The Eyes of the World

Rally for the slain employees of Charlie Hebdo, a French publication. (Photo: Aurelien Guichard)Rally for the slain employees of Charlie Hebdo, a French publication. (Photo: Aurelien Guichard)

Initial public reactions to violent and traumatic events are understandably driven by a range of emotions, from grief to outrage. Ideally, of course, we would have time to sit back and reflect upon the philosophical significance and political stakes to such moments before committing ourselves to matters of interpretation, long before the question of “what is now to be done?” is raised.

In the age of 24-hour broadcast news, this luxury of reflectively contemplating is denied us. Not only does the imminent nature of global digital and media broadcasting demand immediate interpretations and responses, the organization and function of politics today is a massive exercise in the governance of emotions – from “feel good” indexes, on to the construction and manipulation of shared anxieties and fears to further certain political rationalities.

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The response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre proves to be no different in this regard. Let’s be clear from the outset: The violence witnessed on the streets of Paris was abhorrent. Like all forms of violence that are primarily driven by uncompromising political attitudes, it should be rightly condemned and seen for what it is – a vicious act that claimed the lives of people who were armed only with their pencils.

Part of our task today is to remain alert to the overt politicization of tragic events in ways that are repackaged back to us, so that what initially appeared intolerable becomes the moral vehicle upon which further violence is sanctioned and authorized.

Let’s also be clear, however, that this is not about freedom of expression. It is about the freedom of particular forms of expression. While the “I am Charlie” campaign, for instance, was presented as a shared universal commitment to, well, condemnation, it is far from the case that its calling is for a level discursive playing field in matters of public critique and ridicule, let alone the outright condemnation of violence in all its forms.

It has become common currency to suggest that this violence was an attack upon our most cherished of values – the freedom of right to say what we like. But really?

Power is manifest in modern societies precisely through the conscious politicization of language and discourse, rendering some thoughts and words worthy of public attention, while castigating others as irrational, immature, dangerous, treasonous, and in some cases, worthy of incarceration on account of its provocative content. Santiago Slobadsky offers a provocative rebuttal to what he describes as “civilizational blackmail” of the manufactured campaign:

In the midst of the Arab uprisings, the now famous magazine Charlie Hebdo published one of their traditional satirical covers. They titled the issue “Killings in Egypt” and drew the figure of a Muslim religious activist who was riddled with bullets. The subtitle was more than eloquent: “The Koran is a piece of shit,” the agonizing Muslim was made to say, because “it does not stop bullets.”

Charlie, as the collective became known around the world in the aftermath of the unequivocally condemnable shooting, had no problem laughing about the bloodshed in Egypt. Yet, one could only wonder what would happen if critical voices were to reproduce the same cover that Charlie offered a few years ago with the portrait of the murdered director of the newspaper. [Editor’s note: at least two versions of this parody have now been made and can be found on Twitter.] It could be titled “Killings in France. The Pencil is a piece of shit. It doesn’t stop the bullets” and tweeted/facebooked under the hashtag #Iamthethirdkouachi. Indignation, rightful indignation, would inundate the Western press and public sphere. The fact is that Charlie’s right to create a satire is protected under freedom of speech. But its alternative would be considered of bad taste and an insult to the solemnity of the tragedy. This double standard makes us question what is veiled when the discussion is framed in terms of liberal rights.

We would also do well to remind ourselves here that it is precisely the power of words – most notably apparent in oxymoronic novelties such as “humanitarian war,” and its concordant “collateral damages,” that have deployed the language of freedom and rights to author the most brutal forms of violence, enslavement, torture and humiliation upon Muslim populations. Natasha Lennard has captured the hidden order of politics at work here brilliantly:

Any keen surveyor of hypocrisy will note that the 3.7 million-strong Parisian rally in support of the massacre’s victims did not exactly attract the world’s greatest defenders of free speech. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – forecloser of Palestinian freedom and speech – walked alongside Saudi Arabian Ambassador to France Mohammed Ismail Al-Sheikh, whose country regularly flogs and jails journalists. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a popular target of harsh Charlie Hebdo satire, marched too in what journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly called a “circus of hypocrisy.” Thirty-three journalists have been murdered in Russia, allegedly for their work, since 2000. The list of hypocrites who came out for Charlie is long.

