Daniel Tutt recently wrote a blog post titled A Lacanian Reading of Joker, wherein he argued the following:
The Joker thus abandons the superegoic function he had identified with Murray and transposes a new superego identification with the political uprising in Gotham and murders Murray in an act of new-found solidarity with his true origins–the anonymous orphan of the mob. Although he insisted in his exchange with Murray on the show that he is not “political”, the Joker becomes a newly born political figure after ridding himself of the father of the imaginary and the symbolic.
I do not want to restate all of Daniel’s arguments here, so I encourage you to read his blog before reading this one.
My own position is that Joker is precisely not a political film. Neither is it a revolutionary film. Yet, for all of that, this does not mean that it is not a transformational film about subjective transformation.
I want to read the film alongside Jacques-Alain Miller’s two intuitions in Milan during the year of 2002. This document explores very well the relationship of the unconscious to politics, and we have the statement that “the unconscious is politics.”
What does this mean?
Let us begin with the classical Lacanian/Freudian understanding of the unconscious. The unconscious is fundamentally related to its symbolic anchoring point, the name-of-the-father, which provides it with the possibility of discourse. Finally, it is discourse which constitutes a social bond. Thus, Miller concludes, quite correctly, that the unconscious implies some connection to society. We might write this in the following way:
Unconscious -> society -> politics -> discourse
Miller develops this point:
The definition of the unconscious by politics goes very deep in Lacan’s teaching. “The unconscious is politics” is a development of “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”. This link to the Other, intrinsic to the unconscious, is what inspires from the outset Lacan’s teaching. This is also true when it is pointed out that the Other is divided and does not exist as One.
The problem is that the contemporary period is marked by a decline in the symbolic efficiency of the paternal function, the loss of the virility of the name-of-the-father. Thus, there are problems with proper names. What Daniel Tutt correctly diagnosed was the fact that the movie is situated precisely in this problem of proper names and of the decline of the father’s role. For example, we should notice that the film is called Joker, whereas, at one time, the film referred to this character as The Joker. We witness the removal of the definite article, indicating that the Joker is missing a proper name.
Moreover, Joker does laugh when others are laughing. He laughs on his own timing. His jokes are self-referential and mostly one-liners. This is because there is no Other for him, instead he is forced to try to invent one. Therefore, to state that Joker is political is to forget that there is no politics for the insane.
We can see other examples of the loss of the Other. Joker’s take on Gotham city — indeed, it is the take of so many who, like Joker, no longer feel connected to their city — is that it is on fire. It is on fire, because its function is no longer operational. On this point, Miller claims:
Fourth reflection: the City does not exist
Today, we no longer have “the City”. It is imaginary. We hear it as a metaphor for politics, but in the Wirklichkeit, historical effectiveness, politics, is not developed in the form of the City. The City is a residue nostalgia, it is also imaginary in the sense that we look for it today to find it in the television.
Thus, today, we could state the following:
Unconscious / society / politics / city / social bond / discourse
The subject is increasingly delinked from society, from political processes, from the city, from the social bond, and, indeed, from discourse as such. Thus, there is only ‘this discourse which is not one,’ namely, the discourse of semblance that Lacan named the fifth discourse of mastery: capitalist discourse.
Capitalist discourse is different from the traditional four discourses in Lacanian thought because it introduces us closer to the late Lacanian emphasis on the drives. The drives are the domain of jouissance, and it is jouissance which is put on display for us in the film. Miller claims:
The level of the drive, which, unlike desire, is not intrinsically articulated to a defense, is the level to which Lacan has attributed the property “the subject is always happy”, always happy… on the level of the drive that is, the only question being that of the mode of satisfaction, pleasurable, painful etc., while axiomatically, the drive is always satisfied.
Is this not what Joker ultimately demonstrates with his bloody smile? Joker is not a hysterical or obsessional subject who wishes to get revenge on the father figures in the film. Not at all. He is a subject for whom these father figures have never existed, so that, finally, he is a subject pushed forward endlessly by his truth.
The proximity of his relation to his mother demonstrates clearly that the father function has failed. He is found in her bed, he is found, without any prohibitions, cleaning her naked body. In a remarkable scene, after his mother’s death, he climbs into a refrigerator and closes it. This womb-like structure swallows him, repeating the swallowing that his mother did of his subjectivity for the entirety of his life. The “refrigerator mother” theory is here put on display. But, put in Kleinian/Lacanian words: his object-relations are such that the objects of his world completely devour him, removing any possibility for lack to be introduced. His world is structured by objects which devour him, and imaginary father figures who promise to rescue him but endlessly fail.
So, what is a father today? Miller claims:
The father. It is easy to see what still attaches psychoanalysis to the myth of the father, and to see that society, in the process of modification at this epoch of globalization, has ceased to live under the reign of the father. Why not say it in our own language, the structure of the all has given way to that of the not-all: the structure of the not-all implies precisely that there be nothing left that serves as a barrier, that is in the position of what is forbidden.
It seems to me that this opens up the possibility that this is a film not only about psychosis but also about capitalist discourse. There is no longer a barrier because there is no longer politics or a father. There is no longer a social bond. And yet, finally, near the end of the film, does the Joker not, precisely through his delusions, find for himself a paradoxical social bond? He stands atop the car looking endlessly at his own face in the crowd.
The only way out of capitalist discourse was for the Joker to invent a name for himself. It is, precisely, the name of his symptom. While the Rat Man and the Wolf Man became their symptoms, elevating them to their proper name, so too does the Joker. He finally became what he most rejected: a joker, which was a name of rejection by one of his imaginary father figures in the film. Moreover, he became useless to the system. He exited capitalist discourse. And he laughed, endlessly laughing.
Whereas his laugh throughout the early part of the film demonstrated a level of jouissance — pain and pleasure at the same time, crying and smiling at the same time — his final laughter was authentic. He laughed, for the first time, as a mode of organizing his jouissance. At this moment, are we prepared to conclude that Joker became a Saint?