I finally saw V for Vendetta, and I thought it was quite good. Despite Alan Moore’s rejection of the film, and his removal of his name from the credits, I thought the film was more faithful to his vision that I could have expected. (Though admittedly it has been a good while since I read the comic).
In any case, V for Vendetta pulls no punches: it doesn’t draw back from its more dangerous initial implications in the ways that high-budget adaptations of comics so often do. The destruction of the British Parliament at the end of the film is the most emphatic such endorsement of subversive terrorist action since Fight Club. More generally, V for Vendetta‘s depiction of a future fascist government is unambiguous: rather than trying to please all demographics, it identifies a deeply religious, homophobic, ultra-“patriotic,” imperialistic surveillance state as the source of oppression. (There is really no discussion of the power of Capital, which probably marks the limits of the film’s vision; but in our current sanctimonious, neocon circumstances, what we are shown will do. The film mediates cleverly between the very British setting — it was originally written by Moore during the Thatcher era — and its deliberate resonances with the current American situation).
Jodi has already written about some of the ways that V for Vendetta actually embodies “key elements of Zizek’s political theory” (even though Zizek isn’t cited here the way Baudrillard was in The Matrix). I think the film does maintain a surprisingly radical stance for a Hollywood movie; but the politics needs to be framed in terms of the formal conceits of the film. I was especially fascinated by the contrast between the ubiquitous face of the dictator (many times larger than life size on an enormous video monitor as he gives orders to his flunkies) and the facelessness of V., always wearing his creepily smiling Guy Fawkes mask (with the implication that there is no face even behind the mask, but only flayed flesh, muscles, etc., as a result of the biological experiments he endured, and his searing in the fire when he destroyed the laboratory/prison and escaped). This opposition is also one of voice: as the dictator speaks in hectoring tones to his flunkies, or condescendingly on gigantic public video screens to the public, his voice tends towards the hysterical, while the obscenely magnified opening and closing of his mouth, together with his far-from-perfect teeth command our visual attention. Meanwhile, we can never see V.’s mouth moving behind his mask; and his pronouncements, often filled with literary allusions, elaborate metaphors, over-polite diction from past centuries, and frequent alliteration, seem to be coming from nowhere on the screen; it’s more like a dispassionate voiceover narration. The unlocatability of V.’s voice, and the never-changing expression of his mask, are in fact the most disquieting things about the film.
I couldn’t help thinking of Mladen Dolar’s recent brilliant discussion of the ambiguities of the “object-voice” (I hope to write about this book in more detail shortly). The voice, Dolar says, perturbs the opposition between physicality (or the body) on the one hand, and disembodied language on the other, since it seems to belong to both and neither. This duality is also expressed in the way that the voice both inaugurates authority (the superego, conscience) and subverts it (an uncanny alterity, a voice that seems to come from elsewhere). Dolar writes about the role of the voice in politics (the fascist dictator on the radio, the deliberate colorlessness of the Communist leader’s voice, etc.) in ways that would seem relevant for V for Vendetta. V. opposes the lies of official authority (the voices of news commentators as well as of the dictator) with the truths enunciated in his own self-consciously distanced and alienated voice; but his facelessness and voice-from-elsewhere also put him in the same uncanny category as that of the centers of power.
This is part of the reason why, at the end of the film, V. abdicates his own (counter-)authority, leaving the political stage open for Evie (Natalie Portman), who must make the decision to destroy Parliament (symbolically challenge the system of power) on her own, as well as for the masses, who come together in order to confront the troops, and to witness the destruction of Parliament, in their own Guy Fawkes masks — and then take them off, revealing a sea of different, but all anticipatory and hopeful, faces. Despite Jodi’s Zizekian reading, this mass action seemed to me rather to figure the Hardt/Negri multitude, singularities unreconciled with one another, yet drawn together in the affirmation of what is common. It is perhaps one of the virtues of V for Vendetta to dramatize, and argue for, this commonness — in sharp contrast to Zizekian/Badiouian universality.
