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V and the Protesters

This entry is part 11 of 14 in the series Beef Protests '08

Some of the protesters have been using references to V for Vendetta during the demonstrations. Turns out Scott went up and talked to them, and asked whether they knew that V is an anarchist, or that the V sign is an inverted anarchy symbol. They didn’t.

Scott thinks they’re “retards” who are guilty of “ethnocentric cultural misappropriation,” and that “they think that going to a massive anti-government demonstration is cosplay and means nothing serious in the end…” and that I’m being patronizing in excusing this.

I disagree. Wanna know why?

The whole comment thread is here, and I invite you to read it all because I’m boiling down Scott’s argument a lot, but here’s my main comment:

First off, I find it hilarious that one might call the use of costumes in a protest movement “retarded,” consider its long history. For example, “retarded cosplay” figured in none other than protests of the Vietnam war, and after all, the hippies you think so highly of also followed a rather ornate set of costume codes during the Summer of Love; on one level, it could easily be seen as having involved a rather large exhibit of “cosplay.” Does that make the Summer of Love “nothing serious” and “retarded” too?

But there’s a more interesting example in the Luddites. They made extensive use of cross-dressing, somehow not mentioned in Wikipedia at all, though you can see on the image on the main Wikipedia page that the image of Nedd Ludd is of a man in a dress. They did it for a simple reason, which was that violence would be much less likely used on women than on men, as well as to effect a kind of disguise. This kind of thing isn’t even limited to the twentieth century, either: the Luddites and Saboteurs were famous cross-dressers, for the same reasons. And — realistic or not — the fears that were expressed online in discussions of how authorities might respond to the protests, such as for example agents provocateurs starting fights among protesters, were oddly reminiscent of the same fears nineteenth-century Luddites.

And also note: I’m not saying the protesters are the same as the Luddites. The Luddites had a pretty clear goal in mind and seemed to be fighting for a clear agenda… sort of. (Though there’s scholarship that suggests it was a different agenda than we commonly think, thanks to anti-Luddite propaganda, so even there there’s some confusion.) The lack of clarity here is something I’ve criticized myself, in my comment responding to you, and people I talked about it with on Saturday mostly agreed. But masks and disguises and costumes have long been a part of protest movements — including some that you hold in high esteem — so mocking it here as “retarded” and mere “cosplay” seems unfair.

As for intellectual laziness and not reading movie reviews, I understand your exasperation, but you seem to be overlooking the fact that the movie was not the comic book, and that plenty of people — not just lazy ones — don’t read movie reviews or blogs about the films they see — especially the ones they liked or that resonated for them. We can go around denouncing them as ignorant and ethnocentric, or instead, and this is likely to be more useful in figuring out what they did and why, we can ask ourselves why they chose to take up that symbol despite their not being anarchists themselves.

One useful starting point is the fact that anarchism was almost completely excised from the movie: most of the English-language critics who mentioned it were mentioning its absence from the film, and any Korean critic who did otherwise, even in Cine21, was undoubtedly just trying to show off that he or she had read the Wikipedia entry on the book, because dude, seriously; that movie is not about anarchism. In any way, shape, or form. It all but screams for an American-liberal reading.

And by the way, before you dismiss that observation, and before you get too comfortable with the idea I’m patronizing Koreans here, I’d like to point out that the English-speaking internet has largely much missed out on the connection too. If you Google (English-language webpages only, to ensure we catch all the references to anarchy in English) for “V for Vendetta” you’ll find close to 4 million hits. Then add “anarch*” (a wildcard that will include anarchy, anarchist, anarchic, anarchism, etc.) to the search and it drops down to just a bit over a hundred thousand mentions.

When you calculate it all out, it appears that approximately 2.5% of English-language discussions of V for Vendetta make any mention of anarchism or anarchist thought… in other words, the majority of Anglophones discussing the film online — Anglophones who have the leisure of reading book reviews and even of going out and reading the original comic book in their own language — are also guilty of “ethnocentric cultural misappropriation,” or, er… no, that would sound silly, wouldn’t it?

Yes, it would, because after all, as I imagine you know, this is precisely how popular cultures work. Figures morph and transform over time, and their treatments by later derivative artists — especially in film! — change their popularly understood meanings. These days when we think of Superman, we think of him fighting “crime” or taking on an insane military-industrial-science complex (as often personified by Lex Luthor); that is, as an extension of the justice system or the state. Most of us don’t think of old Superman as a raging fighter for the rights of the working poor, though in the early days of the comic, he often fought villains like slumlords, corrupt state orphanage administrators, and crooked bosses. Most people don’t remember that in Korea and America alike.

And perhaps you have missed the discussions of V online in English, but there was actually a lot of disappointment expressed (by those who knew and loved the book) at how little of the original intellectual/anarchist basis remained. This is one of the reasons Alan Moore himself hated the film and distanced himself from it: he noted that is actually recast the original political conflict in the book — fascism versus anarchism — as something else — American neoconservativism versus American liberalism. So, really, even Moore thinks the movie is in itself an American-liberal tirade against American neo-conservativism. How can we fault Koreans for correctly seeing that in the film?

Then we factor in the subtitling — where detail and nuance is always lost — and lack of access to the comic book, and what we get is a liberal fantasy narrative about citizens rising up against a neocon government. In other words, the protesters used the symbols you saw with pretty much direct continuity to their use in the film. Yes, there is a level of utopian fantasy here. That, too, should be familiar from earlier protests movements, including ones you esteem highly.

But basically, it seems to me they were using liberal icons as a protest against conservativism that they perceive as aligned with American neoconservativism.

Which is, I imagine, what they would have told you, had you asked them why they’d taken those symbols up. Perhaps in not so many words, because it would be obvious to them, and puzzling that you would ask about something that seems unrelated to the film. But it seems important to me to know — and I don’t mean to be nasty here, but I think this is a valid question:

Once you discovered that they hadn’t been aware of the anarchist trope in V for Vendetta, and once you established that they didn’t know the V-sign was an inverted anarchy sign…

Did you ask them why on earth they decided to use the symbol and mask? Or did you just decide they’d misunderstood everything and were idiots, and walk away?

I don’t know, what you’ve written seems like a really, really cheap shot, and I think there are much better places to aim those strong uppercuts and jabs of yours.

And I do. Scott’s punches are strong, and I respect you, Scott, but I think you’re flat-out wrong on their use of V, and I’ve been thinking about this angle on things for a while. After all, this isn’t the only thing from SF/fantasy we’ve seen manifest as part of the protest… not by a long shot, and much of it much more open to criticism than this.

As for uses of the V-sign in protests of days past, I have no idea the vector of adoption, so I can’t say much about it. But the V they were using on Saturday is clearly right from the film. Is it too much to imagine it’s a different vector of exposure?

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