Book Review:The Event of Charlie Hebdo: Imaginaries of Freedom and Control.

Zagato, Alessandro (ed.)
2015 The Event of Charlie Hebdo: Imaginaries of Freedom and Control. Critical Interventions: A Forum for Social Analysis, volume 15. New York and Oxford: Berghahn.
Reviewed 29 Nov 2015 by: Jack David Eller <> Anthropology Review Database

Keywords: Charlie Hebdo Attack, Paris, France, 2015, Terrorism, Social aspects, France

ABSTRACT:    Several short essays in a very short (and physically small) volume examine and critique the response to the January 2015 attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, raising important issues of tolerance, democracy, free speech, and satire.

The year that ended (hopefully) for France with the coordinated attacks on Paris in November 2015 began long ago with the January attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Although the memory already seems distant, ten months is not much time in academia; it usually takes almost that long for a finished manuscript to reach publication, but in this diminutive volume we have nine essays composed, edited, and published in an outstandingly timely manner, in both senses of the term—that ten months is not much time, and that once again it is time to make sense of an Islamic assault on a Western country.

As Bjorn Enge Bertelsen and editor Alessandro Zagato state in their introduction, the contributions to the collection «start from the observation that the events being popularly attributed to Charlie Hebdo go beyond the sensational headlines of the mainstream media, transcend the spatial confines of nation-states, and lend themselves to an ever-expanding number of mutating discursive formations» (p. 3). They share the view with most if not all of the authors that «more than representing a historical rupture—the emergence of something novel or to some extent separated from current historical conditions and themes—the shootings constitute an intensification of current processes. It is a moment in which patterns of social life become more evident as well as easily identifiable and analyzable.»

The nine articles in the volume consist of the introduction, seven essays, and an afterword by Bruce Kapferer. Each piece is short, because the volume as a whole is tiny—114 pages in pocket book format. Knut Rio, like several of the contributors, inspects the Western value of ‘tolerance,’ and he specifically situates the event as «a continuing reappearance of the systemic conflicts built into French colonialist relations» (p. 15), which posit a radical difference between Western ‘civilization’ and non-Western ‘barbarity.’ But Rio notes the unavoidable tension or contradiction in tolerance regarding the freedom to speak, the freedom to criticize, and the freedom to satirize and even ridicule, which emerges repeatedly in the essays,

Axel Rudi sees the Charlie Hebdo incident as an affront to the West’s ‘sacred,’ specifically its value of ‘free speech,’ in two ways—first, the shootings of the office and second, the government’s response of clamping down on those who directed their own satire at the magazine and the attack. «To me,» Rudi writes, «this uncritical and selective espousing of the Enlightenment seems to indicate a popular affirmation of its symbolic qualities rather than a concern with freedom of expression’s facticity or content» (p. 28). Other essays also highlight the inconsistency in the reaction of France and the West, as in Maria Dyveke Styve’s chapter on the eight-year-old boy who was questioned by police for not joining the chorus of ‘I am Charlie.’ «While the thousands of people gathered in the streets of Paris were arguably defending the right to freedom of speech, this freedom apparently does not extend to Ahmed when saying that he was for the terrorists» (p. 37).

Zagato raises two weightier issues in his essay on ‘imaginaries of violence.’ «On the one hand, the images of the attacks related to the inconsistency of present-day liberal-democratic ideological and political forms, which need to be legitimized by a constant state of alert, fear, and eventually war. On the other hand, they evoke what is conspicuously absent in this story: a politics of liberation and emancipation, a collective capacity to oppose segregation in the name of an idea of equality» (p. 48), as concerns both the «disenfranchised young people» (p. 52) living in France’s depressed banlieus and the offensive, even racist content of the magazine that Westerners rose up to defend. Mari Hanssen Korsbrekke asks the painful question, ‘Where were you, Charlie?’ when it comes to previous assaults on free speech inside and outside of Europe. «Could it be,» Korsbrekke wonders, «that some people’s right to freedom of expression is more important than that of others?» (p. 63).

The remaining two essays each evoke, in their own way, the subject of morality. Jacob Hjortsberg grapples with the problem of the morality of humor and satire: «If, in relation to Charlie Hebdo, speech can be defended only insofar as it is construed as moral, this is a problem, I will argue, since the speech or expression that is actually being discussed here—satire—is a particular kind of speech, the unique value of which is precisely that it is amoral» (p. 70). Satire claims the right to make fun of everything, including morality itself, but it becomes clear that satire is the discourse of a particular moral community in the sense, first, that a society must accept satire as a valid activity and, second, that another society may not share that value. The strongest case in point is the West’s self-appointed freedom to make fun of Islam’s holiest figure, Muhammad, which is the highest form of insult and blasphemy within Islam. Speaking of which, Theodoros Rakopoulos directly addresses the topic of blasphemy, noting yet another paradox for Western and secular societies that want to allow ‘religion’ into the public sphere without allowing or acknowledging ‘God.’ How does deal with mockery of God in a supposedly secular society?

Since Charlie Hebdo and its ilk pride themselves on their humor (often recognizing no lines that should not be crossed), Bruce Kapferer appropriately enough organizes his afterword around the concept of the joke and what he calls «the crisis of egalitarianism» (p. 95). More than most conclusions or afterwords, Kapferer not only summarizes the contributions but identifies some things that may be missing in them, particularly how they «obscure a joke in the structure of the realization of their own thought»(p. 100). He echoes the sentiment that satire is amoral, adding that «it is also outside all moral reason» (p. 107). At the same time, democracy, based on pluralism of opinion and belief, means that «no one moral community has any necessary right over any other (Muslims over non-Muslims or vice versa), a matter which the Charlie Hebdo event threatened» (p. 109). Kapferer concludes powerfully that satire «pursues the fundamental egalitarian logic at the root of the democratic, which is that nothing has ultimate legitimacy or moral foundation save that of the a priori truth of equality itself,» making it the perfect instrument «to attack all form, to destabilize all value» (p. 110)–which is a difficult condition for any society, even democratic society, to live in.

Several of the authors (all of whom have a connection to the University of Bergen and many of whom appear to be younger scholars) react to the enthusiastic, even fetishistic, mantra of ‘I am Charlie’ that followed the event, and several liken it to the famous film moment in Spartacus when many of his rebellious companions step forward to proclaim, ‘I am Spartacus.’ But anthropologists are wary of all fetishes, and one of the best things we can do for the wider society is to point out when it is acting fetishistically. The book also represents two other contemporary aspects of anthropology, the first being a renewed interest in ‘the event’ (see e.g. Lotte Meinert and Bruce Kapferer’s In the Event: Toward an Anthropology of Generic Moments), and the second being a sort of speeded-up fieldwork and ethnography that Christine Hine in her Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied, and Everyday calls ‘pop-up ethnography.’ (Both titles just mentioned at reviewed elsewhere in ARD.) The Event of Charlie Hebdo is almost certainly not the final word on those attacks and the subsequent responses, but if journalism is the first draft of history, then short fast books like this are the first draft of anthropology.

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