Must We Burn Joker?

Daniel Bristow reads Joker via Simone de Beauvoir, considering its relationship to class consciousness.

(Contains spoilers)

In 1952 Simone de Beauvoir published one of her greatest political essays, ‘Must We Burn Sade?’. It argued ultimately that the Sadean corpus must be saved from the flames, and culminates in the justification that ‘what constitutes the extreme value of his testimony is that it disturbs us. He obliges us to call into question once again the essential problem which, under many faces, haunts these times: the true relationship of man to man.’[1]

Similar can be said of Joker, a film that has provoked polarised opinion and proven co-optable to any number of political pronouncements and positions, tellingly evidenced in one instance by two wildly divergent reviews appearing in the Guardian – published within days of one another, and written by two of the paper’s heavyweights – amongst so much other bluster.[2] It has been made out that on one side of the fence sit denouncers of its supposed ‘revenge-of-the-incel’ ethos, and on the other proponents of its ostensibly gutsy and gritty politically incorrect ‘alt-right’ élan. And yet – despite whatever modifications to its spectrality (the weird descriptor for ghostly materiality) – what is still haunting our times, as much as it did Beauvoir’s, is this problem of the other: in this first instance, then, it is the otherness of the movie itself – its apprehension as object – just as it was that of Sade’s literature for Beauvoir: the alterity of the work (of art).

What is drawn attention to by the film is relations between others-in-the-world. This very world is a Gotham City far removed from that modern and glistening sheen with which Christopher Nolan painted his Dark Knight trilogy; instead, its landscapes are the rundown and mean streets of any Amerikan metropolis abandoned by social conscience and left to the work of idle and invisible hands of market forces (the glass-architecture centres of which, and their occupants, Nolan focussed on – to the detriment of humanely depicting any less fortunate citizenry – in his inner-cityscapes). People aren’t nice to each other, prospects are dim, the atmosphere glum.

This is the baseline of protagonist Arthur Fleck’s day-to-day, which increasingly worsens. He is twice brutally beaten up; he is blamed for damage to property – which had resulted from its theft from him, and its use to beat him with – after which he has his wages docked; he is fired from his job, and incurs the sabotage of a colleague: all of this, in the story arc, before his first outbreak of retaliation, let alone endless ridiculing, and the absolute lack of social provision (as his therapist tells him, when explaining that cuts have meant that the service he receives is being pulled: ‘listen, nobody gives a shit about us. They don’t care about you and they don’t care about me either’).

Yet, he is read as a glorified ‘beta male’ or incel. Rather than a true reflection, this seems in itself to speak of the position from which the character is being read; that of a certain type of privilege, blind(ed) to suffering, in which these quite traumatic instances are taken as somehow common fare, rites of passage, and nothing to moan about. This is an operation of the bourgeois imaginary universalising a situation and artificially coding it into a type of cultural memory (of a shared primal past) that does not in fact bear the real scarification of its specific traumata.

As a result, the gaze of this particular audience – one which has been duped, and duped itself, into believing that it unmired itself from the same adversity, and made something of itself, of its own accord (and therefore others who haven’t, but had every opportunity to, shouldn’t groan) – matches the indifference-and-condemnation of the film’s implicit bourgeoisie. This middle-class ideological fantasy thus gives rise to a misrecognition of the highest order, and a diversion from questions of class – and privilege – which Beauvoir groups together within her poignant existentialist concept of situation. Thus, if this may suffice provisionally to fix the position of the spectatorial gaze, next Joker’s subject matter, and subjects themselves, might be moved onto.

Like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (in this film he plays TV personality Murray Franklin), Arthur Fleck/Joker comes over more a pathetic, as opposed to a sympathetic, character. The merit of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is in keeping him so through his transformations, and into the beginnings of his reign as the infamous comic-book villain. Resultantly, the hyped-up fears of (copycat) identification seem rather pat on watching the movie; unlike Milton’s Satan, he doesn’t really have all the best lines (there is a cringeworthy and childlike idiocy to his elongating the last syllable of ‘Mur-ray’ during his soliloquy towards the climax of the film, in which – with a rather ineffectual oratory – he strikingly calls out people’s general rudeness, and their inability to see ‘the other guy’, or posit anything of the other’s lifeworld).

In fact, he rather gives the lie to the characterisation of Heath Ledger’s Joker, whose seemingly ‘objective madness’ and ostensibly ‘essential evil’ are open to being shown up as a ploy for the promotion of a simplified notion of crime-fighting and of there being no beyond to good and evil, whilst risking also becoming an empty signifier open to libidinally cathecting with whatever personal meanings and desires. As human, all-too human, Fleck is understandable, if not desirable to imitate, or sympathetically relatable. This harbours the potential to prove much more politically unsettling to a class of viewer at risk of recognising some form of complicity in the creation and maintenance of those disparities on which the familiar modern environment that the film depicts subsists.

