What Did It Mean When Joker Burrowed Himself Inside of a Refrigerator?

An “escape room” or “escape game” is a live-action performative mystery-solving game that requires individuals to work collaboratively and pragmatically to solve a sequence of puzzles that might lead toward freedom from the room or rooms within which they have become voluntarily imprisoned. The concept was first developed within the Asian continent but subsequently became popular also in major metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada. (I have also witnessed exciting versions of the game in the highly commercial areas of Mumbai and Pune, India.) The basic logic of the escape room is discernable within many of the cultural products developed within advanced capitalist countries. These cultural experiences involve a particular environment within which highly specified social relationships become structured and enacted. For example, there are novelty “prison-themed” hotels and hostels which provocatively ask their potential clients if they “[w]ould like to spend the night behind bars?,” always with the caveat that they “are free to escape and explore.” However, this paradoxical freedom to escape and to explore can only be maintained from within the confines of a prison.

The logic of the escape room has been explored in various ways within the realm of visual media, including films and video games. For example, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room (2015) places his audience inside of a small and cramped living space — in fact, it appears to be a shed — to witness Joy Newsom and her five-year old son live out the difficult and repetitive acts that give form the structure of their daily life. Each day is another chance for Joy to work out her clever solutions for escape from confinement. Popular psychological experiments demonstrate that such living accommodations cannot be sustained without the rapid onset of a psychotic experience. It begins with the individual performing repetitive behaviours aimed at controlling the psychological disturbance, because repetition is the foundation of structure. Next, the subject loses his or her sense of logical time. To be very clear: this is not a problem that arises from isolation and lack of stimulus but rather from the over-proximity of the objects — their over-stimulation — with the subject. There does not yet exist a compelling psychological position which accounts for the movement toward psychosis within such an environment.

However, we do have some psychoanalytic coordinates: psychoses sometimes arises as a response to over-proximity with an often depressive maternal Other, and this, moreover, occurs in conjunction with the withdrawal or radical absence of any paternal function. In some sense, is this not what the film Room ultimately portrays? Joy (an interesting choice for the name of a depressed and desperate subject) and her son are held hostage and remain indefinitely trapped within the shed of their maternal fusion. The stakes of the film should therefore be understood according to this psychoanalytic interpretation: a child was born within the room and knows of no other social link than the primordial link perpetuated with his own mother. Upon achieving the long-sought and ultimately impossible freedom, at the end of the film, the child vocalizes a desire to return to the comfort and security of the room. Equipped with this understanding, we should reread the blurb for the film:

Room tells the extraordinary story of Jack, a spirited 5-year-old who is looked after by his loving and devoted mother. Like any good mother, she dedicates herself to keeping Jack happy and safe, nurturing him with warmth and love […] they are trapped — confined to a 10-by-10 foot space […] She has created a whole universe for Jack within Room, […] they enact a risky plan to escape [which] ultimately brings them face-to-face with what may turn out to be the scariest thing yet: the real world.

How could we not see from this a clear indication of psychotic fusion of maternal Other and subject, of their inability to separate and of the missing paternal function? The consequence is such that the boy is unable to conquer a subjective space for himself, he is unable to truly find a room of his own. Paradoxically, the problem with the room was not that the boy was isolated, as would ordinarily expect or claim, but rather that he was too much socially connected.

The child constantly flees to the jouissance of the maternal room since it alone offers him a solution against the even more traumatic possibility of the outside. The Lacanian name for such a space is “sinthome.” Sinthome names an altogether more singular and irresolvable psychoanalytic symptom constituted by way of a crystallization of jouissance (which, in turn, operates as a barrier against something far more threatening). The late Lacanian theory of knots — the final teaching on “Borromean knots” — is marked by an insistence on the sinthomatic solution of holding a knot together after a psychotic unknotting of the three psychical orders (Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary). Thus, there is the curious example of the boy’s desire to return to the room even after he finally obtained his freedom: the real of jouissance always returns to its place. The incessant return to the originating psychical condition is also evidenced in the 2019 film Joker.

Daniel Tutt, in his “A Lacanian Reading of Joker,” argued the following:

The Joker thus abandons the superegoic function he had identified with […] and transposes a new superego identification with the political uprising in Gotham […] 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 (Tutt, 2019).

