A Lacanian Reading of Joker

Daniel Avatar

Todd Phillip’s Joker is a film about class war in utero. The film sets the stage for a coming political world in which the class war in Gotham has been named and elevated to the undeniable antagonism that situates the injustice of society.

The film is also a psychobiography of an antihero’s journey into this political terrain. The film is thus a pre-political portrayal of a coming revolutionary situation in Gotham. Similar to Taxi Driver, the film brings the viewer into the psychotic structure of the antihero’s delusions. The film thus calls for a psychoanalytic reading.


Joker is a Lacanian film if there ever was one, in that the Lacanian conceptual apparatus really helps us make sense of the Joker’s (Arthur Fleck’s) development as a character. 

The best place to form both a political and psychoanalytic reading of Joker is by looking at the murder of the two fathers in the film: Thomas Wayne and Murray Franklin.

Early on in the film we learn that Arthur Fleck forms a paternalistic identification with Murray Franklin, a Johnny Carson esque talkshow host. In watching the Murray show in the comfort of his mother’s bed, Arthur fantasizes that Murray is a father figure to him, more precisely he fantasizes that Murray calls on him as an audience member and forms a compassionate solidarity with Arthur’s absent father at home. Murray thus forms the father of the symbolic for Arthur, and Arthur imitates the fantasy of Murray’s show in all of its televisual mediation. This imitation helps Arthur to painfully become a stand up comedian. The film very brilliantly switches in and out of delusion and reality such that the viewer is often unsure what is actually happening or is a figment of Arthur’s delusions.

We are also introduced to Arthur’s mother and we learn that she too suffers from delusions. The primary delusion she formed was also around the idea of a father figure, in this case it was Thomas Wayne, her former employer. Her delusion is that Wayne impregnated her and that Arthur’s true father is Wayne himself. Arthur immediately forms a childish and innocent curiosity with Wayne and he seeks to re-connect with Wayne and is denied twice, the first time when he attempts to connect with his supposed half-brother Bruce Wayne, the second time when he confronts Wayne himself at an opera. Wayne embarrasses him and slaps him in the face, infantilizing Arthur and foreclosing the father entirely.

Lacan, in his theory of the mirror stage, develops the idea that the register of the imaginary is a conflictual psychic terrain in which the the other grants the subject a sense of wholeness. The imaginary is formed in the mirror stage in which the identity of the child is formed in the mirror reflection it sees of its body. But this reflection is granted a sense of wholeness from the presence of a protective caretaker (mother or father typically). Thus, the other grants an imagined sense of wholeness to the subject that forms their ego. The film plays with mirrors frequently, where Joker stares at his reflection in painful and empty reflection.

After Arthur experiences this infantilization in his confrontation with Wayne, his situation deteriorates rapidly. His mother is hospitalized, he loses his job and he loses government supported medical care and medication for his delusions and schizophrenia. We are slowly presented with a series of delusions that begin to fall apart, the most telling is that he has not been having a relationship with the neighbor woman as we were led to believe.

Concurrent to all of these breakdowns, Arthur had murdered three employees of Wayne Enterprises on the subway in an almost accidental act. But it became an event that sparked wider insurrectionary sentiments in Gotham and the event is treated as a heroic act for its targeting of the rich.

As his world begins to collapse, Arthur is left to face the imaginary father and the lingering aggressivity that he can’t manage to address. The only way Arthur could address the father of the imaginary is to murder his mother. Once he learns that Wayne was a figment of his mother’s delusion he lashes out and suffocates her in her hospital bed. At the moment he is doing so he addresses the imaginary predicament she placed him in, namely the laughing syndrome he suffers from. Arthur learns that his syndrome is not due to a random syndrome (as his mother had told him) but is caused by intense trauma and abuse she let happen to him as a child.

Arthur’s rage, combined with his mother’s delusion of Wayne as his father, meant that by killing his mother, Arthur was also killing Wayne (the father of the imaginary). Wayne was the father of the imaginary riddled with an aggressivity he could only face except by killing the mother.

But importantly, Wayne is also the father of the real for Arthur and for Gotham’s proleterian underclass. Wayne is the father that Freud discusses in Totem and Taboo, the father that the horde must get rid of in order for any possible justice to come about. It was a brilliant decision for Wayne to be murdered by the mob, not by Arthur because it leaves open a reserve hatred towards what Wayne represents, which will later be transposed onto Bruce Wayne/Batman etc. You will remember that the murder of the primal father is the opening of a possible fair distribution of jouissance in society. The murder of the primal father is the birth of the political.

