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The Anarchist of Gotham: The Joker’s Encounters and Negotiations with the State Apparatuses in The Dark Knight (2008) and Joker (2019)


The Anarchist of Gotham: The Joker’s Encounters and Negotiations with the State Apparatuses in The Dark Knight (2008) and Joker (2019)

Rebanta Gupta

Research Assistant,

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies,

Kolkata, West Bengal, India


This article attempts to show how the Joker, the fictional supervillain of the DC Comics Universe, encounters and negotiates with the state apparatuses of Gotham City, the fictional dystopian town featured in two films-The Dark Knight (2008) and Joker (2019). The article presents the Joker as an anarchist, who has launched an intifada against the Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses of Gotham City, and discusses his attempts at subverting these apparatuses to nullify the affluent class, which has held its sway over a large section of the impoverished, disgruntled, and disenfranchised population of Gotham. By using the theoretical model of the RSA and ISA developed by the French Marxist thinker Louis Althusser, this article shows how the Joker is engaged in a constant combat against them in the two aforementioned films, where his primary opponent is the Batman, the sworn sentinal of the Gotham City.


Keywords: Althusser, Batman, Ideology, Joker, State, Oppression


Human history has witnessed power struggles between the two hostile camps of the society- the bourgeois and the proletariat, or the oppressors and the oppressed, since time immemorial, which has defined the topography of humanity. The State’s muscle power has always endeavored to silence the voices of the oppressed through repression. The inebriating mechanisms of the State apparatuses try to impose the dominant order and ideology on the masses and annihilate their desire to question or revolt against hegemony. The Joker, the prolific fictional super villain of the DC Comics Universe, epitomizes the struggle of the oppressed class to uproot the cancerous hegemony of the dominant class and articulate its own dissentient words. He unleashes a reign of terror at the heart of the dominant class inhabiting the fictionalized dystopia called Gotham City, and thereby challenges its civil constitution. This paper tries to explore the Joker’s anarchism and his insurgency against Gotham’s Ideological and Repressive State Apparatuses in light of Louis Althusser’s concepts expounded in his influential essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, with special references to two cinematic documents that encapsulate the Joker’s mayhem-The Dark Knight (2008) and Joker (2019), directed by Christopher Nolan and Todd Phillips respectively.

Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses: A Brief Exposition

The French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser left signatures of his erudition and political contemplation in the groundbreaking essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation” (1970). It is an explication of the concepts of ideology and its weaponization as a State Apparatus. Ideology has been sketchily described by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as ‘false consciousness,’ but Althusser deviated from this viewpoint and redefined ideology by drawing references from the works of Antonio Gramsci, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan. The essay discusses the relations between the State and its subjects; he questions, why the subjects are obedient to the State’s jurisdictional machinery? Why revolts are not ubiquitous in the capitalist society? His views on ideology have surfaced from his explorations of the relations between the State and the subject: “It follows that, in order to exist, every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production at the same time as it produces, and in order to be able to produce” (Althusser 128). And the rest of the theory surfaces from this axiom.