Without restating all of Daniel’s arguments here, I simply want to supplement them. My own position is that Joker is not a political film. Yet, this does not mean that it is not a film about subjective transformation. When Jacques-Alain Miller returned, in his “Two Intuitions in Milan,” to Lacan’s claim that “the unconscious is politics” he opened up a difficult reinterpretation of political theory. The unconscious is often thought to be related to a symbolic anchoring point (what Lacan called the Name of the Father). This is what permits discourse and a social link. Miller concluded that the unconscious always implies some connection to society or civilization, and this was a point made also by Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents.

Miller developed the position further: “[t]he definition of the unconscious by politics goes very deep in Lacan’s teaching. […] it is a development of ‘the unconscious is the discourse of the Other’.” The problem, as Slavoj has correctly identified many decades ago, is that the contemporary period is marked by a decline in the efficiency of the paternal function. Thus, there are problems with proper names. What Daniel Tutt correctly diagnosed was the fact that the movie is situated at this historic juncture of symbolic or paternal decline. For example, we should notice that the film is titled Joker (and not The Joker). The removal of the definite article indicates that something is missing by way of the name function. But we should go further: Joker does not laugh when others are laughing, since he laughs on his own timing. His jokes are self-referential and one-liners. This is because, for him, there is no Other, there is no social link, and so, instead, he is forced to invent one for himself. To claim that Joker is political is to claim that there is a politics for the extraordinarily insane — and yet, this is demonstrably false.

Joker falls into capitalist discourse. Miller remarks upon capitalist discourse: “[at] the level of the drive […] ‘the subject is always happy,’ always happy, […] the only question being that of the mode of satisfaction, pleasurable, painful, etc., while axiomatically, the drive is always satisfied.” Is this not what Joker ultimately demonstrates endlessly with his bloody smile? Joker is not a hysterical or obsessional political activist who wishes to get revenge on the father figure, wishes to move outside of his political deadlock. He is a subject for whom the father has never existed, and so he is pushed forward endlessly by his truth. His obvious proximity to his mother demonstrates clearly that the paternal function is not available: he is in her bed, he is cleaning her naked body without any prohibitions, etc. In one remarkable scene he climbs into a refrigerator and closes it: the womb-like structure swallows him, repeating the swallowing of his subjectivity that has occurred for him since time immemorial. The “refrigerator mother” theory of psychosis — so often criticized by contemporary practitioners and sociologists — is put on full display.

The only way out of capitalist discourse was for Joker to invent a name for himself, the one which was so rejected. If the Rat Man and the Wolf Man were names elevated to such a dignity from that which was most rejected in their symptom, then Joker too embodied the rejected objet petit a. Indeed, it is conceivable, and most likely troubling to many readers, that he alone found an exit to capitalist discourse. Like Lacan’s Saint, he laughed, endlessly, as he moved from a world defined by tragedy to one defined by comedy: “I used to think my life was a tragedy, now I realize it’s a fucking comedy.”

If, after the loss of his mother, Joker found comfort in an empty refrigerator, then today, in each our way, we seek comfort in the logic of similar caves and escape rooms. A similar logic can be found in the experimental Canadian film trilogy Cube (1997, 2002, and 2004). In each of the three films, several strangers wake up to discover that they have been extracted from the outside world (where their lives were defined by various transgressions and traumas) and placed inside of a sophisticated series of rooms. The rooms are filled with traps which exemplify for us the fact of a continued psychosis; what, then, are the traps? The traps are there to demonstrate to us the real of their castration anxiety. Each subject is constantly threatened in the most horrific way by the spectre of death. Whereas psychosis is defined by the loss of any symbolic castration, the symbolic dimension collapses into the real such that it occurs through delusional or hallucinatory experiences. Yet this time it is possible for these individuals to become more conscious of the delusional quality of their condition. Within the space of the cube they can begin to question the certainty of their delusions. Lacan was clear that certainty is the trademark of delusional content, and it is only when this certainty is disrupted that delusions may be challenged by the subject. Thus, although the strangers experience the traps as all too real, they nonetheless question the reality of their experiences.

