother, the presenter, and some others, Arthur, like Aimée[3], strikes the symbol of his inner enemy, of his own illness. It remains the Joker, who not only escapes the field of meaning, but mobilizes the mass, as we witness towards the very end of the movie in the “kakonian party” – a mass that is taken by the evil object, now idolized.

In the end, we no longer know who is in the anonymity or in the mass: the masked clowns in the midst of the riot or the desabonné, unsubscribed, law that falls by irony when Joker denounces the TV presenter and the politician.  

Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has an aesthetic density, due to its imagistic beauty, as well as political density, due to the turn of a subjectivity that reinvents itself in face of the adversities of its social structure: violent, without resources, care, medication or listening. There is still a subjective invention in creating a sinthome that transforms the terror of being a persecuted and despised object into a subject worth of leadership, even if it’s as a supervillain. As Joker, Arthur occupies a place similar to that of a saint homme[4], a holy man, regarded as a hero among a mass that identifies with his aggressiveness, but that does not understand him. Incarcerated, his last line is: you wouldn’t get it. What happens in the mass, in the masked crowd, does not seem to be quite what happens to Joker. For him, it goes beyond a social and political riot; it has a structuring function that does not completely eliminate the devastating and insufficient relation to the Other. It is nomination that, in regards to the subject, allows him to do without the Name of the Father and, in regards to the mass, sanctifies him.

 


[1] Spelling used by Lacan to designate a substitute of the father who does not name, that is, different from the symptom, sinthome would be an invention of the subject, which would function in the place of the paternal resignation.

[2] The term kakon was used by French psychiatry around the 20’s and 30’s, in order to approach themes as aggression and unmotivated killing. Throughout his teaching, Lacan resumes the term and designates it as an unpleasant feeling that invades the subject and which, in psychosis, makes him want to get rid of this evil through a tendency to aggression.

[3] The case of Aimée is discussed in the doctoral thesis of Lacan, entitled “On Paranoiac Psychosis in its Relations to the Personality” (1932/1975).

[4] In Seminar XXII, Lacan plays with the homophony between the French words sinthome and saint-homme. Such play takes up the idea of saint and man in relation to the symptom. We shall consider the saint as the one who wants to take the place of the incarnated object a, as suggested by Miller in his “Nota a Margem de Televisão” (1973/2003).

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