Unmasking V for Vendetta’s Panopticon

V for Vendetta is set in post-nuclear war London where a fascist regime called Norsefire and its leader, Mr. Adam Susan, have risen to power. A masked man named V and his apprentice Evey oppose Norsefire and seek to usher in a state of anarchy. The text and artwork provide rich insights into each character’s beliefs, especially their beliefs on the role of personal freedom in society. Mr. Susan provides London with an extreme form of governmental security through fascist ideology and an attempt to obliterate personal freedom through surveillance technologies. V, on the other hand, embodies the concept of negative liberty in its extreme form through anarchist ideology and his attempts to proliferate unfettered personal freedom by disabling the surveillance technologies. The graphic novel’s principle discourse is the ideological dynamic between security and liberty, and the discourse’s pivot point is Norsefire’s panoptic surveillance technologies.

Many writers and bloggers have explored the panoptic structure in V for Vendetta. This blog series is not intended to rehash a tired analysis of V for Vendetta‘s panopticon, but to explore the interplay between security and liberty in relation to the panopticon structure. In this post, we look at the panoptic structure in V for Vendetta (okay, I’m rehashing a bit…). In my next post, we will use part of the Astonishing X-Men run as a framework to apply phenomenological concepts that help us better understand how the panoptic structure exerts its power in V for Vendetta.


Norsefire’s Panoptic Structure

The Norsefire government is comprised of five institutions: The Nose, The Finger, The Ear, The Eye, and The Mouth.[1] Collectively, these institutions are known as The Head.[2] The Head is also a physical structure, which houses Norsefire’s computer database known as Fate.[3] Fate is managed by the Leader, Adam Susan, who oversees the work of the other institutions.[4]

The Mouth is introduced on the opening page, the embodiment (or disembodiment) of which is the “Voice of Fate,” the mouthpiece for Norsefire’s ideological rhetoric.[5] The Finger is introduced shortly thereafter, where Evey is apprehended for soliciting prostitution.[6] The Finger oversees the secret police called “fingermen,” who operate undercover and are given authority to act as judge, jury and executioner for “class H” crimes.[7] In contrast, The Nose is the regular police force comprised of detectives that primarily conduct investigative work.[8] The other two institutions are surveillance apparatuses. The Ear monitors and records all aural information in London, even in the chambers of high officials, such as the Bishop’s private quarters in West Minster Abbey.[9] The Eye similarly monitors and records all visual information in London; even Norsefire’s party leader has a hidden camera in his bedroom.[10]

The Norsefire institutions mimic the individual’s means of perception through the five senses, and these institutional “senses” are augmented by their omnipresence. The institutional senses—the information gathering apparatuses—coalesce into Fate, the database that houses all of the information on London’s population. It is from Fate that Mr. Susan feels that he is “touched by God, by destiny.”[11] He understands that knowing the population is a means to direct the course of society, and as a way to deny the population’s “freedom to starve. The freedom to die, the freedom to live in a world of chaos.”[12] Fate powerfully represents ideology under Hannah Arendt’s conception as a means to “explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise,” which compliments Andrew Heywood’s delineation that ideologies are “a perspective through which the world is understood and explained…[and] set[s] goals that inspire political activity.”[13] Fate is used to guide society. It inspires political activity, and explains everything because, in a sense, it is everything. Fate, essentially, is the means to secure Norsefire’s worldview.

The Panopticon and the Panoptic Gaze

Michel Foucault asserted that documentation of an individual constitutes the individual “as effect and object of power, as effect and object of knowledge.”[14] Norsefire’s institutions and the Fate computer system evoke Foucault’s idea that the individual is an object of power when the individual becomes an object of knowledge. For Norsefire, documentation of the individual is not a means to merely know the population but to control the population. The individual becomes an object of Norsefire’s knowledge and power when information about his or her life becomes a data set in the Fate computer system and when that data is aggregated to analyze the broader population.

The task of effectively and efficiently transforming the individual into an object of knowledge requires an array of apparatuses (e.g. The Ear and The Eye). These apparatuses are evocative of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.[15] Bentham envisioned the panopticon as an architectural structure that, from above, represents a spoke and wheel. The “spoke” is a tower with numerous windows that permit a view of the “wheel,” which is comprised of numerous holding cells. Each cell has a window facing the tower and a window that lets light in from outside, thereby allowing a supervisor in the tower to view the cell’s occupant completely, individually, and constantly while the occupants are inhibited from communicating with each other.[16] As Foucault points out, the cell’s occupant is “seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”[17] The most important effect of the panopticon is that the cell’s occupant is aware of being permanently visible, which “assures the automatic functioning of power.”[18] The individual believes he is always under the supervisor’s watch, and, therefore, always subject to the supervisor’s power.

