Friday, May 8, 2015

“Europeans hold no patent”: contesting colonialist myths about Charlie Hebdo

Two recent articles by Justin Smith related to the recent PEN-Charlie Hebdo controversy make arguments that go beyond the immediate issue and deserve to be highlighted. Smith tries to situate Charlie Hebdo in relation to the Enlightenment, and, more particularly, to some present-day narratives of the Enlightenment and its meaning for “Western civilization.” This is vitally important because these narratives have real cultural power - they perpetuate colonialist ideas and work to justify racism and violence.

“The Joke” situates Charlie Hebdo’s humor not in a “culturally advanced” Europe but in an ancient, global tradition:
The jihadists who murdered the cartoonists prefer the sort of death that is not tempered by freedom, and they do not get the joke for which their dumb violence is the punch line. Put differently, they do not understand the freedom that governed the lives of the murdered satirists, the freedom by which the satirists both lived and died. Few, in fact, in these literal and self-serious times, were able to understand it. Many insisted that Charlie Hebdo’s satire was a sign that the values of the Enlightenment had outlived their purpose, that those values had been duplicitously distorted to the great disadvantage of the world’s colonized and oppressed. This concern is valid enough, but it was no less valid in the eighteenth century. What this insistence misses is that humor, as a disposition to life, far precedes the Enlightenment, and that Europeans hold no patent on it. It is ancient, and universal, and it is the best thing we’ve got in a world in which we’re all going to die anyhow, a world in which so many malign fools prefer to spoil what little flare of freedom we may enjoy by killing in the name of dogmatic, doubt-fearing, dour, and deathly earnesty. Humor is freedom, and it must be defended — not with guns and bombs, no, but with more, more of the same. [emphasis added]
Smith’s piece Charlie Hebdo and Literature” similarly seeks to complicate humor’s relationship to Europe, particularly by noting the hostility toward humor found in much of the European philosophical tradition:
European philosophy is embarrassed by humor, distances itself from it, and when Kant tries clumsily to engage with it, he shows how unprepared the philosophical tradition is to do so in a rigorous way. …[T]he invocation of ‘I think therefore I am’ at the Paris rallies after the attacks was misplaced;…if we want to make sense of Charlie Hebdo’s humor, we have to look to a very different domain of culture than philosophy, the one that…reaches back genealogically to Rabelais et al. and from there across the Mediterranean to a part of the world Europeans wrongly imagine as the total opposite and negation of their historical experience.1
Both articles, then, attempt to contribute to developing a humanist understanding of humor that isn’t bigoted or nationalistic, a vision that challenges the colonialist imagination rather than nourishing it.

Seen through the colonialist lens, the values represented by Charlie Hebdo, or at least by “Je suis Charlie,” are the higher, Western values of thought, questioning, and democratic freedom - values threatened by the backwards, oriental forces of irrationality, unfreedom, and oppression represented by the jihadists. Within this framework, Western culture is more evolved, more “human” than that of the Muslim world. (I’ll discuss this colonial vision in more detail in one of my next few posts.)

With Charlie Hebdo claimed as a symbol of French or European or Western expression and freedom, the attack set in a global narrative of uneven cultural and political development, the magazine’s “vulgar” drawings themselves, along with its mission of contesting power (including colonialist myths), are marginalized and defanged. The mind-body hierarchy underlying the colonialist vision – given form in the placards quoting the cruelly speciesist Descartes – further serves to sanitize the publication. Once the magazine is falsely assimilated into this tale of Western enlightenment, once its defense is presented as a defense of the civilized mind against animalistic savagery, its bodily humor and its emphasis on Western political violence are rendered invisible.

The PEN protesters are thoroughly, embarrassingly wrong about Charlie Hebdo. But they aren’t wrong to recognize that the magazine and the murders have been claimed by and for a reactionary mythology, exploited by those seeking to advance racist, authoritarian projects. (Not that they’re the first or only ones to have recognized this, or that anyone should be surprised by it.) But our response to this shouldn’t be to credulously accept those claims about the magazine,2 much less to create or accept counter-myths that are merely the mirror image of colonialist narratives.

We need to resist the attempts to draft these artists and writers, against everything they stood and continue to stand for, into a racist, colonialist campaign, and to challenge the colonialist narratives at their very foundation. Locating Charlie Hebdo’s humor in a longer and more diverse cultural history and drawing attention to all of the opponents of this free, biophilic sensibility is a necessary part of this effort.

1 I’m reminded here of Camus’ 1937 “Indigenous Culture: The New Mediterranean Culture” (available in Algerian Chronicles) in which he supports a “nationalism of sunshine” and argues that
Our task here and now is to rehabilitate the Mediterranean, to reclaim it from those who have unjustly appropriated it, and lay the groundwork for a new economic order. It is to discover what is real and alive in Mediterranean culture and therefore to encourage its most diverse forms. …Cities like Algiers and Barcelona have a crucial role to play, namely, to serve in their own small way those aspects of Mediterranean culture that sustain man rather than oppress him.
2 This mythical civilization-vs.-barbarism story of the attack and its meaning hasn’t been promoted by CH itself. From what I’ve seen, they’ve always opposed such bogus narratives.

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