Violence needs to be understood as something much more than a singular act or atrocity. Political violence always has a history.

As John Pilger recently reminds, just as we cannot understand the emergence of genocidal organizations such as the Khmer Rouge without accounting for the willful devastation and destruction brought onto Cambodia during the US bombing campaign of 1969–73, which was the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs, we cannot understand fundamentalism and the dystopian violence of groups such as ISIS without the violent and brutal interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Again, this is not to in anyway justify the violence. It is, however, to raise more difficult and searching questions regarding culpability and what drives politically motivated outrage?

As Tithi Bhattacharya and Bill Mullen observe in a historically sensitive reading (noting, in particular, the Algerian context to the violence):

It is as if we are watching a rerun of the Battle of Algiers, with one thing missing. In this alternate universe rerun of the film, we have in place the looming arc of French/ Western imperialism; the poverty and racism contaminating working-class lives in the colonies and elsewhere; a state ready to pounce upon the figure of the migrant and the marginal and incarcerate him/ her. We have all that in place. Except we don’t have a mass political movement led by the FNL [National Liberation Front], which rocked imperialism. Unfortunately, this rerun is not in an alternate universe. For the conditions that produced the first are woefully similar to those that produced the second. Indeed, more than 40 years after the end of ‘formal’ French colonial rule in Algiers - from which the Kouachi brothers and their families migrated – fully 60 percent of the prisoners in French jails are Muslim.

What particularly marks out violence in the contemporary age is the precise way it is organized and packaged for public consumption. Violence is now a global media event. Consciously so! That is to say, not only have digital and news media changes transformed the relationships between the specificity of an event and its public display by making local events accessible to a global audience, they also usher in an era of increasing awareness – the age of the spectacle – in which screen culture and visual politics create spectacular events just as much as they record them. The symbolic nature of violence as such tells us a great deal about the ways people understand questions of oppression, injustice and persecution in the contemporary moment. As Zygmunt Bauman has acutely observed:

On 11 September 2001 political assassinations were directed not against specific, identifiable and named political “personalities” in the political limelight, or for that matter against people held personally responsible for the wrongdoings the assassins pretended to punish, but against institutions symbolizing the economic (in the case of the World Trade Centre) and military (in the case of the Pentagon) power. Notably, a center of spiritual power was still missing in the combined political operation . . . [O]n 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. Knowingly or not, by design or by default, the murderers endorsed – whether explicitly or obliquely – the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centers viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making.

Our societies are undoubtedly “image conscious.” This doesn’t simply refer to the evident fetishization of aesthetics as personal success is so often matched today by a most fitting image profile. Consciousness is now shaped and defined by the complex interplay of signs, images and narratives, which due to the contemporary onslaught of continually changing storylines that endanger us from every possible angle, only adds to our sense of anxiety about a world that increasingly appears insecure by design.

Not only does this raise important questions regarding the political power wielded by those in charge of the corporate media landscape, it demands a fundamental reassessment of the political function of arts and aesthetics – especially in terms of their ethical privileges and responsibilities.

Writing in his usual sardonic style on the massacre, the author Will Self rightly observed:

The memorial issue of Charlie Hebdo will have a print run of 1,000,000 copies, financed by the French government; so, now the satirists have been co-opted by the state, precisely the institution you might’ve thought they should never cease from attacking. But the question needs to be asked: Were the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo really satirists, if by satire is meant the deployment of humor, ridicule, sarcasm and irony in order to achieve moral reform? Well, when the issue came up of the Danish cartoons, I observed that the test I apply to something to see whether it truly is satire derives from HL Mencken’s definition of good journalism: It should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” The trouble with a lot of so-called “satire” directed against religiously motivated extremists is that it’s not clear who it’s afflicting, or who it’s comforting.

