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Home > 2020 > COVID 19 and the Joking Irony of being Masked | Murzban Jal

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 28, New Delhi, June 27, 2020

COVID 19 and the Joking Irony of being Masked | Murzban Jal

Friday 26 June 2020

by Murzban Jal

Now that the manufactured terror of the corona epidemic has become the dominant theme and the most saleable of commodities, a philosophical reading of this manufactured terror is necessary. Let us first move to facts.

With the entrance of Monsieur Covid 19 on the scene of world history, it seems everything has gone upside-down. The hyper-consumerism and the mad rush for commodities that capitalism boasted of, as against the scarcity of socialist societies where we were told that in the Soviet Union the public had to stand in long lines to purchase commodities, has turned into the very scarcity that capitalism chided the Soviet Union for. We were told that waiting in lines was the essence of socialism. Now waiting in lines is the essence and reality of global capitalism governed by Monsieur Covid 19. Here "abundance", as Frederick Engels once so prophetically said, "has become the source of all distress and want."

But that is not all to it. There is something more to come. What is this "something more"? Let us have a look at it. No, it is not Donald Trump, nor his predecessor Donald Duck. It is about abundance turning into scarcity and people turning into monstrous "things".

For in alienated society where, as Marx explains in his famous essay on the fetishism of commodities from the first volume of Capital, relations between people have been converted into relations between things, and people themselves are converted into "things". Here the state of humanity is worse than that of Kafka’s principal character, the traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa from his novel Metamorphosis. Samsa has become, one fine morning or not so fine morning, what Kafka calls a "monstrous vermin".

"I’ve got the torture of traveling, worrying about changing trains, eating miserable food at all hours, constantly seeing new faces, no relationships that last or get more intimate", so says Samsa after his great realization that he is no longer a human being, but an insect That was the problem of Samsa who one "fine- not-so-fine" morning sees that he has changed into a horrible insect. In 2020 the entire script of Metamorphosis has changed. In Metamorphosis, a human has become an insect, a "monstrous vermin" to be precise. This vermin of Kafka is a recluse. In 2020 the vermin is not a recluse, but has come with the multitude, the "multitude" of the Book of Revelation (the last part of the Bible) as well as the multitude of the post-Marxism of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. There can now either be apocalypse or insurrection.

With the vermin attacking the entire world in 2020, Samsa will not have to be tortured with traveling and worrying about changing trains. If not the specter of global capitalism, then at least Covid 19 would ensure that traveling is no longer torture, because traveling literally has been banned. Once we imagined that we live in hypercapitalism where speed is all that matters. Then the capitalist crisis of overproduction knocked at our doors. Capitalism wanted a "lockdown", the lockdown came. At least Samsa would be happy. Seems ironical that Samsa can be happy, for capitalism negates happiness and pleasure in general. And capitalism in the age of late capitalism and early Covid 19 totally negates all semblance of happiness.

What happens in alienated capitalist society is that not only happiness is rendered impossible, but also love cannot be made possible. Tragedy thus was the exemplary form of literature in the early days of European bourgeoisdom. With rising capitalism in Europe there was what Herbert Marcuse in Negations called the "prohibition of pleasure" where "artistic beauty becomes an illusion" and the "enjoyment of happiness is permitted only in spiritual, idealized form." Now even that is not possible. For idealism and spiritualism in the era of late capitalism and early Covid 19 have been transfigured into neurosis and psychosis, neurosis and psychosis which will drive collective humanity to total fear.

Note how this neurosis and psychosis functions. Remember the old Western cowboy movies where we heard the scream: "The Russians are coming!" Now we, the children of Karl Popper’s fictitious "open society", have something worse than the Russians attacking us. What is this, that is "something worse" than the Russians (meaning the communists)? It is the Invisible Enemy who is forcing us to hide in our houses and even veil and masks ourselves. What! So we hear, veils coming into good old open societies, when good old Europe has banned it ? How is this possible? Do we not understand that the veil is used by terrorists to mask themselves? Now what will happen? Maybe, as our close scrutiny goes, we must defend ourselves from the Invisible Enemy who after declaring terror on good old open society has now got in contact with bats and vampires. What bats? How can this be possible when Batman is just round the corner?

