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V for Vendetta: Representations of revolution in popular culture

November 10, 2008 | By

When V exploded into the giant screen from pages of a comic book, media and public greeted it with very contradictory but equally impassioned emotions.

1

A strange figure traverses the labyrinthine London streets in secret; he wears a Guy Fawks mask, chants quotations from Yeats, Shakespeare and Blake, blasts away the old post office and Jordon tower while conducting an illusory orchestra from his balcony and talks to the statue of Lady Justice before blowing Old Bailey in mock jealous rage. He calls himself V. But who is he? His identity remains a secret. When V exploded into the giant screen from pages of a comic book, media and public greeted it with very contradictory but equally impassioned emotions. In paranoia driven US and British society many were upset and outraged by a film they thought endorsed terrorism; while others dissatisfied with neo-conservative policies of their governments saw the film as a mirror of the time to come. Produced by Warner Brothers the film grossed millions of dollars worldwide and generated large volume of discourse in popular as well as scholarly circles. The film effectively became a generator of opinions and critical theoretic observations. Coupled with the comics that inspired it, the film raises serious political questions, some of which I propose to examine in this article.

V for Vendetta: Representations of revolution in popular culture

V for Vendetta written by Alan Moore, illustrated by David Lloyd was first published during an era of growing Thatcherism. The film adaptation (released on 17 March 2006) was directed by James McTeigue (first assistant director on The Matrix films) from a screenplay by the Wachowski brothers. Wachowskis relocated the story from 1997 fascist Britain to 2020 Americanized neo-conservative totalitarian England. Alan Moore has famously disowned the film stating in an interview “[The movie] has been turned into a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country… It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives—which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.” Many of comics’ fans share same opinion, but I would argue that the film cannot be dismissed simply as naïve and ‘commercial’ compared with the high brow comic book.

The comic book is indeed subversive in many ways, especially in the context of the alleged limitations of the comics’ medium. Though traditionally looked down upon as ‘low art’ and subject to certain categories of generalizations, comics have always been sufficiently multifarious in its form and content to resist superficial homogenization. The text I am concerned with falls inside the dominant genre of meta-narratives but as we shall see, they challenge the hegemony of conventional semiotic exchange expected from comics like the invincibility of hero, primacy of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ etc.

II

One of the crucial questions haunting contemporary leftists is the relevance of revolutionary practice in bringing about socio-political transformation. Left academia as well as activists is divided over their relationship to possibility and desirability of revolution as an act of bringing down global capitalism. The question is deceptively simple and often repeated: What is to be done in this climate of growing political and economic authoritarianism, from neo-conservatism in US to repressive state corporatism in countries like Russia and China. V for Vendetta speaks for revolution and revolutionary violence at a time when these concepts have been widely discredited as leading to totalitarianism. What kind of revolution is V after? The comic book is quiet clear in this point; V identifies himself as an Anarchist and orchestrates an Anarchist revolution, one which constitutes three phases:

  1. Destruction: Assassination of prominent party members and blowing up buildings that are symbols of state power.
  2. Chaos: With the cracking up of disciplinary state apparatuses the mass openly participate in subversive activities that were so long repressed. But these activities are not necessarily moderated by political consciousness. They rather signify the breakdown of law and order and acceleration of the old regime’s demise.
  3. Creation: When repressive, totalitarian and archaic forms of law and order have been demolished, new forms of order will be explored and experimented with. Order will be conceived as not opposed to freedom but embracing freedom for it will not be imposed from above but produced by each individual from below through mutual co-operation.

V for Vendetta: Representations of revolution in popular culture

This schema for revolution is directly inspired by a certain strand of anarchism known as ‘Propaganda by the deed’ that promoted physical violence against political enemies as a way of inspiring the masses and catalyzing revolution. Fin de siècle Europe and United States of America was the stage where bloody spectacle of assassination and bombings by anarchists was played out. State in its turn retaliated ruthlessly and most instigators were caught and given the death penalty. The foundations of capitalist empires were not shaken; rather the violence was used to justify imposition of state of exception whereby state repression was legitimized; in the film Norsefire’s rise to power is replicated on similar lines. But the crucial difference is ‘terrorist’ activities like poisoning of St.Mungo that provoked people to vote for Norsefire was actually performed by the party itself. There is a double mirroring her; one, between party as the clandestine terrorist and party as ‘savior’; two, terrorism and chaos creating the possibility of party clinching power and V’s acts of terror directed towards demolishing that power. Close reading of these multiple mirroring reveals dissonance in the seemingly monolithic political ideas embodied in the comic and film. Rather it seems that a host of political theories of revolution lie concealed behind Guy Fawks’ smiling visage.

