A is for anarchy, V is for Vendetta: images of Guy Fawkes and the creation of postmodern anarchism.

Author:Call, Lewis
Position:Critical essay

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 ardently 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 5th. 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 modern state has clearly lost that ability. Beneath the reassuring official history of the Plot (treason foiled, state saved), there 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 the 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. In the nineteenth century, however, the Fawkes image came to signify other things, such as resistance to the emerging disciplinary regime of modern municipal government. Meanwhile the name of Guy Fawkes was undergoing a remarkable mutation. Fawkes himself jettisoned the name Guy in 1603, and went by 'Guido' thereafter (Fraser 90). His decision to detach the signifier 'guy' from the signified (himself) would have momentous consequences, for it would leave his name available for later political use. Indeed, when we consider the subsequent anarchist purposes for which his name and image have been employed, it's tempting to conclude that this symbolic gesture may have been the most radical thing that Fawkes ever did. Soon after the Plot was uncovered, the word 'guy' entered the English language, first with a pejorative connotation (a 'bad guy'), and then, as it drifted across the Atlantic, without (Clancy 285). Today in casual American speech we are all 'guys.' ('Hey, guys!'says our four year old daughter when she desires attention from her parents.) Depending upon the context, 'guy' can signify men, women and even inanimate objects (Clancy 288). The word 'guy' has become a wonderful example of what post-structuralists call a free floating signifier. It signifies--for language cannot help but signify--but it never signifies the same way twice. It is therefore the most dangerous of signifiers--or, from an anarchist point of view, the most interesting.

The visual image of Guy Fawkes's face has gone through a similar mutation. The face of Fawkes thus demonstrates (contrary to the classical structuralist theory outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure) that the symbol can be just as arbitrary as the sign. The face of Fawkes has become a potent free floating symbol. It is thus a potentially powerful instrument for the articulation of postmodern anarchism. Skilfully wielded, it can cut right through the representational structure of the modern state. In the late twentieth century, writers and artists began to recognise the radical potential of the Guy Fawkes image. In 1981, Alan Moore and David Lloyd published their groundbreaking V for Vendetta, a politically serious comic book (or, as they were coming to be known then, 'graphic novel'). The hero of this book is an anarchist known only as V, who wages war both symbolic and real against a fictional fascist state. V, who is horribly disfigured, wears a Guy Fawkes mask at all times. In V for Vendetta, the image of Fawkes signifies freedom of a distinctively left-libertarian sort. In 2006, James McTeigue directed a film version of V; Hollywood's sometimes brilliant Wachowski brothers provided the screenplay. McTeigue and the Wachowskis had already experimented heavily with postmodern anarchism in The Matrix; V continued and expanded that experiment. The film was widely criticised (not least by Alan Moore) as a betrayal of the original book. Yet how could the film betray a book which was itself simply the latest re-appropriation of a slippery symbol now four centuries old? In fact, the film was much more interesting than its critics realised. In the hands of McTeigue and the Wachowskis, the face of Fawkes realised its full potential. It became a truly nomadic, perpetually mutating postmodern symbol, impossible for the state to nail down. Shifting meanings in every frame, the face demonstrated its ability to destabilise the entire representational order which underwrites state power in the postmodern world.

Thanks to Moore and Lloyd, the face of Fawkes took over newsstands in Britain and the US during the '80s; thanks to the Wachowskis and McTeigue, it took over billboards, cinema screens and televisions in the early twenty-first century. At this point, we must consider the possibility that the face of Fawkes may have ripped a hole in the dominant symbolic order. This event is comparable in form, if not in scope, to the events of May 1968. (1) Inexpensive Fawkes masks are now widely available. They make a striking (if ambiguous) visual statement, while providing their wearers with an anonymity which is increasingly valuable in our surveillance-saturated culture. The face of Fawkes is everywhere now, at peace rallies and anti-nuclear demonstrations. I have seen that face mingled with those of homeless people and recycling environmentalists in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. And in my modest college town of San Luis Obispo, California, I have seen a group of Guys (probably students) gesturing dramatically at the downtown shopping mall. What does this signify? Perhaps a postmodern critique of consumerism? (2) Yes, for that is how I choose to read it at this moment. Liberated from all permanent meaning, the face of Fawkes stands ready to engage capital and the state in the place where they are weakest, the terrain of representation. Only a nomadic symbol of this kind could possibly keep up with the rampant mutations of post-industrial capitalism. The face of Fawkes is thus a vital instrument for the project of postmodern anarchism.


Antonia Fraser has rightly described the historiography of the Gunpowder Plot in terms of 'the continuing battle between Pro-Plotters and No-Plotters' (349). Modern historiography is clearly dominated by the former, who hold that in November 1605, a small group of Catholic radicals led by Robert Catesby attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. However, an intriguingly stubborn Catholic counter-history holds that the plot was actually a fiction created by James's chief minister, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, in order to condemn the Catholics (Levine 192). This counter-history was articulated most famously by John Gerard SJ in 1897. Although the Jesuit interpretation has been refuted many times, James Sharpe is quite right to point out that this 'recurrent counter-history of the Plot ... has never quite gone away' (46). By continuing to wage a stubborn guerrilla campaign against the mainstream historiography, (3) the Catholic counter-story draws our attention to the flexible, malleable symbolic nature of the Plot. The Plot resists fixed interpretations. Its historical details are well established, and yet despite four centuries of historiography, the ultimate meaning of those details remains undetermined (and perhaps indeterminate). The Plot remains a contested symbolic terrain. Although it occurred towards the beginning of the modern period in English political history, the Plot thus contains surprisingly strong postmodern elements. Indeed, the Plot and its numerous representations provide us with a unique opportunity to study the long term articulation of a postmodern symbolic system.

The Plot signifies in some interesting ways. One vital, though frequently overlooked, aspect of the Plot is its anti-Union significance. Guy Fawkes wrote of a 'natural hostility between the English and the Scots,' and claimed that 'it will not be possible to reconcile these two nations, as they are, for very long'(Fraser 89). King James was determined to pursue his political dream of Anglo-Scottish Union; it was he who proposed that the entire island should be known as Britain (Fraser 103-4). Here we see the first real stirrings of the modern British state. That state would indeed come to know itself as the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Its name and its power would both be based upon its successful manipula- tion of language and meaning. But before this...

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