It is here that the movie Joker comes to question not only the dread and existentialist anxiety of Kafka. Joker questions the Batman myth itself. Joker questions capitalism too. Arthur Fleck, the Joker, has two masks on, one of the professional Joker, employed by some petty bourgeois idiot. But there is another mask, the mask of the post-anxiety subject of history who ironically does what professional revolutionaries have not been able to do: create mass unrest.

In this sense Joker critiques, what Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ’The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, calls the "aura" of traditional art, where modernity and mass culture have dissolved the "cult", "ritual" and "magical" elements of pre-modern art. Post-aura art brings in the idea and reality of the masses, especially in cinema halls, where people collectively view cinema. Both late capitalism and Covid 19 have directly attacked the element of collective humanity. In this sense late capitalism and early Covid 19 have made us regress backwards into history, at the most into the era of Robinson Crusoe who is perpetually alone and estranged, at best with Man Friday to accompany him, just as Eve was made in the factory of the biblical god to accompany Adam.

But why does Joker wear a mask even when he is in his post-anxiety state, when he ceases to be a professional clown in the payroll of the bourgeois idiot? Why is this "post-revolutionary revolutionary" with a mask? Is he just a part of the stupid American popular bourgeois imagination where almost all the superheroes (except Superman) have their masks? But what do masks signify? They signify concealment. They also signify that there is what Freud calls the "double", or what Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach calls the "duplication of the world into a religious imaginary world and a real one". Masks thus signify the creation of an imaginary world, akin to the religious world. After all is not the religious world, the perfection of human imagination?

Arthur Fleck, the Joker, like Feuerbach thus involves the "dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis" (to borrow a phrase if Marx). But Fleck does not understand the "self-cleavage and self-contradictoriness" of the real world which has torn asunder society at large and himself, that has given rise to the imaginary world of terror and dread.

Masks also signify what Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte calls "time-honored disguise" where through this disguise one speaks in "borrowed language" and also "conjures up the dead of world history". The problem this time is that the dead of world history who have risen once again are not the popes and the czars, but the Lenins and the Trotskys. Revenge thus shall be ours!

In earlier times we heard of "V" for "Vendetta". Now we hear of "J" for "Joker". "J" for "Joker" does not believe in the old social democratic myth of evolutionary socialism and the peaceful transition from capitalism to communism. Nor does he believe in the anarcho-terrorist myth of protracted people’s war that once upon a time the Maoists prided themselves with. He just believes in "J" for "Joke".

And with the coming of the Joker in world history, the tragedy of capitalism is at last seen ending. History, thus does not merely repeat itself twice; the first time as Tragedy, the second time as Farce. Instead it is seen repeating itself three times, the last time as the Joke.

And with the Joker entering the scene of dramaturgy we hear him say: "My name is Joker, Joker with a "J", just as James Bond used to say: "My name is Bond, James Bond". But Bond was in the service of British imperialism of "Her Majesty’s Secret Service". Joker serves no one.

Joker is against almost all characters from Western aesthetics, whether Kafka’s Samsa or Ian Flemming’s James Bond. He refuses to become a reculse, or an imperialist agent.

It is in this sense that he must say: "The time is up Monsieur Capital. You must depart along with your characters that you concotted from Adam and Eve to Bond and Batman, culminating in the most ridiculous character of bourgeois horror, Covid 19. You took too much of our time. Now the time is mine!".

But at least till this great act of the departure of Monsieur Capital does not take place, let us wear our masks, no not the mask of the professional clown in the payroll of the bourgeois idiot, but the mask of the Joker. At least we can say we are finally obeying the orders of the state, maybe not having "social distancing" even running on the streets with the rebellious crowds, but yes at least having our masks on.

Notice: A national lockdown underway in India due to the Corona Virus crisis. Our print edition is interrupted & only an online edition is appearing.