Find the square root of negative one. This math problem presents an interesting phenomenon: imaginary numbers. There are numbers that fit into our system of mathematics, yet they lack traditional numerical values. Particularly, these are i and -i.
Todd Phillips’s shift from comedy to such a dark film is not an unheard-of move to make. However, through his most recent movie Joker, he seems to replicate some of the radicality of the square root of negative one.
To say Joker was controversial is an understatement. The film about the classic Batman villain caught flak from many outlets for various reasons. Underpaid bloggers who posit at journalists claimed that the movie would incite white terrorism and incel violence. One headline reads “In Joker, Black Women Are Visible But They Are Not Seen“. These reactions, although absurd, are justified. Joker is a weird movie. It’s hard to label Arthur Fleck, the main character of the film who transitions into Joker. And that’s the rub: he’s hard to label.
The Joker is a political character. Yet, simultaneously, he sits outside of politics altogether. He’s clearly not a white nationalist; he imagined being with the black woman that lived on his floor for the entire movie. He’s not a misogynist; he takes good care of his mother. He’s not a capitalist; his actions incite a revolt against the bourgeoisie. However, he is nothing else. In the movie, Joker says that he’s not political and his makeup is not connected to the ongoing protests.
His only gripe with society is that it’s terrible and the people in it are horrible. This line of thought doesn’t fit a single status quo political narrative and that’s why it’s frustrating.
Joker and Postmodern Society
Joker’s actions are truly political actions. The symbol of the Joker is not something we can re-absorb into the status quo narratives, but the insights of postmodern psychoanalysis allow for an understanding of Joker’s politics. Psychoanalytic author Todd McGowan explained that “fantasies assist in rendering the people docile”. The symbolic authority keeps people in line by delineating what is and is not politically acceptable. We see this on both sides of American discourse through the ideological narratives that govern the modern world.
Traversal of the fantasies that surround us requires that we move from the desire for a better society to a drive that promises no payoff. “Desire promises a transcendent future,” McGowan claims, “but the drive makes no promises”. Joker’s drive is completely nihilistic. “I don’t believe in anything,” he claims towards the end of the movie.
McGowan later explains that the square root of negative one is the breakdown of symbolic authority in mathematics. It’s beyond what’s real within the symbology of math. It’s impossible. By taking the impossible to the political, one breaks down ideology’s current hegemony. As McGowan makes clear, “one can accomplish the impossible by refusing to accept the choices that ideology offers”. That’s what the Joker does. Action out of what can be symbolized by the narratives of the world around us is authentic political action. For those that want to see a break from the current political trajectory, the task is to do the impossible.
Traditionally, postmodern discourse in academia has been heavily left-leaning. However, Joker as a postmodern phenomenon is not something that left-leaning intellectuals and artists would ever dream up. Even so, it would be ironic for me to say that the Joker was right-wing after explaining that he doesn’t fit in any political box.
The only reason to bring this up, though, is the director’s challenge to today’s ideological hegemony: the fantasy of “woke culture”. According to Todd Phillips, he stopped making comedies because the society that we live in doesn’t allow for true humor to exist anymore. Jokes are funny because they’re outside the limits. The woke stew of progressive culture we find ourselves in today puts clamps around where comedy can and cannot go.
This could be construed as right-wing, though; it clearly exists outside of what the cathedral deems acceptable. Stepping outside the progressive dogma that dominates modern discourse is a fast-track to the label.
Yet Joker is not right-wing. It merely refuses to accept the parameters that cathedral ideology offers.