JE SUIS CHARLIE HEBDO!

Critical Inquiry shares the universal outrage felt by decent people all over the globe (including 99% of Muslims, the Palestinian movement known as Hamas, and the broad range of political opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Two things we DO NOT SHARE: 1) the timorous response that blames the victims and the satirists themselves for having offended radical Muslims. They deserve to be offended. Their actions invite universal condemnation, and are inexcusable. 2) the right wing reaction that tries to use this terrible event as an excuse for even more erosion of civil liberties, more calls for police and state surveillance of whole populations, and more expressions of hatred for Islam, as if these acts were somehow a natural outgrowth of this great religion. They are not, and the completely betray the spirit of Mohammed.
We also want to commend cartoonists and intellectuals like Joe Sacco and Robert Crumb and Slavoj Zizek, who have taken up the only real armor against fanaticism and violence, namely the great tools of satire. Long live the right to offend, and to be funny!  We offer the following links to these artists and writers, and welcome our readers to suggest more.
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3 Comments

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3 responses to “JE SUIS CHARLIE HEBDO!

  1. ARE WE CHARLIE?

    Dear Tom,

    I was in Paris during the days of the attacks and was in Brussels the week after when the police shot and killed the members of the terrorist cell in Verviers (Belgium) that apparently was planning an attack on the local police station. Since then I’ve been reading a lot of commentaries about what has happened and is happening. I’m glad to read that Critical Inquiry is also taking a position.
    I share of course your critique that the argument ‘the cartoonists and the journalists of Charlie Hebdo deserved it’ is outrageous and unacceptable and your concern that the facts of Paris will and are even already being used to produce more police state dynamics. I do disagree though on one important point and that is that we should identify with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign at you seem to be doing with the title of your blog entry.
    The reason why I disagree is that the consequences of this identification do not seem to be taken into consideration by those who subscribe to it. The way in which so many public institutions in France and other European countries proposed this identification, including the American embassy in Paris, has provoked not just irritation in people of Islamic faith, but in many cases outrage. The ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign embraced by public authorities reads as an endorsement on a public level of the cartoons that made satire with the figure of Muhammad. I think there is no question in France about the fact that it was legal to make those cartoons, but that’s different from giving the sense that it was the right thing to do and that public figures are symbolically ‘signing them’. Fundamentalists around the world have channelled the outrage in predominantly Islamic countries to justify the attack and even killing, as has occurred for example in Niger, of Christians and non-Muslim minorities in the days following the manifestations in Paris. This has occurred especially in places where there were already tensions, but the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign did provide an excuse for exponential violence. This is a situation that could be described as a vicious circle, where ultimately the weak pay and the powerful take advantage.
    I can understand why Critical Inquiry considers it important to subscribe to the campaign seeing things also from the perspective of supporting those that were actually hit by the terrorist attack in Paris, the cartoonist and journalists of Charlie Hebdo, but I would sincerely like to understand the reasons for it better, given the considerations I proposed above. I might have gone in the streets with a Je suis Charlie poster if the French government was threatening to close the newspaper because of cartoons against Francois Hollande, who quite frankly, if one thinks of his speech after the attacks, deserves more than a few cartoons to be made of him.

    Another reason and perhaps the most important for disagreeing with the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign is that it reduces the collective response caused by the outrage for the murders also of Jewish people in the attacks to the narrow perspective of it being an attack on freedom of expression. A government deciding to censor a newspaper, a book or an art work is an attack on the freedom of expression, what happened in Paris is an atrocious attack against human dignity and life. It is the result of many things, but certainly also of the failure of French administrations in the ban-lieux of Paris and of the increasing divide between the rich and the poor also in a country where the principal of egalité was so strongly embraced. The cartoons were a small offense and probably under many circumstances a tolerable one, that in Paris toppled much greater offenses suffered by a younger generation of French citizens of Arab descent. And this by no means justifies their actions, but is an invitation to deal with the deeper issues, which somehow are overshadowed by the focus on the freedom of expression.

    Of course the whole matter brings to the foreground the question of what the limits of satire are, in verbal and visual forms. I have the chapter Offending Images of your book What do Pictures Want? in mind and there it seems to me you make those limits somehow depend on the context. What is your position today?

    Warm regards,
    Nicola Setari

  2. Dear Nicola:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my expression of sympathy and solidarity with the murdered satirists of Charlie Hebdo. I think you make a very important point in issuing a warning against a thoughtless echoing of the “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” campaign. In fact, when I used the phrase, it never occurred to me to think of it as an already commodified political slogan in France, and perhaps more broadly, throughout Europe. My title was certainly not meant as an endorsement of any campaign, but I can see how it could be taken that way.

    At a deeper level, I think your response points to the intersection of the offensive image with power relations, especially radical inequalities of power. Of course we want artists to be free to make outrageous, offensive, tasteless images. But the offense is re-doubled when it is the powerful who are caricaturing the weak, demonizing them as subhuman, grotesque, and evil. The racist caricature, for instance, is the perceptual template that makes it so inevitable that white police officers in the United States will perceive unarmed black teenage boys as predatory menaces who deserve to be killed.

