V for Vendetta’s Panoptic Gaze

Police exhibit the three tenants of panopticism—supervision , control, and correction—which mold and transform individuals to operate within certain norms.[1] The three tenants are also exhibited in Norsefire’s  five institutions, which coalesce into a panoptic gaze. A brief discussion of phenomenology is useful to understand how Norsefire’s panoptic gaze fashions normative behaviors, thereby exerting Norsefire’s power over Londoners. We will use the Astonishing X-Men to explore some of phenomenology’s basic, albeit heady, concepts. These concepts will also help us understand how V is able contest Norsefire’s power in V for Vendetta.

Mutant Being is Different than Human Being

In issue 11 of Astonishing X-Men, Charles Xavier, the founder of the X-Men, has a psychic discourse with a machine where Xavier and the machine appear as astral projections.[2] Xavier, who is paralyzed from the waist down, projects himself as paralyzed, to which the machine comments, “And what do you call a man whose best image of himself still cannot so much as stand up? I choose my limitations, father. You are yours.”[3] In reply, Xavier rhetorically asks, “In the end, though, aren’t we all? Our limitations? If none of us had limitations…what would God do with his time?”[4]

Xavier’s response is saturated with phenomenological understanding. As Merleau-Ponty stated, our bodies are the pivot of the world.[5] This means, essentially, that a person experiences the world through his body, and he knows the world through his body. Bodily limitations define the experience of the world. Therefore, if two people have different bodily limitations, then each person will experience the world in two different ways.

Professor X asks: without limitations, what would God do with His time?
Astonishing X-Men, Volume 3, Issue 11, p. 16 (Marvel Comics July 2005)


J. Jeremy Wisnewski highlights Merleau-Ponty understanding that consciousness is directly linked to the body, consciousness manifests itself as a matter of “I can” rather than “I think that.”[6]. (I recommend reading Wisnewski’s cited article as it was an inspiration for the ideas and discussion in this post). “I can” is a pre-reflective assertion. The person does not have to think about what she can do, she knows she can and performs the actions without contemplation. The “I can” understanding of the world is rooted in the body’s ability to interact and know the world.

Wisnewski states, “the limits of our bodies help determine how we encounter things and how we judge the meaning of things.”[7] This statement is teased out when we compare an X-Men’s bodily experience and a human’s bodily experience. The body defines the possibilities in the world. For a human, a door is open or closed, locked or unlocked; it allows passage from one space to another. It is an obstruction or a gateway. A human understands the possibilities associated with a door in the way the body experiences a door. Furthermore, the meaning of a door is abstracted when a person considers the metaphorical door, to put one’s foot in the door, to keep a door open, and to have a door slammed in one’s face. However, as Wisnewski noted, for an X-Men mutant like Kitty Pryde, who can walk through solid matter, a door does not have the same association of possibilities.[8]

In the first book of Astonishing X-Men, Pryde is shown walking into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.[9] Pryde walks towards the door, but enters the school through the wall to the left of the door.[10] The meaning of door for her is vastly different from that of a human. The door being open or closed, locked or unlocked does not impose itself as an obstacle or gateway. For Pryde, it is something to pass through, impenetrable visually but not bodily. The door does not limit her bodily possibilities, and, as result, it does not have the same meaning as it does for a non-mutant. Pryde’s experience of the world is fundamentally different than a human’s experience of the world, and, as a result, meanings within the world are fundamentally different.

It is important to note that Pryde could conceive and understand the meaning of a door for a non-mutant. She has the ability to assume solid form and use the door as a non-mutant would, and the intersubjective relation with others helps her understand the meaning of doors for non-mutants. For the non-mutant, separating the meaning of the door from his experience of doors is difficult but possible. A non-mutant would have difficulty understanding what a door means to Pryde because he cannot pass through solid objects, try as he might. His inability to experience a door beyond his own bodily limitation limits his ability to understand the meaning (or lack thereof) of a door to Pryde. Bodily limitations, as such, are as much limitations of bodily experience as they are limitations of meaning.

