One should begin by expressing admiration for a Hollywood, in which it is possible to make a film like Todd Phillips’ Joker, and for the public that turned it into a mega blockbuster. However, the reason for the film’s popularity resides in its meta-fictional dimension: it provides the dark genesis of the Batman story, a genesis that has to remain invisible for the Batman myth to function. Let’s try to imagine Joker without this reference to the Batman myth, just as the story of a victimized kid who adopts the mask of a clown to survive his predicament. It simply wouldn’t work, as it would have been just another realist drama. Recall, also, that Time Out characterized Joker as “a truly nightmarish vision of late-era capitalism,” and categorized it as a “social horror film.” That is something unimaginable till recently: a combination of two genres perceived as totally disparate, the realist depiction of social misery and fantasized horror, the combination which, of course, only works when social reality acquires the dimensions of horror fiction.
The three main stances towards the film in our media perfectly mirror the tripartite division of our political space. Conservatives worry that it may incite viewers to acts of violence. Politically Correct liberals discerned in it racist and other clichés (already in the opening scene, a group of boys who beat Arthur appear black), plus also an ambiguous fascination with blind violence. Leftists celebrate it for faithfully rendering the conditions of the rise of violence in our societies. But does Joker really incite spectators to imitate Arthur’s acts in real life? Emphatically no, for the simple reason that Arthur-Joker is not presented as a figure of identification. In fact, the whole film works on the premise that it is impossible for us, viewers, to identify with him. He remains a stranger up to the end.
Before Joker was released, media already warned the public that it may incite violence. The FBI itself specifically warned that the film may inspire violence from Clowncels, an Incel subgroup obsessed with clowns such as Pennywise from It and Joker. (There were no reports of violence inspired by the film.) After the film was released, critics were not sure how to categorize it. Is Joker just a piece entertainment (as is the entire Batman series), an in-depth study of the genesis of pathological violence, or an exercise in social criticism? From his radical Leftist standpoint, Michael Moore found Joker to be “a timely piece of social criticism and a perfect illustration of the consequences of America’s current social ills.” When it explores how Arthur Fleck became Joker, it brings out the role of bankers, the collapse of healthcare, and the divide between rich and poor. Moore is therefore right to mock those who feared the film’s release: “Our country is in deep despair, our constitution is in shreds, a rogue maniac from Queens has access to the nuclear codes — but for some reason, it’s a movie we should be afraid of. /…/ The greater danger to society may be if you DON’T go see this movie. /…/ This movie is not about Trump. It’s about the America that gave us Trump — the America which feels no need to help the outcast, the destitute.” Consequently, “the fear and outcry over Joker is a ruse. It’s a distraction so that we don’t look at the real violence tearing up our fellow human beings — 30 million Americans who don’t have health insurance is an act of violence. Millions of abused women and children living in fear is an act of violence.”
However, Joker does not only depict this America, but it also raises a “discomfiting question”: “What if one day the dispossessed decide to fight back? And I don’t mean with a clipboard registering people to vote. People are worried this movie may be too violent for them. Really? Considering everything we’re living through in real life?” In short, the film tries to “understand why innocent people turn into Jokers after they can no longer keep it together”: rather than felt incited to violence, a spectator “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.”
