ReligionProf Podcast Special: Batman in Bowling Green

ReligionProf Podcast Special: Batman in Bowling Green May 1, 2019


I recently had the opportunity to make a guest appearance on the program at a conference about Batman that took place at Bowling Green State University.  I call it a “guest appearance” because I was not originally slated to be on the program, but after a good friend of mine had to cancel after he was already on the draft program, we were able to arrange for a substitution. I thus focused on engaging with his work on the subject of Batman as Nietzschean Übermensch. Matt Brake then responded, making the case that the Joker better fits that category.

The session after ours was going to feature podcaster Christopher Maverick (who goes by “Mav”) and Mav kindly agreed to record my presentation and Matt’s. Thanks to him, you can listen to this session as this week’s episode of the ReligionProf Podcast.

In addition, you can listen to Mav’s podcast from the conference, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Batman,” on his Vox Populorum Podcast. You can also listen via the Christian Humanist Podcast. For more general information about that event, do take a look at Bob Cunningham’s piece on the BGSU website about it, and then for more detail check out Stella Bowman’s podcast and Trey Jackson’s recap.

On my way to the conference, I brushed up on the history of Batman by listening to an audiobook in the car: Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusader. I highly recommend the audiobook – the way voices of fans and others are done makes the book all the more entertaining!

On the next page, I’ll share some photos from the venue, the William T. Jerome Library building at Bowling Green State University, which also houses the Ray & Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies as well as the Music Library & Bill Schurk Sound Archives. We were given a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the popular culture collection, which is not browsable, items instead having to be located through the catalog and then access requested, and so this was a very special privilege indeed.

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  • John MacDonald

    Growing up my favorite superhero was Spiderman, but now it is definitely Batman. My favorite line from the Gotham universe is when the Joker, from inside Arkham Asylum, says to Batman “If it ever gets too hard for you out there, there is always room for you in here.”

    As an aside, This month’s Biblical Studies Carnival is out today and my article on Just Criminal typology in GMark is a part of it! Here is the carnival:

  • arcseconds

    As you know, James, I’ve been following your podcast faithfully if a little slowly (I’m a bit behind, as you can see), and I’ve just listened to this, and found I have rather a lot to say about it.

    (I’m sure it says something about me that after a lot of interesting material, it’s a podcast on Batman and Nietzsche that provokes me to comment, but I’m not sure what exactly that would be…)

    Firstly, I feel the interpretative difficulties need to be pointed out, and, to put it bluntly, they weren’t. I presume that the interpretative difficulties for Batman are, in the main, obvious to the conference-goers and probably pretty obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with the history of the character and who has thought about it for five minutes, but the concept of the übermensch in Nietzsche is not so obvious.

    My perception is that the popular understanding of Nietzsche is that he lays out, somewhere, in a kind of textbook-like fashion a pretty systematic philosophy, in which there’s a figure called ‘the übermensch’ who is clearly described as having certain features, like the ones you and Matt Brake and the audience member at the end attribute to him.

    But the übermensch only figures by name to any great extent in Thus Spake Zarathustra, and even there it’s hard to know what to make of the figure. Zarathustra preaches the comming of the übermensch, and longs for this, but what exactly they’re going to be like is not made very clear. They’re supposed to be a kind of replacement for God, that’s one of the few things that is clear.

    To get to definitive statements like ‘the übermensch can’t be resentful or “the übermensch constantly recreates himself” (despite not much being said of this figure that is to come, for Nietzsche he is at least gramatically masculine, I’ll have more to say about gender later), other works have to be put to use, like Beyond Good and Evil, but as there is no reference to the übermensch in that work(only a reference to the gods laughing in a superhuman fashion), one has, I think, ceased being an interpreter, and started constructing something Nietzsche doesn’t give us: a systematic philosophy including an übermensch figure about which quite a lot can be said.

    Such a philosophy might be said to be inspired by Nietzsche (‘freely, after Nietzsche’, maybe?) but it isn’t Nietzsche.

    (I was told by Nietzsche scholar once that one has no business quoting Nietzsche unless one can cite chapter and verse as to where he deliberately contradicts the statement one is about to attribute to him. I don’t hold myself to this, so I won’t hold anyone else to it, but I say it anyway to emphasize the difficulties in interpreting him…)

    Something that stuck rigorously to the text would need to show how Batman or whomever matches only what is said of the übermensch in Thus Spake, rather than indulging in übermensch fan fiction.

    Here we could prooftext our way to the Joker being the übermensch: ―

    * “I suspect you would call my übermensch ― the devil!”
    * “evil is man’s best force”
    * “The evilest is necessary for the übermensch’s best

    But do either the Joker or Batman fit this? :―

    “So alien are ye in your souls to what is great, that to you the Superman would be FRIGHTFUL in his goodness!

