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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Joker (and its relation to the unconscious)

Abstract: In this text I examine the recent film Joker through a psychoanalytic perspective. The text uses theoretical and clinical thinking and begins by addressing the form of the film - its genre, its intended viewer, its place in culture - before moving onto the content, that is, the stuff that's actually in the film.The primary points argued are:
  • Ontological / Sexual difference not simple difference: The film is in large about the irreducible ontological difference that is evoked through deep psychoanalytic encounters with regressed individuals and how these primitive states translate into later developmental states. 
  • Preoedipal not oedipal: Part of this means that Joker or Arthur Fleck is at a preoedipal stage of development, and therefore closer to a schizophrenic than anything else, but appears as if he was having an oedipal conflict. 
  • Apolitical not Political: The consequence of this position is that Joker/Fleck is not a political subject as political thought and action can only meaningfully take place, as far as intent and conceptualization is concerned, on oedipal levels of development. Rather, Joker's inarticulate apolitical rage is appropriated by populists with their own political aims.
Index: 
1: Introduction or Bowling for Gotham - What Genre Are You / What Viewer Am I 
2: Form -  Imaginary Other, Assemblage of Enunciation, Counter/Transference, and Object Relations / Sexual Difference and Ontological Gap / Language and Affect 
3: Content - A Schizo Out For A Walk...(One Or Several Theories) / Emotionally Dysregulated Adolescents 
4: Conclusion or Watchmen, De Niro, and Orange "OJ The Juice" is the New Black Simpson 

Part 1: Bowling for Gotham

Gendre - Genre / Gender
(Source: Google 'etymology of gender')
1.1 What Genre Are You?  
What genre are you? Shh. you're not supposed to ask that.

The cultural atmosphere around Joker has acted - to use a cheap bowling metaphor -  as a sort pair of mental gutter-bumpers guiding thought to this or that preconceived notion. And like a child using the bumpers to bowl they think they're doing a fantastic job. Only occasionally do they look back at their parents' dumb faces and get a slight twinge of self awareness - 'maybe this isn't all there is to the grand sport of bowling?' but just like that its gone... 'Ah, who cares, I'm 8 and this is fun.' Who would second guess themselves anyway when one is having fun and every oped hot take - ergh - throw is a knockout strike?

Whereas with bowling the bumpers keep the ball out of the gutter, the film critique bumpers keep it in (super cool metaphor, right?). It looks like this: Joker is either low trash culture mired in politically incorrect, insensitive, or even dangerous themes; a superhero film (a variation on the previous notion) so it shouldn't be taken that seriously; or very serious high art.

Let's take the bumpers off for a moment. To say its dangerous is alarmist, but there's no point in arguing this position as the alarmist by their nature are not interested in slowing down and thinking (is this a true Scotsman fallacy? who cares...). To say its straight trash is ungenerous and inconsistent in a time where animated children's movies, the most recent Mission Impossible movie, Marvel universe films and whatever run of the mill shit Meryl Streep did this year all share a spot as some of 'the top best reviewed films.' To say it's not a superhero movie is silly. That's it. To claim its simply art is pretentious at best and tautology at worst. Though despite this, and as the archaic philosophy of vitalism has taught us, the film is more than the sum of its parts (these categories). There's some uncanny surplus or excess spilling over. Not quite low culture, not quite superhero, not quite art. In this sense the reviewers aren't incorrect when they say it's a film for our time. This is not because of its content (incel, toxic masculinity, terrorist violence, Lacanian blah blah, whatever-buzzword, etc.), but - as if epitomizing the postmodern protocol of eclecticism, blending realism and fantasy, and its Baudrallardian fusion of real and simulation - it is because of its form. Put another way, this film is genrefluid and because of this, the film pulls the viewers attention every which way - superhero references, cinema homages, sudden bursts of violence, etc.

But this is all besides the point. You're not supposed to pin things down into one or two categories these days anyways.

1.2 What Viewer Am I?
If asking 'What genre are you?' is in bad taste (or useless) and if we're keeping with the whole 'film of our time genrefluid' postmodern (to be vulgar) thingy, then instead of 'what genre is it' I will ask, consistent with our postmodern lens (emphasis on subject over object), 'what kind of viewer am I?' which is, I think, a question absolutely essential to this film (and all film). Put a different way, what kind of viewer was the film made for and am I that viewer or not?

But one thing at a time.

So what kind of viewer am I? I'm a male therapist who works mainly with adolescents in several locations, both private and general, in the last year(s) of his psychoanalytic training who as an adolescent struggled with loneliness and social awkwardness (I was a cringey teen) until I began developing more meaningful relationships with others and attending my own individual and group psychoanalysis as part of my training. Recently I've developed an interest in accelerationism, that is, the work of the CCRU, Nick Land, and related thinkers - basically anyone associated with Urbanomic - and I work to connect psychoanalysis meaningfully to accelerationism. I have a view of myself that incorporates these narrative elements - I like to think of myself as a critical thinker who can at times be provocative, but is also a caring person who wants to help people function in the world according to their own unique composition (we will see why this is important later). Put another way - I'd like to help people live and enjoy life rather than eat nutrient paste from the inside of a suicide pod.

Thus, naturally while watching the movie I saw many things that pertain to these narrative elements within my own subjectivity, things I believe if seen by others may give a certain depth to the film and also inspire some viewers to get curious about how they view themselves and others and the limits of knowing and experiencing these things.

This is all many words to say that there are many things that someone without daily experiences interacting as a mental health professional with the mentally ill, or without a passion for or training in psychoanalysis would miss about Joker.

Part 2: Form 

2.1 Imaginary Other, Assemblage of Enunciation, Counter/Transference, and Object Relations
You've read the Lacanian take on Joker, or listened to this or that podcast. But this is all theoretical, not clinical. This is not a polemic, nor an argument that one is above the other, only a difference I point out to emphasize that here we will try to speak generally and in a way that connects these theories directly to lived experiences with other people.

