Clown Among the Ruins: Kino for the Postmodern Aristocrat of the Soul

“What I am about to say does not concern the ordinary man of our day. On the contrary, I have in mind the man who finds himself involved in today’s world, even at its problematic and paroxysmal points; yet he does not belong inwardly to such a world, nor will he give in to it. He feels himself, in essence, as belonging to a different race from that of the overwhelming majority of his contemporaries” (Julius Evola, Ride the Tiger).

The Joker has become a legitimate cultural phenomenon these past few months, and for good reason. A veritable deluge of manufactured controversy surrounded it before the first screening. We witness the usual impotent, frustrated coastal chattering class denizens clutching their pearls, chipping at their keyboards and smartphones to come up with more and more ever sensational and one dimensional ideological tweets about the so-called “radicalization” effect of the film. Is this controversy warranted? Perhaps like all great artworks, there is simultaneous justification and absurdity to the controversy that envelops them……I shall not (as others have, Stefan Molyneux comes to mind) attempt to delve into the psychology of Arthur Fleck, but rather the socio-cultural phenomenology of why this film appeals, excites, exhilarates and yes, terrifies many.

While watching the film for the first time, a very odd feeling came over me and my friend who I went with. Never have we experienced a feeling of viewing a film for the first time and having every shot feel iconic and monumental. When Arthur adorns the Joker costume and runs into the grimy public bathroom, titling his head upwards in an ecstatic dance pose to an imaginary crowd, the smoking scene where he looks on with utter scorn under the veil of dim blue-mauve backstage lighting, forcing a smile with his fingers, etc. All these scenes felt as if you are watching an Auteur classic film, and you have seen it a million times before. This is because, in some strange hyperstitional way, you have. The meme iconography of each shot proceeded the film’s very release.

The background discursive noise of the mainstream cathedral media has been to demonize the film, claiming it will magically meme “dangerous incels” into activating some mass shooter RPG. You get the impression from some blue check journos that they are wishing to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in their lust to demonize the very castigated and othered under-class of mostly young men that strongly identify with the film. It is through this identification that is the hyperstitional quality to Joker, the undercurrent from which it is a piece of celluloid expressionism, a template from which to pour in all of the frustrations and gripes with modernity smashing down the demographics who feel left behind by the “end of history”.

As Podcaster and Cave Twitter luminary Metanomad points out[1], there is a qualitative difference between genuine and organic hyperstitional content, and that which is simply a faux put-on, astroturfing created by the most mainstream of info-media cathedral organs. The Journo class simply put, do not know how to meme into life narratives that are embarrassingly transparent in their subservience to the commonly enforced political/cultural agendas of our zeitgeist. They are incapable of creating hyperstitional content in the digital age, because they lack any and all subtly. One cannot be subtle or genuine when it comes to living solely to spew propaganda, and ever-more inane secular arcana in their Post-Christian political-religion.

Simulation of the reference

This brings us to the very memetic quality of the Joker, and why it is “postmodern” in a few of its key elements; the eclecticism and implicitly referential narrative style is an obvious (and cliched) signature of postmodern auteur directing. Joker is steeped in references to other films that evoke the same brooding, defeatist inner longing for a tectonic shift in the social apparatus around the main protagonist(s). Arthur Fleck is made to be this era’s Travis Bickle, as the film recreates the gritty, ugly feel of inner-city America during the 70s and 80s depicted in “Taxi Driver”. The streets are under siege by a never-ending garbage strike, and every surface is covered in graffiti tags (most of them done by low-quality toys, an authentic touch that the set designers included).

One can see references to other great anti-hero films, while perhaps staying cautiously within arms reach of overt references to “Falling Down”. The very feel of the film’s cinematography is steeped in the reference, some scenes even come off as almost having a vaporwave aesthetic, which ties in nicely to the themes of society going totally insane on consumerism, elitism, greed, and a crumbling social safety net in the absence of communal belonging.

