The Joker of conspiracy – conspiracy theories as negative belief

Bysociologist of religion Prof. Dr. Levent Tezcan

© Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay

Ken Jebsen has painted himself a Joker face. “What kind of shitty fear have we got here!” is how he opens his manifesto. Sometimes whispering conspiratorially, sometimes firing furious word salvos; ironic, sarcastic, militantly revolutionary – he reels off a range of themes, and then brings them all together in a simple conspiracy that pits the ‘system’ against ‘society’, against ‘us’. This 45-minute talk displaying a high level of thespian ability shows the boundless creativity of the mind when it comes to linking everything with everything else. I am interested in the character of the Joker here because it expresses a pervasive condition of our present: conspiracy theories as negative belief.

Conspiracy theories as stopgaps?

Ken Jebsen’s one-man talk proves once again that conspiracy theories seek to fill a legitimatory gap that science, politics and religion have each created or left behind. First, with regard to their relationship to science, the widespread assumption that conspiracy theories are completely removed from scientific thought has already been debunked on several occasions (see Detlef Pollack’s article in this dossier). Especially in the secularized world, conspiracy theorists cannot emphasize enough their rootedness in science, whereas other rational systems have a difficult time to be heard at all. For example, while medicine is barely challenged when it proposes measures to restrict people’s everyday lives, it cannot (and indeed does not seek to) provide an answer to the question of meaning that arises from the experience of crisis. From its perspective, people necessarily appear to be virus-spreaders who now need to be protected from each other; everything else is forgotten in the logic of its system. Conspiracy theories then take over the function of providing meaning in the context of the pointless propagation of the virus. Someone must be to blame. But it is a negative meaning that they provide – namely, a meaning in the sense of having been deceived.

Similarly, conspiracy theories, like Ken Jebsen, also take on the task of political criticism, which people have largely refrained from during the corona crisis, at least initially. Thus, Jebsen repeatedly points to an alliance of those who are silent and simply conform to the system from the left to the top of the AfD (the talk mentions the top only with regard to the AfD). We could indeed have been a little confused by the fact (and nothing more is being claimed here) that even the hardened ‘critics of the system’ on the left largely adhered to the rules of the ‘capitalist system’, at least when the crisis began. Jebsen also adds the art and culture scene, which also boasts of being non-conformist. In an orgy of references, the Joker Jebsen paints a totalitarian state that is at least as bad as National Socialism and the SED dictatorship. And the left, the anti-fascists, are so uncritical, so obedient to authority, that they will go along with anything: “Here, from 5:45 on, there will be retrospective vaccinations!” At the so-called hygiene demonstrations, some people appeared with the Star of David and ‘2020 = 1933’ banners to draw attention to the Holocaust, which apparently the corona measures had reinitiated. Psychoanalysts are sure to have a lot to say about such ‘displacements’. Nazi comparisons, which are otherwise at home among the left, have for some time been wandering into circles that are perhaps not entirely Nazi-free.

Religion, too, seems to leave a void for conspiracy theories to fill. In another video, Jebsen has two free-church pastors speak, who distance themselves from the attitude of the main churches. They do not want to restrict their roles during the pandemic to providing consolation by ringing the church bells and delivering online sermons, and otherwise urging people to stay at home. “Do not be afraid” – this is the Biblical saying that the two pastors, whom we do not want to equate here with conspiracy theorists, wish to hold on to during the pandemic; they at least are not prepared to allow the elderly to die alone. Is this evidence that the mainstream churches have completely adapted to the world of medicine and politics? If so, then we could indeed conclude that this has created a void. In fact, criticism of the attitude taken by the churches has also been voiced from within the churches themselves, Christine Lieberknecht, for example, taking a critical stance in the weekly magazine Die Zeit of 2 July 2020 (on how the churches are dealing with the crisis, see Wischmeyer in this dossier). Would we not be at least partly justified to say that the church has also made its central reference point (at least for the time being) the concern for ‘bare life’? What happens to belief under such conditions? Does this not allow conspiracy theories to create resonances that were otherwise created by religions?

The third function that Jebsen wants to take over with his talk is that of the free press, which he does when he brings into play other expert views on the pandemic. As with the initial absence of political criticism and Christian boldness in times of crisis, the press will have to deal with the question of how far those that did not agree with the government’s assessment of the danger and the measures that it took could at least at the beginning of the epidemic could have their say. This is in any case a contentious question to which there is no easy answer.

These comments in no way justify the conspiracy theory underlying the arguments propagated by Jebsen and others. However, they do indicate that the conspiracy theories do not fall from the sky. And, just as they perform certain functions that science, religion and the press (cannot/should not) perform, conspiracy theories can also be understood as symptoms that tell us something about our present. In what way do they respond to the actual or supposed gap? The mask that Jebsen puts on gives hints. In Jebsen’s case, the Joker stands for the deep mistrust, or even for the infinite hatred, which turns against ‘the system’. ‘The system’, controlled by ‘those up there’, is the point of attack where the ever deeper division of contemporary societies is legitimized. Conspiracy theories are sites and symptoms of this division. They become independent as a quasi-religious belief without visions of salvation: a thoroughly negative belief, a belief of hatred, which we must expect to have to live with through all cyclical fluctuations.