To be very brief and non-technical about a few iconic and prolific thinkers:
  • Lacan pointed out that a letter always finds its destination, or, in vulgar terms, when we speak there is always an other, whether imaginary and internal or imaginary and present, to which we are speaking to (imaginary in the plain sense, not technical Lacanian sense for which Lacan would say 'symbolic' in place of my imaginary). For example, I slip into having an internal conversation with myself where I realize I am acting as if I am trying to convince someone of something. Here I am responding without knowing it to an idea of a critical or naive other, perhaps my father. Or perhaps there is a person in front of me who says and means one thing, but I hear something other than the intended meaning and react to my own idea of what their idea is. Speech and writing is always for some kind of other. 
  • Guattari (analyzed and taught by Lacan) modulates this general notion to reduce the level of agency present in it, morphing it into what he refers to as 'an assemblage of enunciation,' basically nonhuman forces that produce subjectivity as an excess. When we enunciate - speak, make gestures, etc. - we are both responding to and coding within a system of signs (our society and its dominant values, structures, the mother tongue, our family dialectic, etc.). For example, I worked with a schizophrenic who had become what we call a 'professional patient,' that is, he spent most of his times in hospitals and thus had adopted the language of institutions and therapists he had come in contact with, producing a strange hollow discourse of patched together medical and therapeutic jargon completely disconnected from his real feelings (this is also, I think, similar to Fisher's 'business ontology'). Due to his level of psychosis he was less in touch with actual subjects (others) and more in touch with vague or general environments (what D and G would call a plane of immanence, or what Jameson would call 'a cultural forcefield.' This is therefore consistent with Guattari's emphasis on schizo processes that escape into the outside through lines of flight as opposed to linguistic processes of alterity that map onto subjects relating to other subjects strictly in a field of language). 
  • Both these ideas derive from Freud and Klein. For Freud the child has certain experiences which come to structure how the body and mind regulates tension and mental representations of tensions. These tendencies - internal economic system of investment and counter investment - look for objects in the milieu to map onto. To use a vulgarly simple example: if I had an overstimulating childhood wherein I felt my life was in danger often in association with men it is likely I will grow up with a negative set of feelings towards men regardless of the quality of the man present. Freud called this transference. Klein studied how these early experiences become internalized and solidified into what she referred to as an internal object. In short, an internal schema is developed through feedback between inside-outside circuits and used to economize thought and make judgement about the outside world. If I've had bad experiences with men it means I have a 'bad male internal object,' that is, when I unconsciously utilize my working memory to pull from past experiences to help me navigate my present bad associations are returned to me (my working model is bad). 
  • Donald Winnicott's concept of 'true/false self' can be viewed as a synthesis of these concepts (though it came before some of the above concepts, and after others, it doesn't matter. As Nick Land says, 'don't be a time cuck.'). There is nothing mystical or positivist here about true/false selfhood, only the idea that the child tends to produce communications that heavily take into account how the adults in their life are likely to respond (emotionally, physically, verbally) to their comment, thus forming a false outer layer of people pleasing tendencies that override the child's own authentic feelings and experiences. 
As Freud, Klein, Winnicott, and later Lacan and Guattari (among countless others) show, in therapy a patient will respond to the analyst or therapist as if they are that bad person from their past, or will respond to an internal object projected onto the person, or will make enunciation with the other's response in mind, all without knowing it. To offer a final example of these concepts synthesized: right now I am writing this blog responding unconsciously (until I reflect and bring it to consciousness) to the 'imaginary other' of someone who is interested in these matters enough to read through somewhat dense paragraphs and who also may not know much about these matters. I am responding to this other by using thoughtful and kind phrasing which indicates that I want to induce a sort of shared learning experience more than I want to teach, fight/argue, or critique. This would seem to say my internal object in this situation is somewhat good. I think that people can be interested in me and I have some level in connecting with others (as opposed to Joker who is severely lacking in any good internal objects other than fantasies propped atop negative gaps).

OK. So how does this connect back to Joker?

Joker, whether consciously or unconsciously, was produced with an intended viewer (imaginary other) in mind (media or literature studies 101...). If you're not the intended viewer the film will be hard to watch because the heart strings that are tugged - or the emotional place the film looks to place the viewer in - does not come naturally and therefore may subtly or not so subtly illicit a defense response (i.e., its difficult to identify with the character and their plights). In psychoanalytic training this is referred to countertransference (the feeling the analyst gets from the analysand's feelings) and countertransference resistance (the difficulty the analyst experiences in being able to go where the patient brings them).

A simple example: a patient criticizes me for being incompetent, offering no help, etc. I feel I have worked hard to try and understand and help this patient and feel a tinge of annoyance, or building frustration. All of a sudden without much thought I am running through in my head all the ways I have helped the patient and why the patient is wrong. Oops. I catch myself. The patient feels me as bad and I have just tried to avoid the transference. I notice this and say aloud, with meaning and feeling, 'I've really let you down. What should I have done differently?' Here it is likely the patient transferred onto me an early experience with a caretaker. But whereas the caretaker - as parents often do - was most likely unable or unwilling to accept criticism and ask for feedback, probably doing the opposite by attacking the child or becoming overly defensive, I give the patient a new experience that allows new thoughts and feelings to come to light. Patient: 'wow, no one has ever said that to me before...'

A more complicated example: say I have a patient who complains all the time. I might have the impulse or internal thought to want to tell them to shut up. I may sublimate this by talking more in the session than I do with other patients without being aware of it. I might also fall asleep. The thought that is not being thought here, or the feeling being avoided, is the idea that she is not entitled to endlessly complain. If I notice myself scoffing internally at a patient's complaints its often because part of me does not believe the patient is justified in complaining (patient is spoiled, ungrateful, too sensitive). This is either corrected through self analysis or supervision - 'what in me keeps me from realizing that the patient is doing the best they can and this annoying complaining is yes, annoying, but also, at the same time, a real expression and demonstration of the patient's maturation and therefore a sincere attempt at communicating, having a feeling, etc.'