The crescendo of the film occurs shortly after the murder of the mother/father of the imaginary. Murray Franklin invites Arthur to perform on his television show in order to poke fun at his odd and pathetic comedy bits. As I stated above, Murray is the father of the symbolic because he helped Arthur to mediate his fantasy of the symbolic, such that he is able to exit the imaginary and form a reflection of identity in the social world.

The symbolic world is mediated by the logic of the signifier, not by the immediacy of the imaginary. The other thus cannot be disclosed as a wholeness in the symbolic as in the imaginary unless they are submitted to the superego. The other superego grants a wholeness and a place in the social world. Arthur is at this point unmedicated, de-tethered from his mother’s delusion and is channeling the uprising happening around him that is elevating him to a heroic figure.

His murder of Murray, like the murder of the mother/imaginary father also entails a lucid break from Arthur’s wider delusion. The Joker is born at this moment, and he importantly takes “society” as the responsible category for his situation. This moment of lucidity is reminiscent of the moment of lucidity he had with his mother when he killed her.

The Joker thus abandons the superegoic function he had identified with Murray and transposes a new superego identification with the political uprising in Gotham and murders Murray in an act of new-found solidarity with his true origins–the anonymous orphan of the mob. Although he insisted in his exchange with Murray on the show that he is not “political”, the Joker becomes a newly born political figure after ridding himself of the father of the imaginary and the symbolic.

12 responses

  1. A Lacanian Reading of Joker – Daniel Tutt – Unlimited Dream Company ('Despairing at last, I decided to die' -J.G. Ballard)

    […] Todd Phillip’s Joker is a film about class war in utero. The film sets the stage for a coming political world in which the class war in Gotham has been named and elevated to the undeniable antagonism that situates the injustice of society. The film is also a psychobiography of an antihero’s journey into this… — Read on danieltutt.com/2019/10/09/a-lacanian-reading-of-joker/ […]

  2. Kitty cat bright moon

    therefore, the Frankfurt school of post-Marxist interpretation. the death of an overwhelming parent obsessed with the idea of ​​hedonism and permafrostness as a reflection of today’s lack of benchmarks in society. A victim turning into an aggressor and this is a false choice, because there is no instance indicating a position on where the issue of who is who is being decided. and this is a very bad joke.

  3. Kitty cat bright moon

    Lacan has a different interpretation of the formation of psychosis and the permissive parent. another attitude to neurosis, I don’t recognize him here at all. he is some kind of Buddhist here.

    1. Daniel Tutt

      The theory of psychosis for Lacan is formed around the foreclosure of the paternal signifier. I’m not reading Arthur as a neurotic subject here.

