Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
23rd October 2019

New Book Out by John David Ebert and Mary Church: “Gravity Girl, Poetry”

John David Ebert’s new book of poetry, “Gravity Girl,” features art by the great Hypermodern artist Mary Church. Here are four excerpts from the book, which can be ordered from Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1798495368/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=gravity+girl+john+david+ebert&qid=1571795434&sr=8-1

 

 

 

 

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10th October 2019

Joker: A Review by John David Ebert

An anthropological type, according to Greek theoretician Cornelius Castoriadis, is a figure which typifies a world age. The Greek thinker of fifth century BC Athens, for instance, or the Hebrew prophet of the Old Testament are such figures. But in the age of Hypermodernity—which began in the middle of the 1990s—one of the primary anthropological types is that of the Dangerous Loner. The figure has its origins as a Precedental Event, however, back in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed the Texas Tower at the University of Texas and, using a 6mm Remington rifle with a 4 power scope, proceeded to shoot and kill 13 people, while wounding 45 others.

From May of 1978 to April of 1995, Theodore J. Kaczynski sent out a total of sixteen bombs to various individuals who were all affiliated in one way or another with big science. The bombs killed three people and injured 23 others.

In 1980, Mark David Chapman put five bullets into the back of John Lennon, killing him in front of his own New York mansion. The following year, in 1981, John Hinckley, emulating Chapman in order to impress Jodie Foster, attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan. In 1997, Andrew Cunanan, in a more successful imitation of Chapman’s deed, shot Gianni Versace dead in front of his Miami mansion.

Each of these figures—with the exception of Whitman—was essentially declaring war against the phantoms, avatars and image ghosts generated by the electronic celebrity apparatus. In the case of Whitman, however, the target was the social order itself, and his Precedental Event was then “normalized” in April of 1999 when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed thirteen people and wounded twenty-three others at Columbine High School. This was followed by Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012 and the Las Vegas shootings of 2017, each event echoing and normalizing Columbine, as well as surpassing it in the number of dead bodies and scale of horror.

No mere economic narrative of “class warfare” will suffice to explain these atrocities, since many of the shooters, such as the Columbine kids, came from wealthy backgrounds. Indeed, the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, was a wealthy real estate businessman. So these deeds were not motivated by economic inequality. Something else entirely is going on here. Something having to do with signs, significance and the absence of meaningful narratives.

Which is precisely what Todd Phillips’ brilliant film Joker attempts to excavate through the semiotics of comic book mythology. The character of the Joker was invented in 1940 by Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, and made his debut as Batman’s primary nemesis in issue #1 of Batman. Heath Ledger’s performance as Joker in the 2009 Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight is legendary. Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal, however, is in another category altogether.

Ignoring the conventions of the superhero genre entirely, Phillips centers his narrative—for the first time in the history of cinematic superheroes—on a super villain, and attempts to deepen and enrich the two-dimensional signifier of the Joker as a mere comic book character by giving him his own life story.

As the film opens, Joker is an individual named Arthur Fleck who is making his living as a clown, working for a small New York company which rents them out for birthdays, children’s hospitals, etc. A gang of youths steals his sign and then beats him up, leaving him squirming in agony in an alleyway. Fleck is the proverbial schlemihl for whom nothing goes right: he lives with his ailing mother in a tiny apartment. His social worker does not take him seriously and speaks condescendingly to him as he attempts to recount the emotional pain he is in. He is on a battery of six or seven psycho-pharmaceuticals which are doing him no good, as he explains to the social worker that he is never happy. Inevitably, funding for his social welfare program is cut and he is simply turned away, out on his own.

Fleck suffers from a mysterious condition—akin to Tourrettes syndrome—of laughing randomly, maniacally, and at inappropriate moments. He is socially awkward and no one wants to be around him. A fellow co-worker, after hearing about the beating that he took on the streets, gives him a .38 caliber revolver to protect himself. Fleck then makes the mistake of taking the gun with him to a gig at a children’s hospital, and while performing it falls out of his clown suit to the floor. He is fired immediately.

