Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…
Today is the fifth of November. Across the pond in ol’ Blighty at least some people will be celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the House of Lords in 1605. I imagine that even as I type this, many have seen their Facebook walls spammed with various quotes from V for Vendetta – in particular with quotes from the inferior film version. I’ve talked before about how people frequently seem to miss a point that Moore was making, and in honor of Guy Fawkes I am going to do so again, albeit as relates to a slightly different point.
I have lost count of the number of times I have read V for Vendetta for both academic research and personal pleasure. It would not be unfair to say that the scene central to today’s discussion is a large part of what made me focus on comicbooks as my primary locus from which to start philosophical discussions. The scene in question comes to us from Book Two (“The Vicious Cabaret”), Chapter Three (“Video”) of V for Vendetta. For those of you who might like to refresh your memories, or reread the relevant section before or after this post, it occupies pages 108 – 117 of the tradepaperback edition of V.
This particular chapter features V taking over the state controlled video station and broadcasting a message to the people of London. It was this message that transformed me into the Comicbook Philosopher, as upon reading it I recognized in its words a paraphrasing of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Which is all well and good I hear you say, dear reader, but what is the content of this all important message?
Couched in the mask of a dismissal from one’s job, V informs the viewers of fictional London, and by extension we the presumably non-fictional reader, that we share as much blame for the state of the world as those directly responsible for Norsefire. Not because we approve of Norsefire’s pogrom to cleanse the impure from society. Not because we are actively part of the machinery which allows the wheels of state to function. Rather, our blame lies squarely with our refusal to take responsibility for the culture we created, and the world that gave birth to.
Yes, yes, I admit that for the sake of space and simplicity, in my last analysis of V I presented us as innocent victims caught between V’s actions and a repressive government. With the exception of our innocence, what I said there remains true; yet just as V is not unambiguously heroic, we are not unambiguous victims of his campaign.
If the world ended in nuclear fire, V tells us, it is because we elected the governments that brought us to that point. Even though we might turn our eyes, a single, dramatic crocodile tear rolling down our cheeks as the undesirables are lead away to the camps, we are the ones who allowed this situation to come about.
In the world outside of the comic page, V is indicting not merely the banks and the governments who colluded with them for the state of the economy; he is demanding that each and every one of us take responsibility for the world we helped create. He is reminding us that if corporations are building sweatshops in some third world country it is because we were more concerned with our Nike shoes, and iPods, with our cellphones, and watching the disintegration of Kim Kardashian’s 18 million dollar marriage, to say no before the fact, preferring instead to offer token protest only after we have allowed others to pay for our conveniences.
We might not be responsible for the day-to-day running of corporations and governments. We might cry out at the actions those corporations and governments take, but as much as we might deny it, these are actions done in our name. V tells us that with our refusal to take responsibility for our lives, to take proper stewardship of the world, we are all responsible the results.
It isn’t a pleasant message to hear, which is why I suspect so many prefer the unambiguous illusion of the film. Yet V reminds us that refusing to accept this responsibility means not only a failure to move toward authenticity, but that these events will simply repeat themselves.
We can spout quotes from V all we like, and rage against the Powers that Be so loudly that the heavens shake. Yet what Moore as the existential V, as Sartre’s mirror, is reminding us of is that the world will only change when we change ourselves, and that our continued refusal to accept responsibility only makes the road to get there that much longer.