V is the Roman number five, today is the Fifth of November, and it’s the fifth part of the series on meaning and another Scarlet Letter. I keep this loosely connected, to allow you to catch up.
When future historians look back at our time now, they will most likely include something on Guy Fawkes and have some explaining to do. How come a Puritan Age “insurgent” became the face, literally, of a whole movement that seems to be quite influential today? And what could this have to do with this series on meaning and beliefs?
Henry VIII of England wasn’t happy with his then-wife Catherine of Aragorn. And that’s the reason why former Archbishop Rowan
Atkinson Williams who debated Richard Dawkins nearly 500 years later is an Anglican and not a Catholic. History can be very silly sometimes. British history took a different turn because of a symbol, or an idea.
“Words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning” – V for Vendetta (film)
Henry wanted his marriage annulled since divorce was out of question. But the Pope didn’t respond to his request. That prompted Henry to jump – pardon the anachronism – on the Reformation bandwagon that was rolling at the time and get in charge of religion in England himself. These were the humble beginnings of what would be known as the Anglican Church. His marriage was eventually annulled in 1533 just as he wanted. Good for him. Not so much for the women that followed.
When the Anglican Church was in charge, the situation got worse for the Catholics. They had to hide or were Recusants. It prompted a group of Catholics to plan a “terroristic” act, what would enter history as the Gunpowder Plot. The conspirators wanted to blow up the British Parliament together with the king’s family in order to promote another line of kingship that was more Pro-Catholic. More symbology. It was the year 1605, and Shakespeare was probably busy writing “King Lear”.
“The parallels between the actions of the plotters and modern-day terrorists are terrifying and the motivation is the same – that religion is the only important thing and that if the Government does not subscribe to the idea that your religion is absolute it must be removed.” – Dr. Starkey in “Gunpowder Plot was England’s 9/11, says historian”
Historians of the Max Planck Institute apparently have a project up and running that looks into a similar direction (german link).
“This project researches comparative-european the historically changing normative definitions of political crime; the preventive and punitive governmental precautions and the accompanying societal discourses while taking popular media in account ”
They don’t mean reading “V for Vendetta” comics with “popular media”, but how the portrayal of a crime as “acts of terrorism” has an impact on the society and its legal response. That’s what I got from the blurb. Put differently, when popular media, such as news, label some crime differently, what kind of effect does it have on people and laws?
And now let’s hear the Gunpowder Plot story and history with this nice and short video with a proper British accent:
A for Anarchy
Comic author Alan Moore wanted to write something really British with “V for Vendetta”. Orwell’s “1984” seemed to become real when CCTV cameras showed up everywhere on the streets of Britain. And when illustrator David Lloyd had the idea to disguise their main character as Guy Fawkes, Alan Moore gladly picked it up and put it all together.
In the resulting comic series the anti-heroic protagonist named “V” fights for freedom against a totalitarian regime. He thinks of himself as an idea – Anarchy – that fights another idea – Totalitarianism.
“Anarchy means ‘without leaders’, not ‘without order’.”
– V in “V for Vendetta”
However, the setup not only expresses Moore’s political views, but especially also his “magical” ones which don’t seem to be supernatural at all, and which I have already woven into the Scarlet Letter article series. For the comic they are perhaps epitomized with a quote from the African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was killed by a KKK member in 1963. He said:
“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.”
– Medgar Evers
To which we can say now, ideas are burned, warned about, labelled, and contained but as long as people remember, or find some artefact that contains them in their symbology, they will always be alive, and ready to “possess” another human mind and enlist all the possessed faculties to realize itself.
The Invisible Standard Bearer
One central aspect of the symbology in the comic is that the person, with all its complex attributes and features becomes “invisible” and instead the idea itself takes the centre stage. A motif we are now familiar with and which is the same as with Hester from the Scarlet Letter novel or with the witches (or the “the Jews” etc, see Mark of the Witch).
Since the person is not important, it could just as well disappear so that the idea stands out even more. From Moore’s perspective it is could also be seen as a commentary on the typical Superhero and their costume, where they again become a symbol, while their individual features are concealed under a mask. However, it does illustrate some point. Does anyone needs the standard bearer, when the flag is the important thing. Someone just needs to move the flag around (“meme theory” you say?)
All the other themes we have encountered before congregate as well. A couple of examples: Guy Fawkes and his insurgents wanted to blow up something as a symbolic act to destroy an idea. Guy Fawkes’ paper masks were consigned to flames for much the same purpose. And that was also the fate of the witches. The Gun Powder plotters were labelled traitors, and hung, drawn and quartered. Convicts were supposed to survive being hung, but nobody survived being drawn. Being quartered was entirely symbolic. The authorities wanted to stamp out what they stood for.
And the nursery rhyme “remember, remember the fifth of November” was used to contain ideas and to prevent others to “get possessed” by the idea, as well as eliciting reactions. That’s perhaps comparable to shunning and shaming. These are all also aspects of fear mongering.
We also get to see “owning” again. We saw it with the Scarlet Letter A that is now associated with Atheists, and we see it here, too, how the Guy Fawkes imagery completely changed its meaning (witches managed it too. They are today perhaps more associated with Hermione Granger).
But Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s comic alone did not make it onto the streets. Isn’t it somewhat fantastic that these comics – ideas – manifest themselves in the real world? Wow, that’s meta. This was done through “Anonymous”.
A for Anonymous
The imageboard 4chan allowed users to post without making an account, and would display them as “Anonymous”. In 2004, the administrators got rid of registered user names altogether and everyone was displayed as “Anonymous”. The board is notorious for its meme creation that are known all across the internet (memes would fit in fantastic, but have to wait for a future issue).
When the Church of Scientology wanted to remove leaked material with Tom Cruise, these “Anonymous” got together and started “Project Chanology” to go against this attempted censorship. The mission was to drive Scientology off the internet and hacker attacks followed.
Out of that movement sprung up real-life activism but the activist had a problem. How could they protect themselves against Scientology that was notorious for filming and bullying critics?
“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny – and I’m happy with people using it, it seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way. My feeling is the Anonymous group needed an all-purpose image to hide their identity and also symbolise that they stand for individualism – V for Vendetta is a story about one person against the system. We knew that V was going to be an escapee from a concentration camp where he had been subjected to medical experiments but then I had the idea that in his craziness he would decide to adopt the persona and mission of Guy Fawkes – our great historical revolutionary” – David Lloyd (quote via Wikipedia)
Fortunately, merchandise masks of the movie version of “V for Vendetta” were available at the time and found their use. In some sense the movie touched on similar motifs, and the activists probably found it a fitting. The masks are also cheap but comfortable to wear and thus pretty good for a purely practical reason, too. Thunderf00t made a video on Chanology in 2008 on “Strategy for Anonymous vs Scientology” that might be interesting for those who like to learn more.
And that’s where we are today. Anonymous has branched out, and the Guy Fawkes mask became a cultural icon of our times.
From the early beginnings with marital difficulties of the English crown until today in the Atheist Community, from history to fiction, the motifs are recurring. We see the censors today, and the fear mongers. The story of the Guy Fawkes symbology is more of an exercize to see symbology, framing, or creating narratives all around us (sometimes to manipulate us) more consciously.
I leave you with the Law of Fives. And no further explanation.