The way people, or mutants, exist in the world, the way they experience the world, informs their ontological structure. Referred to as “being-in-the-world” by Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, ontological structures comprise the way a person goes about the world without reflecting upon their actions or intentions,[11] which stem from Husserl’s concept of the “natural attitude.”[12] The natural attitude is a person’s pre-philosophical and pre-scientific existence, a person’s everyday life, which we, according to Heidegger, cannot escape.[13] A person’s being-in-the-world is a totality of factors, including “life and world, object and subject, inner and outer, mind and body, individual and society, etc.”[14]

The world and the possibilities within the world afforded by the body create a person’s everyday existence. If the limitations of one person’s body differ from another person, such as Kitty Pryde compared to a non-mutant, then her being-in-the-world, her ontological structure, is different as well, despite being in the same physical “world.” Therefore, different experiences of every day life may reveal different possibilities to a person. This may also be true for masked men in a Alan Moore’s panoptic police-state as it is for X-Men.

X-Men as the e(X)ternal-Man

Although the ‘X’ in X-Men refers to the mutant X-gene that gives the mutants their powers,[15] it also embodies the idea of what I call the “e(X)ternal-Man.” The concept of the e(X)ternal-Man is represented in a conversation between Wolverine, an X-Men whose mutations include regeneration, disease resistance and retractable claws, and Beast, an X-Men whose mutations include enhanced intelligence and cat-like features.[16] In The Astonishing X-Men, Beast is studying a gene-therapy that would alter the mutations that give the X-Men their super-human abilities and render them non-mutants. Beast is intrigued by the possibility of losing his cat-like appearance. Wolverine interrupts Beast’s research and asks, “You’ve had enough? You wanna see how the other half lives their half-lives?”[17] Beast replies that he is worried about his mutation causing him to devolve to the point of actually becoming a beast, stating, “I used to have fingers. I used to have a mouth you could kiss, I would walk down the street and…”[18] Beast asserts, “I am human,” to which Wolverine replies, “Wrong. You’re an X-Man.”[19]

In the exchange, Beast acknowledges that his appearance, as altered by his X-gene, has changed the way he goes about his everyday existence; even walking down the street takes on a new meaning. Wolverine’s remarks also indicate that mutants experience the world differently than non-mutants, and that mutants enjoy a perspective that should be embraced. Beast considers losing his mutation in order to assume the bodily limitedness of a non-mutant and recapture non-mutant experiences. Wolverine adamantly opposes assuming the bodily limitedness of a non-mutant because he believes he would lose the meaningful existence of being a mutant.

Importantly, it is crucial to consider that one’s bodily limitedness confines his available scope of meaning. Maeve Cooke posits that meaning is an important element in autonomous choices, where significant meaning is only available where there is a range of options.[20] Options are essential for self-evaluation in autonomous choices, they allow the self to posit the question, “Do I really want to be what I now am?[21] This question is only meaningful for autonomous choice if an adequate range of options exists and they are not merely trivial, evil or horrid.[22] Beast asks himself whether he wants to be what he is, whether he wants to be a mutant or a non-mutant. This question is meaningful as an autonomous choice because he has the option to become a non-mutant through gene-therapy. His question is concerned with the body he inhabits, and changing his body changes his range of options.

The different range of options is exemplified when Beast states that he remembers having lips that could kiss another person. With facial features of a cat, Beast has no lips and cannot kiss another person. This bodily limitation does not merely prevent Beast from puckering up and pressing his flesh against another person’s body. It prevents Beast from sharing the symbolic meaning of a kiss, of love, of sensuality or sexuality. Without lips, Beast is closed off from a form of non-mutant (human) expression because of his bodily limitedness. The limits of the body limit the options of the individual, and, in effect, limit his choices. In Beast’s case, he cannot choose to express love through the symbolic kiss because without lips he does not have that option.

Within the X-Men universe, mutants like Beast exist outside the phenomenological experience of non-mutants because of their extreme mutations. Their experience is e(X)ternal to the non-mutant experience because mutants experience the world in different ways through the difference in their bodies. Although the X-Men provide an extreme example of differences in bodily experiences, the same understanding of bodily limitedness can be applied to Londoners in V for Vendetta.