While riding the subway home, Fleck witnesses three well-dressed—and presumably drunken—men harassing a young girl. When he begins to laugh maniacally, their attention shifts to him and they begin beating him up. Fleck then pulls out his revolver and shoots two of them. The train stops and when the third man gets out, Fleck pursues him and slays him on the platform of the station. The violence, needless to say, is very satisfying to him.

The three men, as it turns out, were employees of Wayne Enterprises, and when the news of their slaying by a vigilante clown gets out, it inspires a wave of people donning clown masks and throwing protest rallies against big greedy businessmen like Thomas Wayne, Batman’s father (who is only a child at this point).

Joker tries to make it as a stand up comedian, but when he gets on stage, all he can do is laugh. His favorite late night talk show, The Murray Franklin Show—modeled upon Johnny Carson, of course—gets hold of a clip of Arthur’s debacle and makes fun of him on live television. Arthur, watching the clip from the bedside of his dying mother at the hospital, is simultaneously thrilled and chagrined. When he receives a telephone call from The Murray Franklin Show to come on—for the sole purpose of humiliating him—he is excited, but also nervous. He decides that he is going to shoot himself on live television and sits practicing with the revolver.

He then sits down to reinvent himself. He dies his hair green and paints his face white like a clown’s. He dresses in a smart suit with a vest and tie. And then—in a scene that will most assuredly become as iconic as the wind blowing Marilyn Monroe’s dress or the face of Jack Nicholson leering through the chopped open doorway in The Shining—he emerges from his apartment and, descending the steps that lead to the street, erupts into a full blown dance of lunatic joy. It is impossible to watch the scene without feeling goosebumps. Joker has been born. Arthur Fleck is gone. Forever.

In the green room while preparing for the show, Murray Franklin comes back to check in on him with network standards and practices. Fleck insists that since Murray called him a “joker,” that he be introduced as “Joker.” Murray agrees. He does not quite yet realize the situation he has gotten himself into.

On live television, Murray then introduces him and Joker comes out dancing, then seats himself in the primary guest chair beside Murray. He confesses to Murray that it was he who killed those three employees of Wayne Enterprises. Murray is shocked. The audience is shocked. Joker wants to tell a knock-knock joke, but Murray doesn’t want to hear it. However, Joker insists. Murray shrugs. Joker then pulls out the gun and instead of shooting himself, puts a bullet through Murray’s head on live television. Pandemonium ensues.

On the streets of the city of Gotham, protesters wearing clown masks are rioting and destroying the neighborhood. After retrieving him from the wrecked police car, the crowd of clowns raise Joker up and he climbs to his feet standing on the hood of the car, worshipped and apotheosized by his minions, a schlemihl no more.

Phillips’ film is a Hypermodern masterpiece that hones in on the aforementioned anthropological type of the Dangerous Loner. The postmodern forerunners—schlemihls like Charles Whitman, Marc David Chapman or John Hinckley—were anomalous exceptions to an anthropological type that has now, under the conditions of Hypermodernity, become the norm. Hypermodernity routinely produces what I would call “deontologized individuals,” that is to say, individuals who feel invisible and unrecognized within the digital meshwork of the electronic megamachine that surrounds them. Such individuals have come unplugged from all social formations whatsoever, and do not feel that they belong to part of a larger World Picture that takes them into account by giving them a satisfactory life narrative. They have no narratives–most of which were dismantled by postmodern deconstruction–and when there are no narratives to situate the human individual within a life that has meaning and purpose, nihilism follows. And nihilism inevitably attracts Violence as an attempt to try and fill the semiotic vacancy left by the absence of meaningful narratives. The Columbine kids were looking for a narrative and so, not finding one provided for them, resorted to an Act of Violence as a means of creating one for themselves that gave them a place of importance by scaling their self-images up to giant-sized proportions as figures of menacing Terror. This is also clearly evident in the Precedental Event of Charles Whitman ascending the Texas Tower—shaped like a huge letter “I”—in order to gigantify himself over all others down on the green below. Now he could no longer be ignored.

Violence, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, is a quest for identity. It is no accident that most of the great world religions have come into being through founding acts of violence, whether we think of the Crucifixion of Christ, or Mohammad’s initial war against the Arabs of Mecca or the Hebrews’ violent conquest of Palestine after the Exodus.

