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.