[Marxism] V for Vendetta

Suresh borhyaenid at yahoo.com
Mon Apr 3 21:51:32 MDT 2006

I think it’s necessary to make a critical appraisal of
contemporary popular culture, from a Marxist
perspective, including niche products like the graphic
novel or comic book. It’s true that David Walsh may be
overstating the matter when he describes the genre as
“inherently limiting”. Indeed, it’s crucial to look at
art forms in their social context, in relation to
civil society, in which case no means of expression
can be said to embody either timeless flaws or
virtues. So, when Scott McCloud, in his “Understanding
Comics” draws the comparison to cave paintings and
Egyptian bas-relief, he paradoxically undermines his
effort to rehabilitate the genre he works in. Marx

“Let us take, for example, the relation of Greek art,
and that of Shakespeare, to the present time. We know
that Greek mythology is not only the arsenal of Greek
art, but also its basis. Is the conception of nature
and of social relations which underlies Greek
imagination and therefore Greek (art) possible when
there are self-acting mules, railways, locomotives and
electric telegraphs? What is a Vulcan compared with
Roberts and Co., Jupiter compared with the lightning
conductor, and Hermes compared with the Credit
Mobilier? All mythology subdues, controls and fashions
the forces of nature in the imagination and through
imagination; it disappears therefore when real control
over these forces is established.”

Thus, it could be argued that the attempt to
manufacture a new mythology, whether in the original
Action Comics of the 30’s or in the Vertigo comics
like the Sandman series of the 90’s, will necessarily
fail, but because of external limitations and not
those internal or inherent to the form itself. Instead
we’re left with the ephemeral stimulants that
substitute for culture in our commodified age. 

As a film, V for Vendetta is simply a mediocre
representative of the second or third wave of
blockbuster Hollywood films that began in the 70’s
with Spielberg and Lucas on the one hand and Coppola
and Scorsese on the other. With the deflation of 60’s
era idealism came the inflation of movie budgets and
the growing dependency of the increasingly
consolidated industry on the next big hit. The current
fad of comic book movies and CGI cartoons is the sad
culmination of this trend.

I can’t agree with the compulsion to label anyone who
finds little of enduring value in the latest album
from 50 Cent or the newest installment from the Harry
Potter series, a snob for making certain artistic
demands. By this standard, Lukacs and Trotsky were
effete, petty-bourgeois ivory tower intellectuals for
writing polemics against some of the dominant cultural
tendencies of their day. Lukacs waged what he
described as a two-front war against both schematic
proletarian literature and socialist realism and
against the Western avant-garde. Instead, he made an
unpopular appeal to the tradition of 19th century
realism, exemplified by Goethe, Balzac, and Tolstoy,
and in the 20th century by Mann. The modernists, whom
he categorized as naturalists, presented subjective,
one-dimensional fragments of perception and emotion,
and recapitulated the weaknesses of bourgeois
mechanical materialism and idealism, at the same time.
The acute development of technique and style into a
rapid succession of “isms”, in his point of view,
merely obscured the lack of a coherent unity of form
and content in modern art. Trotsky, during the
intra-party conflicts of the early 20’s, also framed a
Marxist critique of art. Much more sympathetic to
modernism, he focused his attention on assaulting the
notion of a uniquely proletarian art and argued
against some of the ideas associated with the
Proletkult groups of the early worker’s state. Like
Lukacs, he felt the best of bourgeois literature would
enrich the consciousness of the working class.

But, the current crop of Hollywood action movies, of
TV reality shows, of over-produced rap and pop
artists, etc. do not represent the best of bourgeois
culture. Neither does ostensibly high art such as
contemporary neo-classical music by composers like
John Cage and John Corigliano or post-modern
architecture by such figures as Rem Koolhaas and Frank
Gehry. What’s striking is how much more incisive
Lukac’s criticisms are when applied to post-modern
rather than modern art. How can Marxists condemn
neo-liberalism, pro-market reforms, and the current
wave of colonialism, and at the same time laud
products of the culture industry which is at once the
superstructure, and in this information age, also the
base of late capitalism? If the bourgeoisie
increasingly plays a less progressive role, doesn’t it
also make sense that mass culture would also show
growing signs of decadence? But, if instead we take a
subtle, dialectical perspective on the one, it only
makes sense it should apply to the other as well. The
British socialist blog K-Punk recently addressed some
of these issues, through looking specifically at the
development of pop music and post-punk in particular:

“In music as in many areas of creative and political
life nowadays it is apparent that there is little more
than a hegemony of the possible, a self-limiting
awareness that “there is no further to go”. Which
becomes of course a bitter self-fulfilling prophecy.
The major problem is really that the numbers necessary
to demand the impossible, to be ultimately utterly
dissatisfied and demand and create something better
and to disrupt and unsettle the staid conventions of
all the mummified tentacles of this octopus of music I
doubt exist. To achieve a post-punk/new pop like event
(or even rave into the mainstream moment) only
requires a relatively small critical number of people
for it to take off. But crucially, given the slowing
of expectations it seems even this is unlikely. As an
example of this, look at The Guardian article recently
referred to on Dissensus—not even an inkling of the
idea that the central problem in the case of The
Arctic Monkeys (especially sonically) is that they
exist entirely within the remit of ideas from almost
30 years ago. But when you remark of this fact to
anyone, seemingly, the response is simply that there
are no new ideas, and it’s all over. And if people
only believe in the possible, it’s all fucked.

What is perhaps necessary is for the tail to no longer
wag the dog and for artists, media and consumers to
evolve new committed positions within the emerging
distributive networks and allow a rebirth of the
excitement and invention which marked popular music
from 1950s onwards in the last century. Because it is
doubtful as to whether we could structurally return to
things as they were. The other options are to tunnel
further into the various niches, or to play ever more
elaborate po-mo games (hauntology perhaps?) But that
is pretty much an expression of terminal decline into
mere classical languages.'”

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