Self is evidently concerned here with the ethical responsibilities of those in a position of privilege and artistic critique. Can indeed we call it “satire” if the focus for the ridicule is precisely those who see themselves as the persecuted victims of recent history? Surely, when ridicule takes aim at the downtrodden and the already demonized, it becomes something altogether different than an art form which is committed to the critical function of the art in ways that appreciate the contours of power and violence? The cartoonist Joe Sacco has illustrated his concerns with these issues and how it connects to the ethical subject of violence in this context.

There is another dimension that needs to be addressed here that relates to all of us who are now “global witnesses” to events beyond our control. For those of us who live in sites of relative digitalized privilege, we are all bearing witness in one way or another.

Technology, in fact, has redefined the very nature of globalization, as smartphones quite literally put the world into our hands. Such witnessing is not, however, a neutral and objective process. What we “witness” is highly policed through aesthetic regimes of mediated suffering, which not only present in a deeply politicized way that some lives are more important than others, but commonly reduce complex historical questions to crass reductionist interpretations. How else can we account for the continued attention given to Samuel Huntington’s dreadful Clash of Civilizations, which remains one of the most racist and oversimplified texts written in living memory?

Part of our task today is to remain alert to the overt politicization of tragic events in ways that are repackaged back to us, so that what initially appeared intolerable becomes the moral vehicle upon which further violence is sanctioned and authorized. We should hold onto the sentiment that what happened on the streets of Paris, how their families felt, was intolerable – just as we should recognize that an innocent taxi driver brutally violated in Abu Ghraib or a child facing the bitter winter in a Syrian refugee camp is also intolerable.

Integral to these concerns is the need to expose the sheer poverty of contemporary political imaginations when dealing with the problem of violence. Nowhere was this more shamefully apparent than the political hijacking of the Unity march in Paris by a political class whose participation was nothing more than a staged-managed photo opportunity.

Appearance alone, it seems, is sufficient. How far removed are these self-serving mediocrats from the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., who understood that to stand up for your beliefs required showing true solidarity with those on whose behalf you speak, not parading within the comforts and securities of a militarized enclave? We can still hear them echo now: “Where is the unity, we must lead it, all our futures depend upon it”!

Such politicization of the subsequent solidarity march runs the risk of turning any appreciation of the intolerability of the situation into something that works against its nonviolent sentiments. Indeed, there seem to be disturbing parallels here with the ways in which the “I am Charlie” outrage is being appropriated to the ways that the widespread racial persecution protests in the United States were quickly countered by the narrative of the police as the victims in the aftermath of the shootings of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in New York in December 2014.

On both occasions, there is a conscious public relations effort to present definitive “truths about the event,” so that any demands for systematic and historically sensitive analysis become displaced by the singularity of events, which absolves the system of any guilt and confirms our societies are under siege from peoples of either a distinct cultural background or racial profile.

And yet we must not lose sight of the fact that those who continue to take to the streets and call for nonviolence, the respect for human dignity and togetherness should be applauded. It is too easy in this contemporary moment to buy into the dystopian realism peddled by the governments in liberal societies and the violence of fanatics across the world.

People continue to show they will resist and stand up against what they find to be patently intolerable. They also refuse to be cast as some docile mass, for whom the burdens of history and the complexities of the contemporary condition (as notably presented on corporate news platforms and their multiplicity of daily endangerments) render them incapable of action.

Indeed, inspired by the earlier work of Alfredo Jarr, the symbolic presence of the art of J-R from Eric Gardner’s eyes in New York City to Stéphane Charbonnier in Paris, offers a counter-spectacle that affirms the ambitions to look beyond any sense of passive spectatorship, reminding those who would abuse and render human life disposable that the eyes of the world are watching. And so we must continue to bear witness to violence, while condemning the shameful politicization of tragedy in all its forms.