Panopticon

Power over the individual is not achieved by merely physically restraining the individual’s body; rather, it is achieved by restraining his mind, even before he has engaged in any deviant conduct. The individual is always subject to pervasive and undetectable supervision. The individual does not know if he is being watched at any given moment, and there is no way to tell if he is being watched. Furthermore, the individual knows that whomever might be watching has the power to punish any deviant behaviors. For the individual, it will always appear that he is being observed, that he is always at risk of being punished for deviant behavior, and he must always be careful to avoid deviant behavior to avoid punishment. As a result, the individual is subject to the power of the observer’s gaze, which, from the individual’s perspective, is always “on.” The individual is restrained by his inability to perceive whether the observer’s gaze is averted away or focused upon the individual. Due to this inability of perception, the gaze always appears able and ready to enact punishment. The individual is restrained from deviant behavior because he believes he is always at risk of getting caught and punished. He thinks he is being watched, he thinks he will get caught: he is restrained by what he thinks. Thus, the individual is restrained by psychological rather than physical coercion.

Psychological coercion allows the supervisor to efficiently and effectively exert power over the individual with minimal use of resources and minimal amounts of resistance.[19] Power in a panoptic structure is efficient, effective, and omnipresent. The individual’s zone of freedom, his private space, is shrunk considerably, and, as a result, increases the dominating group’s power over the individual. The formation and expansion of knowledge of the individual and the subsequent increase in the dominant group’s power form a positive loop feedback. As knowledge increases power increases, and as power increases knowledge increases. In the context of the panopticon, the positive loop feedback is augmented by the efficiency and effectiveness of the panoptic structure. The panopticon is a fantastic means to gain power through knowledge by coextensively increasing knowledge and power.

The Extended Gaze 

The panopticon has manifested itself in contemporary society in the physical structure of schools, penitentiaries, and hospitals. It has also transcended its initial brick-and-mortar conception into a modality of discipline. The panopticon is accurately depicted in the abstract as “a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men.”[20] One notable and relevant example that reifies the abstracted, non-architectural panopticon is the police.

The police extend the panoptic structure, specifically the panoptic ‘gaze,’ outside of the institution, outside of schools, penitentiaries, and hospitals. For example, beat-cops, investigators and criminal informants extend the panoptic gaze outside of the penitentiary walls and into the community. These agents, spread throughout communities, often inconspicuously and undisclosed, obtain knowledge of individuals, document their findings, and report to the centralized state apparatus that exerts its power over the individual. The pervasive nature of the police force, its ubiquitous presence, like the tower in the architectural panopticon, psychologically rather than physically restrains the individual. Accordingly, the individual’s community becomes a sort of panoptic cell, where his zone of freedom, his private space, is shrank considerably. The police, as a panoptic, institutional gaze, increase the institution’s knowledge of the individual in the community and, as a result, increase the power over the individual and the power of the institution. As a state apparatus, the police therefore increase the power of the dominant group by shrinking the individual’s private space and reducing the individual’s autonomy from the state.

The panoptic gaze is evident and taken to its extreme in V for Vendetta. Norsefire’s institutions incorporate the population into the dominant group itself through constant surveillance by The Nose, The Ear, The Eye, and The Finger. These institutions enable Norsefire to ‘gaze’ into its population. Because the gaze encompasses the entire population, including its leaders, Norsefire’s gaze is an internal rather than external gaze. The Nose, The Ear, The Eye, and The Finger are all apparatuses that capture the interior of the Norsefire social body. Thus, criminality, the harm to society, or, more specifically, to the ruling Norsefire party, is part of the state itself. As a result, to borrow from Foucault, “the penal law must repair the harm or prevent similar harm from being done to the social body.”[21]

Norsefire chooses to prevent the harm through a panoptic gaze that removes autonomy from the individual and relies on violence (through The Finger) to prevent harm to the state. Moreover, the panoptic gaze reaches its ultimate abstraction because it goes beyond the police force’s ability to monitor the population. Like the cells of the architectural panopticon, it is able to separate individuals from interacting with one another in ways that would undermine Norsefire. Londoners are discouraged from actions that would indicate attempts to form a counterhegemonic movement because such actions could be easily detected and easily disciplined. Londoners were put on notice of the consequences of counterhegemonic movements when Norsefire killed all radicals and possible dissenters. These consequences are analogous to a prisoner in a panopticon getting shot after breaking a rule, which greatly disincentives communications that suggests a counterhegemonic movement. In Norsefire’s London, everyone is visible, everyone is confined, and everyone is deterred from forming counterhegemonic movements. The entire city within the panoptic gaze becomes the panoptic prison, which is the highest form of security Norsefire could hope to achieve.


[1] Alan Moore & David Lloyd, V for Vendetta 10-11, 15, 17, 69, 177 (DC Comics 2005).

[2] Id. at 177.

[3] Id. at 38-39

[4] Id. at 177.

[5] Id. at 10.

[6] Id. at 11.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 69.

[9] Id. at 55.

[10] Id. at 228.

[11] Id. at 38.

[12] Id.

[13] Howard H. Lentner, Hegemony and Autonomy 53 Political Studies. 743 (2005).

[14] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish 191 (Alan Sheridan tans., Vintage Books 2d ed. 1995) (1977).

[15] Id. at 199.

[16] Id. at 200.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 201.

[19] Id. at 218.

[20] Id. at 205.

[21] Michael Foucault, Truth and Juridical Forms, in Power 54, (James D. Faubion & Paul Rabinow eds., The New Press 1994).

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