In the wake of the atrocity committed in the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo this month, an ongoing discussion has taken place about the character of Charlie Hebdo. What sort of sense of humor it relies upon, what it means to rally around it or not, and whether its cartoons are racist. Some analysts have suggested that the magazine was part of a distinctly French tradition that is partially untranslatable; that it descended from principles of anti-clericalism that go back to 1789, and an associated popular culture of blasphemy, scatology, grotesquerie, and killing all sacred cows; termed by the name, "gouaille." Voltaire or the Marquis de Sade, perhaps, originated this tradition. While I was not familiar with this magazine before the attacks of January 7th, I do have an appreciation for this strain of French culture. One might consult André Breton's Anthology of Black Humor which formulates a theory of this type of subversive comedy, and includes relevant selections from Sade, Pierre François Lacenaire, Charles Baudelaire, Comte de Lautréamont, André Gide, Raymond Roussel, and others.
However, according to Breton, this not a distinctly French, untranslatable genre. He actually locates its source in Jonathan Swift, and some of his examples are Anglo-American (Thomas de Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry). It's true that this tradition was more marginalized in the Anglo-American world until after the Second World War, but this completely changed in the post-war era with the appearance of Mad magazine, Monty Python, National Lampoon and other manifestations of transgressive comedy. Today, for North Americans at least, it is difficult to argue that Charlie Hedbo is a uniquely French phenomenon beyond our understanding; analogues, such as South Park and Family Guy, practice a similar type of irreverent, absurdist humor, pushing the limits of taste. One wonders how far the hypothesis that "it's a French thing, you can't understand" can be maintained. While in Charlie Hebdo the humor can appear obscure, and the punchline doesn't seem to make sense, this is often a function of its topical nature. The “Weekend Update” feature on Saturday Night Live is similarly incomprehensible, after the passage of time. The humor of Charlie Hebdo often made use of stark, unexpected juxtapositions, with shock value rather than any clear parodic thesis. Contemporary humor worldwide depends on non-sequiturs, nihilistic effect, and lack of a clear point.
Rather than a persistent cultural gap, it seems that if gouaille was ever distinctly French, it was disseminated through world culture. Equivalent traditions of black humor can be found easily in central and eastern European culture, in Latin America, and in Japan. It is very difficult to generalize about "Muslim culture"; we should only write this designation in scare quotes, because it purports to refer to 1.6 billion people by one essentializing phrase. It would be the worst error, in the present world situation, to simply reinforce a “clash of civilizations” narrative where secularism unites "the West" and creates a différend with the supposedly more pious Other. We might keep in mind that there was never a distinct French identity, compromised by interlopers from without. Rather, from the 18th century at least, the culture of the metropole always relied on the labor and resources of its periphery.
Contemporary “Muslim black humor” exists, and with political consequence. For example, there are several contemporary examples of media in the Arab world that ridicule the violence and fanaticism of Salafi-Takfiri jihadists. A Lebanese sketch comedy program called the Ktir Salbe Show ridicules their puritanical and reactionary goals. Similar programs have appeared in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. The journalist John Hall describes a comedic scenario that appeared on al-Falastiniya, a Palestinian network:
[T]wo militants shoot Muslim civilians for their lack of knowledge on the number of times to kneel during prayers - all the while reminiscing over the beautiful women and best party neighborhoods they'd visited in Beirut. When a Jordanian Christian approaches, the two militants begin fighting each other over who gets to shoot him - each wanting the 'blessing' for himself. Terrified, the man suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving the militants devastated.
Salafist militants are not the only target of this variety of humor. A number of satirical cartoonists from Muslim backgrounds have also caused great controversy by criticizing state policies – from Mana Neyestani (Iran) to Mohammed Saba’aneh (Palestine) to Anwar of Al-Masry Al-Youm (Egypt). While these are sometimes quite dark and bloody, they generally lack the sexualized violations of bodily integrity that are more prevalent in European and U.S. examples of black humor.