The intended viewer of the Joker (or the other it is responding to), i.e., the transference it throws on the crowd, is twofold; 1: an alienated male who does not yet have the emotional articulation to commit feelings towards constructive means (you are to identify with this); 2: those who remained passive and therefore are complicit in the negative experiences of the Joker (in identifying with Joker you should feel these people as the bad guys).  To be unable to identify with the film's character (the persecuted), and unable to identify as a complicit party in the harm of someone like the Joker (being the bad persecutory object) is close (but certainly not equivocal) to a counter transference resistance.

2.2 Sexual Difference and Ontological Gap
Transference and counter transference, being as they are somewhat centered on (ph)fantasy and early experiences, are often related to notions / experiences of gender and sex. The first part-object-to-drive coupling is the infants nutritional appetite fused with its need for tender and warm closeness and its impetus to explore via tactile functions. That is, the infant wants to feed from the breast and reaches around for it and the mother-body the breast is attached to. As Klein points out, when the infant can latch onto the breast and successfully bring milk into its mouth it begins to unconsciously form a 'good' internal object (internal tension states are soothed producing a calming effect); where the infant cannot achieve this it forms a bad internal object (internal tension states intensify and the primitive defense mechanisms project the discomfort onto the outside - this may physically present as the infant spitting up). Thus one object is split into two mental representations, a good (persecuted) and a bad (persecutor). This sets the stage for later sexual development and general relating to the world and people and therefore transferences.

Via part object assemblages and the complex vicissitudes of the drives any kind of transference can be cast onto any kind of person (one can have a father-transference towards a woman if the woman is phallic or if the analysand feels as if the woman is phallic - psychic reality - and same with mothers and men, etc.), though it is true that a male may readily stimulate a father transference while a female may more readily stimulate a mother transference.

Now as far as countertransference is concerned it is not uncommon to hear female analysts in training self-report the tendency to easily fall into being either overly maternal towards their patients or overly phallic, that is, critical and punitive. Meanwhile, the same goes for males - they can be overly paternal, trying to 'teach' men how to act or gain admiration, or too competitive, unconsciously attempting to dominate their patients. Male analysts may not have intuitive understandings of their female patients, and female patients may not have intuitive understandings of their male ones, while males might be more competitive, jealous, envious, etc. with other males, and females those very things with females. That is, sexual difference plays an important role in one's ability to identify with another person.

In keeping with these ideas of transference and counter transference as well as our idea that Joker is intended for a certain male audience and therefore it may be difficult to relate to from another perspective, take the following example: When I attempt to watch 'Orange is the New Black' I find myself essentially unable to identify with the shows protagonists (imprisoned women) in any meaningful way. There are characters that are written to be liked by the viewer and those that are written to be disliked by the viewer but I dislike all of them. It would be lazy to say this is a consequence of the show being poorly written. All shows wax and wane in their quality and level of complexity. No, its not the writing, it's because this show is clearly written for and by (left leaning) women. We're supposed to have some level of micro sympathy or empathy for the characters wrapped up in some macro social commentary. I intellectually understand the social commentary and the shows narrative - the heart strings it tries to tug - and I wouldn't argue in favor of  our current prison system or the abuse of other people, but it's hard for me to get to where the show wants to bring me emotionally (and I am also not a cruel person, I help all kinds of people for a living and feel a deep emotional connection to these people). Its prison. Don't want to be in prison? Don't commit a crime. I understand this is a sort of conservative reactionary position, but its the one I have unless I work to not have it.
  • tl;dr: Joker is to (some) women what OTNB is to (some) men.
It's overwhelmingly the case that the negative reviews of Joker came from women viewers while the positive reviews came from men. The superficial reading of this is that one or another gender is biased for or against the film or certain themes within the film. But we have no use for notions of bias as this is a political or ethical term at worst and a cognitive psycho-sociological term at best. It's often thought of - at least in positivist schools - as something to be gotten rid of while in more postmodern or postpositivist leaning schools its thought of something to be accounted for or even leaned into (old 'masculine' academia = 'be objective and rule out feelings' while new 'feminine' academia - third wave feminism, critical / postcolonial studies, etc. - emphasizes the importance of the subject, and so on).

What is more, bias gives us no entree into the unconscious, knows no notions of psychodynamics, etc., and that's why we don't care about it. Bias is tautological. It says 'this person likes this thing because this person has a higher tendency to like this thing because they are this kind of person to like this thing because...' Bias does not touch internal motivations, what structures or generates the bias, etc. In other words, bias is a symptom that impels us to search for its origin or cause, not a cause or origin for anything. Now we're back in psychoanalytic territory.

For Lacan and Lacanians (Zizek) sexual difference structures subjectivity because it structures the glue and building blocks of subjectivity, the symbolic and imaginary tendencies (similar to the Kleinian theory above) that ossify into personality, ego, subject, whatever.

Sexual difference isn't necessarily all about sex either, its about a a insurmountable difference that cannot be symbolized because it cannot be felt and integrated into an account of self and other (formal difference with a hint of Kantian limits of knowledge). In general, humans have trouble understanding other humans. Add gender or sex to the mix (don't worry about them not being the same thing) and things get even trickier. I don't think its controversial to say that men have a hard time understanding what woman want and woman have a hard time understanding what men want and that ultimately neither really want to understand what the other wants as the incentive is low, the risk (of vulnerability) is high, and the reward little. Why try to connect with another -i.e. radical alterity or outsideness as opposed to what Land refers to as alterity in advance - when you can be with yourself or people just like you (narcissism and solipsism or preoedipal conditions vs. oedipal)?

