The Killing Joke and Philosophy
By Matthew William Brake
Written in 1988 by Alan Moore and drawn by Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke is one of the most iconic Joker stories ever written. Directors Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, not insignificant figures in the history of the Batman movie franchise, were both influenced by it, the latter having given it to Heath Ledger as a part of his character research. With the release of an animated film version of the story this past summer (and the Honest Trailer and Cinema Sins parodies last week), it felt wrong not to mark the occasion with a consideration of some of the philosophical ideas one can explore using this story.
I do have to provide a few disclaimers. First, while the movie does see Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill return to reprise their roles as “the” voices of Batman and Joker for an entire generation, it features 35 minutes of extra content at the beginning focusing on Batgirl before she is crippled by the Joker (more on that later), and unfortunately, this addition to the story is both superfluous and mediocre. Second, while well animated (and boasting an R-rating), the style doesn’t allow for Bolland’s grittiness in the original comic to really “pop” the way many fans like myself may have hoped it would. All that being said, when the main part of the story kicks in, it is a decent facsimile.
The story follows a fairly simple premise: the Joker wants to prove that ordinary human beings are not so different from him. Having crippled Barbara Gordon, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and attempts to drive him mad by stripping him naked, taking him through a demented funhouse, and showing him pictures of his naked, suffering daughter. When Batman arrives to save the commissioner, the Joker tells him, “You see it doesn’t matter if you catch me and send me back to the asylum… Gordon’s been driven mad. I’ve proved my point. I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
The Joker’s insistence on the idea that everyone is really just like him is noteworthy, but what I want to highlight is how much both Batman and Gordon (who was in fact not driven mad) insist on the inaccuracy of the Joker’s assertion. When Batman catches up with the Joker, he tells him, “I spoke to Commissioner Gordon before I came in here. He’s fine. Despite all your sick, vicious little games, he’s as sane as he ever was! So maybe ordinary people don’t always crack. Maybe there isn’t any need to crawl under a rock with all the other slimy things when trouble hits. Maybe it was just you, all the time!” (emphasis mine). It isn’t that Batman simply announces Joker’s failure to drive Gordon mad, but he insists on highlighting the Joker’s particular propensity for madness as being unique from other people.
Even though Batman himself is arguably just as unstable as the Joker in his own way, Batman seeks to distance himself from the madness of his foe. When Joker goes on a diatribe about the absurdity of existence, he frustratedly asks Batman, “So why can’t you see the funny side? Why aren’t you laughing?” Batman responds by saying, “Because I’ve heard it before… and it wasn’t funny the first time.” As the Joker points out, Batman isn’t unintelligent and must have thought about the absurd nature of reality before, but even if that’s the case, Batman doesn’t let on. He insists on creating a strict separation from the Joker’s madness and his own mental state.
Why, though? And could the Joker actually be right? Is the line between reason and madness perhaps thinner than Gordon or Batman acknowledge?
In his groundbreaking work, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Michel Foucault provides an archaeology of the complex relationship between reason and madness in the West from the Renaissance to the modern period (roughly the 1400s to the 1800s). Here, we might come to understand Batman’s antipathy towards the Joker’s assertion that madness is never far from the average person.
Foucault writes in his preface that “modern man no longer communicates with the madman” (x). Foucault observes that in the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries), madness was seen as a form of transcendent knowledge that taught man about the beast inside of himself that revealed the madness in his own heart (21). It had an instructive value that the Renaissance embraced (66).
The classical age (17th-18th centuries) inaugurated a silencing of madness with the founding of houses of confinement and specifically the founding of the General Hospital of Paris in 1656. As Foucault points out, the Renaissance linked madness to transcendence (58). By contrast, the classical age perceived madness “through a condemnation of idleness” and ejected, “as into another world, all forms of social uselessness” (58). This is the decisive moment when madness became a problem for the city (64). Reason would no longer have put up with that which threatened it, for unreason was banished into another realm (64). One cannot help but think of Arkham Asylum.
The classical age came to experience shame regarding madness. There was now a “scandal inherent in the immorality of the unreasonable” (78). Madness was no longer “the sign of a Beyond” but as “man in immediate relation to his animality… without any recourse” (74), and it was no longer considered instructive (78). Madness no longer pointed to another world but to a non-being (115), which threatened to swallow man up in darkness (83-84). Even in the classical period, man could recognize in the madman his own potential downfall (248). Hence, there was still a relationship of a sort between reason and madness.
It is in the modern era (roughly from the very end of the 18th century through the 19th century) that the relationship between reason and madness is severed. Madness is seen merely as a disease “without any truth” to reveal or hide (198). It was viewed as a contaminant from which others needed to be protected (206). Foucault notes, “The presence of the mad appears an as injustice; but for others” (228). There is no longer “the great, irreparable confrontation of reason and unreason” (254). In fact, there is no dialogue at all (250) but only the exclusion of those who threaten “the social order” (269). This calls to mind Joker’s speech to Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’ But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.”
Whatever may be true in the Joker’s words doesn’t matter because madness is simply madness in the modern period (277). It has nothing to tell us.
One may be able to get a better grasp of why Batman and Gordon insist on such a stark dividing line between themselves and the Joker, for the madman is seen as having no truth to reveal to the man of reason. Dialogue is not allowed.
However, in this case, the Joker may not be wrong. At the end of his book, Foucault notes how madness still haunts the modern world through art and the works of thinkers like Nietzsche. They cause the world to question its reason and sanity, to “justify itself before madness” although this question receives no answer (288-289).
Foucault shows us that madness hasn’t always been a remote possibility for a human being. Perhaps we are more susceptible to it than we think. As the Geneva physician Mathey states: “Do not glory in your state, if you are wise and civilized men; an instant suffices to disturb and annihilate that supposed wisdom of which you are so proud; an unexpected event, a sharp sudden emotion of the soul will abruptly change the most reasonable and intelligent man into a raving idiot” (211-212, emphasis mine).
In other words, as the Joker says, “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day.”
Foucault’s archaeology presents us with a possibility that Gordon and Batman would never consider.
The Joker, in his madness, might be right about us.
Michel Foucault. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Vintage House. 1988.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. For the record, Mark Hamill is the best Joker ever. Period. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.