The Repressive and the Ideological State Apparatuses are the two limbs of the system that the ruling class employs to subjugate the masses. Althusser defines the Government, the Administration, the Army, and the Police as Repressive State Apparatuses (RSA), which ultimately exercise violence and coercion for mass control. The ruling class controls the RSA along with the political, legislative, and armed powers of the State. Alongside, there are Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA), which he describes as “a certain number of realities which present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions” (Althusser143).ISA is deployed as an ideological substitute for RSA to achieve the same objectives; it is a part of the civil society, and an informal part of the State. He discusses the religious, educational, familial, legal, political, communications, and the cultural ISAs, and distinguishes between the two apparatuses of Statist repression; the RSA is a unified entity, tethered to the public domain, while the ISA is marked by its apparent plurality and diversity in functions, which is associated with the private domain. Repression is RSA’s cornerstone feature, and it only functions secondarily by ideology. Whereas ISA functions predominantly through ideological manipulation and repression is the secondary weapon in its arsenal. A State apparatus cannot be, therefore, exclusively repressive or ideological, it is a hybridized system. Althusser comments, “Thus Schools and Churches use suitable methods of punishment, expulsion, selection, etc., to 'discipline' not only their shepherds, but also their flocks” (Althusser 145).He juxtaposes two contrary theses to describe the mechanisms of ISA: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their conditions of existence” (Althusser 162) and “[i]deology is a material existence” (Althusser 165). The first thesis reflects the familiar Marxian view, that ideology is an instrument of masking the exploitative arrangements, which act as the foundations of a class-divided society. The priests and despots of the eighteenth century were the fountainheads of ideologies; they manipulated the masses with falsified ideas or representations of the world. Ideology is imaginary, which represents the human beings’ relation to the real world, to the perception of the conditions of existence, it is the representation of their relation to the real world, which is actually a product of relationships. However, ideology attains a material existence, because it “always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices” (Althusser 165), and it manifests itself through actions, being inserted into multifaceted practices.

Joker’s Resistance: Juxtaposing The Dark Knight and Joker

The Joker dawns as a quintessential anarchist in The Dark Knight and Joker, albeit with different performative modalities. He, whose character has been sketched bygraphic artists like Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, is the archenemy of the Batman, the sworn sentinel of the fictional Gotham City. An embodiment of chaos, destruction, and anarchy in the eyes of the Gotham administration, the Joker nurtures the desire to destabilize the existing social order and uproot the hegemony of the dominant class. The Joker, who has been enlivened on the celluloid by the stellar performances of Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix in the 2008 and 2019 films respectively, puts on a clown’s attire with disheveled green-dyed hair. His face is caked with white clown makeup, and a sinister Glasgow smile accentuates his diabolical nature. This attire itself posits a challenge to the parameters of aesthetics (or the Cultural ISA) set by an urban landscape like Gotham City, with the Arnoldian notions of ‘sweetness and light’ constituting its kernel; it has marginalized chaos and anarchy from its center, and created a facade of technocratic refinement by erecting skyscrapers and mansions harboring the rich and the famous. The subalterns of Gotham, representing the flip side of the ‘sweetness and light’ facade of the city, have largely been distanced from the center of power controlled by the likes of Thomas Wayne, the celebrated business tycoon of the city.