Much of the ensuing discussion of the character of Charlie Hebdo has revolved around the question of "What are the limits of satire? How far is too far." There is a point that is often made about “punching up versus punching down.” What people say is that good satire “punches up” (attacks the powerful) whereas bad satire “punches down” (hurts people who are already marginalized). The argument, then is about whether Charlie Hebdo mostly did the former or the latter. It seems clear that it did both; many of its jokes cut both ways. This had led some commentators to say that they were an “equal-opportunity offender,” that they mocked everyone, and that's why they were great. There is something to be said for the idea that a clear distinction between "punching up" and "punching down" might be difficult to make.
At least in Breton's definition of black humor, it's subversive to a degree that it will be very difficult to quickly distinguish good, politically progressive humor from bad, reactionary jokes. It may be inappropriately moralistic to immediately test humor for exactly who is affected, and whether they are more powerful than you or less powerful than you. Humor often relies on an anarchic spirit and has unpredictable effects. This is where I think we can look at the problem differently. The question may not necessarily be best posed as, "What are the limits of satire?" but rather, "what are the limits of nihilism?"
The basic quandary is whether it is really possible to say, "I have no position, I offend everyone, and I have a purely negative and corrosive spirit?" It is possible that regardless of a negative and transgressive sensibility, this always relies on disavowaed positive premises. This is a problem that you find in the writings of the Marquis de Sade. While he appeals to a revolutionary spirit of subversion and he tries to wreck all positions, in so doing he ends up, weirdly, constructing a pedagogical and didactic argument. His writing produces a performative contradiction; while he argues that all authority and even all communication should be repudiated in favor of a totally solipsistic and sovereign form of individuality, he relies on certain traditions and modes of rational argumentation. Commentators and critics of Sade, such as Pierre Klossowski, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michel Foucault and Geoffrey Bennington have all noted this paradox.
With this in mind, even the most anarchic, libertarian, obscene, all-destroying, all-mocking nihilism actually has an underlying point of view. For Charlie Hebdo, the underlying politics appears implicated in something that you can correctly call racism. For example, some of the cartoons that distributed and produced caricatures of Mohammed can be interpreted as radical atheism, anti-clericalism, and an egalitarian commitment to the idea that all religions should be profaned. However, in view of the caricatures dependence on ethnic features and the repetition of Islamophobic tropes, there is another message, and that message is (pardon the vulgarity) "Fuck you, your culture is shit, you're in France now and we don't care where you come from." That's what's being said, and it can be offensive to people who are not particularly invested in the figure of the Prophet. One begins to strongly suspect that there is a point being made by the drawings, and that this is not simply the profanation of the sacred, but rather that the culture and identity of Muslims is nil, should be given no respect and no consideration whatsoever, and that this should be proclaimed publicly and repeatedly.
With that said, the perpetrators of the bloody crime that has brought this magazine to the world’s attention are not representative of France’s Muslim community. Rather they draw on Salafi-Takfiri jihadist ideology, as practiced by Al-Qaeeda and ISIL. While the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims unequivocally reject this ideology, it is clearly a world-historical force. There are many origins for this, and in order to answer this question responsibly we would have to attend to circumstances across a wide variety of political situations and historical factors. But if we were to try to isolate causes, clearly the dissemination of Wahhabi ideology by Saudi Arabia would be high on the list. Inquiring into that leads us to U.S. imperialism and to global capitalism, which prop up the Saudi state and maintains its security. With this in mind, the comforting distinction between progressive, secular Enlightenment Euro-America and atavistic theocratic barbarism begins to appear rather illusory.
Nonetheless, Charlie Hebdo's commitment and willingness to take risks for their beliefs is admirable. When one speaks in defense of Muslims, in contrast, sometimes this is taken as a kind of weak, relativistic liberalism; so-called "political correctness." A simple fear of causing offense, in itself, is not particularly admirable. Rather, a spirit of speaking candidly in the face of danger is what these times seem to demand. In emulation of that principle, there is no reason to unquestioningly parrot the point of view of this magazine, out of a sense of awe for martyrs. The same kind of courage is necessary in advocating different beliefs.
Speech has consequences. That's exactly why liberals defend the exercise of it from tyranny. Clichés like "the pen is mightier than the sword" are invoked in situations like this because ideas become material forces in the minds of the masses. If speech happened in a separate sphere, without effects, and without irresponsibility, it would be free but there would no stakes, either. This would be an idealist understanding of speech. Louis Althusser's theory of ideological state apparatuses suggests that language interpellates us as specific types of subjects. Perhaps similarly, J.L. Austin recognized that speech can be performative, doing, as well as constative, describing. We find a similar insight, formulated earlier in Marquis de Sade.