How do the concepts of bodily limitedness and being-in-the-world inform a Londoner’s existence within the Norsefire regime? It is important to note that the panoptic structure exerts pressure on Londoners due to constant surveillance; it restrains their minds, thereby restraining their behavior. The panoptic gaze restricts what the individual may do through psychological coercion rather than physical coercion. The body, as a pivot of the world, is the source of meaning within the world, and the panoptic gaze limits the individual’s body. Because the individual’s body is limited, possibilities and meanings (in other words, options) within the world are also limited for the individual.

For example, the meaning of swearing for a Londoner under the Norsefire regime is more troubling than committing a social faux pas. Swearing is a crime that may result in a quick punishment, as demonstrated when a little girl nervously swears in front of a street surveillance camera and immediately recoils in fear.[23] For the girl, the act of swearing is not a mere expression, a mere utterance, but a guaranteed reprimand. It is a means for the state to further control and correct the individual. The option or choice of swearing as a means of expression is also a choice of punishment. Recoiling in fear demonstrates the power of the panoptic gaze upon the individual; her body reacts to the seeming inevitability of correction. Under the panoptic gaze, options for Londoners, in even seemingly trivial aspects of their lives, are essentially meaningless options of supervision, control and correction.

Mr. Susan uses the panoptic gaze to prevent harm to the social body, which, essentially, is the state.[24] To that end, Mr. Susan uses the individual’s fear of harm to the individual’s body to prevent harm to the state’s body.[25] There is no escape from the gaze, no private area to recede, except, seemingly, to a person’s own mind. A person’s bodily limitations, however, confine the scope of options in the world. The totality of bodily limitations and the experienced world establish a person’s being-in-the-world. For the Londoner, his being-in-the-world is one of severe and constant restriction on action, on options, and on possibilities.

Restricted options limit a person’s freedom of choice, freedom of choosing a different course of action, and, ultimately, freedom to choose counterhegemony to usurp, replace, or supplant the dominant group. Norsefire, through its panoptic gaze, creates fear that neuters the individual’s ability to form a counterhegemonic movement by limiting the individual’s options to those of supervision, control and correction. These limitations all but remove personal autonomy in an attempt to prevent a counterhegemonic movement and to secure social order. Personal autonomy, however, exists for the protagonist V because he is not subject to the panoptic gaze. He eludes the gaze with his mask. V’s world is much less limited than other Londoners, and he is able to use his autonomy from the panoptic structure to contest Norsefire’s power.

[1] Michael Foucault, Truth and Juridical Forms, in Power 70, (James D. Faubion & Paul Rabinow eds., The New Press 1994).

[2] Joss Whedon & John Cassady, Dangerous (Part 5), 3:11 Astonishing X-Men 15-16 (Marvel Comics July 2005).

[3] Id. at 16

[4] Id.

[5] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception 81 (Colin Smith trans., Routledge Press 2002).

[6] Wisnewski, J. Jeremy, Mutant Phenomenology, in X-Men and Philosophy 199 (Rebecca Housel & J. Jeremy Wisnewski eds., John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 2009).

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 200.

[9] Joss Whedon & John Cassady, Gifted (Part 1), 3:1 Astonishing X-Men 4 (Marvel Comics July 2004).

[10] Id.

[11] See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 259 (R. Matz, Trans., Daidalos 1927); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (C. Smith, tans., Routledge 2002)(1962).

[12] Berdntsson et al., Analecta Husserliana, 80 Kluwer Academic Publishers Husserl’s Notion of the Natural Attitude and the Shift to Transcendental Phenomenology 114(2002).

[13] Id. at 260.

[14] Id. at 259.

[15] Joss Whedon & John Cassady, Gifted (Part 2), 3:2 Astonishing X-Men 2 (Marvel Comics Aug. 2004).

[16] Joss Whedon & John Cassady, Gifted (Part 3), 3:3 Astonishing X-Men 14 (Marvel Comics Sept. 2004).

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 15.

[19] Id. at 16.

[20] Maeve Cooke, A Space of One’s Own: Autonomy, Privacy, Liberty, 25 Phil. Soc. Social Criticism 25-43 (1999).

[21] Id. at 27.

[22] Id.

[23] Alan Moore & David Lloyd, V for Vendetta 189 (DC Comics 2005).

[24] Id. at 38

[25] Id.


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