While watching Joker I cannot help but notice parallels to a film that is not often cited in reviews, and perhaps this reveals my fondness for its main antagonist. “Apocalypse Now” and Walter Kurtz hangs over the aether of Joker, as Arthur goes deeper within the heart of darkness, and his own sense of tragicomic nihilistic depravity to come out the other end transformed, in an act of self-overcoming. Kurtz embraces the primordial chaos of the mass in the oriental-other, while Arthur embraces the urban-other in their struggle for socio-political recognition and violent expressions of pent-up frustrations. The feel of both films treads a similar course of becoming progressively gloomier and darker, the setting lights grow dimer, both physically (in the way things are shot) and metaphorically. Both Kurtz and Arthur face down an immovable bureaucratic managerial state, both incompetent at best, and at worst, needless threshers of human souls in the war in the East, and the “urban war” between haves and have-nots.

This key element of the reference is almost a necessity for the modern auteur in the postmodern age, for a growing majority of genxers and millennials can only feel any genuine emotive catharsis through littered references to other works. The stunning quality to Joker is that these references are well-placed, and do not make up the film in toto, like so much cheap, empty celluloid pablum that has come out in recent years (one shutters to even mention that Hollywood abomination that is “Ready Player One”[2]).

His gaunt and skeletal body, a body-horror aesthetic that Joaquin Phoenix no doubt suffered to achieve, is even reminiscent of the film “The Machinist”, both main protagonists deteriorating under the weight of mental illness made manifest on the body. Joker makes explicit this usual post-Foucauldian line of analysis that the social apparatuses of urban decay, classist decadence and obviated promises of social opportunity and mobility inflict lesions and wounds upon the physical and metaphoric body. Arthur lives in trashworld, and so like the city around him, his very being itself become trashed through years of poverty, mental deterioration and neglect.

Create Your Own Revolutionary

Many people have varying opinions, both positive and negative, of this iteration on the Joker’s origin story. As I have stated above, the woke liberal journalists and punditry hacks have their (predictably terrible) takes on Joker. Even the mainstream careerist conservative pundits, whose hostility to any hint of postmodernism (a concept which they seldom, if at all understand) blinds them to seeing any nuance or hidden spots of brilliance in Joker. Their opinions have ranged from “it’s simply postmodern nihilism” to “well actually, this is a communist ‘eat the rich’ film”. In this miasma of conflicting takes, ones more tedious than the next, lies the postmodern spirit and power of Joker.

Joker is an open template; he is the embodiment of the cliched “post-truth era” retconned into the not-so-fictional past. You can fill up the character of Arthur with any message, both revolutionary and neo-reactionary. The social message of Joker is left intentionally vague, both as a protective measure for the film makers in the current political climate, and as a source of unyielding speculation, competing narrative interpretations, and place-held cathartic desires, sentiments that all good contemporary art evokes (again, the film makers take pains to stay away from getting too close to the sun of being so “based and redpilled”, that the liberal critic-sphere would have actual political red meat to chew on, instead of the red meat they imagined out of thin air). Joker states outright that he is “not political at all”, yet nevertheless dances and relishes in the chaos and full on mass violence he has inspired. Joker is the trickster archetype in postmodern garb, an agent of chaos-maxing that betrays any specified ideological propagation.

Ideology is a losing game to Joker, another molar, over-coded identity that must be sloughed off in order to embrace the utter tragicomic absurdism of the modern world. Any fragment of a political worldview comes from the setup of the world itself. The people and Arthur rebel against decadent, decrepit elites, mass media illusionists, etc. Arthur learns to slowly deprogram himself and the various delusions wrought upon him throughout his whole existence. For instance, his love interest is revealed to be his mental creation, and his supposed origins a foil for his mother’s abusive mental delusions. Near the end, he learns to cast aside his dependence on his own internalized regimentation and medicalization via the impersonal and faceless bureaucratic mental health system (one does not have to read the essay “The Bodies of the Condemned”[3] to see this).

