Satan's Trouble With Eve

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Class Film Night(s)

"V for Vendetta" will be an excellent topic for discussion next week's seminar: in many ways, Guy Fawkes -- the model & mask-portrait for the character "V" - is the exemplary figure of the violent, conflict-ridden 17th Century.

In addition to Guy Fawkes night held every November the 5th & the attendant rhyme "Remember, remember, the 5th of November/ Gunpowder, treason, & plot," we used to say (in fact, I still have a card with the slogan) that "Guy Fawkes was the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions."

The phrase that is used as the ad slogan for "V for Vendetta" -- "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people" -- is an expression of the central truth in Hobbes' "Leviathan": politics are fear and power, that's all. And another phrase from "V" -- "Blowing up a building can change the world" -- is a paraphrase of Satan in "Paradise Lost, Bk XIII :

126: Nor hope to be my self less miserable
127: By what I seek, but others to make such
128: As I though thereby worse to me redound:
129: For onely in destroying I finde ease

134: In wo then; that destruction wide may range:

Thus the film validates our understanding that "Leviathan" _is_ a literary work: here, it is reworked into a screenplay.Of course, the film takes on ominous meaning after the London bombings last year of course.

"V for Vendetta" is left-wing agitprop, of course, but, natheless, it is intensely relevant to our studies. As some of you know already, agitprop & didacticism are my bane in art. I simply detest being beaten over the head with one political or social position or the other: on the other hand, I absolutely adore heteroglossia - the dialogic play between competing positions; the opportunity to see both sides fairly represented & unresolved is almost an absolute criterion for Art - in my opinion, that is.

To illustrate why I condemn agitprop, here are series of quotations from a *left-wing* exemplar -- Lenin -- which are practically dialogue from the *right-wing* character of the political leader in "V for Vendetta."

  1. "It is necessary secretly -and urgently-to prepare for terror. And on Tuesday we will decide whether it will be through the SNK or otherwise."
  2. "It is necessary secretly -and urgently-to prepare for terror. And on Tuesday we will decide whether it will be through the SNK or otherwise."
  3. "It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed."
  4. "Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volost's must be suppressed without mercy. The interest of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle "with the kulaks." We need to set an example.
    1) You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers.
    2) Publish their names.
    3) Take away all of their grain.
    4) Execute the hostages - in accordance with yesterday's telegram.
    This needs to be accomplished in such a way, that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know and scream out: let's choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks.
    Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this. Yours, Lenin
    P.S. Use your toughest people for this."

[Quotations taken from "Wikiquote" advisedly (then verfied independently against a reputable source) as a ready means to invoke your likely authority ....]

How much better for art -- how much better for its effect & longevity-- had the film followed Orwell's example in "1984" & left the transitory orientation of the party in power a matter indifferent.

Update 1: Thanks to all who participated. We'll talk about The Libertine now this coming week.

Update 2: Please read this supreme work of film criticism comparing V for Vendetta unfavourably to Terry Gilliam's Brazil. The author, Matt Feeney -- to whom I tug my forelock as critical nobility -- complements my objection to V for Vendetta's agitprop by showing, with succinct devastation, how Gilliam's film is superior by its subtlety and its recognition that tyranny is a system and a process. Remember: Hobbes states clearly that Leviathan is not the person or the party who happen to be in power, but rather the system of laws and letters which the person or persons in the offices encoded therein merely administer. To give two citations establishing this, first, "Of Commonwealth, Chapter XXII:

In a body politic, if the representative be one man, whatsoever he does in the person of the body which is not warranted in his letters, nor by the laws, is his own act, and not the act of the body, nor of any other member thereof besides himself: because further than his letters or the laws limit, he representeth no man's person, but his own.

Or this, from "Of Commonwealth" Chapter XIX:

Of all these forms of government, the matter being mortal, so that not only monarchs, but also whole assemblies die, it is necessary for the conservation of the peace of men that as there was order taken for an artificial man, so there be order also taken for an artificial eternity of life; without which men that are governed by an assembly should return into the condition of war in every age; and they that are governed by one man, as soon as their governor dieth. This artificial eternity is that which men call the right of succession.

