‘Not Afraid’

'Ils sont tous Charlie,' in all its colonial narcissistic splendour.

Image by Marine des Mazery

Image by Marine des Mazery. Source

There is a close relation between satire and secularism as the latter came to emerge in Europe. Secularism, as is well-known, gained strength historically as a reaction to an era of European inter-religious violence and massacres. It was not only a desire for the separation of Church and State as the classical formula has it. It was also an attempt to keep religious affect out of politics. This was in the belief that religion, because it was faith rather than reasoned thinking, produced too much of a narcissistic affect: a belief unable to ‘keep its distance’ from what it is believing. It was thought that this narcissism was behind the murderous intensity of religiously driven conflicts. Being able to laugh at yourself literally means being able to not take yourself overly seriously, which in turn was crucial for both: a) the de-intensification of the affects generated by the defense of what one believes in and b) the relativisation of one’s personal beliefs, which as Claude Levi-Strauss argued, is crucial for thinking oneself comparatively and in relation to others (the opposite of narcissism).

There is no doubt that the Islamic fundamentalists of today represent the worst of modernity’s narcissistic tendencies. They look at the history of colonialism and the relation between the Christian colonial west and the colonised Muslim world and think, quite rightly, that the colonial world has offered them a rough deal, victimised them and treated them as shit. And, as they see it, this is so despite the greatness of their civilisation. So, they think they owe the non-Islamic world nothing. They are totally immersed in their Islam, take it overly seriously, and defending it in precisely the religious narcissistic murderous way that secularism has aimed to distance us Westerners from.

So, on the face of it, it appears as if Charlie Hebdo, and the ‘je suis Charlie’ people identifying with it are involved in exactly this kind of struggle against the Islamic fundamentalists. Unfortunately, this is not the case. And when I say, unfortunately, I really mean it. Like many French-schooled people, I grew up with bandes dessinées and the humour of Cabu and Wolinski was part of the abc of my socially acquired sense of humour. So, affectively, part of me wants to say ‘je suis Charlie’. Like some of my close family members who are infuriatingly Islamophobic, pro-Israeli and to the Right. They are part of my history and I still love them and love re-uniting with them. I am seriously devastated by the murders. So part of me wants to believe that to say ‘je suis Charlie’ is not to agree with them but to defend the space from where they have written. But, and once again, unfortunately, I don’t believe that space is what it appears to be.

It is worth remembering that if the secularists/satirists were right about the nature of religious political identification and emotions at the time of Europe’s religious wars, they were wrong in thinking that those irrational and murderous emotions were either essential or specific to religion. As the histories of western nationalism and colonialism, and particularly the histories of fascism, show ‘over the top, murderous, let’s take ourselves very seriously’ beliefs could easily be generated by all forms of communal identification. This is even true when ‘secular democracy’ and ‘satire’ become themselves a ‘serious’ form of phallic communal identification.

The fact is, as I argue in Alter-Politics—yes I am plugging my new book, here—’democracy’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom of speech’ all can become and are increasingly becoming in the Western world a kind of fin d’empire colonial racialised strategies of phallic distinction. They are what westerners ‘flash’ to the racialised Muslims to tell them: look what we have and you haven’t got one or at best yours is very small compared to ours. And this is at the very same time where Western societies are becoming less democratic, tolerant and committed to freedom of speech.

The same can be said of ‘satire’. Here, paradoxically, ‘satire’ which was precisely, as I have argued above, the means of taking one’s distances from oneself in order to relativise and think relationally about oneself becomes the very means of producing a western narcissism aimed at making of oneself an object of one’s own desire in a period of decline. Charlie Hebdo’s humour with its total obliviousness to the colonial histories and relations of power in which they were dispensing their satire is a prime example of this phallic narcissism: we’re so funny that being ‘satirical’ and ‘funny’ is our identity. And you morons who can’t even take a joke don’t even know what being satirical and funny means. Unfortunately, it is more so in this sense that all those valiant defenders of free speech assembling around the western world holding their ‘je suis Charlie’ sign are totally correct. Indeed, ils sont tous Charlie, in all its colonial narcissistic splendour. So oblivious of the reality in which the Muslim other exists today that they even make a point of valiantly declaring that, unlike the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine who are being murdered at varieties of speeds with varieties of techniques by the thousands, they, the ones attacked by three armed militants are heroically looking the murderers in the eyes and telling it to them straight: they are ‘not afraid’.

Ghassan Hage is Future Gen­er­a­tion Pro­fessor of Anthro­polgy and Social The­ory at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne.