Every era its Joker

Who is the Joker with whom Ken Jebsen shows his real face to unmask ‘the system’? Which Joker is it – or which one of the Jokers that have been portrayed in a film? There are actually several depictions of the comic character from Batman stories, and I want to focus on two Joker types here. I do so because, for all the apparent biographical similarities that constitute at least the narrative basis of the more recent film adaptations, they definitely embody two different subject types in opposing situations of affect. I shall number the two Joker films 1 and 2. The one Joker, Joker 1, is an anarchist or even a noble nihilist who wants to show people how mendacious and selfish they really are despite their high morals. According to the message of Joker 1, people are prepared to throw their moral principles overboard when faced with an existential threat. In contrast, the other Joker, Joker 2, the pushed around victim of ‘the system’, has “only negative feelings” (as he himself says in one scene), which accumulate only to be discharged aimlessly at the end of the film.

Ken Jebsen probably took Joker 2 as his model. The first Joker concocts ingenious conspiracies, but is not suitable as a symbol for conspiracy theories. Joker 2, on the other hand, does nothing of the sort in the way of conspiracies; he is only tormented, but provides the best template for the conspiracy theories. This is what I want to explain here.

Joker 2 is the main character in the film of the same name (2019), shot by Todd Philipps and played by Joachim Phoenix [picture Joker 2]. This biographical film tells the development of the Joker retrospectively. Before becoming a brilliant terrorist, the Joker is here a third-rate clown who identifies himself with a great television entertainer (Roberto Niro) and dreams of appearing on television. He leads a miserable life. He is harassed and beaten up every day, and in the end loses the state support that, in his physical and mental state, he so desperately needs. Today, one could say that he is not relevant to the system. Again and again, he breaks into an obsessive laugh. Possessing nothing of the carefree laughter of the brilliant chaos-maker, Joker 1, he finally manages, more by chance than by his own efforts, to appear in the show of his idol, where he wears a Joker face. But, having finally got to where he has always wanted to go, he then shoots the man who was his idol, his father figure so to speak, out of the blue and during the live broadcast. Suddenly, this idol appears to him as the symbol of ‘the system’ that belongs to ‘those up there’. He takes revenge for everything; not only for what he has suffered, but also for what he himself has desired. He does not have what he desires – but because he knows only desire and failure, desire takes possession of all his thoughts. Ultimately, he kills his own desire. As if the city has been waiting for this signal, it plunges into chaos. There is no longer any need (as there is in the previous film) for an anarchist to pull the strings for this chaos. In the end, all we see are riots and looting by an angry mob wearing Joker masks. The Joker is released from police custody and carried through the streets as a hero. This is a meaningless liberation that does not lead to a positive project.

As I have already indicated, the subject of the more recent film, Joker 2, can count on our sympathy, since he has had a miserable life full of deprivation, the life of an outsider who has not chosen this status, but simply suffers its effects. He embodies the victim, this prominent figure of our time, who is sometimes referred to as “the new hero” of our society (as, for example, in the title of a 2019 book by Matthias Lohre). This Joker can also not avoid killing; a career of violence has to start somewhere after all. Joker 2 kills in three situations, with none of the killings being accompanied by a message. He acts in self-defence; unlike Joker 1, he is not the master who acts on his own free will, but the servant who only reacts. The film could also be seen as an excuse for the acts perpetrated by the Joker that popular sociology might provide.

He first shoots three spoiled middle-class sons (we suspect that they represent the elite) who harass him in the metro. In self-defence, but he has the pleasant feeling that they are vulnerable. He then uses a pillow to suffocate his mother in a hospital bed. His mother proves to be part of the world of lies; she is like a log tied to his foot, preventing him from jumping (where to?). He leaves his mother. But, if he hates “father and mother”, and even his “own life” (Luke 14:26), will he also return with good news as a changed man? With what good news does Joker 2 go into the world? Will he also in return for what he has given up “receive a hundred times as much” and “inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29)? Nothing of the sort! He kills a third time, this time finally announcing his message, which is far from cheerful. He shoots his role model, the master entertainer of the glittering television world, of the “lying press”, one would also have said. He treats them all as dupes, almost always in self-defence, murder from suffering at the hands of others. Patricide no longer fortifies the law, as Freud still thought, but completely overrides it. For Joker 2, murder on television, revenge on stage, is the highest pleasure that he is still capable of. The film ends with the mob murdering and pillaging – the exact expression of the affective charging of our zeitgeist and its discharge. Was this an anticipation of the riots in Stuttgart and Frankfurt?

The negative belief

Religions have not always been as reticent as they are at present in interpreting crises. But even when they confidently attributed natural disasters or epidemics to God’s wrath, they did not simply provide a foil for negative feelings. The interpretation of the threat of punishment was not infrequently translated back into positive projects, just as religious sanctions in general were aimed at regulating everyday life and thus took on a regulatory function. In such existential moments, the religions of the Axial Age also resorted to the cultic practice of sacrificial offerings, giving rise to cultural products such as church buildings as acts of atonement (see Niebaum in “Pandemic – views from cultural studies”) and pageants like the Oberammergau Passion Play. This is precisely where they differ from conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theorists are, so to speak, prophets of doom who no longer offer positive visions of redemption. They prove to be the ultimate form of an autonomized criticism, one that no longer looks beyond itself. Ken Jebsen would thus be an exemplary priest of a negative religion. We can expect to see more of this religion in the future.