Like in Beauvoir’s discussion of Sade, here it should be pointed out that what is ultimately achieved – by the film, and, however wrongheadedly (like Beauvoir claims throughout her essay, of Sade), by the character of Fleck/Joker – is a recognition of the other, and of the other within one’s own self. This is far beyond the scope or reach of the over-troped ‘beta (male)’, more often than not a true bourgeois subject (and the simple correlate and other side of the equally performative construction of the ‘alpha (male)’). Their aspirational hero – and object of resentment – is that ‘underdog-who-gets-the-girl’ of American teen movies, which sold impossible dreams to fragile, expectant, and impressionable schoolboy egos that would insidiously go on to apprehend vindictiveness in the autonomous choices of women, and perceive any ‘no’ as a denial of their gendered birthright.

Fleck of course doesn’t escape this; at worst, he may have revenged himself on an unsuspecting female neighbour – and her child – with whom he had imagined courtship and coitus (although the editing here leaves no concrete confirmation). It is in the plight of his mother, however, that the situation of women within this world comes to the fore. Through its editorial elisions we learn at least that she was hushed up and institutionalised as mad by the powerful and diabolical patriarch Thomas Wayne, whose power and reputation she was perceived to be threatening, through her proclamation that she was made pregnant by him. Confused as to his true heritage, Fleck eventually ends up believing the adoption papers in her file at the Arkham Asylum, and kills his mother; and yet the crypt of this transgenerational trauma (as the psychoanalysts Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok would call it) remains unburied…

Beyond (although tied up in) the family romance; like so many others of his class status, Fleck’s life is cruelly targeted by a programme of imposed poverty and privation intended to have the numbing effect of novocaine, except that the orchestrators have become so inured themselves by the banality of their evil that in their decadence they have assumed that there is no longer any threat of resistance. Where such a bankrupt hegemony has succeeded, we are thus left with the possibility of this ‘mentally unhealthy’ but bitterly sane Joker, and his dystopic reactionariness (divested as it is from any cathexis or opening-on to class consciousness). This, in the stead of a truly political possibility, of an overhaul of what has ruthlessly put in place the conditions that have created Joker, only because they haven’t destroyed him (through their failing to perpetuate a state of vegetal or undead consciousness).

But what class is Fleck of? His situated position is in a conjuncture constituted by class interests that seem to have mainly won out in destroying proletarian class-consciousness, leaving a lumpenproletarian rump, which Marx and Engels famously describe as ‘that passively rotting mass [whose] conditions of life […] prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.’ But Joker’s blind reaction doesn’t need bribery; it is all that is possible for him. He is not like the Marquis de Sade, of whom Beauvoir says: ‘despite all his pessimism, he was socially on the side of the privileged, and he did not understand that social inequality affects the individual even in his ethical possibilities. Revolt itself is a luxury that requires culture, leisure, and a certain distance from the necessities of existence’.[3]

Throughout the film, Joker does not get on board with the ostensive political ‘movement’ that arises around him, in part because it is beyond the purview provided by his situation. It is a revolt that falters in misrecognising the hidden mysticism in its idea that ‘the rich’ can be killed; even if they are, their wealth will nonetheless outlive them, as something like their lamella; it is its redistribution that should be the focus. However, Joker is far from deliberating over the finer theoretical detail of any of this (even if it is floating about in the unconscious content of the joke he pens about his death ‘making more cents’ than his life); his ethical possibilities are precisely stunted.

An austere lesson, and warning, of the movie can thus be read in the suggestion that the insolence of the bourgeoisie – and bourgeois ideology, in its attempt to eradicate the proletariat (divesting it of its class consciousness, but putting nothing in the place of it, as there cannot be the forging of a true bourgeois consciousness without provision of something approximating the material conditions on which its privilege subsists) – is fostering a lumpenproletariat that is growing tired of doffing its cap, but only has a revolting and not (yet) a revolutionary consciousness about it.


Daniel Bristow is co-editor of Everyday Analysis.


[1] Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ [1952], trans. by Kim Allen Gleed, Marilyn Gaddis, and Virginia Preston, in Simone de Beauvoir, Political Writings, ed. by Margaret A. Simons and Marybeth Timmermann (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012) p.95.

[2] See Peter Bradshaw, ‘Joker Review: The Most Disappointing Film of the Year’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/03/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-todd-phillips, and Mark Kermode, ‘Joker Review: An Ace Turn from Joaquin Phoenix’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/06/joker-review-joaquin-phoenix-ace-turn.

[3] Beauvoir, ‘Must We Burn Sade?’, p.93.

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