Vision after the Sermon by Paul Gaugin (1888)
Vision after the Sermon by Paul Gaugin (1888)

In November 2016, an anon asked Tumblr theologian revelation19 the question ‘What do angels actually look like per the bible?’

revelation19 responded in earnest that angelic descriptions and imagery vary because angels exist outside the scope of human perception and depiction. In trying to represent angels, the author and the artist reach the limits of their own perceptive and imaginative abilities.

This beautifully circular explanation, in which every angel is our own, is not far from what St. Thomas Aquinas meant in 1485 when he wrote:

Angels do not need bodies for their own sake but for ours.

Angels are not bodies. They responsively assume embodied forms, materially and in imagination, always for our benefit. This courtesy, along with any messages or blessings from God, is their divine gift to us.

Angel discourse began again. And God saw that it was good.

ASCII artwork of a cartoon angel

Last summer, Be not afraid hit critical mass on Reddit and Twitter. To be clear, all Be not afraid memes are derivative of revelation19’s original religious sincerity-post.

The meme is a cultural artifact of the early Covid-19 plague world. It compares imagery of the angel-as-human to imagery of the angel-as-nonhuman-becoming to evoke themes of deep spirituality, divine intervention, and (non-)judgment. It uses a secular view of angelic imagery over time to express fear and make a metaphorical point about religious and cultural semiotics.

The point is this: We are afraid to go with the terrifyingly imperceptible and transhuman angel of demystification. Less metaphorically, we struggle to accept that inherited religious and cultural icons are actually just symbols, that they have no independent existence beyond the bodies that produce them.

Be not afraid means that “Real” angels play on the boundaries of categories and disturb anthropomorphic models of themselves. S(he)/they/(i)t destroy(s) the quaint Oedipal fantasy of the angel as the mother or as the child (especially the daughter), leaving space for various refigurings to occur.

The angel is becoming something new, something we know that we shouldn’t be afraid of. If the angel appears to us as an imperceptible hybrid body, it is only ever for our benefit. We now want to become the imperceptible hybrid angel body rather than wanting to be blessed or saved.

The re-emergence of angel and becoming-angel imagery is not coincidental to its time of occurrence in the collective unconscious. Other remnant cultural symbols are undergoing similar transformations.

Vision after the Sermon by Paul Gaugin (1888)
Becoming-angel in the memetic unconscious.

Like the angel, the clown is an ancient and culturally pervasive near-human with varied manifestations. The clown similarly ossified into a vacant, childlike, and Oepidalized figure through the mass-production of material commodities.

Perhaps the most relevant representation for the starting point of my argument is the sad clown. Here is the sub-human clown as affect rather than subjectivity. The clown as the inept father. The clown as the poor person, the addict, or the criminal. The clown as the child (especially the son). This figure is not agentive, rather, things happen to him.

In October 2019, Joker was released. Here is the sad clown becoming-contagion, becoming-the-masses-themselves, becoming a revolutionary political agent. The film has now grossed over $1 billion. The Italian psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto wrote:

The strange Lacanian theory of psychosis as foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father seems to me to derive precisely from this centuries-old metaphysical figure of the jester, without father and without homeland, and therefore mad, who laughs at power for the very reason that he is dominated by it.

The figure of the sad clown is giving way to Benvenuto’s figure of the jester.

The joker is a frightening and charismatic clown-jester hybrid. An imperceptible figure of the alienated multiplicity, he is marginal, castrated, and criminalized but also powerfully subversive in his demystified psychotic affect. As the sad clown becomes-jester, the generalized consumer desire to become-clown echoes through the fashion and cosmetics industries and radiates from our screens in the form of Instagram face filters.

Clown aesthetics are protective and subversive. In becoming-clown, we are contaminated and assimilate into a pack identity. We threaten to spread the psychotic contagion, Lacan’s foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father. The clown-as-jester calls into question the dominant structuring order and the choices of everyone around him. As the audience watches the clown, the clown himself sees only clowns in the audience.

Two days ago [Note: This article was original published on March 11, 2021], the head of an event planning and temporary employment agency appeared as the joker to announce his candidacy for governor of the Chiba Prefecture in Japan. The joker subversively proposed branding and renaming Narita Airport as “Disney Sky” as well as outlawing the word “trash” and replacing it with the phrase “star fragment.”

A candidate for governor of the Chiba Prefecture in Japan appears on television dressed as The Joker, complete with white face paint, lipstick, and red blazer.
The joker as the candidate.

Where the political, art, scientific, or historical project uncovers conceptual ambiguity, demystification takes place, and a new sensation is produced.

What was once accepted as an unambiguous association of resemblance (i.e., an icon) is revealed to be a culturally produced association between signifier and concept (i.e., a symbol). Religious or cultural figures, names, words, concepts, and structures stop working as intended. One might begin to engage with them only to signal an advanced stage of demystification.

Having been raised on the infantilized or otherwise symbolically castrated angel and clown imagery of 20th-century thrift-store kitsch, we may not yet recognize the subversive symbolic power of clown and angel ambiguity, multiplicity, variation, imperceptibility, and hybridity. The so-called Biblically accurate angels of Be not Afraid and clown figures like the Joker are enticing to us in their frightening illegibility and in the ways they can disturb typical frames of reference.

A baby angel emoji and clown face emoji side by side.
Baby Angel (2010) and Clown Face (2016) by Unicode in Apple Color Emoji font

Clowns and angels are becoming figures of demystification. These are contemporary refigurings that suit the needs of the popular unconscious.

A properly Marxist interpretation of the popularity of angels and clowns might center on humans’ inability to judge their position in an increasingly authoritarian, exploitive, financialized capitalist system and their failure to imagine and create viable alternatives. But, since both angels and clowns trouble notions of the human in unpredictable ways, my Deleuzian argument hinges on the emancipatory potential of becoming-angel and becoming-clown as possible forms of becoming(s)-Other.

As the Covid-19 pandemic began last year, the artist Ipek Duben had a solo show titled Angels and Clowns at Pi Artworks Istanbul. In the press release for the show she wrote:

My thoughts lead me to the forever present angels and clowns who look both like and unlike us, stand by us and observe us from afar. They can warn us, alert us about the good and the bad, right and wrong, and always demand our critical awareness. I feel akin to their marginality and dared to travel the world with them.

Seemingly banal religious or cultural figures can be adapted and used intentionally to shape and spread new and healthier forms of individual and collective behavior, especially during periods of large-scale societal transformation.

Above all, we must avoid the tendency to Oedipalize our relations with these figures through fantasies like the daughter or the giving mother as the angel and the son or the inept father as the clown. In a world of closed or medicalized borders, we must also go beyond merely traveling the world with them, as Duben suggested.

Instead, we seek to become angels and clowns. In this way, we may contaminate and guide each other through the process of scrambling capitalist codes while transmitting decoded flows of desire, demonstrating:

The metaphysical process that puts us in contact with the “demoniacal” element in nature or within the heart of the earth, and the historical process of social production (Anti-Oedipus: 35).