Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A return to V for Vendetta

I have decided to return to my analysis of the film V for Vendetta. A topic i have previously discussed here, here, and briefly here. There has also been an excellent discussion about the film at Steve Shaviro's blog here and another one at I Cite here.

This post considers the active and reactive forces in the film and puts forward a (short) argument for a revolutionary Overman that affirms life.


In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) a passage, dedicated to Friedrich Nietzsche, discusses the need for new barbarians, ‘We need a force capable of not only organising the destructive capabilities of the multitude, but also of constituting through the desire of multitude an alternative’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000: p214). In order to construct the alternative Hardt and Negri claim there is a necessarily violent and barbaric passage. This passage is termed positive barbarism (2000: p214-215). After reading the passage I thought about the film V for Vendetta, a film that depicts a (barbaric) revolution removing the powers of fascism. In an interpretation of the film the paper proposes that positive barbarism requires a (Nieztschean) revolutionary Overman, which is represented in the character V. I argue it is the Overman’s role to overcome those forces that repress themselves and the masses. The paper relies upon Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between active and reactive forces in Nietzsche and Philosophy, which provides the possibility for an ethical evaluation of life. The importance of Deleuze’s Nieztschean ‘ethical’ vision of the world is the ethical task for the revolutionary Overman becomes to overcome the reactive forces that deny and negate life. I analyse the reactive forces that repress the masses in V for Vendetta and discuss how V overcomes them through a project of self-creation.

Active and Reactive Forces

According to Nietzsche, in Genealogy of Morals, our contemporary morality has emerged from the triumph of a slave morality (1996). Slave morality has triumph over the noble morality. While the latter is active and affirmative the former is reactive and negative. Nietzsche argues the triumph of slave moral, which promotes pity, denial, and humility, represents a transvaluation of morals that has replaced noble moraity. The significance of slave morality’s triumph is it’s creation of the idea of evil. Before slave morality prevailed, noble morality functioned under concepts of good and bad, defining ‘good’ as life affirming capacities and ‘bad’ as simply lacking life affirming capacities. However, in slave morality there is now the concept of evil, which seeks to inhibit those activities that represent evil. An example is institutional Christianity, which seeks to inhibit homosexuality as it views this as an evil activity. A mode of affirming life is given identity only to be denied and rejected.
The importance of Nietzsche’s genealogy of (western) morality is it provides Gilles Deleuze the opportunity to differentiate between active forces and reactive forces. For Deleuze active forces and reactive forces value life from different perspectives. Generally the former view life as affirmation and inspire creativity, while the latter view life negatively and limit the powers of life, ‘active forces are creative, because they seek to exercise themselves, to make whatever can be made of themselves…reactive forces operate by cutting active forces off from their own power’ (May, 2006: 66). One of the key components of reactive forces is ressentiment. According to Nietzsche ressentiment ‘says to no to an ‘outside’, to an ‘other’, to a non-self’: and this is no creative act’ (Nietzsche, 1996: 22). Ressentiment, which is a component of slave morality, constructs the enemy as evil, which serve to define their group as the good: ‘imagine the ‘enemy’ as conceived by the man of ressentiment. This is the very place where his deed, his creation is to be found – he has conceived the ‘evil enemy’, the ‘evil man.’ Moreover, he has conceived him as a fundamental concept, from which he now derives another as an after-image and counterpart, the ‘good-man’ – himself! (Nietzsche, 1996: 25). Life, or certain forces of life, is judged evil, resented for their existence, which permits for a differentiation between good and evil,

Good and evil are new values, but how strangely these values are created…they are not created by acting but by holding life back from acting, not by affirming, but by beginning from a denial. This is why they are called uncreated, divine, transcendent, superior to life. But think of what these values hide, of their mode of creation. They hide an extraordinary hatred, a hatred for life, a hatred for all that is active and affirmation in life (Deleuze, 2005: 114).