It is through the strategic pursuance of escape (from the system of traps, from the cube-room) that the strangers constitute for themselves, amongst themselves, a fleeting, though fragile, social link. Indeed, they move from being perfect strangers to the discovery of their interconnection. Terrifying as it is, is it not the case that the cube offers for them a space of re-establishing a social link and challenging the certainty of their delusions? But what is perhaps most interesting is that each film experiments with a different ending. (Indeed, there are even alternate endings available for at least one of the film). We are therefore offered altogether different and diverse answers to the question of what exists in the space of freedom outside of the cube. This is important because it demonstrates that the space of freedom outside of the cube is not only enigmatic and ambiguous, but it is altogether more troubling and traumatic. Lacan, in one of his seminars, maintained that it is always possible that things could be “… or worse.”

It is possible that freedom is sometimes more traumatic than subjection and that one of the conditions for escape from trauma is that one merely desire freedom (and not actually obtain it). This was a point made quite forcefully by Sigmund Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents (as well as his Future of an Illusion): the price that one pays to be a member of civilization or to have an enduring social bond is that one accepts a certain degree of discontent. Something much more sinister is perhaps awaiting for us outside of the cube — and this is why a fundamental ambiguity prevails at the end of each of the films. It is almost as if the comfort of the room is preferable to the reality that exists outside of those traps, apparitions, and strange encounters. Perhaps the revolutionary task is therefore not to escape our imprisonment but to rather discover for ourselves a room which one cannot live without.

Was this not the lesson to the ending of the popular episode of Black Mirror, “Nosedive?” A woman, who continuously posted images of herself onto various social media channels, eventually burns out from trying endlessly (with fail) to fit into the prevailing social bond. Clearly, she cannot conquer a space for herself in the universe. Paradoxically, she discovered liberation at the end of the episode, but this time from within the bars of a prison. Inside of the four walls of her prison she was permitted to experience fully her subjective destitution, and to laugh like a Saint:

She: What the fuck are you looking at?

He: Just what I was wondering.

She: Well, Don’t!

He: Don’t wonder? It would be a dull world without wonder.

She: I don’t give a shit about your world.

He: I don’t like your brassiere.

She: I don’t like your mustache.

[…]

She: You’re a fucking asshole [laughing, smiling, crying]

He: Fuck you!

She: Fuck you!

This was the position of the seven sleepers of the cave in the Quranic narrative. Recall that in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave Socrates described a group of people — already we have the social link — chained to the walls of a cave, facing a blank wall upon which shadows were projected. Socrates’ lesson was that the philosopher is like a prisoner who must be freed from the cave and see reality for what it is outside of the cave. There is an important counterpoint to this spatial narrative. In Surah 18 of the Quran there is a story of seven sleepers who were forced out of the city because of the trauma of its freedom (e.g., freedom to worship any God, etc). They voluntarily accept imprisonment within a cave, and then they go to sleep and dream: “[a]nd you would have thought them awake, while they were asleep.” The American media theorist McKenzie Wark once remarked to me during a personal correspondence that when one exits Plato’s cave one finds oneself simply within another cave. This is thought-provoking, but not radical enough: what if one finds oneself all the more within a cave?

In the Platonic version of the narrative we are expected to believe that the people inside of the cave are imprisoned by ideology. When one of them steps outside of the cave they have also stepped outside of ideology. Wark’s corrective was to suggest that they can never get outside of the cave, or, put another way, ‘there is no outside to ideology.’ The Quranic version begins within the space of absolute freedom: the king uses this freedom to force his people to worship false idols, images of gods, etc. It is from this terrible abyss of freedom that the sleepers opt to flee into the cave of ideology itself by transforming their dreams into weapons against the asphyxiating freedom of reality. Perhaps the task today is not to escape ideology, that is, to become “post-ideological,” since such an effort is sure to make us even more ideological — Althusser, in his essays on ideology, made a nice argument: ideology will never admit itself to be ideological! — but rather to find a room or a cave without which we cannot anymore dream.

Duane Rousselle, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ajeenka DY Patil University and a practicing psychoanalyst in the Lacanian orientation. His recent book publications include Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity: A Lacanian Perspective on Identity, Language and Queer Theory (Routledge, 2019), Jacques Lacan and American Sociology: Be Wary of the Image (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), Lacanian Realism: Political and Clinical Psychoanalysis (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Post-Anarchism: A Reader (Pluto Books, 2012). His forthcoming book is titled On Love: Psychoanalysis, Religion and Society (in review).

Associate Professor of Sociology & Psychoanalyst