    So how do we reconcile the desire for the freedom to be complete assholes with the mandate not to needlessly offend innocent people, especially those who are suffering discrimination and minority status? I don’t think there is any way to reconcile them at the level of theory. As a matter of law, of course, it is always possible to ban certain kinds of offensive images. (Examples: the banning of child pornography; the display of the swastika or anti-semitic images in Germany). Or to ban images altogether, as in the literal, dogmatic interpretation of the second commandment: “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” But satire is not only meant to offend; it is also supposed to make us laugh. What happens when some people don’t find the images funny; when they find them hurtful, even outrageous. I’m thinking here of the vast majority who are offended by certain images, but do not react with violence. They suffer from the symbolic violence, and its secondary effects in discrimination. Often they don’t even need to see the images to be offended by them; simply to hear of them is enough.

    So a kind of rough principle emerges in my intuitions about this problem. I think it is in general good for satire to afflict the comfortable, the powerful, the dominant class. Bankers and politicians and hypocrites are fair game. Victims and despised minorities do not seem like fair game. Afflicting the already afflicted is cruel and indecent, rendered even more repulsive by the smirking and snickering mask over the hatred that motivates some satirical images. The problem is that sometimes the class of victims (self-designated) and the class of hypocrites overlaps, as for instance in modern Israel, where a sense of aggrieved victimage is joined seamlessly to a vicious structure of oppression for the Palestinians—the “victims of the victims of the Holocaust,” as Edward Said put it.

    Marie-Jose Mondzain has asked the question, “can images kill?” (Critical Inquiry, 36:1, Autumn 2009, 20-51) and the answer is yes, but only figuratively, in the same way that they can bring the dead back to life. The question of the limits of satire is enmeshed in a complex, labyrinthine maze bounded by questions of law, politics, ethics, and aesthetics. I cannot find any single principle that is capable of cutting through this Gordian knot. Can you?

    • Dear Tom,

      The principle you suggest for distinguishing fair satire from unfair satire on the basis of whether the satirical attack is directed against the powerful or the weak seems to me to be in general a good compass to analyze these matters. Of course we also need some other principle or criterion to distinguish the powerful from the weak and this isn’t always easy as you point out. My sense is that it becomes even more difficult in the digital age because every image has the potential for global circulation and in some contexts the relationship between the weak and the powerful can be the exact opposite to the one in the context that originally produced the image. Another principle is the form through which the satirical attack is made. At the end of the 19th century in NY the most popular satirical cartoon featured in a weekly insert of the two main newspapers of the time was The Yellow Kid, a little boy living in the bad neighborhood of the city, that with a very unique slang commented and criticized the main social and political events of the time. The cartoonist that imagined him embodied his satire through the voice of a child from a context of marginality. This is the kind of move that clearly marks the relationship of power and allows satire to be popular and represent the voice of the weak.
      If we look at the matter historically, it was the task of the king’s fool to delivery in satirical form the truth the king needed to hear, but no one else could say. So the idea that satire should also reveal some kind of truth that can’t be said in other form is also important. If one in fact looks at the standard definition of satire this truth would be about where to find vice and folly. This is of course why satire can be so offensive, those attacked know deep down there is something true about what it is claiming. In this respect nothing can be more important for society than healthy doses of satire. When it comes to visual representation I think the same applies. The only question is why is it perceived as more offensive? Probably because the notion that an image resembles reality more than a text is deeply embedded in most cultures. To fight this notion and keep satire free, I think M-J Mondzain’s reading of the Byzantine iconophile image theory remains the best antidote. Their strongest argument against the rigid regulation of representation was that an image in material form is only an inscription of its referent not a circumscription. In other words it is an arbitrary sign that only conventionally is associated to its referent, by no means can it actually pretend to embody its referent or stand for it. The more it tries to create this illusion the more it fails. So my solution would be to teach this very basic image theory from primary school. If we actually understand that an image that claims to be depicting the Prophet is actually just a fiction, meaning a surface with some lines more or less suggesting a resemblance and is not and cannot be the actual Prophet then we can begin to untie the knot. The less an offensive image pretends to be a representation of real human figures, the better. In this sense satirical cartoons are the ideal visual representation because often if there isn’t some text indicating who is who its almost impossible to understand who the addressee of the satire is.
      My last point would be that the best way to keep satire’s good function is that whenever it does offend the weak or offends via a visual strategy that is unfair then public opinion and in particular the iconologists should voice their criticism, contextualizing the images and the situation and not letting them float off into the collective imaginary without being challenged. This will give a sense to those offended unjustly that not everyone subscribes to the image, on the contrary. These are of course just some further thoughts. My point being there shouldn’t be any censorship or regulation of cartoons and this does not mean there shouldn’t be any of images in general, as there are controversial cases such as the ones you yourself point to.

      A couple of weeks ago in Milan a huge poster of a very famous model in lingerie was removed from the façade of a building on one of the most trafficked streets in town. The reason the city council gave for its removal was that the image was positioned in a way that it could distract drivers and cause accidents. The monumental scale of the image and the models suggested striptease were certainly an eye catcher. Do you think the city did the right thing?

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