Spectral law and subjectivities in the world of Mad Max: Fury Road

  • Parvez Alam

The representation of crises, law, and subjectivities in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max is symptomatic of capitalist realism. However, in the latest installment of the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road, spectral and dispossessed subjectivities play pivotal roles in revealing and negating a spectral figure of law in a way that can also be read as attempts of circumventing the threshold of capitalist realism. The main goal of my article is to investigate how in the popular cultural imagination, spectral subjectivities attempt to encounter the spectral figure of law, and in this particular case, such encounter is also associated with the attempt of imagining redemption in a world in which capitalist realism has become reified in the level of post-apocalyptic/dystopian representations. I also argue that, in this movie, disposed and spectral subjectivities decisively encounter the spectral figure of law by deactivating it, in a way that following Giorgio Agamben, can be called as “play” and “new use” of the law.

According to Agamben, crisis have become instrumental to political and eco­nomic decisions that dispossess citizens and deprive them of their agency (Boletsi 18). State of exception/emergency has become the legal paradigm that in tandem with major crisis narratives of our time – produces dispossessed citizens. In the state of exception, the law maintains itself even after its own suspension (Agamben, state of exception 59). This is also the condition of the law of a world, in which, according to Agamben, crises have taken a perpetual form separated from any kind of judgment that may end it (Agamben, “The Endless Crisis”). Mad Max: Fury Roald also depicts such proximity of crisis narrative with a figure of law that dispossesses citizens. Such representation of crisis in a dystopian world is also analogous to the representation of normalized crisis that Mark Fisher describes as a symptom of capitalist realism. According to Mark Fisher; “the normalization of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable (1). It is a situation epitomized by a phrase popularized by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek; “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (Fisher 2). To Fisher, Dystopian movies and novels of the past were cultural objects in which an alternative way of living could be imagined, a crisis and disaster often were a prelude to a new world and ways of living. However, in our time, capitalist realism has become so reified in our cultural imagination that even dystopian movies struggle to depict an alternative to the capitalist way of living (Fisher 2). Such reification of capitalist realism is radically depicted in Mad Max, as in it the world ends, yet the crisis remains – the military-industrial ideology of the possessed subject that “killed the world” not only survives the death of the civilization but also have taken over the remnant of post-apocalyptic religion and politics. Movies like Mad Max thus face challenges that require attention from contemporary political analysis of impasse, as they are among the last remaining bunkers in the Gramscian sense, in which the hegemony of neoliberal ideology – capitalist realism – is contested. 

Giorgio Agamben

The crisis of resources, energy, and war has ended the human civilization in Mad Max, yet it is exactly these crises that are most acute in this world, and are shown to be instrumental to Immortan Joe’s despotic rule. War for energy and energy for war is the telos of this dystopian world. In the stronghold called The Citadel, Immortan Joe owns everything, including other human beings, because he owns the rarest of the resources in the post-apocalyptic desert – water. Citizenship in The Citadel means the proprietorship of Immortan Joe. It is a citizenship inscribed by dispossession, legally and also – literally on the body of the dispossessed as they bear the brand of Immortan Joe. Even though it is a world in which human civilization is dead and the survivors fight to the death for the bare minimum, it is not a pure state of nature. It is not that there is nothing in the world of Mad Max that resembles the law, order, government, religion, and political economy as we know; rather we find in there their exact representatives. The dictatorship of Immortan Joe in The Citadel cannot be reduced as pure thuggery, as it is also as a sovereign order that reproduces a particular political economy as it is also gets reproduced by it. The society of dispossessed citizens in The Citadel is horizontally structured by their class as they are also spatially located. The nameless and unaccountable population residing at the base of the mountain on which The Citadel stands lives an impoverished and short life. Only a few members of the society are given “High life” at the top of the citadel, who are also the most valuable of Joe’s possession. Among them are also those who belong to his heavily vaulted harem, labeled as his “breeders”, whose sole purpose is to provide Joe with healthy heirs. And it is the escape and rebellion of these dispossessed subjects that change the telos of this movie; from a predetermined supply run to the gas town and the bullet firm, to an attempt towards redemption; in a journey through the fury road to a so-called “green place” – the utopia of this movie.   