    And ye wise and knowing ones, ye would flee from the solar-glow of the wisdom in which the Superman joyfully batheth his nakedness! ”

    And which of them, if any, could one expect Nietzsche ―
    or Zarathustra and his disciples ―
    longing fervently for, and seeing as a replacement for God? Who have they prepared the way for, and whom would justify this faithful preparation?

  • arcseconds

    Anyway, given that the game is comparing Batman and the Joker to a rationally-reconstructed übermensch, I am with the audience commenter: neither really measures up. Batman is disqualified because of his resentment and his ‘stewing’ (and his acceptance of conventional morality), and the Joker is disqualified because he doesn’t create new values, he just smashes stuff.

    I am also unconvinced by the notion that the Joker continually reinvents himself. It’s true that the Batman canon presents us with many different Jokers, but is it the case that in any given continuity, he reinvents himself? I am not sufficiently imbued with Batman lore to rule this out, but I do not know of a single instance of this, and if it were common enough to be considered a feature of the Joker, as opposed to one particular interpretation of the character, I think it’s likely I woul have at least heard of it.

    I think what generally happens is that the Joker ‘invents himself’ once, when he becomes the Joker, and after that remains what he is, in this he is like the Batman. It’s true that he’s capricious and inconsistent, but these features are constant, and he is after all supposed to be insane.

    I am also even less convinced of the notion that the Joker is beyond good and evil. This is a little difficult to assess as the übermensch is going to appear as evil to many people, as they are unconstrained by conventional morality (we might call him the devil!).

    But the arguments given are not convincing. They seem to assume that there is a ‘side’ – ‘the baddies’, that the Joker is also against. But the fact he also acts against them is kind of uninteresting: there is nothing that allys the villains, they do not repesent a genuine ‘side’ themselves. One wouldn’t expect this simply from an understanding of their motivations: they are not after a shared end, but rather their own ends. And the genre itself is fairly aware of this, it’s kind of a mainstay that the occasional alliance among villains tend to fall apart. None of them ‘play nice’ with each other. Are they all therefore ‘beyond good and evil’?

    And again that the Joker kills some kind of incarnation of evil is also unpersuasive. Here again the interpretation becomes a bit difficult, because for there to be an ‘incarnation of evil’ one has to suppose there is a particular thing evil is for there to be an incarnation of it, and this is not a view that Nietzsche would hold with. I suppose it might make sense to talk about someone as being especially transgressive of conventional morality, but it’s not clear to me that that’s not the Joker! I’m not familiar with Dr. Hurt, but there’s nothing in the wikipedia page that suggests that he’s any more transgressive.

    Of Batman’s conventional morality, much was made of his ‘no kill’ rule. The audience commenter thought it might be a value he’s created for himself, which the übermensch can do, but I think we have to see it as kind of Kantian, like Brake suggests. It really seems to me as though Batman sees this as a kind of categorical imperative, more than some kind of self-defining existential act. Also, it seems as though it’s adopted fairly wholesale from conventional morality.

    Against this, I am inclined to point out that actually Batman seems out of step with the views of very many Americans on this score. Currently (well, in 2017) the plurality (but not the majority) were in favour of the death penalty, but that’s unusual, for most of his history the majority (often a large supermajority) have been in favour.

    (I’m not sure when his ‘no kill’ policy became canonical, that might be interesting to know.)

    Perhaps that’s not the right indicator, as one could take the view that the State is entitled to punish with death in a way private inviduals are not, although this doesn’t stop the Batman doing plenty of other things only the State is normally thought of as being entitled to do (on the gripping hand, he does seem to think (most of the time), it’s not his job to punish people, that’s the State’s job). But even more people think deadly force is OK if it’s a matter of self-defense and defense of others.

    • Thank you so much for these insightful comments! As I said, I was representing someone else at the conference, and sought to do so as well as I could, but I don’t have a “personal view” on this matter, because neither Batman nor Nietzsche is really my area of expertise!

      • John MacDonald

        Dr McGrath, speaking of the intersection of Philosophy and the Popular Imagination, I hope it’s okay if I (shamelessly, lol) plug my new Online project:

        Announcing the “HEIDEGGER FOR EVERYONE” Project !

        With occasional input/feedback from some members of the prestigious Heidegger Circle (see ) I’ve started an online blog project to try and disseminate some of Heidegger’s ideas to a general, non-specialist audience.

