Joker is the most enigmatic anti-capitalist hero for comic-book readers and cinema-goers. Thus, it was inevitable that the FBI officially warned about potential violence before the Joker (2019) movie was released. The Joker and The Batman movies have always had an anti-capitalist sentiment, but ultimately capitalism prevails in Gotham City. It’s a given condition for this city. In each of these films, capitalism repeats itself over and over again; nothing changes. Rather than reforming or restructuring Gotham city, Batman wants to restore this city. At the end of each film, Gotham city returns to its peaceful state. Batman restores the events that predate the Joker’s birth. This achievement shows that historical restoration is enough; there is no need for radical change. Ultimately, the Batman universe has very conservative political implications. There is no promise or possibility of providing a new order. These films can’t even envision any other alternative economic order. They offer no sense of redemption in their final moments.
In Joker (2019), Joker denies that he is political. He does not long for any revolution, yet his violence sparked a mob uprising in Gotham City. Ironically the entire movie is about Biopolitics. Joker’s life is under the purview of bio-power. He used to be on several medications and went to therapy sessions. Although not enough to keep him healthy, they kept him functioning. Then, due to government budget cuts, he is abruptly removed from these therapies and medications, which is mentioned several times throughout this movie. This health insecurity is a part of Biopolitics. As Slavoj Žižek points out, Biopolitics is not only about regulatory and disciplinary mechanisms but also about fear. Biopolitics is also conducted through the constant production of fear in people’s lives. There are different dimensions of this politics of fear. To name a few: “fear of immigrants,” “fear of crime,” and “fear of ecological catastrophe”1, including the fear of precarious life.
Biopolitics produces a precarious life for Joker. His deformed and abused body, which lacks beauty and strength, and his mental illness, force him to lead a precarious life. Joker seeks attention and recognition. He wants to be recognised by his parents, neighbours, colleague, and, not least, his idol. His futile attempts to become a well-known comedian are depicted throughout the movie, where people make fun of him and physically assault and demoralise him. He genuinely thinks he is talented enough to succeed. He fantasises about gaining attention from his audience. He wants to introduce people to his world, which is the most political part of this film. Finally, through the media, Joker gained attention from people and became a symbol for the politics of resistance. Such symbols often lay down the structure of our political reality.
Joker’s mask has become the symbol of resistance. “From Beirut, Baghdad, Hong Kong, Chile, Paris all the way to Moscow” masks have become popular symbols of political resistance.2 There is another mask often used in political resistance; the mask of Salvador Dali, which was used in the Money Heist tv series. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) movie, Joker wants to put off Batman’s mask to reveal his secret identity. Behind the mask, Batman and Joker are ordinary people like us. Our economic, psychological and political crises are not because of the manipulations of some secret identity or secret power but because of our existing coercive order. So, it is not about what lies beneath the mask but the mask itself that creates an illusion that the crowd will be wearing masks. But in reality, masks are necessary for those who hide the truth about repression and dominant power relations. That is why politicians wear a public face/mask that hides their inner-self. The public mask of politicians is a power to control people. Therefore, people are already under the domain of Dali, Batman and Joker’s masks.
Joker provides the emancipatory birth of Batman. The former always brings a state of exception to Gotham city within his anarchist activities. This exception became a rule in Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Joker film. Joker embodies the state of exception, which becomes interminable in every movie. The state of exception is a never-ending circle for Gotham city. By contrast, Batman represents Gotham’s sovereign power. The sovereign retains the prerogative to deal with exceptional situations.3 Batman plays his role on an exceptional level. That’s why he always decides and functions within a state of exception in Gotham city. In the latest Batman (2022) movie, Batman refuses to leave Gotham City after saving the entire city. Because he always wants to deal with the state of exception. He exercises sovereign power to uphold the law, but his actions remain outside the law, mimicking those of a sovereign. In other words, Batman’s actions are almost paradoxical, just as those of a sovereign. Neither the sovereign nor the Batman can always uphold the law within the domain of law, especially when the state of exception kicks in. At the same time, they are excluded and included from the realm of law. This is because they try to create law based on force emanating outside the law. In this way, the genealogy of the Joker and the state of exception give birth to the sovereign dictatorship of Batman. This sovereign dictatorship emerges through an insignificant revolution against Joker, aiming to restore the status quo. Revolution against Joker is not an emancipatory revolution.
Joker is The Big Other to Batman, without whom Batman cannot function. Batman claims his authority and existence through Joker. To maintain public trust in the legal system, Batman always needs a Joker. Joker is an instrument to preserve the historical and political necessity of practising Batman’s mythic violence. In his Critique of Violence, Walter Benjamin refers to the violence of law-making and law-preserving in terms of mythic violence.4Mythic violence is directed around the law. It serves as the foundation of state building and governance. Mythic violence is used as a means or accessory to something. It is the instrument of establishing the rule of law. It is always predictable and bloody. Such violence is always necessary for the existence of law. The creation and survival of law depend on such violence. The most crucial aspect of the politics of law is that it claims a monopoly over violence. For the law always allows the exercise of force.
In Gotham, Batman is the force of law. When Joker challenges Gotham’s law and order, the law responds in the guise of violence. Batman performs his law-making and law-preserving violence to prevent The Big Other (Joker). Mythic violence always justifies himself by The Big Other. Through symbolic representation or misrecognition, the Joker appears as The Big Other. The Big Other functions within a symbolic order that governs social life. Lacan describes the Big Other in his first seminar as not a symbolic order but a simple and pure Other.5 In later seminars, Lacan shifts his thinking: The Big Other now operates in the symbolic process. According to Lacanian psychoanalysis, an individual’s self-understanding is formed through the imaginary — The Small Other of an individual. By contrast, the symbolic order develops The Big Other of an individual. Imaginary is how the individual observes themself, while others observe the individual through the symbolic order. But the fact is, in the symbolic order, one does not observe the other person. Instead, the individual observes themself as if the Big Other is watching them. The Big Other and The Small Other are related because The Small Other imagines that the Big Other is real. This creates a belief in The Small Other that the Big Other is always observing. Since the Big Other is limited to the symbolic order, the Big Other does not exist according to Lacanian psychoanalysis. “The Big Other doesn’t exist,”6according to Žižek. The Big Other has always been dead; it never existed in the first place. It has always been and remains a purely symbolic order. The Big Other is a type of misrecognition that everyone individually agrees to recognise. Joker as a Big Other doesn’t exist. He is dead from the very beginning.
- Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 2008, Picador Edition, New York, p.40-41.
- Boris Djuric, Under the Mask from Beirut to Chile: The Joker’s Rise as a Symbol of Freedom, Newswire, January 30, 2020. newswire.net/newsroom/news/00116671-under-the-mask-from-beirut-to-chile-the-joker-s-rise-as-a-symbol-of-freedom.html
- Carl Schmitt, Political Theology, Four Chapters on The Concept of Sovereignty, Chicago, 2005.
- Walter Benjamin, Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition, Edited by Peter Fenves and Julia Ng, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2021.
- The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Edited by Jacques Alain Miller, Translated by Alan Sheridan, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1998.
- Slavoj Zizek, The Big Other Doesn’t Exist, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, Spring – Fall 1997, com.