Phillip’s Joker portrays the life of a failed stand-up comedian called Arthur Flake, who eventually metamorphoses into the infamous Joker, thanks to the social repression facilitated by the State apparatuses of Gotham City. Gotham is marked by social polarizations; there is the wealthy dominant class on the one hand, with Thomas Wayne, the business tycoon and wannabe mayor as its ambassador. The Joker, on the other hand, represents the other side of the socio-economic spectrum, i.e.-the poor and the disenfranchised population. The dominant class has maintained its sway over the oppressed class through the police, legal apparatus, and the media, which uphold the bourgeois discursive values to keep the underprivileged lives under its control. Murray Franklin, who is initially admired by Arthur, is a veteran showman driven by fame and money, a media marionette espousing the interests of the dominant class. The movie addresses the expanding gulf between the rich and the poor, and its adverse effects on the masses, which has produced a fundamentalist and belligerent underclass, as reflected in the assault on Arthur by a gang of teens. The bourgeoisie-controlled administration does not hesitate to close down public clinics citing budget cuts, depriving Arthur of his medication for his pathological laughter. The black counselor’s caveat, that the authority does not pay heed to the patients like Arthur, underscores the sheer nonchalance and the repressive attitude of the dominant class and the State. The murder of the three abusive Wayne Enterprises employees by the Joker ignites a rebellion across the city to end the repressive regime, marking a quantum leap for the disgruntled citizens from the status of ‘good little boys,’ to ‘werewolves in the wild.’ In this context, Wayne and Murray can be interpreted as the representatives of RSA and ISA respectively. The former administers the economic milieu of the city, and his abusive employees, who engage in a bloody scuffle with the Joker on the subway train, are his agents of oppression, who maintain the power dynamics of Gotham through intimidation and bigotry, as reflected in their abuse of a solitary woman. Their murder and execution by the Joker are the first responses to the hegemony of the RSA, which inspires thousands of demonstrators wearing clown masks to condemn the hegemony of the affluent class of Gotham, which snowballs into a confrontation between the rebels with the police- the mercenaries of the State. Wayne disparagingly calls the revolutionaries ‘clowns’, who are envious of successful people. Moreover, when he faces the moment of anagnorisis, that his mother Penny adopted him as a child and let her abusive boyfriend torture him, and Wayne used his influence to fabricate the adoption and thereby silencing the affair by sending her to the Arkham Asylum, the distraught Arthur suffocates Penny to death. The State influences the behavior of an individual through the prism of the Family ISA, which contributes to the reproduction of the labour forces and subversion of individualism. Arthur’s hatred towards Wayne perhaps acts as a catalyst in the murder of Penny, but it is actually Arthur’s vendetta against the dominant ideology and its constituent apparatus, the family, which is epitomized by Penny, a former employee of the Wayne Enterprises. She channelized her diluted and delusional thoughts into Arthur, transforming him into a complacent neurotic. The murder underscores the dialectics between Arthur (the ‘other/autre’) and the State (the ‘Other/Autre’), symbolizing an Oedipal tension between the subject and the dominating father-figure of the State, which he tried to castrate by murdering his mother, the domestic representation of the ‘State-father.’ By murdering Penny, Arthur excludes what Jacques Lacan describes as the ‘Name of the Father’ from the symbolic order, and refuses to be further symbolically castrated and internalize the laws of the State. The act of expunging the symbolic father gives rise to psychosis (Lacan 24), which is marked by Arthur’s clown avatar, who launches a counter-symbolic intifada like a true psychotic, against the statist symbolic, which is accentuated by his disjointed speech interspersed with pathological laughter and his coulrophobia-inducing costume.

George Orwell’s celebrated novel Nineteen Eighty-Four paints a lugubrious picture of the future, featuring an authoritarian boot forever stamping on the human face. It is a manifestation of the Statist hegemony, reflected in the disturbing scenes of Joker, where the mass media dawns as a vitriolic instrument of oppression, dubbed ‘Communication ISA’ by Althusser. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, drawing references from Ludwig Feuerbach, pointed out that the class, which controls the means of production, also emerges as the primary intellectual force of the society. In The German Ideology, they highlight that the class which has at its fingertips the means of material production, also has power over the means of mental production, so that it is subject to the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production (Marx and Engels 32).The advent of the neo-liberal policies in the age of globalization has instigated the State to use them as ideological apparatuses, “forcing the society to accept neo-liberalism as “the only remedy” “(Sevgi and Ozgokceler 16). The surge of neo-liberal policies in the last quarter of the twentieth century injected capitalism into the media sectors. Media capital became monopolized and commercialized, and the media sector was transformed into an ISA. Murray Franklin is a representative of Gotham’s Communication ISA, who hosts the talk show Live With Murray Franklin, a capitalist venture to entertain the privileged class which emerges as a concatenation of alkaline humor, insult, and oppression. He invites Arthur Fleck/The Joker to the show, having noticed the video clips of Arthur’s failed comedy performance, which is an attempt to exhibit a specimen of an exotic species [the Gotham subalterns] by dehumanizing him on air. Behind the masquerade of a humble showman, he is a media mogul who constructs a sanctuary of troubled individuals like Arthur without any benign intention of addressing his crisis, but for titillating the bourgeois audience at the expense of Arthur’s public humiliation on camera. When he castigates the Joker for the triple homicides which triggered riots across the city, the clown replies, “All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong” (Joker 1:42:21). He clearly accuses the awful society for making him insane. Murray is an extension of Wayne, who looks at the world with same nonchalance and alienates people with his biased views, where the Joker is just like any other exhibit in his showcase, and Arthur highlights this, “You just wanted to make fun of me, just like the rest of them” (Joker 1:44:26). He castrates the Gotham ISA by shooting Murray to death. It is a political expression of a subject who has been reified by the civil society which has lost its voice of compassion, and Murray’s murder marked the  destabilization of the civil society, that mediates between the State and the individual [Arthur], questioning its characteristic “litany of ethical and political aspirations and implications” (Kenny). In the chain reaction that follows, Thomas Wayne, who controls the joysticks of RSA and ISA through his mercantile organization by the desiccation of the labor power, is assassinated along with his wife Martha by a rogue citizen before the frightened eyes of their son Bruce, who will emerge in his Batman avatar as the Joker’s archenemy, in The Dark Knight. Thomas’ death and the civil riots mushrooming across Gotham around the Joker occur simultaneously, marking the effacement of the metaphoric center of power, leading the disgruntled citizens into a chaotic ‘free play’ in the amphitheatre of power relations.