But does it really work like that? The “new desire” Moore mentions is not Joker’s desire: to see this, one has to introduce here the psychoanalytic distinction between drive and desire. Drive is compulsively-repetitive; in it, we are caught in the loop of turning again and again around the same point, while desire enacts a cut, opening up a new dimension. Joker remains a being of drive: at the film’s end, he is powerless, and his violent outbursts are just impotent explosions of rage, actings-out of his basic powerlessness. In order for the desire described by Moore to arise, one step further is needed. An additional change of subjective stance is to be accomplished if we are to pass from Joker’s outbursts to becoming the one able to “stand and fight and focus your attention on the nonviolent power you hold in your hands every single day.” When you become aware of this power you can renounce brutal bodily violence. 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 act is a dead-end to be avoided. It is rather a kind of Malevich-moment, reduction to the zero point of a minimal frame of protest. Malevich’s famous black square on white surface is not some kind of self-destructive abyss we should beware of in order not to be swallowed by it, but a point through which we should pass to gain a new beginning. It is the moment of death-drive, which opens up the space for sublimation. And in the same way that, in his minimalist paintings like Black Square, Malevich reduced a painting to its minimal opposition of frame and background, Joker reduced protest to its minimal content-less self-destructive form. An additional twist is needed to pass from drive to desire, to leave behind the nihilist point of self-destruction, to make this zero-point function as a new beginning. However, the lesson of Joker is that we have to go through this zero-point to get rid of 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. In this world, one cannot take seriously the idea that mutual consent to engaging in a sexual relationship makes it… 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 fathers but want to fuck their fathers, they hate their mothers but want to fuck their mothers, and so on, for eternity.” One can easily imagine Joker reacting with wild laughter to the claim that “it was consensual, so it was OK” – that’s how his mother ruined his life… And in the same way that Joker (a victim of violence par excellence) would have dismissed consent as a justification, he would have dismissed the idea that it is rape if someone lies about their identity to get someone into bed:
“Of course, outright fraud is bad, it is bad for people to lie to each other, to exploit each other. But aren’t we all always already lying to ourselves, lying to others, making ourselves out to be people we aren’t, pretending to be ‘real men’ when in fact we are just pathetic worms, lying that we aren’t fantasizing about having sex with someone hotter than our partners, and so on? It would be an exception to actually, for once, tell the ‘truth’ out of the endless swirling vortex of fragmented and incomplete truths that we tell ourselves just to get out of bed every day, just to be able to actually understand each other.”
In short, sex is the exemplary domain of lies… This zero-point is today’s version of what was once called a proletarian position, the experience of those who have nothing to lose, or, 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 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. In the film, Wayne the father is a “joker” in the simple sense of an agent who displays the obscenity of power.
Now we can see where M.L. Clark goes ridiculously wrong when he reads my own philosophy as a version of Joker’s nihilist stance: “Žižek’s Hegelian-philosophy-meets-flimsy-pop-science relentlessly insists that the only objective reality is not the Nothingness from which Something was created, but rather the tension between the true nothing-burger underpinning existence, and the moral depravity of our every, inevitable attempt to impose meaning upon it.” In short, for me, the basic ontological fact is the tension between the ultimate meaningless void/crack and our (humanity’s) attempts to impose some universal meaning onto this chaotic crack. Such a position is nothing special: it simply reproduces a certain existential humanism which perceives humans as beings who heroically endeavor to impose some meaning onto the chaos of the world into which we are thrown. However, according to Clark, here I make a step further in the Joker direction: since all attempts to impose meaning onto the primordial chaotic Void obfuscate this void and are thus hypocritical, i.e., since they escape from the basic nonsense of existence, they are acts of moral depravity – or, to bring this point to the extreme, morality itself (attempts to impose a universal meaning onto reality) is a form of moral depravity. The only consequent moral stance is thus the one of full nihilism, of joyfully endorsing the violent destruction of every attempt to impose a moral order onto our chaotic life, of renouncing every universal humanist project that would enable us to surmount our discords:
“no matter how much we might want to insist that our shared humanity is stronger than our momentary discords and our abiding individual differences /…/ the Jokers and Žižeks are never quite going to be persuaded. Their respective ideological frameworks require them to keep pointing to the social tensions that remain: the chaos that will always be a part of our collective press towards a better-synthesized societal whole.”
