of treason and gunpowder and things
November 6, 2010 § Leave a comment
A few weeks months ago I found myself coming to the end of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher the same day the V for Vendetta movie showed on TV. I had to watch it because nearly everyone who had watched it told me I had to watch it. The very next day, I went to the bookstore and bought the V for Vendetta comic by Alan Moore. I read it in a day in order to make up for all the years it took me to get to this masterpiece. What struck me as rather painful and consequently difficult to accept was how similar V for Vendetta, a dystopia of Britain’s imagined totalitarian future, is to Capitalist Realism (which really should have come with the subheading, ‘An Account of the Bleakness of Our Times’). Both books speak of the dangerous, insidious, and often initially-unrecognisable spread of ideological propaganda, be it overt totalitarianism or capitalist realism masquerading as post-ideological “freedom”. While one is a work of art designed to prevent collective stupor and alert us to what we don’t want our world to become, the other is an account of what our world has become, written precisely to shake us out of our stupor.
Both are bleak, yet both are must-reads for anyone –as David Lloyd put it in his introduction to V for Vendetta – who doesn’t turn off the news. But that’s not entirely accurate of Capitalist Realism; it is even more of a must-read for those of us who turn off the news and engage in passive “participation” of culture and consumerism because we can’t bear the news after working in jobs that only remind us of our increasingly shitty quality of life.
In the movie version of V for Vendetta, the Wachowski siblings wrote their screenplay by adapting Alan Moore’s sprawling premise and condensing it into a neat, linear narrative. It worked for the movie, and the extrapolation of the key themes and modification of the characters were intelligently-done. The visual aesthetics of the film is outstanding, marrying to good effect the opulent banality of shiny technology and impersonal spaces with the ornamental, almost baroque setting of the interior of V’s home. Stephen Rea’s performance was strong y subtle; his character, Detective Chief Inspector Eric Finch, was more of the emotional core of the film than Natalie Portman’s Evey. Hugo Weaving’s voice conveyed sorrow, anger, and hope in ways that infused V’s “face” with humanity; after some time I could not get the voice and the mask’s smiling facade out of my head.
Where the movie floundered, then, was in Natalie Portman’s performance as Evey; I realise now that I’ve always defended her acting based on the potential in her performances. I watch her and think she could be better, and I keep rooting for her to do better the next time, but this time I finally accepted the fact that her beautiful, extraordinary face can never really transform itself with each different role that she plays. She’s always beautiful, and THERE, but there doesn’t seem to be much there behind the there, if that makes sense. In this movie, she was very precise and serviceable with her British accent. Her impassive exterior was meant to mask a complicated character, tormented; except this tormented inner soul also revealed itself to be impassive and rather proper.
In the comic, Evey starts out confused and erratic because she is truly confused, being 16 and thrust into this hell of a world with nary a guiding hand or shoulder to cry on. Her naivete is total; she is meant to be lost and adrift. But in Moore’s able hands, however, her growth is gradual and her walls start coming up in a way that is almost familiar to all adults, simply crushing to dust early reader impressions of Evey as a feeble, needy blonde with Bambi eyes. This transformation is also evocatively portrayed through the art. The early drawings of Evey depicted her as wide-eyed and alarmed in nearly every panel; it frankly annoyed the hell out of me until the drawings, and her character, gradually began to take on the subtle nuances of her character’s maturity. The idea of every lost soul needing a mentor or a maker is one that resonates, regardless of whether or not it’s a cliche; and in Evey’s case, she was fortunate (or unfortunate?) to fall under V’s care.
The art in the comic is rather raw; the drawings rough and possessing an unfinished look especially to sensibilities used to the polished smoothness of the colouring and inking work in current graphic novels. But when you read the accompanying essay written by Alan Moore, and about the long genesis and fruition of V for Vendetta between the years 1981 to 1988 (when I was but a wee toddler, and then… not so wee), it dawns on you just how much of a revelation this comic would have been upon its release to readers used to larger-than-life superheroes, detailed captions and proper speech balloons instead of the almost stream-of-consciousness narrative that tends to carry through much of this work.
As for the masked V – monster or everyman? Our collective conscience? His methods are violent and reactionary. For every one person who makes this world a horrible place and must be eliminated, there are others who need to be nurtured and guided in order to save it, according to his logic. Perhaps these twin impulses of destruction and creation are always present in each person and are never meant to be resolved or sublimated; perhaps V is the only honest person among all of us. The thing about Moore is the kindness and pathos with which he’s able to depict people knowing, vaguely or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously, how they’ve signed on to their oppression, how they allow it to work within quite legitimate means, but who themselves only work helplessly within the existing totalitarian framework to ensure that they marshal enough power for themselves and come out on top at all costs. There is no real effort and will to change things from the inside out; it is especially chilling in the context of our current situation. People are absolute monsters in the face of their own weakened autonomy; and yet Moore shows us how pitiful they are, even as monsters, even as he holds those characters up as reflections of ourselves in the most discomfiting, repulsive way.