On the microcosmic scale, individuals who commit such atrocities are attempting to render themselves visible within the context of a world order from which they feel excluded, even if it means ending their own lives in order to do so. Killing a celebrity—as Joker does—is one means of inscribing oneself into history. When Andrew Cunanan shot and killed Gianni Versace, he knew, just as well as Marc David Chapman knew when he shot John Lennon, that he would enter the history books in the role of a Judas, at least, if not that of a Christ.

The spree killer, though—and Joker brilliantly combines both semiotics—is looking to impact the social order by introducing into it a zone of what the German theoretician Heiner Muhlmann calls “maximal stress.” Maximal stress events, Muhlmann argues—such as the attempt of the Persians to conquer the Greeks—create and found a culture that is united through “maximal stress cooperation.” If successful, there follows a period of “rule formation” and normalization of the culture in which the initial acute stress is stored up as latent stress in cultural media such as books and rituals. The reenactment of the event as ritual has the effect of reactivating the somatic memory of the initial acute stress, which is then stored up and handed down through the generations. The Gospels are an example of this.

But the idea is that the zone of maximal stress—which is equivalent to Giorgio Agamben’s zoe or “bare naked life”—lies “out there” beyond the walls of the city which provide a protective membrane by creating a “zone of cooperation” for the community living together within its walls.

What Joker does—and since he signifies by extension the spree killer—is to introduce the zone of maximal stress on the inside of the zone of cooperation, or body social, where it does not belong. The realm of “bare naked life”—i.e. the zoological struggle for power—irrupts into the civilized order in an attempt to dismantle and scramble its codes. This reminds one of Jean Baudrillard’s definition of Evil, which was not based on the Christian distinction between good and evil, but rather, Evil for him was that which disrupts the smooth functioning of a given system. AIDS, for example, disrupts the smooth flow of the immune system; terrorism disrupts the flows of global capitalism; natural disasters disrupt the flows of civilization, etc. etc.

In origin, the function of Joker as a comic book supervillain and nemesis to Batman was to disrupt the smooth functioning of the social order of Gotham City. But this is precisely what the spree killer is attempting to do, and so the hinge between the anthropological type of the Dangerous Loner and the two-dimensional playing card character of the Joker fuses seamlessly together in Phillips’ narrative, since they both perform the same function within their respective milieus.

Arthur Fleck finds his narrative through dissolving his own three dimensional waking daylight personality into the two-dimensional mask of the mythical Joker. In doing so, in putting on the mask of Joker, Fleck gigantifies himself to epic proportions. Now all that he needs to do is commit foundational acts of violence that announce his existence as part of a new internal proletariat which the social order cannot afford to ignore.

A social order simply isn’t working when a significant number of its population feel “deontologized,” or rendered invisible. An internal proletariat, disillusioned with the dominant minority, begins to form, a proletariat that is in a society but no longer of it, since it has seceded from the body social and its rule by the dominant minority. Such proletariats, over time, grow larger and become ever more and more dangerous. The Spartacus slave revolts of 71 BC, for example, were an early warning of the coming of a religion of slaves—i.e. Christianity—which would eventually overcode Roman society from within. The early Christians, too, were invisible and hence deontologized to the Romans. But their secessionist discontent was already pregnant with the end of Rome as a pagan empire.

Today, too, there is a growing internal proletariat that feels deworlded, unrecognized and disempowered within the global ecumene of neoliberal Hypermodern capitalism. When one thinks of events like that of Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of a Germanwings airline who was so fed up with his status as a deontologized individual that in 2015 he crashed a plane full of 150 people into the French alps in order to register his existence upon the body social, it begins to become clear that the discontent is spreading even into the industry of professionals.

The fact of Todd Phillips’s film being so popular—especially among millennials who also feel “deworlded” and shorn of any meaningful narratives by which to live their lives—should give one pause for thought.

All is not well in Hypermodernity. And the Joker as a modern updating of the Medieval iconotype of the Dancing Fool is leading a long procession behind him.

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    For more John Ebert books and lectures...Get it on Google Play

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    For more John Ebert books and lectures…Get it on Google Play

     

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