Guerric Debona writes, “Batman is a modern Beowulf who purges Gotham City of its Grendel, the Joker” (55). The central theme of The Dark Knight revolves around bourgeois discrimination between the moral good and the sinister, between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The Joker turns the social order upside down and represents anarchy, which challenges the Cultural ISA of Gotham City: “While Batman remains the guardian of culture, the Joker manifests Arnoldian horror for “the anarchical tendency of our worship for freedom in and for itself, of our superstitious faith...in machinery” (Debona 57). The Joker is associated with mechanical reproductions of popular culture; as a ‘joke’ he threatens the power bloc of the traditional culture of Gotham, designed by its affluent class. He televises the grotesque and mutilated bodies of his victims, which insults Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture used as a shield by Gotham’s ‘refined’ urban intelligentsia: “…culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light” (Arnold 23). He embodies the spirit of counter-culture, as reflected in his portrayals based on the paintings of Francis Bacon, Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, and punk rock musicians. Batman is the champion and a loyal defender of the State and the established culture, he hands his Bat insignia over to the State as an emergency rescue signal light. The bat iconography melts into politics, it becomes a firewall against the pernicious effects of popular/counter-culture: “As a holder of the Batshield, the State becomes more like Batman, integrating the Arnoldian ideas of right reason and humane expression. The State has been given, de facto, responsibility for maintaining perpetual cultural vigilance” (Debona 62). The Joker’s playing card is an answer to this State iconography. His first appearance involves a Nietzschean pun, “What doesn’t kill you makes you a stranger”(The Dark Knight 00:12:13) and he claims that he is ahead of the curve. At a subliminal level, he is a revolutionary anarchist, who disrupts the socio-political symphony of the city with dynamites, gunpowder, and gasoline. He summarily eliminates the police commissioner Gillian B. Loeb, a court judge, and the assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes, and incapacitates the district attorney Harvey Dent. He transforms Harvey (representing the Legal ISA) into the ruthless Two-Face, and whispers, “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan’ even if the plan is horrifying...introduce a little anarchy” (The Dark Knight1:48:03). He questions the idea of sanity theorized by the State and the civil society, refers to the other world where he could be considered sane: “At what point does Batman’s OCD- type, violent behavior (not to mention costume) become ‘good’ and the Joker’s bad? In what kind of universe does one person’s violence acquire shades of morality? The Joker is pointing to these questions” (Nayar). Eric Fromm explores the paradigm of insanity in his The Sane Society; in the last hundred years, the West has insanely accumulated wealth and debilitated innumerable lives lunatically, yet the inmates of an asylum are ironically branded ‘crazy’ by the society. In the modern society, asylum or prison is reserved for those who question good/bad or normal/insane binaries through their complex actions, and the Joker’s actions trigger a collapse of  these binaries. The Joker’s attempts to tell Batman that they are alike, imply a common trait of insanity they share, and perhaps to substantiate this claim, in the final scene of Batman: The Killing Joke, the two archnemeses together laugh hysterically.