        ***So far, this is what I have:

        (A) My blog site is: (Palpatine is the emperor from Star Wars, lol)

        (B) I am blogging my way through Dr. Richard Polt’s anthology “Heidegger’s Being and Time: Critical Essays” in preparation to read/present “Being and Time.” So far I have touched on:

        1. Jean Grondin, “Why Reawaken the Question of Being?” see my thoughts at

        2. Karin de Boer, “The Temporality of Thinking: Heidegger’s Method” see my thoughts at

        3. Graeme Nicholson, “The Constitution of Our Being” see my thoughts at:

        4. (2 PART) Charles Guignon, “Heidegger’s Anti-Dualism: Beyond Mind and Matter” see my thoughts at (PART 1) and (PART 2)

        Next I will begin to cover:

        5.William McNeill, “The Genesis of Theory,” from The Glance of the Eye: Heidegger, Aristotle, and the Ends of Theory

        6. Günter Figal, “Being-with, Dasein-with, and the ‘They’ as the Basic Trait of Unfreedom” from Martin Heidegger: Phänomenologie der Freiheit

        7. Steven Crowell, “Subjectivity: Locating the First-Person in Being and Time”

        8.Hubert L. Dreyfus, “Can there be a Better Source of Meaning than Everyday Practices? Reinterpreting Division I of Being and Time in the Light of Division II.”

        9. Daniel O. Dahlstrom, “Genuine Timeliness”

        10. Jeffrey Andrew Barash, “Historical Meaning in the Fundamental Ontology of Being and Time”

        11. Theodore Kisiel, “The Demise of Being and Time: 1927-1930”

        12. Dieter Thomä, “Being and Time in Retrospect: Heidegger’s Self-Critique”

        (C) Some general thoughts on Heidegger and Phenomenology:

        (1) General overview of Phenomenology as revealing the “always, already,” even though it is initially hidden, and Phenomenology Proper as uncovering the conditions of the appearance of phenomena, with focus on dis-closing time (Part 1) : see

        (2) Further focus on dis-closing time, this time with special attention to Heidegger’s text “The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, 1927 (Part 2): see:

        (D) Hubert L. Dreyfus’s Lecture Course (I will be working through Dreyfus’s lecture course as a means of orienting myself to Being and Time – this to start soon !)

        *************That’s where I am so far. If anyone has any suggestions/criticisms or guidance for any of this please do message me or post a response on my blog. MORE POSTS TO COME SHORTLY!

  • arcseconds

    On gender and the übermensch:

    1) As far as I know, Nietzsche never gives any real indication that the übermensch transcends gender. I scanned through Thus Spake and looked at every mention last week, and I couldn’t find anything that suggested anything of the sort.

    2) the argument that Brake gives, that ‘mensch’ (and hence ‘übermensch’) are not gendered words is extremely weak. ‘Mensch’ often gets used where English has tended to use ‘man’, it’s simply a feature of German. Sure, Nietzsche could have used ‘mann’ had he wanted to emphasize masculinity here, but stopping short of explicitly indicating masculinity can hardly be equated with indicating gender-transcendence.

    And it has to be noted that Nietzsche still uses masculine gender when talking about the übermensch: he uses ‘er’ (he) and ‘der’ (masculine definite article). ‘Mensch’ is still grammatically masculine, so perhaps one could say Nietzsche’s just following the grammar here, but given the topic it’s worth underscoring the ‘male as default’ that is even embedded in the language here.

    ‘Mensch’ no more indicates gender transcendence then ‘someone’ does in English. If we read “Someone will come along to sort out all these problems someday” there’s no expectation that this someone is going to be a gender-transcending figure.

    3) It can and has been argued that Nietzsche is no gender-essentialist and therefore suggest that he might expect gender to be overcome in some sense (or that a reconstructed ‘Nietzscheanism’ has a place for this), given enough self-determination and creation of new values. But Brake doesn’t make this argument.

    4) It’s not enough for the Joker to be depicted as gender-bending in a single depiction to say this is a feature of the Joker in general.

    5) This goes double (or more!) for a depiction that only appears in a draft!

    6) How can Brake tell that Batman is uncomfortable with the transgression of gender norms over and above the sexual assault, when the Joker grabs his arse? The notion that we can decompose the emotional reaction here to be [horror at sexual assualt] + [horror at same-sex action] seems incredibly problematic, I mean really “it’s awful you were sexuall harassed by your lecturer, but at least she’s hot!”, “it’s awful that you were raped in prison, but at least you’re gay!”. Hopefully the comic is clearer about this and Brake simply isn’t expressing himself very well.

    7) As an aside, if we did get a more obviously gender-bending Joker, such as the transvestite Joker in the draft Brake mentions, I don’t think that’d do anything to constructively undermine traditional gender norms, in fact quite the reverse. I appreciate the point that for all sorts of reasons we need minorities represented amongst the villains and ordinary people as well as the heroes. But the Joker is already transgressive in horrific ways, and mentally unhinged. I think it’d just send the message that gender-bending is just another disturbing, horrific transgression, another form of madness, perpetrated by an unhinged person.

    I think there’s already a bit of a history of gender-bending villains where the implication is that it’s part of the perversity? I can think of a couple of examples from anime. Also of course things have been made of the supposed gender-bending of historical
    figures like Hoover and Goering .

    If you wanted to do this in a constructive manner, you’d have to do this with a villain with some admirable or at least sympathetic qualities.