Let me offer a quick example of formal and nonsexual (sublimated) difference (I've condensed some examples from my own patients as well as the patients of colleagues and hidden any confidential info):
  • A patient's partner dresses in a way that they believe the patient find's attractive The patient is not aroused or interested in the way their partner had hoped. The partner seems glum at this outcome. The patient inquires into the partner's glumness and the partner says 'I dressed how you like and you didn't even notice.' The patient retorts that this is not how he likes her to dress. She responds 'but this is what you like!' The partner had an idea of what my patient wanted and substituted her idea of what the patient wants for what the patient actually wants. In short - I want you to want what I want you to want. This is not too unlike the old joke where the woman tells the man to do the dishes and the man does them begrudgingly only for the woman to get upset - 'i don't want you to simply do the dishes, I want you to want to do the dishes!'
  • One more even further sublimated example that encapsulates in a general way the conflict many of my patients have with their parents: A mother sets up a nice day for her child. Mother thinks 'Good weather. Little Jonny and I will spend a wonderful day at the beach.' Mother lets Jonny know. The child is upset as he simply wishes to stay inside and play videogames. Jonny is now resentful and mother, unable to take a moment to reflect on why her child would be so ungrateful, is unable to understand why Jonny is resentful. Mom tried to give her son something she thought her son wanted but what she really wanted was for her son to want what she wanted, and ultimately she is unwilling to see the basic fact that the son may want something she does not want. It is very often that I explain this to a parent for them to say 'but why would he want to do that (Y) when I offered him X?' The answer is 'because that is what he/she finds interesting, that is what he/she wants. You may have different '
There is an ontological gap between subjectivies and the object or shared environment.

Zizek, in the above linked discussion on Lacan and sexual difference, makes reference to this famous finding of Claude Levi-Strauss. What this indicates is two psychic realities converging on the same gap (listen to the lecture) For our purposes here we could label one Joker and the other OTNB.

2.3 Language and Affect

The 'solution' here, if we can call it that, is to talk to one another and form or join groups that represent our own views while communicating meaningfully to other groups (will to power in Nietzschean terms). This is neither fascist populism (herd morality in Nietzschean terms) nor some sort of humanist, democratic, or neoliberal pityparty where people voice their grievances (slave morality) and
  • A: realize they were wrong, mistaken, etc., and through education and interacting with others comes to realize that were all in this together the whole time and then we all get along; 
  • B: the wrong parties finally realize and  admit their wrong doings to those who they wronged and justice is served accordingly; 
  • C: the wrong doers dominate the wronged; 
  • D: turns out there is no right and wrong and moral relativism or narcissistic solipsism reigns
The solution would be more along the lines of, as Zizek puts it, not filling the gap but conceptualizing and understanding it, as well as Guattari's early concepts of subject group and subjected group (which is related to the assemblage of enunciation we mentioned and how speech acts are formulated like, say, between parents and child...) wherein the power differential between the groupuscules is analyzed in terms of desire and investment, not petty moralism (closer to a Nietzschean transvaluation of values or real power).

That is, language and politics are supposed to be the bridges of/to/in this ontological knowledge gap.
Unfortunately words are tricky - especially when used by politicians or for political means - and often muddy things even more. Words can mean many things; they can be used to mean something they don't; you can say one thing and do another; you can do one thing and mean another. etc. etc. This has always been a key psychoanalytic insight and is in fact the general idea of a 'joke.'

In 1905 Freud wrote Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious in which he discusses these very notions. Joke, or jocus, meaning jest or world play, derives from the earlier yek, simply 'to speak.' From this, a joke develops essentially into a playing with a word by turning it into something enigmatic or intentionally contradictory or opposite to its own meaning - a language game (something produces from itself a surplus or its dialectical opposite). For example, when a friend does something funny but a little cruel and you say 'I hate you so much!' in a playful tone, it is not that you hate your friend, but that you, in that moment, express pleasure and enjoy the jest but then reverse the feeling and act as if or 'play' out a conflict. A joke, in this more traditional Freudian or linguistic reading (as opposed to a Zizekian idea of a joke - see Zizek's Jokes 2014), is an intentional disruption between meaning and speaking or acting and speaking.

On a slightly different note, two decades or so later, in 1932 well before Lacan had arrived on the scene to scream about signifiers and re-purpose Freud's works on language and jokes, Sandor Ferenczi published what is now a famous paper referred to in shorthand as 'The Confusion of Tongues.' There has been some literature on the connection between Lacan and Ferenczi, but no one has simply said that the Confusion of Tongues is essentially dealing with the formal ontological difference present in sexual difference. The short version is that adults speak a different language than children and that neither party can truly access the other's language (or, in Deleuze and Guattari's terms, there is no formal language and its dialects, only a singular act of speaking that is territorialized and reterritorialized quite literally by different peoples that occupy different territories). What then happens is a parent or adult’s language and latent unconscious content is communicated to or projected upon a child who lacks the means to appropriately symbolize it (similar to Laplanche's enigmatic signifier). This understanding ties in directly to oedipal conflict, the idea that part of Oedipus is, yes, the child’s desire for mother, but also, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the father’s paranoia – ‘my son wants to fuck my wife!’ This would be a confusion of tongues where the parent projects into the child an adult motivation and mindset. Sure, the child some desire, but it is not at the stage of expression that an adult’s is. That is, the adult world is radically different than the child world.

This brings us to our next section...
Part 3: Content 


schizo out for a walk
3.1 A Schizo Out For A Walk... (One or Several Theories)
Hot take: Any insistence that Joker is about oedipal conflict, or that Fleck is having oedipal conflicts is itself a confusion of tongues. Fleck isn't on an oedipal level of development (neurosis), he's stuck in a preoedipal phase (psychotic or schizo).

I used to know a few colleagues who met with a schizo who had been in the same hospital so long that other colleagues who trained at the same hospital had met with this schizo as well. For years he would paint pictures of things he saw in magazines and repeat over and over 'that's my joke!' He was unable to elaborate what this meant, but it is consistent with the well known clinical fact that schizophrenics have an inverse relation to the notion of a joke. For a schizo, only the joke makes sense, or what makes sense of the regular thing is the part of it that is a joke. For a schizo the joke can be trusted because it does not attempt to hide anything, it presents its conflict or enigma on the outside. There is paranoiac risk in the joke, only a paranoiac risk in an attempt to model reality between real and representation.