V’s tactics not only echoes anarchist terrorist activities but also a certain strand of Leninism, one that passionately advocates theory of vanguard party as the vehicle of revolution. In his hugely influential pamphlet ‘What is to be done?’ published in 1902, Lenin claimed that the proletariat does not inherently possess class consciousness required for a communist revolution, its consciousness is trade unionist at best, not social democratic. Hence the need for a revolutionary party, an organization of professional revolutionaries capable of grasping Marx’s complex theories as well as deft at evading Czarist secret police, that will impart to the working class training and guidance required for developing a socialist ideology. The motif of party re-educating the mass is directly played out throughout the comic book in V’s relationship with Evie. The film is significantly different, instead of the weak and scared young girl of the comic book Evie is a mature and faintly rebellious young woman from the beginning. This discrepancy in Evie’s characterization is symptomatic of distortions of all the characters of the comic book. One can argue against the desirability and necessity of linear adaptation of source material; despite such objections fact is the film disappoints in its characterization. In translation V loses much of his vaudevillian vigor and edginess; the party leaders specially Sutler become hollow and anachronistic caricature of past dictators and inspector Finch turns into a good hearted cop trapped in a wrong system. All this smacks of oversimplification. One of the few sequences of the film that feels authentic is one involving V’s torture of Evie. This brilliantly represents the idea of party’s re-education of mass taken to an extreme, where the party seeks to destroy deep rooted ruling ideology which is a false consciousness ingrained in the working class. This entails breaking and re-forming the subjects’ subjectivity, violently if necessary. It inevitably problematizes notions of ethical behavior towards the ‘other’. Even if we accept that revolution calls for radical effacement of ones old subjectivity mired in predominant ideology, to make way for the coming into being of a new subjectivity more attuned to revolutionary ideology, a process of ‘subjective destitution’ ; the question remains whether such an act of subjective destitution can be imposed from above, without the ‘others’ consent. For this is exactly what happens in the film and the comic book, V takes up the responsibility of releasing Evie from her fear by terrorizing her. The symbolic references are hard to miss, Evie represents the mass that is first re-educated then loved and finally, in the comic book but not the film, handed over the identity of V. The party, once it has accomplished its task of training the mass opens its doors to them. However the film doesn’t adopt the teleology of revolution sketched in the comic. Evie forgives V’s deception as she understands its necessity; but this retroactive justification of an unethical act as necessary and essential is highly disturbing. This way of thinking rests on the assumption that ‘old’ notions of ethics, justice and law are to be re-examined and frequently overturned for creating and living in a revolution.

V for Vendetta: Representations of revolution in popular culture

The problem in this approach is two fold: one, it assumes that not only actual codes of conduct like law but also, more abstract concepts like justice and ethical behavior can be dismissed, put on hold or even inverted when deemed necessary in the course of a revolution; two, that one can simply abandon the ‘false’ binary distinction between ethical and unethical behavior in favour of a ‘supra-ethical’ one. The ‘act’ then becomes something that cannot be judged from ‘inside’ the current ‘liberal’ discourse on justice and freedom. Only after a radical shifting of conceptual co-ordinates brought about by ‘subjective destitution’ one can start understanding and perhaps then judge the act that produced it. All this can be and has been easily deployed in legitimizing state repression, the inequality of knowledge/power between an exclusivist revolutionary party and the mass it seeks to emancipate can create grounds where almost any activity by the party imposed on the mass can be justified. V for Vendetta succeeds in portraying such a schema of revolution and hinting at the problems that can arise from it. The mirroring of fascism and revolutionary terror is brilliantly shown in the sequence where Deitrich in one of the episodes of his television show lampoons Chancellor Adam Sutler. The episode features a paranoid Sutler and V in a clownish avatar creating mayhem on the stage; when V’s mask is removed the weathered face of Chancellor is revealed. In mock comic fashion the film hints at the merging of identity between the fascist dictator and anti-authoritarian V. Curiously this scene owns nothing to comic, it is tempting to read it as cryptic criticism of Moore’s excessive romanticizing of individualized carnivalesque terror. The last scene of the film where thousands of Londoners march towards Parliament donning Guy Fawks masks to witness its promised destruction seems somehow out of joint with the rest of the film. While the seat of government is blown up in orchestration with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the people remove their mask, their naked faces displaying wide range of emotions. These two scenes bestows to an otherwise watered down and politically bland film adaptation an opaque subversive quality that is all the more fascinating because they owe nothing to the comic book. Coupled with the sequence involving V’s almost suicidal death they represent an attempt at deconstructing the dissonant revolutionary ideas like necessity of vanguard party, individual acts of terror and suspension of ethical judgment that the comic and film expounds.

The subversive potential of the comic lied in its raising crucial political questions like the relevance of revolutionary violence in this epoch. That it goes beyond liberal relativist discourse and tries to conceptualize an anarchist society, that it goes beyond the binary formulae of ‘good’ government versus ‘bad’, and brands all government as oppressive is something that was rarely seen in the mainstream comic book medium till then. I would contend that rather than dismissing V’s incredible actions as imitation of superhero antics, it is more interesting to read in them nostalgia for one man vanguard party. The film in key scenes goes a step forward in putting these subversive ideas under scrutiny from which emerges mis-trust for this myth of ‘party’ as absolute arbitrator of revolution. Where the film fails utterly is in imagining a post-revolution society. The visible assumption is destruction of the regime will be enough to create foundations of a new society. Whereas the comic book tries to sketch the possibilities and dangers arising out of destruction of government, the film ends abruptly on a naïve optimistic note.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Sayam Ghosh works in software industry for a living; likes spending his spare time reading, playing sarod, watching films, travelling and (occasionally ) cooking.
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