“At the end of the world,” our eponymous hero growls in the prologue of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, “we were each, in our own way, broken. It was hard to tell who was more crazy: me, or everyone else.”
Max, who is “the one who runs from both the living and the dead,” has ample cause to doubt the sanity of himself and those around him. He’s subjected to oneiric visions of his dead wife and daughter, whom he was unable to save from gruesome murder, at the most inconvenient times (like escaping a branding). Within moments of the opening, he’s captured by the chrome-painted, tumor-stricken War Boys, minions of an ailing, boil-despoiled master who reigns over an emaciated people via a monolithic citadel in the desert, one which appears to have been lifted straight from a William Blake painting. The Boys use Max (and other captured prisoners) as living IV bags to replace their blood plasma, terminally ill as they all are from (one presumes) being enslaved as factory workers from infancy. They work hard to stay alive in order to keep making trips between the citadel and a petrol station to fuel their War Machines, nightmare vehicles built from the bones and blood of their victims. Who are they fighting? Anyone, everyone, who isn’t them.
Madness, if by madness we mean psychosis, is a funny thing. It is defined relationally and exteriorly. It is a condition characterized by exclusion; i.e., a person is considered truly psychotic only when no other suitable explanation — tumors, nervous system disorders, toxicosis, drugs — can account for her “aberrant” mental state. Foucault argues in History of Madness that such exclusionary methods to define and dispel madness (to dispel it as a separate and distinct condition from sanity by little other criteria than the certainty of its difference) came about in the Age of Reason, christened the very moment Descartes laid out his question:
How could it be denied that these hands or this body are mind? Unless perhaps I were to liken myself to madmen, whose brains are so damaged by the persistent vapours of melancholia that they firmly maintain they are kings when they are paupers, or say they are dressed in purple when they are naked, or that their heads are made of earthenware or that they are pumpkins, or made of glass.
In what would turn out to be an important minor passage in an otherwise massive historical treatise, Foucault argues that Descartes’ certainty, in the face of doubting everything his senses and mind perceive, of the cogito — the irrefutable fact of thought, of self, which leads to the irrefutable fact of being, the one which cannot be doubted away — only arises after the possibility of madness has been excluded. As Foucault writes:
Unreason in the sixteenth century was a sort of open wound, which in theory constantly posed a threat to the link between subjectivity and truth. The path taken by Cartesian doubt seems to indicate that by the seventeenth century the danger has been excluded, and that madness is no longer a peril lurking in the domain where the thinking subject holds rights over truth: and for classical thought, that domain is the domain of reason itself. Madness has been banished.
Derrida, in a seminal response, derided Foucault’s interpretation, arguing that the cogito could form only out of the extensive hyperbole of Cartesian doubt, which distrusts everything, which endangers its subject by the very expanse of its uncertainty and is thus akin to a kind of madness. Further, the cogito forms irrespective of a rational or sound mind. If he were mad, Derrida insists, he could still confirm the existence of his thought, and therefore of his self, even if his thinking were fractured or absurd. Thus, madness is not excluded from the cogito, simply irrelevant to it.
The world of Mad Max is neither completely sane nor completely mad. The setting, a future-past wherein drought reigns and fossil fuels are the primary form of currency, features a shifting panoply of mental states: the soldierized dogma of the sickened War Boys; the optimistic but cold rationality of Furiosa, who seeks refuge in a mythical, verdant paradise while insisting on remaining entirely realistic about the means (or lack thereof) of her escape; the capitalist patriarch who performs as God for his peaons while going to absurd lengths to stabilize his health, lubricate the pinions of his tyrannical system, and keep ahold of his property; the female slaves who flee the citadel, but only on certain moral conditions (like no unnecessary deaths), their naive outlook on morality and kindness having been permanently and ironically conditioned by their lifelong enslavement; and Max, who asks the question of his madness, only to defer to a more pressing issue: survival.
Can Max, in asking his question, ascertain anything other than how his sanity appears in relation to his environment? Foucault describes a system of rationality beginning in the age of Descartes, the rise of which saw madness “crushed beneath psychiatry, dominated, beaten into the ground, interned, that is to say, madness [was] made into an object and exiled as the other of a language and a historical meaning which have been confused with logos itself.” That madness exists as a distinct and separate condition, Foucault claims, is nothing less than the result of a lexical power-domination structure, which relegates “reason” to a form of authority, wherein all other thought-processes, or neurological states, must be isolated and contained, like leprosy or sexually-transmitted diseases. For Foucault, Descartes’ cogito is merely a portent of what would become an institutionalized tyranny of reason, which drives all competing forms of thought into a stigmatized Other. The rational person finds certainty only by first dispelling the possibility of madness.
But it’s worth noting that Max’s initial question of who is more crazy, much like Foucault’s Descartes passage in History of Madness, is a very brief epistemological inquiry in an otherwise practical narrative. As much as he might enjoy the leisure time that would be required to reflect deeply on the nature of certainty and sanity, the question of how we characterize madness or whether it even describes an identifiable state of mind, or simply the “other” to whatever current neurological makeup holds political power, Max simply has other shit to do. Like run. Like kill. Like cling to the hood of a car and spit gasoline into its engine at a leisurely 200 miles per hour.
This is where Wittgenstein, the philosopher who, in his twilight years, became disillusioned with the “games of language” he saw overtaking philosophy, might chime in. He would say that both doubt and knowledge — Foucault’s doubt of the certainty of the self, Descartes’ certain knowledge of his hand — form out of a specific logical utility, that they only emerge out of the contextual milieu in which language has a permanent home. All knowledge and doubt, therefore, are built upon a constantly shifting index, which is itself resistant to claims like “to know” or “to doubt”, claims that can only begin to exist after a context, a foundation, has formed,and thus cannot predate it.
In the famous example, to claim to either know or doubt “the existence of your hand” is to effectively produce a “bug” in the nature of discourse itself, which must exist relationally, only within certain contexts and only for relational purposes. The statement “this is my hand” is useful for determining how the hand functions in the environment around it, how it interacts with other hands or other objects relative to itself, how it might continue to do so into the future. To claim to know or doubt it — or something like, say, the ancientness of the Earth, as Wittgenstein opines — is to dismantle the foundation on which language rests, is to take language to places beyond which its systems make any sense.
In effect, the classic Cartesian question of the hand, of the cogito, of the enduringness of thought, and all the debate between Foucault and Derrida and countless others on if and how one can arrive at such certainty, and whether or not such certainty exists within or without a rational mind, is akin to trying to run a computer program whose variables are all undefined. The endless errors might be interesting to observe, perhaps producing beautiful and beguiling patterns of indiscernibility, but the program itself remains meaningless until it is handed initiating values. In effect, Max can’t ask who is “more crazy” until he knows what “not crazy” is. And in his world, that seems intractable.
Maybe once he settles down, no longer finds himself chained to the front of War Machines ploughing into Martian-sized dust storms with vortexes of lighting swirling furiously inside, or toppling evil patriarchs who horde water and don oxygen masks made of mandibles, Max will be able to get back to some serious philosophizing on the nature or lack of his sanity. Until then, he’s got to madly ride through a sequel or two.