Scene from Mad Max: Fury Road

The v8 cult as the unquestioned religion and ideology of The Citadel also makes it apparent that the world of Mad Max is not a world in which legal and ideological canons and apparatuses have disappeared. Immortan Joe is also the prophet and God of this cult, the sole provider of redemption who promises a mechanical reincarnation and eternal afterlife in a paradise called “Valhalla” to his followers. What makes it difficult for us is to grasp Immortan Joe’s sovereign rule as a legal order is that in it we cannot differentiate law from pure violence, religious ideology from death-cult, leaders from thugs, and the political economy from exploitation and brutality. Apart from being the capitalist order of property in its most extreme and skeletal form, and the religious ideology of the v8 cult, the sovereign order of Immortan Joe lies in pure human action, in a zone of anomie. According to Agamben, in a zone of exception “wherein lies a human action without relation to the norm—coincides with an extreme and spectral figure of the law” (State of Exception 60). It is a condition in which nomos and anomie become undecidable, as in the body of the sovereign figure who rules through such law (State of Exception 70). In the rule of Immortan Joe, we see such undecidability between nomos and anomie. It is also a world in which – nomos is shown to be a brand of the anomie, sometimes as brandings on human bodies. Owing to Derrida and to the subsequent use in literary and cultural criticism, the spectral metaphor generally refers to entities that exist in between binary places or forms such as life and death, real and fiction, powerful and impotent (Boletsi 24). For Agamben, Spectral law exists as a duality between pure applicability and pure being in force – as force of law (State of Exception 60). In our contemporary world, the state of exception is generally given a temporary, legal, and human face. But in the world of Mad Max, the exception is given an inhuman and ghostly feature, as the spectrality of Immortan Joe is also visually represented. His skull-like breathing device, skeletal armor, and white powder covered body gives him a living dead appearance. Immortan Joe thus appears to be a character ambiguously representing life and death, law and lawlessness, divine and demonic. As if in the sovereignty of a deified living dead, the spectral figure of the capitalist legal order survives beyond its own collapse in a post-apocalyptic world, in symbiotic relationship with a religious order that appears to be a syncretic relic of after-life mythos and redemptive theologies of the old world. But such a post-apocalyptic condition of capitalism is not unlike that of our capitalist present, as according to Fisher; “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics “(4).

In Mad Max; Fury Road; spectral metaphors and visual representations also play crucial role in attempts of encountering and negating the spectral figure of law. Max, the protagonist of the movie is a character who represents both spectral subjectivity and spectral law. As an ex-cop, his very existence in the post-apocalyptic desert makes him a figure of the law that dwells in a zone of its own suspension, as we hear him narrating in the prologue, “I was a Cop…As the world fell, each of us in our own way, was broken”. Through his focalization of events, we are confronted with a spectral world that exists in between reality and his lucid imagination, a spectral world that often saturates the whole post-apocalyptic reality of this movie. As a spectral figure of law, Max is not simply the spectral law that haunts and abandons but is also haunted by those it could not protect. He is haunted by the ghosts of characters long dead, and these spectral figures often become responsible for his actions in the real world. Most decisive of such spectral agency can be ascribed to an epiphany of Max that provides the group of protagonists with “hope”, and a chance for “redemption”. While Immortan Joe is the sole redeemer claimant; for Furiosa, one of Joe’s general, redemption is helping a group of women who have become dispossessed of their bodies as “breeders” of Joe – to escape to the green place. And, when the green place turned out to be non-existing, Furiosa and the rest attempted to have “some kind of redemption” by revolutionizing The Citadel.

Such play around the concept of “redemption” endows it with new significance even after its older use and promise have been exposed as fake or fictional – repetitively. Agamben, in his book state of exception uses the concepts of “play” and “new use” as ways through which characters at Kafka’s novel “The Trial” attempts to study and deactivate the spectral figure of law, so that a “new use” of the law can become possible (State of Exception 64). However, the concept of play in Agamben’s writing is connected with his broader philosophy of profanation and such act of playful profanations are not limited to attempts of liberating and making new use out of things that belong to the legal sphere, but also to the religious and the economic spheres (Attell 261). In Mad Max: Fury Road, the political agency of the dispossessed and spectral subjects often coincide with such plays. Splendid uses her vulnerability and plays with her dispossessed legal condition to protect her comrades. The martyrdom of war boy Nux, however, deserves particular attention.

The war boys are also endowed with spectral subjectivity, as they are short-lived “half-lives” whose appearance symbolizes their condition of being in between life and death, man and machine. They are the fanatic military core of Joe for whom the v8 cult and martyrdom provides some kind of significance to their life. Even after the fictional nature of the v8 cult was exposed to Nux, and while he was participating in the coup d’état against Immortan Joe and sacrificing his life for his comrades, he still participated in the martyrdom ritual of witnessing which was associated with the cult. Here, the agency of Nux coincides with the transformation of the martyrdom ritual into “play”, as for Agamben; ritual fixes and structures…; play, on the other hand, though we do not yet know how and why, changes and destroys (Attell 261). Thus, it can be argued that through such play with the spectral form of legal, religious, and economic conditions that are associated with capitalist realism and perpetual crisis, Mad Max: Fury Road attempts to decisively confront such realism, and spectral subjectivities play the central protagonist role in such confrontation.


Agamben, Giorgio. State of exception, Translated by Kevin Attell. The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Agamben, Giorgio. “The Endless Crisis as an Instrument of Power: In conversation with Giorgio AgambenVerso. https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/1318-the-endless-crisis-as-an-instrument-of-power-in-conversation-with-giorgio-agamben

Attell, Kevin. Giorgio Agamben, Beyond the Threshold of Deconstruction. Fordham University Press, 2015.

Boletsi, Maria. “The Revenge of Fiction in New Languages of Protest: Holograms, Post-truth, and the Literary Uncanny.” Frame2, 2018.

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism; Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.

  • Parvez Alam, Writer and Activist

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