A schizo child tells me a joke -
Child: 'I have this joke. Let me tell it to you. What's the cool thing about a trash can?'
Me: 'What?'
Child: 'Its infinite like space, never really fills up.'
Me: 'Because you change the trash bag when it gets close to full and replace it with another?'
Child: (laughing hysterically) 'Yesss!'
I'm the first to admit that despite my love for the the dudes and their work, Deleuze and Guattari's criticism of psychoanalysis in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus can at times be misguided. But if there is one critique of psychoanalysis that maps onto psychoanalysis and the real world pretty neatly its the general notion that Freud and early 'classical' psychoanalysis misunderstood and therefore misconceptualized psychosis, schizophrenia included, and therefore failed to develop a meaningful way of treating these people.

Unfortunately their critique did not really stick with the analysts, and seems to have not stuck with the pro-D and G nonanalysts (another confusion of tongues). That is, all the wannabe philosophers seem to attribute higher level functions and concepts to regressed peoples (psychotics, schizophrenics, etc.).

In a sentence - schizos can effect the political but they can't be political.

The way a schizo scrambles the codes, ruptures the expected, etc., can help nonschizos or neurotics think about and conceptualize something radically different and new, something in touch with the outside, etc., but a person who is a schizo (schizoaffective, schizophrenic, schizoid personality, etc.) cannot or will not make decisions or formulate thoughts in any meaningful relation to political notions and events (which Guattari reiterates in his 1980s Japan interviews when asked about the revolutionary potential of the schizo).

This is all to say that Joker is a somewhat accurate portrayal (as far as my own experiences) of a schizo.

I don't think it necessary to argue this point too much. If you've been with schizos like I have, you will be able to see the similarities - inability or extreme difficulty in relating to others as full people, difficulty with self care and regular everyday activities such as cleaning and eating, difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality, etc.

And it's pretty clear that Joker is a schizo. Though the film implies that Joker's laugh has a neurological origin, this is not a hard and fast fact in the film's universe (it is one possible hypothesis of the laugh - either due to physical trauma or mental trauma), and if it were a verified fact, it feels more like an Occham's razor designed to economize story telling (form as opposed to content within the film's world) by reducing unnecessary details and appealing to the viewers basic level of understanding (neurology, physicalist, being a more easily understandable concept than complex psychodynamics...). Clinically, the laugh is a symptom presenting as incongruent affect (stimuli and reaction don't correspond) which is an idea that has much more symbolic value to the film's narrative than some sort of neurological origin.

I've met hundreds of people who have come under my care (to varying degrees) that demonstrate this. One patient on the couch makes a statement about how miserable their life is then laughs it off. Another talks about wanting to commit suicide then chuckles as if it it's no big deal. Someone else (not on the couch but in a group living setting), giggling strangely, hands over a sharp item they just used to hurt themselves. A group member laughs maniacally in a way that does not correspond to what has happened in the group which produces an effect in the group where other members are unable to speak out of fear of being silenced. Etc. I've even done it myself. I, in a delirious sleep deprived state, say to my supervisor 'I don't get much sleep, but hah, who really needs sleep?' She makes the appropriate intervention - 'Why do you laugh? You need sleep. That's not funny. You could end up sick or worse.'

But how does one get such a symptom? Easy - be mad and unable to express your anger due to fear of being retaliated against.

How does one get to become schizo? Easy - be mad and unable to express your anger due to fear of being retaliated against.

Who might a child get mad at? Easy - their parents. The parents are the first significant objects of frustration in that as much as they gratify needs they also must guide the child towards certain things and prevent the child from doing other certain things (eating when appropriate, pooping and peeing at the right time and place, waiting to be gratified, doing things they don't personally want to, etc.).

We're not saying life makes people schizo, we're talking excessive frustration left unprocessed, or regular baseline frustration amplified by unstable parents, chaotic environments charges vectors in the direction of schizo process. This is not necessarily a humanist situation of bad world corrupting sweet child. It's more related to drive theory, that is, internal conflicts between wishes and fears, desire and defense, etc. To this effect, the question underneath the schizophrenic symptom is 'How do I get what I want without hurting or depleting the object that give me what I want?'

As we learn from watching, these themes are very present in Fleck's history - an abusive father, a helpless and neglectful mother who eventually escapes the situation but becomes codependent on Fleck, etc. Here, for Fleck, the schizo conflict is 'how can I be angry at my mother for not protecting me from my mother when it is also my duty to take care of my mother, and as caretaker, I cannot be angry at that which I care for.'

But Ok. You don't buy this theory.

So whats the other prevailing theory of how schizophrenia develops? Easy - the double bind. This is not so different than the above theory. A child is presented with an enigmatic (Laplanche) conflict, often between an adult and the child (Ferenczi) that overwhelms them as either answer is the wrong answer (How do I get what I want without hurting the object? turns into 'I either kill myself or kill the object.').

Here's the specific double bind for Fleck in the movie: After Fleck is beat up by some kids his coworker gives him a gun for self defense. Fleck hesitantly takes the gun. Not too long later this very coworker tells Fleck's boss that Fleck has a gun when he shouldn't. Here the communication is 'defend yourself with this but also you are wrong for wanting to defend yourself with this' (or more primitively, you should feel guilty for wanting to help yourself with violence).  This double bind comes back later in the film when Fleck, in full Joker garb, murders this very coworker. The double bind - or the return of the repressed - is not in the murder but in the equally comic and dark moment where the dwarf (small person, not a mystical race) coworker friend of the gun-coworker needs to ask for help in leaving Fleck's apartment. This is probably confusing if you haven't seen the film, so let me explain.

The coworker who gave Fleck the gun and then reported him and his dwarf friend (and coworker to Fleck as well) come to Fleck's apartment. Fleck lets them in and locks the door behind them before stabbing the gun-guy's neck. The bloodied body now lies in the way of the door out of Joker's apartment. The dwarf guy freaks out and now has to pass Joker and the corpse to leave. He musters the courage to do so but is unable to reach the highly placed latch lock on the apartment door (he is locked in). He then swallows his fear and asks Joker for help in opening the door. This moment is genius in that it blends humor and horror while also perfectly demonstrating the double bind situation that an abused child - not unlike Fleck -  must endure: the child, tormented by the abusive, violent, scary adult, has a mixture of fear and hatred for the adult and wishes to flee or kill the adult but also understands that the adult is their sole provider of food, shelter and, oddly, protection against the outside world (wish to kill or flee followed by inability to kill or flee followed by need for help by the object that is to be killed). The person who protects me also subjects me to abuse. The person who strikes fear in me is also the one I must appeal to for aid. Here the dwarf symbolically represents the child but also literally embodies the physical part of the conflict, a small person that needs help.

Luckily we don't have to commit to one or another theory as Joker's (history and) laugh is a complex symptom that encompasses aspects of all these theories.

Let's take an earlier scene including the laugh. A child on a bus makes a face at Fleck. Fleck playfully responds by making faces. The child's mother then accuses Fleck of bothering her child. Fleck laughs manically. What really happened here?
  • A: The mother's act is not in response to what is actually happening and thus, mirroring this, Fleck's act is not in response to what is actually happening. The social codes are scrambled; 
  • B: Fleck is angry at the injustice the 'mother' has brought about through her act but instead of being able to feel and use anger, Fleck has a reaction formation to the anger and produces its opposite, laughter which is usually associated with happiness (a personal pathological joke); 
  • C: Synthesizing A and B, Fleck in part is responding to the absurdity (an impersonal pathological joke) of a world where things have gone so bad or wrong that a simple human interaction devolves into a point of conflict (Joker's comment 'people aren't simple anymore'). 
This is an intolerable frustration (why am I being attacked for attempting to connect? why are you being so aggressive towards me despite my own aggression?), a moment of paranoid fear for Fleck (does the persecuting mother here have a point? am I being bad? have i hurt this child?), and a double bind (it feels as if no matter what decision i made here i would be accosted!). Furthermore, all of these correspond with the psychodynamics of the 'joke' briefly elaborated on earlier (when you say one thing but mean another, or when the expected is subverted with the unexpected).

Don't buy this? The even earlier 'psychiatric' hypothesis of schizophrenia is 'the refrigerator mother,' or the idea that a caregiver, the mother, is cold and emotionally unavailable and therefore rears a child that is unable to connect to others.  Let's go back to the movie. In a very interesting scene, Fleck, after a tough day, aggressively removes all the food from his fridge only to crawl into it and close the door. It would be silly to say this is a direct reference to the concept of the refrigerator mother, but it is a clear demonstration of the kind of things schizos do to achieve a feeling of what Klein would call 'containment.' Schizos often feel out of control of their own impulses and thus seek low stimulation environments where they can maintain emotional regulation. In times of stress they may seek even lower stimulation situations (wrapping themselves in blankets, inducing sleep, head banging until a calming sensation washes over, self-rocking, etc.). Here, in this moment, Fleck curls into a ball and feels comfortable and contained in what is essentially a cold technowomb.

But how do we account for the clear oedipal themes? That Fleck thinks his father is Wayne? That he identifies with De Niro's talk show host guy as a sort of 'good dad?' This gets us back to Deleuze and Guattari's critique of psychoanalysis. The thing about psychoanalysts is that they see Oedipus everywhere. If you were classically trained as an analyst before the 60s you believed  that schizos couldn't be analyzed - they cant form a transference, can't take in interpretations, etc. Ironically, the Deleuzians and Guattarians who correctly follow the critique that psychoanalysts see Oedipus instead of schizo stuff tend not to be clinically trained, or have any idea how to work with people therapeutically (or critically apply theory to everyday life) and therefore overvalue the 'political' positions of D and G and seem to think schizos are just zany artistic social revolutionaries. That is, D and G fanboys make everything political when D and G seem to emphasize the point that inhuman flows of desire are invested in the political.

The thing that D and G get right, the thing that maps onto actual experiences with patients - and this is how we account for the oedipal themes in the film -  is that schizos can often present as higher functioning than they are by, as mentioned earlier with my 'professional patient' schizo, appropriating the surrounding discourse and 'tricking' people into thinking they have oedipal conflicts. Some patients may present all kinds of seemingly symbolic content about familial stuff, but ultimately, when analyzed, a lot of it has nothing to do with the real internal experiences of the person. One schizo I knew called everyone their father. When asked why he presented an elaborate fantasy about how if he convinced people he valued their authority they would not try so hard to read his thoughts and therefore he could get away with thinking about how best to steal an extra desert from the desert tray. This kind of thing is clearly much more preoedipal, a concern about being fed, a concern about satiating body-tension states, a paranoid anxiety about the blurred boundaries of alterity, etc. The oedipal here assumes its position as an empty signifier - 'I know this is what you want to hear so I give you what you want...' There is no castration here.

This gets us back to our earlier confusion of tongues. When we project political intentions onto Joker we are acting as an oedipalized subject (you and I) who looks back at a non-oedipalized subject and can only see things through the oedipal structures we have generated until we let ourselves regress (which can happen in session with a schizo if one allows oneself to be open to the transference-countertransference matrix). That is, the neurotic (Freud) have a hard time getting in touch with the schizo. Once we have language and have lost contact with that experience of the world we cannot really ever go back except in fleeting moments and aesthetic experiences.

This is all a lot of words to say that Joker is not oedipal as some have theorized, but schizo and because he is schizo and not oedipal he cannot in any way be a political subject and therefore the film is not political, as Joker himself insists, and is ultimately not making any political statement as the media insists. Afterall, Joker kills his fathers and learns to hate his mother, the very things that schizophrenia forms in defense against.

3.2 Emotionally Dysregulated Adolescents
So Joker is a schizo or in the least some sort of preoedipal.
In many ways he is stuck in an adolescent or childhood stage of development before a proper oedipalizing castration has taken place.

The thing about kids is that they're incredibly sensitive to whether someone does or does not authentically understand their perspective or experience and if they get the slightest inkling that someone - often an adult - has not had a certain experience yet tries to offer validation, they get mad as well. And when they're mad they're not just mad they're full of inarticulate rage.

We see this in the film anytime Fleck is in session with his state mandated social worked. There is a classic moment that any entry level therapist worth a damn would know how to handle. Fleck tells his social worker something. She says 'oh you haven't told me that before' to which Fleck responds 'I'm pretty sure I did' to which the social worker says 'No, you didn't.' In line with our earlier discussion about psychic reality, a good therapist (or psychoanalyst) is trained early on that if a patient believes they have told you something, in most cases you act as if this is the truth. If a patient says 'remember when I told you about my aunt' I say 'tell me more about your arm.' This is because regressed patients have a difficulty keeping track of what they say aloud and what they simply think, in addition to an unconscious difficulty understanding that they are different minds than others (an ucs. fantasy of merger, as it was with the mother) and therefore their thoughts aren't transmitted. In this case, and the others that appear in the film, Fleck's disconnection with people and the world is reinforced, not intervened upon, when the therapist insists on introducing the reality principle over the principle of psychic reality. The feeling of increased disconnection raises the frustration and, more importantly, the pain that comes with being forced to feel the actual isolation of life and alterity all of which either generates or opens the gates up to a very regressive rage.

This gets us back to the preopedial point made above: inarticulate rage may take an oedipal form but is itself much earlier than oedipal conflicts.  To this point, Joker insists that he isn't political. This shouldn't be taken as a defensive negation. Joker is preoedipal or preverbal. His inarticulate conflicts are appropriated by more 'political' subjects. There is no political motivation on Fleck's part. Fleck wants something for himself. He kills those rich young men because they were the object that came along at the right time to receive his anger. He hates Wayne not because of his capitalist or political positions, but because Fleck feels personally unseen or hurt by Wayne. Fleck's own emotional conflicts and the acts he engages in because of these conflicts become a mass political event when appropriated by large groups of people.

This is an incredibly common trope in its general form - one person's conflict is adopted by others and used for others' wants and needs. We see it in Taxi Driver and Fight Club (two films Joker is indebted and compared to): Travis Bickle, alienated, alone, frustrated, gets it into his head (after the guy end sup in Bickle's cab) that he should kill the politician who is running for governor. There is no clear political motive her - in fact any motive of Bickle's up until a point seems completely muddled - but rather an inarticulate schizo rage that latches onto the nearest object. Bickle, however, has a moment where he realizes there is an object that maps more easily onto his actual feelings and experiences - instead of killing the politician he decides to kill the pimp who is abusing young Jody Foster with whom he had earlier developed a friendship with. Here Bickle avoids the political and identifies with the child, the part of himself that speaks the child's tongue, not the adult's (political games). Similarly, Tyler Durden's personal emotional conflicts - and lets not waste time pointing out the schizo connections - evolve into an event that catches on globally inspiring a world wide politico-terrorist phenomenon. It is clear that Durden harbored no political intentions but that his own life style choices and mental challlenges were appropriated by masses outside of his control who used his conflict as a means to achieve their own ends. Take a few more examples. Schumacher's 1993 Falling Down follows a middle class government worker (who seems to be in the least schizoaffective) who is estranged from his wife and kids as he grows more and more angry eventually snapping while stuck in traffic, engaging in a killing streak across town (he just wants to see his daughter on her birthday...). Take this final example pulled from 'low culture:' In the Okama Gamesphere episode of South Park the boys simply want their video game system back (personal child desire) but get caught in a adult world of political conflict they don't care at all about. Every time a different political faction tries to rope the kids in they reassert 'we just want our Okama game sphere back....'

....

I've worked with many adolescents and some adults that would be referred to, for lack of a better term, as 'incels.' Not necessarily because they're actually celibates, but because they've come to therapy feeling wronged and overly frustrated at the world, often with little to no skills to navigate the world. These people feel the way Arthur Fleck feels. But these aren't the people who are risk of murdering others, they are at risk of killing themselves.

Here's who's at risk of homicide...

There are some children I see who I have a bad feeling about... Most of them stay with me long enough for this bad feeling to leave. There are a few that don't...In what follows I combine and condense (disguised) details from a few cases into one narrative - Q - to make a point (any likeness to anyone you know is purely coincidental and no sensitive or confidential information is being given away here at all...any and all legal means to ensure safety of anyone has been taken appropriately...this is narrative to prove a point...):

Q, young, between 8 and 13, upper middle class to upper class, etc., comes in per his mother's request. He has no interest in therapy and his Mom's interest seems to demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of what therapy is (that it is an intellectual set of skills to be studied and learned as opposed to an emotional process). Mom is overly polite but also unconsciously makes several passive aggressive comments towards the therapist. She rigorously over-schedules Q's life with extra curricular activities, study groups, play dates, hobbies, etc. Like therapy, Q has no interest in these things but is not only forced to do them, but forced to enjoy them too. In individual sessions Q is, for lack of a better term, bratty and defiant (this is counter transference or counter transference resistance on the therapist's part - the therapist has the feeling that the parent won't let themselves have...). Not even the most radical of interventions ('should I help you build a case against coming here so we can convince your mom and dad not to make you go to a therapy you hate?') works. I realize I 'hate' the patient (just as the parent hates the child but is unable to process this difficult thought-feeling...) [see Winnicott on how to use hate in the transference...].

In family sessions it is learnt that not only is Mom overly polite to hide her anger, and completely controlling, but she is also unable to have negative feelings in any way. Often Q verbally attacks mother quite viciously. Therapist points out gently that Q seems understandable angry at Mother and that mother might want to acknowledge child's anger and respond to it rather than attempt to convince child that he is not actually angry. Mother refuses to see anger and comforts child assuming anger to be superficial. Q continues to berate mother. Mother continues to comfort. Father is not present in these sessions as father is not present in child's life (though father does seem like the 'cool dad'). His absence is not because he is a deadbeat, quite the opposite. When home he is in bluetooth business calls, when at work he is far far from home and is too busy on bluetooth business calls to call home.

On paper Q is perfect. He is progressive, mindful of what is PC, says the right things, gets mostly good grades, but acts out in school here and there in strange ways. But these acting outs are quickly brushed under the rug by his charismatic parents and their seeming inconsistency with his progressive and upper middle class life. Q is the kind of child who, in addition to all of his activities, is likely to go to a school that teaches 'emotional skills,' or attend strange things like 'empathy classes' yet, due to his family dynamics, mainly his mother's constant squashing of his real feelings, anger, and his father's lack of containment, has no feelings of empathy or sympathy of others, and only has inarticulate rage.