I, of course, consider this stance of radical nihilism not only totally at odds with my clear political engagements but also self-contradictory: it needs its fake-moral opponent to assert itself in its nihilistic destruction and in the unmasking of its hypocrisy. Therein resides the limit of all the desperate attempts to reverse tragedy into triumphant comedy practiced by Incels, Clowncels and Joker himself who, just before shooting Murray, his TV host, tells him: “Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore! Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves? They don’t. They think that we’ll just sit down and take it like good little boys! That we won’t werewolf and go wild!” The assertion of joyful destruction remains parasitic on this complaint. Joker doesn’t go “too far” in the destruction of the existing order; he remains stuck in what Hegel called “abstract negativity,” unable as he is to propose its concrete negation.
Insofar as the Freudian name for this negativity is death-drive, we should thus be careful not to characterize Trump’s self-destructive defense against the attempts to impeach him as manifestations of death-drive. Yes, while Trump rejects the accusations, he simultaneously confirms (and even boasts with) the very crimes he is accused of and breaks the law in his very defense. But does he not thereby just enact (more openly than usual, true) the paradox that is constitutive of the rule of law, i.e., the fact that the very agency that regulates the application of the law has to exempt itself from its reign?
So, yes, 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; the “negativity” of his acts is totally subordinated to (his perception of) his ambitions and well-being. He is far from the self-destruction of the existing order enacted by Joker. There is nothing suicidal about Trump’s boasting about his breaking the rules. It is simply part of his message that he is a tough-guy president beset by corrupt elites and boosting the US abroad, 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 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, 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 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 his mask. This is why 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. It may appear that Joker aims precisely at providing a kind of socio-psychological genesis of Joker, depicting the traumatic events which made him the figure he is. The problem is that thousands of young boys who grew up in ruined families and were bullied by their peers suffered the same fate, but only one “synthesized” these circumstances into the unique figure of Joker. In other words, Joker is the result of a set of pathogenic circumstances, but these circumstances can be described as the causes of this unique figure only retroactively, once Joker is already here. In one of the early novels about Hannibal Lecter, the claim that Hannibal’s monstrosity is the result of unfortunate circumstances is rejected: “Nothing happened to him. He happened.”
However, one can (and should) read Joker also in the opposite sense and claim that the act that constitutes the main figure as “Joker” is an autonomous act by means of which he surpasses the objective circumstances of his situation. He identifies with his fate, but this identification is a free act: in it, he posits himself as a unique figure of subjectivity… We can locate this reversal at a precise moment in the film when the hero 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 definitely is ethical. One 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? Here is how Arthur describes her presence: “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 (by killing her) through fully identifying with her command to laugh.
Morality regulates how we relate to others with regard to our shared common Good, while ethics concerns our fidelity to the Cause which defines our desire, the fidelity which reaches beyond the pleasure-principle. Morality in its basic sense is not opposed to social customs; it is an affair of what in ancient Greece was called eumonia, the harmonious well-being of the community. One should recall how, at the beginning of Antigone, the chorus reacts to the news that someone (at this point we don’t yet know who) violated Creon’s prohibition and performed funeral rites on Polynices’ body. It is Antigone herself who is implicitly castigated as the “cityless outcast” engaged in excessive demonic acts that disturb the eumonia of the state, fully reasserted in the last lines of the play: “The most important part of happiness / is therefore wisdom — not to act impiously / towards the gods, for boasts of arrogant men / bring on great blows of punishment / so in old age men can discover wisdom.”
From the standpoint of eumonia, Antigone is definitely demonic/uncanny. Her defying act expresses a stance of de-measured excessive insistence which disturbs the “beautiful order” of the city; her unconditional ethics violates the harmony of the polis and is as such “beyond human boundary.” The irony is that, while Antigone presents herself as the guardian of the immemorial laws sustaining human order, she acts as a freakish and ruthless abomination. There definitely is something cold and monstrous about her, as is rendered by the contrast between her and her warmly-human sister Ismene. And it is in this same sense that Joker is ethical but not moral.