Importantly, and a point addressed later in the paper, the morality of good and evil produced from slave morality can actually function to repress life instead of ‘freeing’ us.
According to Paul Patton the differentiation between active and reactive forces provides the possibility for an ethical evaluation:

Nietzsche terminology the reversal of values means the active in place of the reactive (strictly speaking it is the reversal of a reversal, since the reactive began by taking place of the active). But transmutation of values, or transvaluation, means affirmation instead of negation – negation transformed into a power of affirmation, the supreme Dionysian metamorphosis (Patton, 2000: 66)

If a transvaluation of values is to occur then the focus has to be on the removal the reactive force(s) that negate life. In people, communities, historical periods…there are combinations of active and reactive forces and we are compose of forces that go to the limit of what we can do and forces that seek to limit what we can become (May, 2006: p67). The task is to identify the historical contingent reactive forces that are limit life through a negation. Ressentiment is one type of reactive force that negates life through imposing an image of evil. It is the presence of ressentiment that I will now analyse in V for Vendetta.

Ressentiment in V for Vendetta

Overall, the reactive forces in V for Vendetta limit the active forces through creating an enemy. The enemy are given the identity of immigrates, homosexuals, and Muslims. These active forces are now a group identity that represent the ‘threats’ and the ‘enemy’ of the UK, and it is these (active) forces that are resented. Muslims, immigrates, and homosexuals are now the ‘other’ that the population of the UK must not become. It is these forces, which are now identities, that are the outside and non-self of the UK. Commander Prothero’s, on his television show fuelled on ressentiment, clearly defines the UK identity through negation:

Prothero to audience: ‘immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals, terrorists! Disease ridden degenerates, they had to go!’

These are the ‘evil enemies’ that Britain resents, which in turn makes Britain ‘good.’ Prothero’s rant is illustrative of reactive forces fuelled on ressentiment. Affirmation of difference and the opportunity to become is denied and negated through constructing an image of evil. Homosexuality, for example, is denied as an (active) force of becoming. It has now become an identity associated to the non-self of the United Kingdom.
Flashbacks in V for Vendetta inform the viewer that the ‘evil’ enemy were removed from the public during the period termed reformation. State apparatus forces, in scenes reminiscent to Nazi Germany, capture and confine the ‘evil’ non-self of the population. The masses become segmented into a gregarious binary division of either/or that judges and limits what the population came began. We learn of the character Rose’s life leading up and during her confinement at Lanmark Disciplinary Centre. Rose’s story is of young girl becoming lesbian women and we learn of her experiences and encounters. On the whole, her homosexuality is an active force of affirmation that is part of her self-creation. She fails no shame or does not deny her homosexuality. However, even before the period of reformation there are forms of micro-ressentiment that attempt to limit her affirmative homosexuality. At school the teacher informs Valerie that homosexuality is a phase she will grow out of, while her parents’ ressentiment is more intense and results in them denying Valerie as their daughter. These flashback scenes are correct to acknowledge the presence of mirco forms of ressentiment, representing an already present ‘micro-fascism’ that is latter organised into a powerful macro-fascism of state apparatus.
Ressentiment’s negative formation of good and evil creates a perverse situation where a parasitic relationship is constructed. Evil, or at least the threat of evil, always has to be present for there to be good. The good becomes an organism whose life is dependent on the energy provided from there being an evil. In V for Vendetta the state owned media represent the parasitic relationship. The news constantly runs stories about the evil non-self, Prothero rants about the ‘degenerate others’, and entertainment shows, such as Storm Saxon, contain images of terrorist Muslims. Fear, entertainment, and tranny are used to remind the population that they are ‘God fearing Englishment’ (Prothero). The parasitic relationship of ressentiment limits what the masses can become. Their identity can only be affirmed from firstly denying themselves that what represents the non-self. It is negation before affirmation. Arguably some of the characters feel this repression and limiting on becoming more than others. Deitrich (Stephen Fry) is an example of the repression. While he is a popular television host Deitrich’s denies his homosexual desires and even host young attractive women at his home. Crucially, it is not only the state apparatus that coerce his denial but also an internalisation of authority, or what Nietzsche would call bad consciousness. Nietzsche defines bad consciousness as when ‘all instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – that is what I call the internalisation of man…that is the origin of the “bad conscience”’ (Nietzsche, 1996: 65). Deitrich internalises the identity of the masses that is constructed on ressentiment of the non-self to discipline his body and enforce restraint. The internalisation of the identity for Deitrich and extends the power of ressentiment. In a revealing line Deitrich states, ‘when you wear a mask for so long, you forget the person behind it.’ Detrich does perform an act of resistance (which causes him his life) on his the television show in a sketch of High Chancellor Sutler as the ‘terrorist’ V.

