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04 November 2011

Media, Affect, and the Object

Tomorrow is the 5th of November - Guy Fawkes Day in the UK - and some protesters in the Occupy and Anonymous movements are planning to recreate the climax scene of V for Vendetta in which thousands of individuals wearing Guy Fawkes masks show up at Parliament to protest their fascist government.  It's fascinating to me how the Guy Fawkes mask has become a symbol of resistance - the trajectory of events that has lead to its being identified with those movements and anti-fascism in general.

Historically, Guy Fawkes day was not a celebration of anti-fascism or even of Guy Fawkes himself (except, perhaps, among radical Protestant groups).  Indeed, Fawkes was a national enemy as a result of having attempted to kill King James I.  The gunpowder plot was not, however, a political statement against monarchy or the aristocratic society of Briton at the time; it was a religious rebellion against Catholicism.  The call to "remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot" was not a call to remember the brave resistance of a lone fighter against a tyrannous regime, but a call to remember the treasonous act of a lone terrorist - much as we in the US remember 9/11 every year, and our sentiments towards Osama Bin Laden.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes were traditionally burned on Guy Fawkes Night in order to celebrate the fact that the King had survived the plot.  These celebrations were, until the late 19th century, often violent affairs with rowdy drunken crowds, bonfires, fireworks, Protestants ranting against the pope, and Catholics celebrating their religion.  The toned down and de-religiousized celebrations of the 20th century were often in danger of being abandoned by an uninterested populace. Certainly the sentiment towards Fawkes was always complex, reflecting the heterogeneity of British national identity, but on the whole he was not seen as a hero, but rather as a traitor.

So why has all of this changed?  Why has Guy Fawkes become a symbol of resistance, and why is Guy Fawkes Night now the night for protest and uprising?  I'm sure you all know the answer - V for Vendetta.  This is a brilliant film (based on a graphic novel by the same name) about a man whose life was shattered by government experiments and a fascist regime.  He has taken it upon himself to upset that regime, and awaken the populace from their complacent tolerance of it - all while protecting his identity behind a Guy Fawkes mask.  That mask used in the film is the one hackers and protesters have latched on to as their symbol of resistance, and as a result it has become a top seller on (and Time Warner, which owns the rights to the mask is paid a fee for every sale). 

So, does the inconsistency between the use of the mask now and the tradition of Guy Fawkes matter?  I don't think so.  The mask and the image has been appropriated.  This object, which had a certain symbolic association attached to it carried one affective resonance prior to the film V for Vendetta, and now that another symbolic association has been attached it carries a completely different affective resonance.  The meaning of the mask has been shaped by tradition, and now by the film, but also by the complex interests of the protesters and hackers who wear it, and, I would argue, it carries its own meaning apart from what anyone would impose upon it (not to mention the material and symbolic flows that go into it's production and distribution).  It's a perfect example of how an object can be transferred from one assemblage to another, thus altering the shape of the assemblage as well as its own shape and meaning.  A thorough study of the Guy Fawkes mask would be a fascinating case for an Object-Oriented Ontology research project.


Josh Mullenite said...

There is something to be said for Guy Fawkes, even in his failure. He was a man who wanted to change the government (even if it was from one extreme to another) and set out to do it by action. At least, this is a common way to see it from the perspective of protestors who use the mask today.

The mask is a meme (in the Dawkins sense, not the 4chan sense) and as a result has come to represent something that is somewhat open to interpretation. The mask represents an idea of direct action more closely than it represents anything related to Guy Fawkes.

Jeremy Trombley said...

Agreed, and essentially what I say in the post. A couple of points, though. It's important to remember that it's not just a meme (I'm not really a fan of memetics, but it's okay for now), but also a material assemblage. That is, it's not just a symbol for direct action, but a material object or, rather, a whole bunch of them. That means that it must be produced, and this production chain has it's own consequences.
It's also embedded within another symbollic assemblage aside from that of the protesters - the time warner economic assemblage. It may or may not matter, but a corporation does profit from the sale of these masks.
Finally, it has not lost it's historical meaning, but only entered another assemblage. Fawkes attempted to blow up parliament - hopefully not the model of direct action the protesters are going for. To ignore the Fawkes association is to dehistoricize the object.
I don't intend to take the mask away from the protesters, but only want to point out the full capacity of the object, and to use it as an example of the transformation objects undergo and their capacity to affect the world around them.

Josh Mullenite said...