One should also take note of Arthur’s family name, Fleck, which in German means stain/spot. Arthur is a disharmonious stain on the social edifice, something with no proper place in it. Yet, what makes him a stain is not just his miserable marginal existence but primarily a feature of his subjectivity, his propensity to compulsive and uncontrollable outbursts of laughter. The status of this laughter is paradoxical: it is quite literally ex-timate (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, precisely as such, it is external to him, to his personality, experienced by him as an autonomized partial object that he cannot control and that he ends up fully identifying with – a clear case of what Lacan called “identification with a symptom” (or, rather, “sinthome”: not a bearer of meaning, of a coded message from the unconscious, but a cypher of enjoyment, the elementary formula of subject’s enjoyment). 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 the mother only by over-identifying with her superego command.
The film provides not only the socio-psychological genesis of Joker, it also implies a condemnation of the society in which a protest can only assume the form of a new tribe led by Joker. There is a subjective act in Joker’s move, but no new political subjectivity arises through it: at the film’s end, we get Joker as a new tribal leader, but 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’s reply: “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.”
In New York Times A.O Scott misses the point, therefore, when he dismisses Joker as “a story about nothing”: “The look and the sound /…/ connote gravity and depth, but the movie is weightless and shallow.” There effectively is no “gravity and depth” in Joker’s final stance. His revolt is “weightless and shallow,” and that’s the utterly desperate point of the film. 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 to be there, she would have for sure participated in the charity event organized by Wayne, a humanitarian amusement of the privileged rich. However, it’s difficult to imagine a stupider 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 healthcare coverage, the victims of street gangs and police brutality, etc., organize non-violent protests and strikes to mobilize public opinion. That would be a new non-racial version of Martin Luther King… and an extremely boring film, lacking the crazy excesses of Joker which make the film so attractive for viewers.
Here we touch 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, i.e., to exert an efficient pressure onto those in power, are we dealing with a simple gap between political logic and narrative efficiency (to put it bluntly, brutal outbursts like those of Joker are politically a deadlock but they make a story interesting). Or is there also an immanent political necessity in the self-destructive stance embodied by Joker? My hypothesis is that one has to go through the self-destructive zero-level for which Joker stands. Not actually, but one has to experience it as a threat, as a possibility. Only in this way can one break out of the coordinates of the existing system and envisage something really new. Joker’s stance is a blind alley, a total deadlock, superfluous and non-productive, but the paradox is that one has to go through it to perceive its superfluous character. There is no direct way from the existing misery to its constructive overcoming.
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 order is the best possible, and that, while we should strive to make it more just, etc., 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 these protests were not motivated by any new visions of the post-Communist future. As he put it, Central and East European revolutions were just what he called “rectifying” or “catch-up” revolutions: their aim was to enable these societies to gain what Western Europeans already possessed, i.e., to rejoin the West’s European normality. However, although the Hong Kong protests may appear to fit this frame, 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 basic normative foundations, it is almost impossible to get just peaceful protests without violent excesses.
And, to conclude with a reference to the film, the elegance of Joker resides in how the crucial move from a self-destructive drive to a “new desire” (Moore) for an emancipatory political project is absent from the film’s storyline: we, the spectators, are asked to fill in this absence.
P.S. Fragments of this text are already circulating on the web. I am grateful to LARB’s “The Philosophical Salon” for its readiness to publish the integral version which dispels many confusions that the fragments which circulate gave rise to.
 It is obvious that Joker is also a case of meta-fiction: it provides the genesis of the Batman story, a genesis that has to remain invisible for the Batman myth to function – but we’ll ignore this aspect here.
 Mike Crumplar, personal communication.
 See https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n20/judith-butler/genius-or-suicide.
 Before seeing the movie and knowing just critical reactions to it, I thought it provides the social genesis of the figure of Joker; now, after seeing it, I must admit, in the spirit of Communist self-criticism, that I was wrong: the passage from passive victimhood to a new form of subjectivity is the pivotal moment of the film.
 Clowncels are also not just determined by their circumstances: even more than incels in general, they enact a symbolic gesture of turning their suffering into a form of enjoyment – they obviously enjoy their predicament, parading it proudly, and are therefore responsible for it, not just victims of unfortunate circumstances.