The citizens have ‘interpellated’ the ideological structure of the State, where they “acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing them[selves] as subjects” (University of Chicago). Gotham has been depicted “as a corrupt, crime-riddled, mob-run Sodom, dirty and almost worthless, but also fragile and deserving of protection” (Tyree 32), and Batman, who is an extension of the State apparatuses, is in charge of that protection. Christopher Nolan translates the movie into a saga of counter-terrorism, where Gotham is an uncanny reflection of the vulnerability of New York City during the September 11 attacks. The demolition of the World Trade Center shook the ideological foundation of the United States and exposed the vulnerability of the State machinery. Similarly, the Joker, just like al-Qaeda, strikes the ISAs of Gotham, which emphasizes the fact, that one cannot negotiate with him, who has refused to be interpellated, making him a problematic individual or an ‘Other’ to the State, who cannot be reduced to its subject. When he is being brutalized by the Batman in the interrogation room, the Joker comments on the futility of ‘all the little rules’ followed by the civil society: “Finally, the Roman suspension of democracy is brought up, in case anyone missed the Big Point being made” (Tyree 32).In Paradise Lost, Satan, the leader of the archangels who rebelled against the God, slowly metamorphoses into a vicious soul and hatches the plan to invite chaos into the Garden of Eden, to avenge their banishment to the purgatory. The Dark Knight raises this question- has the Joker, who started his intifada against the State to voice his anger, degenerated like the Satan to become a bloody mass-murderer? The Joker fabricates a chaotic counter-ideology against the State ideology. His actions reflect Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star” (Hirst).The Joker is suspending the established order and logical thoughts to achieve bigger aims and lofty height of a ‘dancing star.’ But he crosses the threshold and gets incarcerated by his chaotic equations, which perhaps have been formulated by the ostracism he has experienced previously (shown in Joker). From planting bombs to incinerating the heist money, he subverts the established order to proudly proclaim, “Gotham deserves a better class of criminals” (The Dark Knight 1:20:03). But, is it possible to survive in a world without rules? For the reproduction of the labor power, as Althusser says, the reproduction of the skills of the laborers is an imperative, which can be achieved by the capitalist education system, and by means of other institutions. But a chaotic world will facilitate a degeneration of this system, creating an abysmal situation for humanity, where the Joker is not offering any alternative but pure chaos. When the Joker plants bombs on two cruise liners carrying ordinary citizens and criminals and gives them an ultimatum; letting one group destroy the other by midnight or face mass annihilation, he becomes flummoxed by the two parties’ decision to abstain from mutual destruction. Batman thus mocks his nihilistic anarchism, “What were you trying to prove, that deep down everyone is as ugly as you?” (The Dark Knight 2:18:09). Humanity and optimism finally triumph over brutality at the end, which question the mayhem orchestrated by the Joker: is barbarism the final solution to all problems? Is Joker the modern Nietzschean Ubermensch, who can orchestrate another Holocaust to justify the ways of chaos to men? But what are his own alternative values? These serious ethical questions will nonetheless continue to haunt his enterprises.




Marxist thinker Rosa Luxemburg had drafted a choice for a society to accept either socialism or barbarism (Uetricht). The Joker chooses the latter, his anarchism perhaps articulates the oppressed class’ voices, but fails to create a rational outcome that promises social stability. He thrusts this question upon the audience, should one accept the commandments handed down by the father figures of the society, which often anaesthetize the rational and logical faculties of humanity, or should he use them as raw materials to shape his own judgement for a more equitable future? However, it can be surmised, that he is perhaps not an absolute anarchist, he desires to alter the status quo and replace the repressive ideological structures with new ideas; he gives a clarion call to all the oppressed souls, to welcome the dawn of a new day of liberation, which echoes the Satan’s proclamation, “All is not lost; the unconquerable will/And study of revenge, immortal hate/And courage never to submit or yield” (Paradise Lost1.106-108). His anarchism, it can be hoped, can give rise to a more equitable society based on socialistic principles, or spiral into an oppressive Stalinist society, which will reproduce the same treatment meted out to its opposition by the erstwhile bourgeois state apparatuses.


Works Cited

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