During the period of the French Revolution, he wrote a famous pamphlet, "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Be Republicans," which he writes as speech given by a fictional character in his book Philosophy in the Bedroom. In this essay, Sade recognizes that the freedom to say anything, if radicalized, threatens the social order as a whole, subverting its liberal grounding. He argues first for militant atheism and profound blasphemy. Second, he argues that calumny (slander) should be decriminalized. From there, he advocates the abolition of laws against theft, rape and murder. How does he get from speech to action? He has a number of justifications, but the simplest is that once it's made permissible to say anything, there is simply nothing preventing him from attempting to make a rational case for the value of the others. We can reject the reasons that he gives, but the arguments are there, and they are likely to convince at least a few people, who will then act on them and commit crimes. The entire reason why people produce propaganda is in order to inspire others to be affected by it and to act on it, and that is why it has stakes.
However, because Sade's pamphlet is embedded in a fictional work, it is not clear whether he meant it at face value. This is the same problem that we find in interpreting Charlie Hebdo; many of its caricatures that seem racist are actually "ironic racism"; they are grotesque hyperbole, not meant to be read seriously. The ambiguity of language, however, makes it impossible to circumscribe the effects of one's discourse. This is one of the reasons why ironic racism is so hazardous. Although it's not impossible to effectively employ racist language in an ironic way, the ironic tension between what is said and what is meant is always in danger of occlusion. The nature of racist speech is that it is not simply a free presentation of an idea, but rather, especially when it is distributed by means of the media apparatus, a form of ideological action.
In a nutshell, this the problem with Charlie Hebdo as an institution. It appears to employ a subversive methodology that undoes all religions and all forms of piety, in order to liberate individuals from their dominance. Howover, some of the drawings that it produced are not actually subversive because they advocate laïcité as prescribed by the French state and as mobilized against immigrants in an ideological strategy of racist antagonism. The French state suppresses expressions of Muslim identity, and this secularism has a concrete target. In the 21st-century context, the situation is such that Muslims in France are racialized, thus propaganda against Islam is often indistinguishable from denigration of Muslims. This is analogous to the relationship between criticism of Judaism and racist anti-Semitism. It is not to say that all criticisms of Islam as a religion are racist or Islamophobic; it's that the particular mode of expression of mockery of Muslim faith in certain cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo crosses this line. Although I would never say that this was the exclusive content of the magazine, or that it did not produce other things that were of great merit.
One can discern this move from total iconoclasm to a form of nationalism in some of the statements by Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Charb. Three years ago, he said, “If we say to religion, 'You are untouchable,' we're fucked.” His idea was that no religion should be free from mockery, because to allow this is to permit the continuing subjugation of human freedom by religious superstition. He also said: "I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no mortgage. It may come off as a bit arrogant but I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees." At this moment, he is entirely in accord with Sade’s famous maxim: "If atheism wants martyrs, let it say so and my blood is ready." This is really quite admirable, and we should honor this commitment, dedication, and self-sacrifice.
However, Charb also said, that same year, “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Koranic law.” This is the point where this apparent commitment to freedom actually masks French nationalism. What he is really saying, whether he was conscious of it or not, is that traditional French secularism, the products of a distinct national revolutionary tradition, should take absolute precedence over the values of immigrants. The secularism takes the shape of social chauvinism. In this context, it's no longer a progressive contribution to the liberation of human beings. The apparent irreverence is bound to a greater advocacy of European heritage over the cultural character of the immigrants who now comprise such a large part of its society, and who were traditionally colonized and exploited by the ostensibly progressive and liberal nations whose secular values are then rhapsodized. Whatever he intended, the effect of his viewpoint was an elevation of traditional French culture over its immigrant population. However, this complicity with racism was probably unrecognizable to him. We can see this today in the irony of the French right, paying homage to a magazine that hated them.
Andrew Ryder is Visiting Lecturer of the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. He has written numerous articles on Continental philosophy, modern literature, and Marxism. He is presently finishing a book manuscript, titled Irreducible Excess: Politics, Sexuality, and Materialism, and beginning a project on autonomist feminism.