This is crucial, because V. has many of the characteristics of a comic-book superhero: close-to-invulnerability, a secret and impregnable hideout, the uncanny ability to do things singlehandedly (make bombs and plant them in locations that are under high security; send hundreds of thousands of packages all over the country without being traced; break into the heavily guarded locations to assassinate powerful individuals; etc) that it is hard to imagine even a well-financed guerrilla group accomplishing. The experiments of which V. was the victim presumably gave him these powers, along with providing him with the motive for his “vendetta” — personal revenge, which needs to be disentangled from the justice, and resistance to fascist oppression, for which he ostensibly stands. From a political point of view it is therefore crucial to move away from V.’s personalistic approach to resistance (this is, I think, what Jodi meant by the “messianic” aspects of the movie) in order to involve the people/the mass/the multitude — of whom Evie becomes the representative, not in the electoral sense, but in the sense that she is not irreplacable as V. seems to be, but could be anybody (even if she is unique by having become the one to be — accidentally, at first — chosen by V.). V.’s quasi superpowers are an impossible, comforting fantasy; in Zizek’s terms this means they are what covers up the horror of the Real, and substitutes in its place a bearable “reality.” But — as per Alan Moore’s repeated “deconstruction” of superhero fantasy — the image of V. needs itself to be somehow undone.
All of this leads to the crucial, and disturbing, sequence in which Evie is apparently captured by the authorities, her head shaven, tortured, pressured to confess or reveal information about V., and then sentenced to be shot by a firing squad when she refuses — but then we discover that this has been entirely staged by V. himself. This is the process of what Jodi (following Zizek) calls “subjective destitution” as a precondition for revolutionary action. When Evie no longer fears death, when she rates the cause of overthrowing the dictatorship as higher than her own life, she has conquered fear and (as V. tells her) is (for the first time in her life) free. Presumably, then, V. subjects Evie to so horrific a process for her own good (as well as for the good of the cause). Indeed, one can never will one’s own subjective destitution, it has to come somehow from outside. And, despite her initial anger, Evie does come to accept the whole process as vital and necessary, and this means both that she is indeed dedicated to the revolution as she hadn’t been before, and that she loves V. All this is quite difficult to take, and such difficulty is responsible for much of the power of the film.
Doesn’t it come down to the question of power and responsibility? Although V. describes himself as an artist, like Shakespeare or the great novelists, who uses lies in order to get at the truth (in contrast to ruling politicians and their media flunkies, who use lies in order to conceal the truth), the cynicism, or coldness, of the whole sequence of Evie’s imprisonment and torture leaves a bitter aftertaste. What authorizes V. to inhabit the superior perspective from which he is able, indeed, to torture Evie for her own good? It is precisely his superhero status, the fantasy that needs to be demystified, that grants him this authority. And I’m inclined to argue that this is what is wrong with Zizek’s Leninism, his glorification of the revolutionary act, as well. It’s precisely a fantasy, but the one that Zizek himself is not willing to traverse and to give up (or recognize the meaningless contingency of). (I am not sure I am getting the Lacanian/Zizekian terms right here, but I hope my basic point is getting through anyway). I think that V for Vendetta exposes the deadlock behind the romanticization of “subjective destitution” (perhaps achieved by subordinating one’s own opinions and desires to the dictates of a revolutionary party?) as being the precondition for revolutionary action (not to mention the psychoanalytic cure).
In any case, it is hard to reconcile this process of (imposed) “subjective destitution” with V.’s later (unacknowledged) quote from Emma Goldman about needing a revolution in which one can dance. The latter, I guess, would be more the Hardtian/Negrian revolution of the multitude, that takes place with Spinozian joy rather than Lacanian sacrifice. Not that I really believe the latter is a tenable process in our current environment either. But perhaps V for Vendetta does a better job than either Hardt/Negri or Zizek of focusing on the impasse of radical action today, of rejecting (as k-punk always puts it) the tale told us by Capitalist Realism that “there is no alternative.”
This is perhaps a place where Bataille is still relevant. We cannot do without positing some position of sovereignty, but the sovereignty must “expiate itself” (which is what V. does at the end of the movie). I take “subjective destitution” seriously, but I feel squeamish about the dialectic in which Zizek places it, and in which V. enacts it for Evie. Can sovereignty expiate itself in a way that rejects both Leninist/Zizekian universality and the deconstructionist cheap shot according to which everything is merely “undecidable”?
I still have a lot to think about with regard to this movie. Since I seem to be only getting more and more confused, I will leave my comments here for now.