Here is a sample of Mr. Feeney's prosaic and witty brilliance:

Now the Wachowski brothers have taken V for Vendetta, Allan Moore's mad-at-Margaret Thatcher graphic novel, and updated it to express their present political rage. The Wachowskis are very angry at George W. Bush, but still, for some reason, it's Britain's Parliament that gets blown up.


  • So now that i have seen V i am left wondering if the Guy Falks character actually did anything. Of coure the two main villians were disposed of and V himself died but as we all know and as you have said yourself the Leviathian is more then just one person. So the destruction of Parliment brought about world change? I don't think so. Did 9\11 bring about a peacefull resolution to the conflict in the middle east or to Osama's political agenda? NO it made things worse. Now we can't get onto a plane with a key chain nail clippers (happened to me and my wife in Flordia). So at the end of the movie are we to belive that the "evil" government will toppel? NO wouldn't they just react in the same way they reacted at the begginging of the movie when Falks blew up the first building? And wou7ldn't other people want to amintain the tight regiem that they had with the previous leader? it seems to me that the lesson's learned in the movie are not really imoportant and realistic becuase it would take more then a desroyed building to take down the leviathian.

    By Blogger Jason, at 11:50 AM  

  • Dear Jason: Good comments. My take is that you are making an excellent Hobbsean argument. Leviathan is indeed far stronger than any few acts of destruction. However, the condition at the film's close, then is War: which, by definition, means Leviathan has ceased -- in Hobbes' persuasive sense -- to exist.
    More importantly for us, though, is that "V" no less than the government is a pure Hobbsean. As the post here states, "V" sees Fear and fear only as Truth in politics, & destruction the means to truth: i.e. means to Power, which, alone, is Truth.

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 2:05 PM  

  • "Hobbes states clearly that Leviathan is not the person or the party who happen to be in power, but rather the system of laws and letters which the person or persons in the offices encoded therein merely administer."
    Insofar as Hobbes distinguishes the seat of power from the actions and attitudes of the body sitting in that seat, I'd have to assert that he's wrong. The sense of any system of laws and letters that the powerful administer is something which is given context, and thereby content, by that person - moreover that person's identity and dispositions cannot be cogently understood as independant from the influences and entailments of her role/position.

    I'm finding myself somewhat uncomfortable with the way in which any postulation of the power side of the dialectic is framed in a reductionist manner as tantamount to a wholehearted acceptance of Hobbesian ontology. While it's obviously necessary for relating the course in terms of seventeenth century literature, there's much about Leviathan's inquiry into power that is insensitive or short-sighted. For example a Foucaultian understanding of power-dynamics would, in my opinion, be much more salient and appliciable in relating an apt interpretation of modern politics & society. Leviathan is simply too monologic and often seems to fail to appreciate the fluidity of power/meaning in the human world. I consider myself far too progressive to call myself a Hobbesian, but the Miltonic/metaphysical side of the seventeenth century debate is just too overwhelmingly and obviously fallacious to be seriously adopted. Their arguments, under a pretty - though ultimately bankrupt - veneer, pack in the sort of implications that would navigate us towards facism or command societies.

    " it seems to me that the lesson's learned in the movie are not really imoportant and realistic becuase it would take more then a desroyed building to take down the leviathian."

    I completely disagree here. I know I'm associating myself with some questionable company in taking this line; but I think it's absolutely valid that an act as simple as blowing up a building can trigger a causal sequence which, through turning up the temperature, percipitates total rupture or paradigm shift.

    This whole discussion around the potential impact of a random act of destruction brings to mind a notion from the late 19th century which was influenctial in anarchist circles and from which the unabomber drew some inspiration I believe... namely, The Propaganda Of The Deed: (from Wiki: an anarchist doctrine that promoted the decisive action of individuals to inspire further action by others. It was thought that exemplary forms of direct action would ignite a revolutionary fervor among the working classes. Peter Kropotkin, the well known exponent of anarchist communism, wrote that a single "act may, in a few days, make more propaganda than thousands of pamphlets).

