“I have an intuition that the shift from the Zombie to the Joker represents a change in the responsiveness to the meaning crisis…. Has the vacancy of the zombie been replaced by the violent absurdity of the Joker because of the recent malevolent political appropriation of absurdism in the service of narcissism?” — John Vervaeke
The above quote by John Vervaeke—co-author of Zombies in Western Culture: A Twenty-First Century Crisis—is rather terrifying in its implications: What if the zombie woke up and became Joker? That is: what if the mindless consumer monster that the zombie represents became the absurdist terrorist monster that Joker represents?
To explore this, let’s start with a short history of the modern Zombie. It is a little known fact that the zombie we all know and love has its origins in the days of the the slave trade and French colonialism. The Haitian Zombie was a slave who was worked to death on the plantation, but then rose up as the ‘living dead’ to continue to provide work for his white slave master.
All this has been conveniently forgotten in the survivalist/frontier themes of modern zombie series like The Walking Dead. Today’s zombie no longer has a master. It has instead a kind of ‘freedom’ without agency, consciousness, or real community. The zombie is the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption—of freedom without responsibility and meaning.
The first really modern zombie movie, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, actually had a subversive political theme. It made reference to the civil rights movement, fears of nuclear proliferation, and the carnage of the Vietnam war. Night of the Living Dead is a tame cinematic experience to us now, but it must have been shocking to an audience in 1968, who were experiencing a televised war and seeing mass corpses in technicolor for the first time.
Romero’s nexts film, Dawn of the Dead, was made 10 years later and takes place in a shopping mall. By then zombies where an obvious and slapstick critique of mindless consumerism and capitalism. The twentieth century zombie was still a fringe, cult character—with ‘the alien’ as the ruling monster of the cold war. But as Vervaeke has shown, zombies only came into ascendancy as a mass cultural movement in the 21th century and the advent of a truly global culture, and after the collapse of the Soviet union.
Today’s zombie is post-political. As the Atlantic article, called ‘The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies’ points out, the 21st Century zombie became forgetful of its own origins—perhaps the zombie has actually consumed itself. The article suggests that the zombie could be a potent political metaphor for racism, environmental destruction, etc. However, it appears to be a little late for that. The zombie has evolved to its most primordial form: a pure archetype of nihilism, in a world that no longer has any faith in politics.
Vervaeke tells us how the zombie, as the monster of modern nihilism, has no story, no language, no home, no consciousness, no religion, no philosophy—his only task is to devoir consciousness. The zombie represents our deepest fear of losing our identity to information cannibalism—of having our brains devoured by the internet, so to speak.
“For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” Joker
If the zombie is the monster of mindless collectivism, Joker is the monster of narcissistic individualism. If Zombies represent the the blinkered consumer masses, Joker represents the lonely, demented, and atomized self.
The new Joker emerges in an age of ‘superhero fatigue’ and the post-modern death of grand narratives. He is the clown of late capitalism and Cartesian individualism. He is also kind of negative Nietzschean superman with his ‘will to power’, who embodies the creed of the assassin: nothing is true and everything is permitted.
When Joker proclaims with nihilistic glee: ‘I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.’ — has he not discovered the dark underside the famous phrase: ‘I think, therefore I am’? The French philosopher Rene Descartes told us that the only thing we can truly know is that we exist, even if the world is the dream of an evil demon. The Joker’s realization — that he alone is real — is just that.
Without this realization Arthur Fleck remains in a zombie state, a social parasite, a slave to consumer entertainment, and a victim of mental illness—he doesn’t really exist except as a slave. And yet his mother keeps telling him: You are special, you are somebody. And yet just the opposite is true. Arthur Fleck remains an overgrown infant, mocked and abused by the world, until he learns, the hard way, the truth about his life.
Arthur Fleck’s dark enlightenment occurs—his transformation into Joker—when he discovers his own agency. By killing his mother and father figures (he finds out he is an orphan) he frees himself from the zombie state, and discovers that he has a special talent after all. By creating a spectacular event, he can gain massive attention. Like a youtube or facebook ‘influencer’, Joker rises out zombie-hood to become a revolutionary hero in the attention economy. And he will seek attention ‘by any means necessary’.
A quick peak at the mental illness epidemic, the rise of suicides in young people, and mass shootings in the United States, tells us us that there are hordes of people living just like Arthur Fleck, disconnected, hungry, and losing their humanity. They dream of becoming celebrities because deep down they feel like they are nothing, that they are zombies. And they are desperate to be seen and noticed. And if we don’t give them a purpose and meaning, they are in grave danger of chronic narcissism or psychosis. Jordan Peterson has been especially pertinent in pointing out the dangers of rootless young men and how they need to be oriented towards a meaningful and purposeful existence.
Beyond Good and Evil
I used to think that my life was a tragedy, but now I realize, it’s a comedy.—Joker
Will Joker replaced the zombie as the symbolic monster of our times? After all, Joker represents the terrorist, the violent incel, the school shooter — the figure of our deepest contemporary fears. We know that there are real social, psychological, and historical reasons for Arthur Fleck’s predicament. What would we do in his shoes, if we were dealt the same awful hand?
Director Todd Phillips has humanized and demystified Joker, given him a naked realism and a rich back-story. Unlike previous Jokers, this new apparition has a realistic origin, and, significantly, also a name (zombies have no name). Joker is not a fantasy—he is real. And Joker is both the victim and the perpetrator, beyond simplistic notions of good and evil. He doesn’t allow you to seperate the two in a simplistic manner.
Previously, Joker had been shrouded in the supernatural. But Todd Phillip’s Joker is almost an attack on superhero mysticism — no wonder the film has evoked such hostile reactions. I suspect that many critics hated this film because it signals the demise of a modern religion: the religion of the superhero, and by extension the religion of the Cartesian individualism.
Today the old superhero formula has lost its vitality. The good news is that we are ready for more truth. The Joker mask is coming off. Superhero narratives have provided the comfortable illusion that evil is an external mystery, the result of some freak or divine accident, and that a savior is coming to liberate us all. If the bad guy is represented as pure Platonic form of evil, he then becomes a satisfying scapegoat. And his ejection from the community and ritual murder makes us feel safe and secure, and morally superior.
However, we can’t separate ourselves from the tragedy of Arthur Fleck—his world resembles our own too much. Arthur Fleck’s metamorphosis into the Joker is indeed terrifying to contemplate. And yet it is necessary and important to look precisely in this place that we don’t want to look. Joker is the shadow in everyone, not some external or alien force.
If we don’t demystify Joker, he remains an object of ambivalent attraction. An inexplicable Joker will continue be the scapegoat of all of our sins—the bad guy that we need to destroy in order to save the community. But because this good/evil duality is wearing thin, we can, for the first time, regard Joker as human.
Joker helps us look into our own shadow rather than project it on others—and therefore brings more truth into the world.
As the French philosopher Rene Girard puts it, ‘we need to reject the scapegoat mechanism in all its forms’. The cycle of blame must end. This is the the higher truth of true mercy and compassion and will save us from a dark, downwards spiral.
To summarize, while the zombie is forgetful of his origin, Joker has discovered his. Joker shows a world waking up to itself, even if that awakening is rather painful.
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