The film shows audiences fragments of American neoliberalism at its most hysterical – footage of the war in Iraq, for example, or anti-war demonstrations that actually took place, while glossing over the comic’s themes of the nature of anarchy and fascism, which of course, are the most important parts of the book in the context of its overarching premise. (Poor Moore; it must be incredibly frustrating to write comics that are every movie producer’s wet-dream. Especially ones who simply jerk-off by making a movie that’s a tribute to a banal personal fantasy than anything to do with the comic, such as in travesty that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.) This doesn’t hurt the movie, necessarily, so much as emphasise the importance of having to consider the comic on its own terms apart from the movie adaptation.
Another essential difference between the movie and the comic is that the movie expressly lays out a very clear path for Evey, via V, while the comic emphasises the importance of Evey coming into knowledge and awareness largely on her own, though aided and abetted by V’s hints and actions. Evey wonders if V is a monster, as does Chief Inspector Finch, but the latter’s gradual realisation of the monstrosities done by other people – people he knows and has worked with – leads him to realise his own complicity in monster-making. V’s monstrosity is that he remembers his humanity too well in a world filled with robotic humans. His character never acts without thinking, and not simply thinking within either/or binaries or in terms of cause-and-effect, but reflective, sustained, deep thinking. If Hannah Arendt was right in saying that “under conditions of tyranny it is far easier to act than to think,” than V’s true rebellion against society begins long-before he kills people or destroys buildings and places.
Back in our present day, Mark Fisher shows us in Capitalist Realism how the system has essentially configured itsef to make monsters of us all, even as we steadfastly go down kicking and screaming against non-monsterism. “Monster” is not a word he uses – ‘zombies’ is the precise one, as when he writes:
The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, the zombies it makes are us.
This is admittedly fascinating, especially for those of us wondering why these last few years have brought about a cultural obsession with vampires. If we follow Fisher’s analogy, it would seem that we unconsciously find the metaphor of parasitic energy compelling; but at the same time, we seem to imbue these vampires with hopes of redemptive power far more transgressive and useful than our measly and often embarrassingly-insufficient human “power”.
When I said that Fisher’s book is bleak, I wasn’t aiming for hyperbole – it’s not the kind of book that compels you to down half a bottle of Scotch and then slit your wrists. Well, not really. His assessment of capitalist realism owes a lot of Fredric Jameson’s formulation of postmodernism, but as Fisher explains, at the time of Jameson’s postmodern formulation, there were at its basis three assumptions: 1) there are political alternatives to capitalism; 2) modernism as a cultural style AND mode of living still existed as something to respond to or engage with; 3) incorporation of styles, cultures, values “outside” of capitalism was still a concern. Fisher reminds us that now capitalism is taken as the “only alternative”, modernism is only engaged with as a nostalgic past. We no longer have to worry about capitalism incorporating everything into its juggernaut – everything is already “precorporated” into capitalism:
Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or the quasi-propagandastic way in which advertising functions. It’s more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.
Mental health and bureaucracy, particularly within the culture of post-tertiary education (Fisher is a lecturer/tutor at the City Literary Institute in London) are the elements that Fisher focuses on in the book, and the arguments he makes are so compelling, so true to our daily existence, that I can’t understand why this book wasn’t reviewed and discussed in more visible fashion in some of the more big-name publications. But I suppose that’s capitalist realism at work for you.
Capitalist realism posits itself as post-ideological – it borrows Zizek’s theorisation of the unconscious nebulous fantasy that structures everything else, which is essentially Zizek borrowing Lacan, which is essentially, I suppose, Lacan modifying Freud. It’s fundamentally different from V for Vendetta, because Vendetta is about absolute and centralised totalitarianism, while Capitalist Realism describes our decentralised, ever-nebulous forms of power, but the effects are the same among the people – the inability to really do anything, the belief that there is no choice, and the overwhelming “reflexive impotence” as described by Fisher. And even if we believe we aren’t impotent, and are strongly moved to take action, we’re acting within a closed-circuit of capitalist realism that subsumes and incorporates acts of resistance even as it allows it to flourish – ensuring that no act of resistance truly achieves anything lasting or sustained. Sustainability is anathema to capitalist realism.
Like Moore, Fisher wants to remind us that we’re all complicit:
There is a sense in which it simply is the case that the political elite are our servants; the miserable service they provide from us is to launder our libidos, to obligingly re-present for us our disavowed desires as if they had nothing to do with us.
Capitalist Realism is filled with quotable sentences, not least derived from the theorists and philosophers whom Fisher cites, including Jameson, Zizek, Badiou, Deleuze, Guattari, Lacan, and Butler. I’ve resisted countless impulses to basically retweet the whole book in blocks of 140 characters. But beyond it, it’s a necessary jolt to the collective comatose psyche. The similarities it outlines among societies deadened by too much control is similar; while capitalist realism operates on the premise of “democracy” and “choice” unlike the explicitly totalitarian regime of the Britain we see in V for Vendetta, the net effect is the collective inability to think out of the current operating structure, and thus act in ways that genuinely undermine it.
But while Moore seems to suggest that one person can act as the spark that sets an entire society blazing, Fisher reminds us that in our current world of instability, precarity, forgetting, and endless “choice” and “flexibility”, collective action and management is what is needed now, while “voluntary” action is still a possibility. Or else, authoritarian management is quite possibly, as Moore predicted, the only road left to travel.