    To quote Gustav Landauer & Wikipedia... "the state is not something "that one can smash in order to destroy. The state is a relationship between human beings... one destroys it by entering into other relationships" (Der Sozialist, 1910)". I readily grant this, but at the same time I think it's nevertheless true that one can incite such shifts in relationships by resorting to acts of violence or destruction to destabilize the extant system/paradigm of relationships. This type of rational has never been lost on western powers, and the framing and gaze implied by vilifying the same tactics under the term "terrorism" when used against the west by its oppositon betrays a huge double standard.

    On a similar note, it strikes me as readily apparent that all dialog is inherently political. Even the pretense of a heterogloss dialog will, under a sufficiently sensitive examination, reveal a clear bias and undertones of propaganda. If we want to call V for Vendetta agitprop, we couldn't do it in all fairness without being blind to our bias/gaze if we refuse to concede the same of the whole body of right-wing neo-liberal mass media. Likewise, though we've been examining both sides of the power/love dichotomy in this course, there is still a readily apparent bias in the way the two positions have been framed. This remark is by no means a detraction from the course, to the contrary... my point is that propanganda is unavoidable insofar as one wants to say anything at all. We are not objective beings, and therefore any expression we make, to varying degrees, reveals our perspective, and functions dietically to attempt to impose inclusion/complicity in our audience.

    By the same token - the first two quotes from Vladimir Lenin, are as you rightly point out perfectly at home on a right-wing platform... and could readily be attributed to the general policy of the Bush administration with no difficulty whatsoever. My point is that these notions are also universal and inescapable... we just have a tendency to be blind to it when we foster them.

    By Blogger Bobby, at 11:51 PM  

  • Dear Bobby:
    Well, the dialectic has certainly stimulated great intellectual activity from you, which is a success by any measure. I'll respond in point & detail in a day or two.
    As I believe, indeed, you are most generously allowing, (a) insofar as lecture is concerned, I argue from considered analysis that Hobbes is an absolutist regards the nature of the Leviathan and a reductionist of the very first order; (b) the sharp dichotomy between Love & Poweris an effective heuristic for, first, engaging and, then, hopefully, understanding the literary dynamics and characteristics of the (from us remote) Seventeenth Century: the polemical nature of that century being a critical & historical commonplace.
    I will be reading from Martin Luther King Jr. in next lecture to show how an modern extremist on the Love side thinks, writes & acts -- a rarity, indeed.
    I would be very interested & grateful to learn how you understand Foucault to differ from Hobbes (I have no considered opinion either way at this stage.)

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 12:51 AM  

  • PS: Two further direct responses of the top: (1.) Are you saying that you think that "V for Vendetta" is not agitprop? (2.) As regards monologia vs. heteroglossia, are you saying that the distinction is illusory & dangerously so -- that heteroglosic texts are merely monologia in cunning disguise?
    For me, there is certainly a real & palpable distinction between agitprop & art - as for Bahktin between monologic texts (like A Handmaid's Tale) and heteroglossic texts (like Gissing's The Odd Women)

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 12:58 AM  

  • PPS: one further response off the top, given that Power (in Hobbes' or Foucault's ) & Love (in Milton & the Metaphysicals' or M.L.King Jr.'s sense) are (in a practical sense) in dialectical opposition, how does your (Bobby) analysis of government, politics, terrorism, & heteroglossia not fall entirely within the Power position?
    I am anything but suggesting that your position is a faulty one: rather that your conception is purest realpolitik .... at least, as I read it here.

    By Blogger Dr. S.A. Ogden, at 1:33 AM  

  • Prof Ogden.
    Thanks for your generous reply.

    I readily acknowledge that Hobbes was an absolutist and reductionist about the leviathan. But I find myself wondering if we need be as well in our discussion of power. That is, while I appreciate the necessity of staying close to Hobbes' articulation of Power for sake of keeping the seventeeth century focus, can we not in coming to an understanding of the Hobbes, defend our side of the PowerVSLove by accepting some foundational insights about the Hobbes', and suggesting that while he seems to us to right in some respects, his treatmeant falls short in others. That is, does a defense of power for the purposes of this course need be a loyalist defense of Hobbes or can it involve some revisionism to make the power argument more salient?
    I think that by reducing both sides of the arguments to their proposed foundation in semiotics and relationships of self and other, we can come to get a sense of an appreciation of how the two positions are inter-related and not necessarily totally irreconcilable.

    In terms of Foucault on Power, as I understand it, Foucault's conception of power is nowhere near as systematized and structured as hobbes. For Foucault power wasn't just a force excersized by some on others, but it was also excersized through people as a medium. If I'm not mistaken Foucault's conception of power was a sort of risomal conception, whhereine countless myraid discourses of power act upon one another establishing held-truths and so on... and that periodically.. in a cascade-like fashion concentratios of power would aboound in certain areas of the social fabric creating certain hubs or nexuses of power. But this notion of power isn't an organized or structured one, such as a conception of power residing with the establishment, who then develop an agenda and excersize that power over a populous or make a leviathan. Rather it recognizes a discursive fluidity in economies of power that disarms the organized intentionality of a lot of the exersize of power. This seems more plausable because it seems more sensitive and true to the reality of value-meaning production in knowledge, and its power endgering capacity. I may be forgetting something, but that's a general feel of the distinction i believe.

    Personally I feel that both the Love and Power positions are founded upon a base consisting of semiotics and distinctions of self and other, and if one were to apply ockham's razor to either camp- I think we'd be left with a not too incompatible set of self-other relationships.

    In terms of V for Vendetta, it's not my intention to suggest that it isn't agitprop per se. Rather what I am suggesting is that a) all discourse, to varying degree betrays a political agenda (consciously or otherwise), and that foundationall this probably has something to do with the fact that when we recounting something WE recounting something. All discourse is framed in some sense according to the perspective of the person presenting it. It's jusdt easier to point out the propaganda component when that discourse and its framing is more obviously divurgent from the perspective which we internalize.

    I agree with what you're saying in that "for you theres a palpable distinction between art and agitprop", but the think I guess I'm getting at is, agitprop is a culturally relative phenomenon, and I'm sure that what I would call art, someone would, and could rightly accuse of being agitprop... or propaganda at least.
    The kernel of what I was suggesting however is that any expression whatsoever must necessarily be loaded with biases that arise out that expression being the expression of a subjectively experiencing agent. Or more tangible, yes - I'd have to say that I believe that every utterance in language is in some sense, and to varying degrees, a political utterance.

    I'm not sure about the distinction between heteroglossia and monologia because of the precise senses of the terms. However I think every utterance needs be monologic insofar as it is the enunciation of self that interprets and presents the utterance according to their experience and their sense of language, whereas - along the lines of Foucault on power, the argument can also be made that every utterance contains some heteroglosss faculty as well given the causal co-derivation of beliefs attiutes and sentiments throughout discourses of power. I'd have to take another look at my notes on Bakhtin and recal exactly how he sets up each term specifically.. I'm using them more generally here and may be overlooking some element of the spirit in which they ought to be taken.

    Finally, in terms of my personal view of the reality of government, politics, terrorism, heteroglossia etc. I'd have to say they do fall in the power position, but not necesarily in-step with Hobbes' articulation of Power, here for example I'm more compelled by Foucalt, or perhaps Hegel (who is masterful in his reductionism because he reduces all his inferences etc. to their ontological foundations and begins from there).

    And on my last note, it's also interesting to note that an ethos built around total devotion to some given enunciation or wholly embraced and internalized decree of 'the good', (as with the love paradigm) can also easily lead to things like facism and holocausts. The problem with both Hobbes and Milton is that their systems dont seem to fully appreciate the fluidity of value and meaning over-time, and how given truths are likely - no probable - to change drastically throughout history. though Hobbes seems to appreciate this somewhat he fails to note (unless i'm mistaken) that his Leviathan consctruct, and his justification for the construct is itself is suspectible to this.

    We can choose to devote ourselves to world-views and ethos based on love or a certain perscribed configuration of power etc... but that doesn't mean the sense and meaning of either construct (along with all its implications are not liable to change... a ready example from the modern world might be the present day american conception of Freedom. Freedom taken as a paradigm is fine and dandy, but through various discourses of power etc. the truth-value the concept of freedom is, in my opinion sort of being hijacked and so on...anyway... must run.


    By Blogger Bobby, at 12:44 PM  

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