Today is the fifth of November. Traditionally, this is a day marked by the lighting of bonfires, a day of kindle and match, of flint and tender, of flame and ash. It is a memorial characterized by burning.
It certainly has its history, this day. Many books have been written on the Gunpowder Plot and the public face of its agents, Guy Fawkes. However, there is a recent phenomenon which strikes me more around this time of year. Of course, this is the inclusion of V for Vendetta into the popular culture. One might be inclined to act on natural prejudicial stances towards comics, action movies, and the passing cultural whimsies they may cause, but I beg of you not to dismiss this instance as either merely uninformative or marginal and useless.
Alan Moore and David Lloyd published their politically and philosophically charged V for Vendetta between 1982 and 1989. The work’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian United Kingdom of the future resonated deeply with a culture that was then defined by the Cold-War and unrest between conservative and liberal government. The story’s commercial success was limited to a kind of comic-book sub-culture for more than a decade and a half, and it wasn’t until 2006 when it was released as a movie produced by the Wachowski brothers that it became the phenomenon that it is now.
I submit that this movie’s ascendancy to symbolic status is a matter of its affirmation of meaningfulness. This affirmation is not hard to see.
“There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?” -V
If there exists a truly central philosophical theme to the work I believe it is evident here at the penultimate moment of V’s speech to the public. “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” Those who may be close to Wittgenstein’s work will, I hope, be struck by this statement. (Instead of trying to expound upon Wittgenstein, I will try to clear the statement from V. I parse the statement as importantly laying emphasis on ‘means’ and ‘enunciation.’ ‘Means’ in the sentence states agency, or more precisely the active use of the words in the language. ‘Enunciation’, I think, highlights that the relationship between the signs and the meanings we intend them to express is organic. The employment of the signs enunciates the true by presenting articulate utterances.) The striking feature of the statement —its definitive structure— is the actual acceptance of meaningfulness and truth as viable utterances. It is unfortunate that this acceptance must be so revolutionary.
We should like, even more than pinpointing V’s position on truth, to see what the consequences are when we deny meaningfulness and truthful communication. For this, I would turn first towards Socrates and then towards Kierkegaard’s Two Ages. For Socrates questioning illuminates the path inward. Inspection of our personal orientations allow for a kind of knowledge of the self. In this way Socrates separated the individual from the crowd; he actively pressed his interlocutors on the emptiness of what they actually held to be true. Kierkegaard’s Two Ages, in turn, provides a kind of phenomenology of what it is to be part of what he called “The Herd.” His characterization of the leveling process is one in which the meaning in our relationships is removed. The phenomenon is that of never choosing to be introspective —of removing the concept of the individual by means of abdication of truth value. We lose ourselves in the crowd, which itself provides us with neatly packaged viewpoints and with illusory distractions, and in this inauthentic relationship we do not express anything of any real value to ourselves.
We should see, like V does, that we choose the inauthentic because it can be so seductive. It provides us with comfortable illusion while, in reality, we act irresponsibly:
“How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.” -V
Here’s the dirty little secret of V for Vendetta: The whole story is a live possibility for our society. We might think that the movie is too fanciful for the real world but this is not the case. We have seen the same dystopia in our history. (Most recently in Germany before and during the Second World War.) These are extreme cases, though, and they come about once the vast majority of a society gives over to a single herd. The fact of the matter in the case of the individual is that thinking about the world authentically is hard. It is scary, and it may entail going against what we want to believe. We may have to admit we are wrong sometimes, or that some of us are better or worse at what we do than others are. In light of our fears, or of our lack of will, we give up on our choosing to look at our positions and turn that responsibility over to the crowd.
We should understand that the reason V is a symbol for so many is that we live in a world which assaults us with viewpoints and rhetoric and an unending deluge of raw information with which we cannot deal effectively. The age of the 24/7 news channel and of web 2.0 are ages not of discourse, but of the inauthentic regurgitation of rhetorical trope and insubstantial, meaningless vocalization. Politically, the age of the primacy of monetary involvement between businesses and the government makes us doubtful of our own ability to speak and be heard. These systems, among others, are used the same ways that the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation. To be the individual is to be a hostile presence to the crowd, and thus it is the society as an inclusive whole that robs us of our voice.
It remains the case that we may “decline to accept the end of man.” We do this by being revolutionary, and today all that is needed for that is to believe again in the power of words to enunciate truth. Here, then are two illustrations of this commitment to truth. The first is very short:
“That man will be revolutionary who can revolutionize himself.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein “Culture and Value”
The second is a bit longer. It comes from the final chapter of Farenheit 451, entitled “Burning Bright.”
“There was a silly damn bird called a Phoenix back before Christ: every few hundred years he built a pyre and burned himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again. And it looks like we’re doing the same thing, over and over, but we’ve got one damn thing the Phoenix never had. We know the damn silly thing we just did. We know all the damn silly things we’ve done for a thousand years, and as long as we know that and we always have it around where we can see it, some day we’ll stop making the goddam funeral pyres and jumping into the middle of them. [...]
[...] And hold on to one thought: You’re not important. You’re not anything. Some day the load we are carrying with us may help someone. But even when we had the books on hand, a long time ago, we didn’t use what we got out of them. We went right on insulting the dead. We went right on spitting in the graves of all the poor ones who died before us. We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we’re doing, you can say, ‘We’re remembering.’ “
From this, a final thought: It is as if we are all of us speakers for the dead, that all of us carry the meanings with us. And though we may be beaten and broken for it, there exists no acceptable reason whatsoever to abdicate our intellectual responsibilities; no acceptable reason to stop groping towards the revolutionary. If the activity of revolution be a struggle, then so much the better for all of us who attempt it.
So, on this fifth of November, let the fires be kindled for those honored thinkers amongst both the living and the dead who have gone before, those revolutionaries who themselves illuminate our own paths, and in so doing, changed our world.