What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?
Never has there been a more appropriate moment to evoke this famous Søren Kierkegaard musing. Not that the good Christian existentialist loving-husband would ever condone a character such as Arthur “Joker” Fleck, or any figure using violence as a means for their self-actualization; however, the great philosopher might be more understanding of ‘the spirit’ of the character, of which Joaquin Phoenix in Joker is merely one manifestation in the Phenomenology of Joker. The other famous manifestation of this spirit is seen in The Dark Knight. Although this essay is not a film review of either movie nor an interpretation of either version of the character, but an analysis of the speculative relationship between Joker per se, as a type of universal form, and the mysterious “death drive.”
As for the latter element in the dyad of this essay’s thetic focus, Slavoj Žižek describes the vague, yet all-motivating Freudian “death drive” as the “thoroughly ‘perverted’, ‘denaturalized’, ‘derailed’ nature which is not yet culture,” (The Ticklish Subject, pg. 38) and characterizes its major imposition on us as “the pre-ontological dimension that introduces a gap into one’s engaged immersion in the world” (pg. 75). These “gaps” might be characterized, most concisely, as the fledgling noetic movements of becoming human: a restless impetus toward symbolic actualization crawling toward (or backing-away from) being-in-culture. The death drive is that which continuously drives us deeper into the Hegelian “night of the world”; or, by allowing us “to take arms against a sea of troubles,” as Hamlet says, the death drive gives us just enough sense of being so that we might “…by opposing end them.”(Act III.I). The intervention of the death drive culminates with our integration into culture; or the result is, to further quote the Danish Prince: “To die, to sleep; / To sleep: perchance to dream.” That is, it can drive us passed the edge of the world, where we succumb to symbolic death, by, for example, transgressing the laws of society and finding ourselves in jail being deprived of active participation in cultural formations, or we live enraptured by our inner night, asleep in the self-alienation of cultural catatonia: or, finally, the disembodied figures representative of culture might exist in a schizophrenic symbolic network of only decentralized meanings to reason, like that of Hegel’s disrupted consciousness, where it is only “consciousness of the perversion” itself that is posited, functioning as the “madness of the musician ‘who heaped up and mixed together thirty arias…” and through chaos, characterized akin to avant-garde music, some tonal sublimity is heard (Phenomenology of Spirit, pg. 318). Thus, the death drive, which is in a manner the disrupted unconscious, is too powerful for us, and it is impossible to “fully master since we are always-already part of it, caught in it,” (The Ticklish Subject, pg. 72) and any long-term attempts to “master” it result in the above mentioned consequences descending upon our consciousness.
The clear caveat here is that the death drive functions equally as a destructive and procreative principle, so this leads us to a Schellingian parallel, in that ”nowhere does it appear as if order and form were what is original but rather as if initial anarchy had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible base of reality in things, the indivisible remainder, that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved in the understanding. … All birth is birth from darkness into light,” (Philosophical Investigations…, pg. 360). To Schelling’s mode of thought, we can also essentially stay trapped in the darkness of the periphery of the centrum, (a foundational idea of his philosophy derived from metaphysics descending back to the cosmology of Parmenides) with the latter practically functioning as the circular opening at the center of a disk-plane allowing light to enter. The periphery of this disk-plane is also a region of reason, but of a form sensuous, irrational, “from the ground and is dark” (pg. 32). Whereas one should aim for the centrum, which is where the pure light of divinely rational thought resides. However, it is in the periphery of the centrum where the Joker plays.
Furthermore, so that Joker as a universal form does not appear entirely ridiculous, consider the notion as a quasi-Jungian archetype—a loose psychological fragment from among the myths of the collective consciousness of modernity. After the release of The Dark Knight, for several years worth of Halloween nights to follow, one was guaranteed to come across some facsimile of the character anywhere one might venture to be. Something about Joker began to affect “normies” (by definition, in essence, the petite bourgeoisie) making them believe that maybe they too can actualize their potentiality for edginess (for at least one night of the year). To quote Heidegger, “Every ‘possible’ possibility offers itself…this means the impossible ones do so too” (Time and Being, pr. 342). Indeed, it is the Heideggerian “bewildered making-present” that the Joker-form brings out of its participants: the actual character in this metaphorical context, Joker, being the Platonic perfection of the original gods, that which we participate in being the deteriorated Joker-as-a-form. The original god has mastered the death drive—he pushes right to the edge, where he is always forcibly apprehended before he can plummet into the abyss of cultural annihilation, viz. Batman, the law-giver who establishes a tough but just fraternal order for Joker (Lacan’s Name-of-the-Father transforming into the Name-Of-The-Brother, enabling a most complicated “bromance” that is not foreign to parody).
This villain, who has become an anti-hero only to become a pop-cultural god, represents those most hidden aspects of ourselves at the base of our unconscious motivations. We see a clear movement of Joker away from “culture” with an extreme annihilating convulsion into the primordial humor of “nature,” a la the manically laughing child torturing bugs, or the cartoon image of a caveman clobbering his friend on the head and laughing. Personally, when I was a child a few friends and I would hold our breaths, put our backs against a wall and press on each other’s chests until we passed out: we thought it was hilarious! However, I edged too far one day when my friend did not catch me, so I smacked my head against the wall: after that, my death drive no longer allowed me to play that game. I have since considered, since I was objectified unconsciousness while I teetered over during that game of self-asphyxia, the probability that my friend simply let me fall…as Joker in The Dark Night was willing to let the boat blow up. Anyway, that plot was foiled by you-know-who there, and as is always the case with an indestructible god, after and beyond the movie surely Joker spends some time in the asylum, breaks free again and then ratchets up his bad infinity. We admire and appreciate the character because he is willing to ‘go all the way’ into the proverbial heart of darkness, where, with deus ex machina swiftness, he is always saved by the arm of the law from his devastation at the hands of his death drive; whereas, lacking this security, very few of us walk on the dark side of the centrum: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; / And thus the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” (Hamlet, Act III.I).
Michael Valencia comes from a background in literary studies and creative writing, but in recent years he fell in love with philosophy.