      1. Kitty cat bright moon

        That’s it, too many omissions. suppressed aggression as the formation of a split personality also does not sound here.
        Suppressed Aggression sounds right there in a phrase, classic and bifurcation. I am so good, kind and fluffy, and It is an evil living inside, for which I am constantly blushing and ashamed. Drama, soft music, violin orchestra, a scene from the movie “strangers” …. But I don’t approach this dramatically. Look, any emotions have two sides, bodily and mental, Spinoza said that they are an intermediate link between the body and the psyche (soul). Our emotions have an outlet, both to the body and to the psyche. In a nutshell, anger can manifest itself in headaches, in problems with the intestines or in bouts of nausea, all this can be due to the fact that feelings are suppressed, the more feelings are suppressed, the stronger the manifestations on the body. With the soul is much more complicated. Brains are wrapped up in anger, a familiar feeling … Fighting aggression is easier than hating. Hatred is closer to a chronic state, there is a flash of rage and anger in it, and by the way in this state it is not worth making decisions and raising children, because they give a sense of clarity and justice to execute a fair trial, not good things, as it turns out later.
          The first sensation of suppressed aggression is shame. Some people are free to respond to others. They can joke spontaneously, no shame or conscience. Aggression is associated with some kind of sensation of life, fullness, energy, and if a person suppresses this aggression, then he feels constricted, constrained, tense all the time, controls. He’s in a serious condition, he can be picky about how they look at him, what they think about him, if he didn’t show himself inappropriately, if he didn’t blurt out too much, he is afraid that they will see something for him that will make him very I’m ashamed to have to defend myself. All the time on the nerves. It is terribly afraid to be revealed, because something that is felt in him like a monster for which he will be ashamed, is actually not a monster at all, but a sense of life, and since it is forbidden and depressed, it feels like a monster. Like something terrible inside can manifest itself and therefore such people are often afraid of public speaking, afraid that something inadequate will pop up. Accompanied by a sense of badness. I think that all this is connected with the children’s relationship between mother and child. With an unhappy childhood. Much depends on how the mother looked at the child, with what eyes. When a mother looks in love at a child with joy with acceptance, at its various manifestations or through the eyes of a stern appraiser who looks with rejection, rejection. And the child, as a blotter, absorbs this into himself internets. And then it seems to him that there is something bad and something terrible in him. Not beloved, unwanted children form a lot of anger and resentment. And there is a vicious circle. They feel bad and they are not loved. But the reaction of a feeling of badness formed on a feeling of not being loved, and anger and hatred. They feel, because they are angry and they are bad, so they are not worthy of love. The situation is turning upside down.
          In our culture, in ours with you, it is customary to constantly pull the child; do not go in, do not touch, do not get dirty, do not get angry, especially at your parents. But this is precisely the problem. Parent figures are reduced, you can only worship, and you are bad. You are angry, so bad and not worthy of love. There is no feeling that anger is a normal reaction. Anger is part of a relationship, love and hate in a sense, they are together. We cannot say that the child should not be angry, and thus he will cease to be angry. Many parents who were depressed in families are trying to raise children without any boundaries and boundaries. And then another problem arises, a sense of permissiveness and complete suppression. A person who was injured emotionally has a lot of rage and hatred, but since the person is afraid of being angry with the one who injured him, the Stockholm Syndrome is a vivid example of this. When a person becomes dependent on the rapist, later he begins to justify it. A similar situation in families, overwhelming parents cause suppressed aggression in children and the child justifies the parent, internally and forbids himself to be angry because he feels that he is being treated like that because he is bad. Until the age of 10, the child will not accept that the parent does not love him, he will feel that he himself is bad. Where did the mother develop this evaluative attitude towards the child? Why was this feeling of love for a child not born? The fact is that the first child is charged with her own relations with her mother. She kind of competes inwardly, as if inside her her own mother evaluates her and looks at what kind of mother she is and she thinks she is being watched steadily under some microscope, in her own eyes this is proof that she matches the image of her mother or better than your own. With the second it is much easier. Whether father’s behavior has an influence on the formation, today we talked about alcoholics or those who have already started, but before these men started, they created an unhealthy atmosphere in the family with their alcoholism. And this is often felt as shame and badness because of which he will not later enter into relationships with other people, because they will see that he is bad.
          Most often, parents do not understand how they affect the child. Let’s look at a situation where a man comes into the family and observes a picture where a man should love a child, but then they both hate the biological father. Unfortunately, those who are so violently humiliating they do not need advice, as a rule, those who have a sense of guilt suffer, they wondered if they could not accept their child, or I was angry with the child, although I understand that he is not guilty. Such people themselves already understand that something is already wrong, and those others they do not even doubt for a split second, he is just a bastard and a scoundrel, what else to think. Women do not compare children with fathers in the best light, compare them with some horned or other representatives of the fauna. It’s rare when it sounds from your mother’s lips that your hands have grown out of the same place as your father’s. The second form of repressed aggression, we have already listed, depression, shame and badness, is fear. A person may not feel that he is angry, but he may feel fear from other people. A person is constantly afraid that a dog, a cat, people will attack him, because unconsciously I project my anger on others. I myself am an innocent sheep. A man himself, without understanding, can provoke others, you know white and fluffy, eyes to the sky, and next to a wife who always shakes with rage, and he endlessly apologizes, he has such words, I didn’t want to forgive me, it’s so soft and gentle all the time, but this doesn’t constantly do all sorts of nasty things and you catch yourself on what you give in the eye, and as if there’s nothing for it. In fact, it makes you suffer by projecting your own anger into you, because you cannot digest it yourself. Moreover, it’s not normal next to him, but he’s all right, that I, yes, everything’s fine, did nothing, but what? With women as well. And at the same time, the person is outwardly, helpful, always good, trying to please everyone, but he is always afraid. All the time, the state of constriction and fear are replaced by attacks of anger. Quiet, squeezed, silent, and then as he opens his mouth and Toretto syndrome begins precisely because there is a lot of rage and anger inside. By the way, alcohol is one of the ways to suppress anger or hatred, I haven’t touched drug addicts yet, they are also good guys and they are needed too, but unfortunately not a lot of addicts, in drug treatment facilities, most often reminiscent of prison ones, let me say that drinking a person trying to drown out the “overseer” raging inside and thereby guessing the right to say everything that he allegedly put up with all this time and will not remember for tomorrow, but the most interesting thing is that he remembers everything, and the next time, after adoption, he remembers everything again, than in fact, it proves that there is no legitimacy to say anything horribly motivating memory lapses. All that they remember. They play back their aggression, most often on the weak, thereby proving their own weakness, over those who are at their disposal, in your own power. And instead of answering to someone who really deserves an answer, for example, as an intimidating boss, parents pour aggression on the children.
          The third aspect is a strong sense of guilt. If a person experiences a strong sense of guilt, then as a rule a lot of anger is hidden behind him. The person who is to blame for everyone, as a rule, hates everyone very much. In general, guilt is a healthy feeling, if a person is able to feel that he has not taken care of, the desire to somehow compensate, that you inflicted a wound on another person. The feeling of guilt is quite concrete, a person can say what exactly he did, said something is not right, and now I am worried how the person will deal with it, and the guilt is not burdensome, the shame burdens, the feeling of shame is gravitating, I somehow feel the wrong way. When a person has a mixture of hatred and love, then a healthy person has a feeling of guilt. Ambivalent feelings. Contradictory and hatred and love. I feel guilty for being angry with another person. And as a rule, a person who feels guilty towards relatives, then he feels hatred, for which I feel guilty and which I myself do not realize. The most striking example is when a person lingers at work, and fear or anxiety arises, something happened to him, where he is, I can’t get through to it, and here is the anger that the person is not submissive to you. Such people are capable of tormenting others with control, to such an extent that a person wants to break out of control by betrayal. Break out of this suffocating sensation. Because there is always a lot of rage behind this control, “try not to obey and whole streams of hatred will fall on you” and this is so. And if we take it from all personality types, the hysterical woman experiences the greatest sense of guilt, she changes but also behind this feeling of guilt, there is hatred because of the fear of control over the person, I am losing independence.
          What to do with all this? Aggression is felt as something alienated or something bad inside oneself, a person splits off this aggression, and it is very important to accept yourself and love yourself for who you are.
        Pardon my French, this is Lacan today.