Why bring this up? Because it is not the case that 'the Joker type' or the edgy frustrated kid - as the media buzz around Joker has implied- commits a violent crime out of resentful political motives, its the 'good' kid who 'always seemed nice' with no political connections that ends up being in the very least a vicious bully and in the worst a violent media sensation.

In the movies Fleck kills others. In reality Fleck plays video games and self harms.

4: Watchmen, De Niro, and Orange "OJ The Juice" is the New Black Simpson 
Let's tie up some loose ends.

These psychodyanmic conflicts and their related themes show up in the reviews. In her Jacobin piece Eileen Jones (a rare positive review from a woman - she wrote another positive piece here) writes
"by now there are a thousand different takes on Joker — I’ve read dozens, capping it off with 'A Lacanian Reading of Joker,; which seemed like a good time to quit. Such a wealth of varied responses indicate that this film is the Rorschach test of our day" ending again with "it's the perfect inkblot." 
Here in a stroke of genius she is both correct and incorrect; incorrect in the argument she is trying to make - that people are simply projecting their own perspectives into the film, incorrect because the film is not simply an ambiguous shape or empty form meant to evoke internal responses as it has a clear position, a clear structure, clear values, etc., all of which, unlike a Rorschach test, condition responses; correct in that Jone's has unconsciously tapped into several interesting aspects of the film associated with the idea of a Rorschach without extrapolating them clearly.

These three aspects are:
  • the film's eclectic or postmodern form (number of varying takes means there's a number of signals or memes in the film that can induce these responses) 
  • related to the above, the film's semiotic connections to the DC universe. Joker makes a statement very close to that of the DC character The Comedian from DC graphic novel Watchmen - 'once you realize what a joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.' The connections continue in that Robert De Niro, who co stars in Joker, played a character very similar to Joker in Martin Scorsesse's 1983 The King of Comedy. As any synopsis will tell you, De Niro plays a mentally ill stand up comedian in New York who fantasizes about being on a popular talk show, fantasies which bleed into his 'reality' causing him to act out while on air on the show. This film only comes along a few years after similar De Niro films such as Scorsesse's 1976 Taxi Driver and Cimino's 1978 The Deer Hunter (in addition to the obvious homages throughout the film, plenty of articles review these connections) . Furthermore, the Watchmen character Rorschach in one 'comic' meets Travis Bickle, the character De Niro plays in Taxi Driver. In my mind, I like to think of King of Comedy, The Deer Hunter, and Taxi Driver as being alternative versions of the same story which are all connected up to the Comedian and the Joker which is condensed and compressed into the signifer 'rorschach' in this moment.

This is all interesting, but it's not our main point. Here's the third and most important aspect:
  • As indicated in the diagram above, Jone's may have incorrectly conceptualized Joker as a sort of hollow container for viewer ideology to be projected into, but she is correct in thinking of the rorschach in relation to the film as the film, as I have argued, is clearly tied up with notions of transference (the analyst acts as the ink blot, neutral but not completely neutral as to illicit fantasy, projection, etc. from the patient) and countertransference and how their connection to object relations, sexual difference, and ontological gaps in knowledge.
With this said, consider the following.

In her Time Magazine article Stephanie Zacharek, after spending the article morally critiquing violence, reminding the reader that film does not exist in a vacuum, and that mass shootings have been related to films in the past, writes
"Movies don’t cause violence—The Dark Knight Rises didn’t. But Joker made me realize that my tolerance for shoddily thought-out visions of glamorized nihilism is lower than ever. Sometimes a movie makes you recoil—and no matter how many awards it wins, your instincts are the only golden thing that matters."
Here we see some very interesting fancy foot work involving negation and Straussian rhetoric. Zacharek says movies don't make people violent, that Joker has redeemable qualities, but then goes on to imply the opposite. She says one thing but leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that leads us somewhere else - 'movies don't make people violent, but if they did, Joker would be a movie that could or would totally make people violent,' a move very similar to our extrapolation of a joke mentioned earlier (saying one thing but implying another), not to mention OJ Simpson's 'I didn't kill her, I'm looking for the real killer, but if I did kill her this is how I would've done it' which, due to him being a free man and having the balls to say this kind of shit, is easily America's biggest joke of a trial.

Let's break down the last few excerpts here

  •  "Joker made me realize that my tolerance..." Ok the author is reflecting on her subjectivity, that is, her own perception and her own values and how these effect her ability to view the film.
  • "...for shoddily thought-out visions of glamorized nihilism is lower than ever." OK. Now she has switched from reflecting on herself as a subject to very immaturely making the object bad. 'It could be me, but its not me its the movie.'
  • Then "Sometimes a movie makes you recoil" a mix of subject and object - it could be that the subject is having a reaction of subjective disgust, or that the object is itself disgusting and that any well adjust person would react this way to it.
  • But it continues "—and no matter how many awards it wins" - so the film could be objectively good -  "your instincts are the only golden thing that matters" - so even if the film is objectively good the nature of the object is not enough to trump the internal or subjective interpretative system taking in the object. That is, even if an object is good it can still be bad if I feel it to be bad by my 'golden instincts.'

Here we see what psychoanalysts see when we remain silent and allow a patient to free associate which Christopher Bollas refers to as the patient speaking to their internal objects, struggling between an instinct and a defense against that instinct, or, alternatively, a struggle between competing defenses. Here Zacharek, like the infant, is having trouble identifying what is subject and what is object - 'should I project my bad feeling, claiming the object to be all bad, or is this badness in me?' What is you, and what is me? And how does my subjectivity effect how the object effects me.

OJ was a killer of women, Orange is the New Black protagonists are imprisoned women, Joker is a man who kills men, and the viewers of Joker haven't committed any crimes that would require a good lawyer to get them off or land them in prison and they probably won't.