The fact that a corporation profits off the production of the mask is really not that important in my opinion. A corporation also profited off of all of the clothes the protesters are wearing, the signs the protesters made, and the food and beverage that provide the energy for them to go protest. Many of the committee meetings for occupy events are organized online which means even more companies profit from them. Unless we move in to full blown anarcho-communism that is sure to remain the case. There is an argument to be made that the masks are the only thing specific to the protesting but that doesn't mean we can ignore the fact that the majority of production in the world is done for profit (even if that profit is only in terms of social capital.)

However, that all being said, there are a number of illegal copies available online bypassing the licensing payments that would go to AOL-TW.

As for the mask losing its history, I don't think the mask ever really had a historical meaning other than direct action. It's a representation of Guy Fawkes created solely for the V for Vendetta graphic novel. An image used specifically due to Fawkes' direct approach, that has evolved over a few hundred yearsto mean something other than terrorism. In an AP article written about the masks this seems to be the consensus idea of those wearing them as well, although it may not be representative of the whole due to the extremely small number of people quoted. It's not about Guy Fawkes himself but the idea that, even if they fail, a person can at least try to make a difference and stand for what they believe in.

That all being said, I don't think the mask itself has really transformed. It's been a while since I've seen the movie and I've never read the graphic novel, but I seem to remember the mask was used as a symbol of unity and anonymity, not dissimilar to the black bandanas worn by anarchists. This doesn't take away from the power of it, it simply goes to show how the power of an object of fiction can be translated in to the real world. Your average American may now see that mask and associate it with the Occupy movement, or with direct action in general, and even if they've never seen or heard of Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta they might still know what it stands for.

(After rereading this it comes off a little forward. It's not my intent to argue but it's an interesting discussion and actually one that has made my short list for senior thesis topics so I'm interested in what you have to say. Imagine that I am smiling while saying all of this.)

Jeremy Trombley said...

No worries, Josh. I actually agree with you. The point is not that corporations profit from the sale of the mask, the point of the post is just that the mask is a part of many material-semiotic-affect assemblages, one of which is a profit machine, another of which is a protest machine, another of which is an historical-political/national identity machine. Like I said, I'm not trying to take away it's power - assuming that's something I could even do if I wanted. I'm just using the mask as an example of these multiple ways an object can exist in the world as a result of different forms of associations.

The transformation lies in the fact that the mask - though it is explicitly associated with the movie - is a representation of Fawkes, and carries that history with it. This history is in many ways incommensurable with the new assemblage into which the it is being associated (via the mask and the film/novel). The movie (I've not read the novel either) is heavy with Fawkes references, of course, including the repetition of the "Remember, remember the fifth of November" phrase. However, it doesn't go into detail on the history in order to explain why Fawkes wanted to blow up Parliament or the reason why British people are asked to "remember remember." Instead it glosses over those details - the fact that Fawkes was a religious extremist, and that the day is remembered as a day of infamy for the nation, and not a day of celebration for Fawkes or his act. The film thus transformed the history - making the Fawkes legend primarily about the act of rebellion and not about the intent. The mask has become iconic of this transformation through its use in the protests and by anonymous. It cannot, however, be separated from that history completely.

There is, as I've said, nothing wrong with this transformation - it is an appropriation of a cultural symbol for a specific purpose. What's important for the protesters is not what its meaning was, but what is done with it now and how that shapes the future. As long as Fawkes is not considered a model for activism in himself, I'm all for it. What's really intriguing to me, though, and the reason I wrote the post, is how the object has come to have a life of its own - beyond the novel, beyond the film, beyond the history, and beyond the protests. This object is much more than all of those, and cannot be reduced to any one of them.

Anonymous said...

The mask is a removal of the personalization, to become an idea. I am sure many of the wearers of the Guy Fawks mask are doing so to protect themselves and their families while they promote the base idea. Freedom is costly, the history of those who signed the Declaration of Independence is bloody, brutal, and discouraging.
We have lost our freedom on many levels, the idea of taking back our freedoms is spreading.
Taxes are forced on the population. Since their enforcement, great gaps and loops were created. This institution of taxes has corrupted to the point that the poorest fund the largest portion of taxes.
Social Security was forced on the population, and has become corrupted as a lending bank for the government who misspends their tax incomes.
Everytime we are forced into an institution we lose freedoms, the institution then overruns with corruption.
Don the mask, lose your name, lose your fear, and take a stand.

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