  4. Kitty cat bright moon

    Lacan’s preferred to abstract from the situation so it was a formula but if you wanna use it then it has to be actual and taken seriously. Marx his idea capitalism without capital when the worker is the product of the investor, as Oedipus would have done without accepting responsibility as a subject who used the mistake of the past to stabilize the situation today trough acceptance of fall. Hegel – without recognition of the fall, from where we fell we are simply animals. Actualization requires and we are too much in abstract mistakes in today’s – wrong track of capitalism system, healthcare holes and so on.

    1. One in sun

      Take your meds nan

  5. Joker is a Saint – dingpolitik

    […] Tutt recently wrote a blog post titled A Lacanian Reading of Joker, wherein he argued the […]

  6. Joker’s Trick – Jacobite

    […] friend and podcast co-host Daniel Tutt’s Lacanian interpretation of the film sums it up […]

  7. Acerca do Joker, ainda – Blog de Luís M. Inácio

    […] do que eu sobre algo que eu já escrevi. Já bastava ter lido boas peças sobre o Joker (aqui e aqui e aqui e aqui), e agora aparece-me este indivíduo a dizer coisas […]

  8. Diego

    It’s a very interesting Lacanian review. I’d like to make a question about what I think it’s a fundamental passage. When you mention “the imaginary predicament she placed him in” – which I assume it was “put on a happy face” – why would you not consider it as a signifier instead of an imaginary predicament? Moreover, what do you mean by “imaginary predicament”?
    My personal reading is that (according to the idea that the encounter with the imagine at the mirror has to be sustained by the signifier of the Other which says “that is you”) “put on a happy face” is the signifier through which the mother leads him to encounter his imagine at the mirror. Perhaps, that would point more to the direction of the unary trait rather than the imaginary “moi”. So, given the forclusion of the Name of the Father, “put on a happy face” would be the only signifier upon which he could rebuild his existence, becoming Joker, which has the strong resemblance with the sinthome of Joyce. Based on this idea, we could also read the laughing syndrome as a return of jouissance produced by the direct inscription of the signifier (which can’t be symbolized, therefore it comes back on the real).

  9. Why “The Joker” is a cultural artifact | InAD Life

    […] 5Daniel Tutti. October 9, 2019.  “A Lacanian Reading of Joker”  https://danieltutt.com/2019/10/09/a-lacanian-reading-of-joker/ […]

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: