A Is for Anarchy, V Is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Postmodern Anarchism

By Call, Lewis | Anarchist Studies, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

A Is for Anarchy, V Is for Vendetta: Images of Guy Fawkes and the Creation of Postmodern Anarchism


Call, Lewis, Anarchist Studies


ABSTRACT

Although the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 failed at the level of conventional political action, it had a profound impact on Anglo-American political culture. The Plot added the face of Guy Fawkes to our political iconography, and introduced the word 'guy' into the English language. This paper argues that the face of Fawkes and the word 'guy' have become what poststructuralists call 'free floating signifiers.' Liberated from all permanent meaning, this image and this word have become potent instruments for the promotion of postmodern anarchism. The comic book V for Vendetta (Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1981) makes very effective use of these instruments. This book uses the image of Guy Fawkes to initiate a powerful anarchist critique of fascism. The book experiments with postmodern symbolism, but its version of anarchism remains mainly modern. However, the film version of V for Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue, screenplay by the Wachowski Brothers, 2006) articulates a full-blown postmodern anarchism. This film has been widely criticised, but critics overlook the film's valuable contributions. In the film, the face of Fawkes provides the basis for sophisticated representations of sexuality, mass media systems and anarchist political action. Through its visual iconography, the film thus provides mainstream cinema audiences with an effective introduction to the symbolic vocabulary of postmodern anarchism.

Remember, remember

The Fifth of November

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot

I know of no reason

Why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot

-Traditional, circa 17m century

About four centuries ago, a group of radical Catholic dissidents attempted to assassinate James Stuart, the Scottish king who had recently taken the English crown following the death of Elizabeth I. The conspirators planned to detonate a large quantity of gunpowder beneath the Palace of Westminster during the opening session of Parliament in 1605. Had it succeeded the Gunpowder Plot would have killed not only King James VI of Scotland, I of England, but also the assembled Lords and Commons. This would have effectively decapitated the nascent British state which the pro-Union James was so ardentiy pursuing. Of course, the Plot was discovered and foiled, the King and his Parliament were saved and the kingdoms of England and Scotland were eventually united.

Yet this pleasant textbook historiography does not begin to address the real significance of the Plot. In practical terms, as Mark Nicholls has argued the Plot may indeed have demonstrated the 'considerable efficiency at the administrative heart of Stuart England' (3). And yet at the level of symbolic representation, the Plot revealed the terrible fragility of the early modern British state. The emerging British state immediately committed itself to the project of remembering the Plot. For four centuries, Britons have commemorated the plot every November 5m. But as the centuries have passed, what Britain remembers and how it remembers have changed dramatically (Sharpe 83-84). This represents a potentially serious problem for the modern British state. That state is essentially a mechanism for the representation and transmission of political power. As such, its very existence may depend upon its ability to control the representation of such foundational events as the Gunpowder Plot. And yet the modem state has clearly lost that ability. Beneath the reassuring official history of the Plot (treason foiled state saved), mere lurks a secret anarchist history.

This anarchist history is particularly interested in the changing significance of Guy Fawkes. Fawkes was not the leader of the Plot; that was Robert Catesby. But Fawkes has gained notoriety as the 'trigger man' who was meant to detonate me gunpowder. More significantly, the image of Fawkes has become a major icon in modern British political culture. The British state initially hoped to maintain a monopoly on representations of Fawkes, and for many years he was dutifully burned in effigy every November 5th. …

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