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  7 comments for “‘Not Afraid’

  1. Thomas
    11 January 2015 at 2:20 pm

    The last sentence of the article, with its heavy-handed intertextual reappropriation of the slogan “not afraid”, strikes me as very “phallic” and masculinist-narcissicistic-polemist in essence. As if the author were indeed positioning himself in a strange, phantasmic war, with the “phallus” at its centre. Why insisting so much on the fearlessness of “the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine”? Would it change, qualify, nuance, modify in any way the meaning and the worth of their murders if they were “afraid”?… I know, of course, that it is just a linguistic trope, a ‘tour de force’ of some sort, a way of “flashing” the author’s virtuosity and ‘maestria’ to the “narcissistic colonialists”, and the world alike. But this final ‘coup de grâce’ manifests precisely the overall tone and theoretical intent of the article. What is the point of this whole, extremely unsubtle analysis of complex ethico-socio-geopolitical issues in pop-psychoanalytical terms, if not to reinforce already-existing “phallic” wars and polemological readings of interpretations at war? What is the point, seriously, beside helping someone’s (or anyone’s) own struggle with their phallus? I’m sorry, and maybe I’ll be Derridean here, but there is more to the whole situation than this stupid article tried to imply; there is more, there has to be more, beyond the power principle.

  2. Paul Davis
    11 January 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Sadly, I am a bear of very little brain. But the original article has explained the unease I have been feeling, regarding the whole, “Je suis Charlie”, thing, and why I haven’t rushed to man the barricades. No more, “Mea culpa”, hair-shirt, and clanging bell required, to alert others of my coming. I’m sorry that this reply doesn’t contain any clever words, or concepts, alien to us mere mortals. So I can merely doff my cap, and tug my metaphorical forelock, whilst in the company of my betters. As for the previous reply, to this comment, I’m afraid that it has left me feeling like a dog, engaged in chasing its own tail. I’m really sorry about that, because I’m sure that it’s very good, and everything, but my brain hurts, and I want it to stop now. Peace & Love Paweł.

  3. marco van heugten
    12 January 2015 at 9:02 am

    not very interesting. free speech is free speech, written and drawn too.
    legally there are many steps one can take if ‘hurted’.

    15 christian organisations filed law-suit against CH in the past years, just one islamic org.

    non-violent tactics are there enough too, for any-one who disagrees http://www.aforcemorepowerful.org/resources/nonviolent/methods.php

    again: as an artist and citizen i will defend any freedom of speech, or it is worth nothing (look into the history of parrhesia too)

  4. Dannie
    12 January 2015 at 10:03 am

    Unlike many, I’m not going to pretend to be an overnight expert on French satirical culture, nor can I engage with the psychoanalytical framing of this argument, which I think blurs more than it reveals. But I will say this: to conclude that satire has become, or risks becoming, “the very means of producing a western narcissism aimed at making of oneself an object of one’s own desire in a period of decline” is just mock-Zizekian drivel.

  5. FridSun
    13 January 2015 at 6:22 am

    Just wanna tell Thomas he misunderstood the last sentence. The sentence is:

    So oblivious of the reality in which the Muslim other exists today that they even make a point of valiantly declaring that, unlike the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine who are being murdered at varieties of speeds with varieties of techniques by the thousands, they, the ones attacked by three armed militants
    are heroically looking the murderers in the eyes and telling it to them straight: they are ‘not afraid’.

    Not so obviouly, the sentence indicates “the Muslim people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine” are afraid, are fearing, are in great fear of, death, and denounces such fear by comparing it to Charlie Hebdo’s ‘not afraid’.

    That declaration is indeed quite stupid, and is indeed something worth a warning against. And it’s what Ghassan wrote against.

  6. Thomas
    13 January 2015 at 10:44 am

    FridSun, I see, I misread the last sentence. Thanks for your explanation. I should have been more attentive.

    I must say that this is an extremely convoluted reasoning from the part of the author. (I still stand with what I said about the overall tone of the article.)

    Seriously: why pretend, for instance, that the Charlie Hebdo people of supporters (or the totality of satirists/colonialists/narcissists in the world) say or think “you morons who can’t even take a joke don’t even know what being satirical and funny means”… Who are the morons, here? Who is designated under this overall, general categorisation? Is it coming from Charlie Hebdo, or, through a weird twist of irony, from the author of the article?

    Again, there is very little content in this article, just an obvious emphasis put on a polemical reading of a situation that everybody knows is already blatantly antagonistic, very sensitive, and complex.

  7. Steve
    13 May 2016 at 4:17 am

    When the peoples of the Arab world throw off the chains of their own oppressors, make some effort to enter the modern world with its rich ethnicity and laudable contributions, the western world will accept them with open arms. But the western world is a bit sick and tired of the ongoing drone blaming America, Christians, Jews and others for all their problems. Pick yourself up by your bootstraps, stop trying to explain a desire to destroy others and get on board. Tad sat Arafat and Hamas and the myriad of anti colonialist anti west and anti Semitic movements m, frankly, is worn out, non persuasive and will not win over people who find it bizarre for children to bomb Dicks and knife old people in the neck. Don’t expect any sympathy or extra credit for this kind uv conduct. The great masses in those societies need to take the lead and act like normal human adults. You can use all the anthropological bulkshit to explain it but it is, ironically , fundamental. We don’t buy it , sorry the Aussies apparently do, but your analysis will end up in the dustheap of bullshit. You should listen to your relatives who you say don’t agree with you.

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