Near the end his final feat of metamorphosis comes from conquering and destroying the media figure he so beloved. Arthur has fantasies about being on Murry’s talk show and being treated like a son. As Joker, Arthur in that notable scene where he waits to ascend the stage while smoking, looking on with contempt at the peons who have bought into the hyperreal infotainment illusion. He was once one of them, but then literally “breaks the conditioning” by topping Budd Dwyer and shooting Murray live on air, thus capturing the spectacle machine, and revealing the absurdity of the culture industry in one violent, brutal act. Joker realized that the media-generated unreality must be overturned with an act so absurd, so comically violent that it comes off as not being entirely real itself to the people watching at home. It is no wonder that finally in the limelight, that desert of the abandoned real that is a nightly talk show, Joker utters his infamous line “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now realize it’s a comedy”.

Arthur transforming into Joker is in essence a film about what writer/mystic Robert Anton Wilson termed “guerrilla ontology”[4] [5], a mixing of what is real and fictitious in order to produce cognitive dissonance in the reader, in the postmodern sense. The purpose is to create social situations and commit fugitive acts which take normal ontological (being) dispositions and distort them in order to shock people into breaking their worldviews and unquestioned assumptions about reality, like some kind of philosophic guerrilla fighter of the psyche. Hence Joker produces a multiplicity of reactions to society, rather than the one univocal voice of a particular ideology or political program. His active nihilism produces a reaction, and that is the goal, rather than the specific kind of reaction. Any pigeonholing of Joker into whatever brand of ideological response to the ennui and despairs of modernity will always be met with an endless stream of doubts and counter-speculations on the narrative itself, and this malleability is almost a necessity for the current situation we all find ourselves in.

Joker reveals itself to be a more mature film due to its wish to work through and embrace, rather than reject, ignore or try to work around postmodernity. Joker is not some facile and fragile “metamodern” story, but actively embraces absurdism and the uncertainty of an unreliable narrative. The woke set is disappointed in it because it appeals to the lowly, the incels, NEETs and social rejects modernity left behind. Not alone in disappointment, the woke are joined by the Right who gripe it does not go “far enough” or harbours a metanarrative conceit for institutional critique that affirms “more money for the programs”- despite Joker committing to a praxis of pure chaos and disruption, even if a factor that led to his final snapping could have been averted if these social programs did better work (instead of mass assembly-line callous indifference). One is left to think that the social systems are so far gone that even “more gibs” could never fully address the ongoing catastrophe, so full on reboot via horrifically violent collapse is the only cleansing solution.

The question of Wrath

A major theme, or perhaps problem, in Joker is this very question of a hidden desire for violence and wrath, and how the character of Arthur is quite easily a placating foil for the very real lust for some violent revenge fantasy harboured by many across the political and socio-economic fringes. In his excellent critique of Joker, Nicholas Hausdorf in Jacobite Magazine argues this point:

“The same gun, however – the transformative outside violence that will not go away – becomes a catalyst for Fleck’s destiny. Riding the subway in his full professional clown costume, he uses it to kill three men of the visible elite – depicted as blond arrogant WASP types – in the subway after they harass a girl and brutalize him for his out of tune compulsive laugh. He shoots them in a form of accidental self defense that turns into coldblooded murder. Afterwards, Fleck flees the scene to hide in a derelict public bathroom to indulge in what resembles a yogic death dance. As viewers, we understand: the chi of bastard politics – a politics eroticized by perverse resentment and backed up with a substructure of illegitimate and cowardly hard violence, is finally flowing – through Fleck and through wider society which will appropriate the clown outfit as a symbol after sympathizing with the murder of the arrogant elites. Fleck, to use Peter Sloterdijk, like Lenin, becomes the “importer of deterritorialized resentment,” yet unwittingly.[6]

Arthur is, as Hausdorf concludes, no longer a measured, Machiavellian, violent and cunning aristocrat like Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” but rather a mentally ill and broken waystation, an empty symbol or pastiche guided by forces out of his control. Arthur dwells on his past and wishes to take his places among the degenerated elites, as it was sold to him that he was born of nobility. Quote:

 “Arthur Fleck is a clown who’s not in on the joke. He is the representative for someone incapable of mapping the totality of political relations surrounding him to become a complicit but powerless figurehead for a bastard politics of resentment, guided and organized by others who remain in the shadow: Joker is a psychopolitical study of the useful idiot

This is a very fine and cutting critique of the film, but I would rather argue that this is the strength rather than the weakness or failure of Joker as a piece of visionary auteur art. Joker deterritorializes the social apparatus rather than form a coherent political project, he is a catalyst of pent-up impotent frustration felt by many, than a legitimate source of authority. He is a guerrilla ontologist, inspiring mass acts of dizzying and nearly fantastical brutal upheavals, a real trickster that lets his own tricks run off into a life of their own without his guiding hand.

This is why I believe the film was received with such instantaneously harsh criticism by the critics and woke-scold chattering classes. They somehow deep down knew a film of this caliber, preaching a message of morphological agitprop for its own sake, and without any tangible political ideology to demonize behind it, has more meaningful potential to awaken and inspire various segments of the politically and socially subaltern than the usual propaganda garbage produced by the globalized Hollywood culture industry. It is as if they all secretly know the current order is fragile, and they are terrified of anything coming along that has the potential to inspire real chaotic change, so they frantically worked to “cancel” the film in unison.

Finally, let us bracket any particular criticism of Joker, or how the film can appear as a let-down to the reactionary project. Let us instead give a word to this seemingly intangible allure to Joker by those demographics that feel truly left behind by the modern world, young men in particular. Joker is (as Hausdorf points out) captured by and rides the waves of the forces around him, and wishes not for final resolution to the numerous monumental problems with “living in a society”, but rather provokes, trolls, bamboozles, and hijacks the consensus reality.

The internet troll is a micro-joker, the joker in our heads; he Jungian image of a trickster is a powerful and seductive archetype, for its power lies not in any particular leadership quality from the top down, but from the trickster’s ability to come up from the proverbial bottom and collapse the order/consensus reality around him. Joker lives in clown world/trashworld, where tragicomic absurdity is the norm, so he is forced to rebel against established authority and ride the tiger as a purveyor of sensationalized depravity. As Ernst Junger stated:

The special trait making me an anarch is that I live in a world which I ‘ultimately’ do not take seriously. This increases my freedom; I serve as a temporary volunteer”.

We can all empathize in some strange, mendacious way with this position Joker embodies, dancing to the rhythm of destruction for-itself, taking society and its precarious structures over the edge to its logical conclusions, “accentuating the contradictions” as the old Frankfurt critical theorists said. Joker dances in this whimsical absurdism triumphantly, he learns to laugh seriously in that moment when he is able to control his laughing tic. Joker is an artistic example of an anon taking things to the next level, out of the fantasy-virtual into the stratum of the real. The internet troll adorns the clown makeup in clown world and wishes to dance when those who cannot “hear the music” thinks he is insane.

[1] https://twitter.com/meta_nomad/status/1180553031093542914?s=20

[2] Find my Review of RP1 in my collected essays from Thermidor mag. https://gioscontentcorner.wordpress.com/2019/04/13/content-minded-vol-1-collected-writings-the-thermidor-years-collection-2017-2018/

[3] From Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” (1975).

[4] http://guerrillaontologies.com/about/

[5] https://themindunleashed.com/2018/01/guerilla-ontology-mindfuck-day-keeps-brainwash-away.html

[6] https://jacobitemag.com/2019/10/16/bastard-moves/

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Malik says:

    Thought provoking as always, Gio.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve got some really wonderful observations here about the Joker as the disillusioned everyman, but it raises the question for me how well these expressions of essentially bourgeois and suburban angst translate into an urban setting. The city itself seems more metaphorical than actual – Gotham being the mental environment, or landscape, rather than a portrayal of actual urban concerns (the haves/have-nots dichotomy you mentioned).

    Do you think there was a way to succeed with this film in a non-urban setting? Or does the chaos and smallness of Fleck’s internal life require the city to draw it out into reality?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s