The emergent Overman? The complex emergence of the overman

Any paper, or political project, that advocates the Overman is required to be careful of not providing a model for the Superman. The Superman is the nightmare fascist overcoming of mankind that was evident in Nazi Germany. It was not so much an overcoming of mankind but the replacement of one image of man with another more reactive image of man. The Aryan race became the superman image for Nazi fascism. This (crude) interpretation of Nietzsche Overman fail to realise the task is not to replace one image of man with another, but actually destruction the image of man to realise those affirmative forces. V for Vendetta provides a crude interpretation of the Overman as Superman. The ‘superman’ identity of white-hetrosexual-christian-british becomes the ‘superior’ homogeneous identity for the masses. In this situation the difference of the ‘multitude’ becomes repressed through identity. The fascistic interpretation of the Overman as superman, both in V for Vendetta and Nazi Germany, forgets that the main lesson of the Overman is that man must be overcome. All images of what man is are replaced and destroyed with affirmative projects of self-creation. It is for this reason that Nieztsche argues the Overman is a ‘higher type.’ The Overman is merely a ‘higher type’ because their existence is beyond ressentiment and reactive forces. They accept the responsibility of life without God or higher values (Spinks, 2003: 116). The Overman does not view man as an identity they view man as an immanent process. Creation precedes identity as ‘the very concept of “human” is reactive insofar as it posits an unchanging identity with which our values ought to accord.’ (Spinks, 2003: 116). If a (fixed) identity of man is rejected then we need to consider how the Overman emerges from life. Following Nietzsche’s advice to stay turn to the earth I believe it is important to understand that the Overman is an emergent property produced from interactions and encounters in life.
The term emergent property comes from complexity theory and argues that interaction between (at least) two ‘things’ can result in the emergence of a new property. A simple example is the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen to produce the quality water (H20). The importance of the interaction demonstrates the necessity relations of exteriority to exist for new properties to emerge into life. In an attempt to stay true to the earth it also avoids an argument of appealing to superterresterial factors.[1] The character V can demonstrate that Overmen, which resist and destruct reactive forces, do not come from the supperterresterial but actually emerge from life.
V’s emergence into an Overman is a product of his interactions. It would be a mistake to view his self-creation as a project of solitude detached from life. Throughout the film there are important interactions that create V as an Overman and a lot of these interactions are a result of the reactive forces. Firstly, because V is in Larkhill Disciplinary Institution we know that he is a victim of the binary segmentation of the non-self and self of the British identity. It is in the disciplinary institution that another two important interactions occur. As mentioned above the disciplinary institution uses those confined as trail subjects to create a cure for the virus released into the ‘free’ population. It is from this experimentation that a cure is produced and V gains his ‘super’ human strength. I would argue that this interaction is only important for the comic style of the film, which follows in the tradition of superhero’s gaining their strength from some unfortunate experience (e.g. Spiderman, X-Men, Incredible Hulk…). We therefore do not need to accept an argument that the Overman requires superhuman strength. More important for V’s emergence as an Overman is his interaction with Valerie at Larkhill. Valerie is located in the next cell and until her death she sends V bibliographical notes of her life written on toilet roll. It is possible to argue that Valerie is herself an Overman, and in her notes to V she disperses the virtues of her self-creation. Her homosexuality is fiercely unapologetic and without bad conscious. In one of her letters describing her last girlfriend Valerie writes, ‘for three years I had roses, these where the happiest years of my life, and I apologise to no one.’ There is a joyous and affirmation politics to Valerie’s active life, which illustrates a movement beyond good and evil and towards good and bad. It is her love (which is true to the earth) that empowers her. Valerie does not question if her homosexuality is morally good or evil, but rather explores what is good and life affirming for her. Arguable it is these active forces that promote a life and politics of affirmation that are crucial for V’s metamorphosis into an Overman. It is these notes that he later declares frees him of the hate and contempt that fuelled his body.

[1] I define superterresterial factors as transcendent ideas appealing to superior forces beyond those found in life (e.g. a transcendent God)


Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans by Hugh Tomlinson (London: Continuum, 2004)

Gilles Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans by Martin Joughin (New York: Zone Books, 1992)

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (London: Harvard University Press, 2000)

Todd May, Gilles Deleuze: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Paul Patton, Deleuze and the Political (London: Routledge, 2000)

Lee Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche (London: Routledge, 2003)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed and trans by Walter Kaufmann (London: Penguin, 1954)


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