On Pens and Swords

Two aporias and an exegesis.

Joe Sacco: On Satire – a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks

An unfortunate lapse in historical sensibility compels us — once again — to return to this question. First, let’s take one facet of the issue in the abstract, since that’s how it’s been presented to us by all the dedicated journos and self-appointed legal experts: is the barrel of a gun more lethal than a pen? Preempting the too obvious and expected (embarassingly misappropriated) Marx quote on “Freedom of the Press” (let’s keep in mind Marx was writing on political developments in the Prussian Empire and not a modern liberal republic having in fact already established the goals he was advocating under the historic conditions of the bourgeois revolutions of the time, that is to say, we are no longer battling feudal overlords in Germany or France–but what is specificity for the 140-character-frenzied reaching of dedicated experts?), I will merely point out that in our current historical moment, pens (keyboards, other such metonymic figures of ‘expression’) facilitate, some would say produce, lethal results. In the context of what is sadly still considered journalism these symbols of enlightenment might not sign off on orders to kill, bombs to drop, sanctions to impose, but they can repackage dominant tropes that further enable the dissemination of imperialist mantra. Satire, one should say, only works if it is subversive, and to be subversive means to challenge–not reinforce–hegemonic symbolic orders. All this, of course, does not a “censorship” necessitate–one does not even have to broach that subject–but it does belie the notion that the executed staff of Charlie Hebdo were martyred in the name of freedom, progress, and modernity.

Second, not so abstractly and more crucially I should say, the inability to interpret acts of terror in a non-caricatured light is painfully ironic, and in perceiving this irony Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons seem less a satirical commentary than a realist take on a caricature-infused popular imaginary. It comes with great shock to the average European citizen to hear that speech might not in fact be the issue; that the “ISIS” PR campaign might have nothing at all to do with the…hypocrisy of liberal values; even less to do with some reaction to the tropes of racist empire. This last point arrives to the great dismay of European Trotskyists and beautiful “left” souls who seem hellbent on convincing public opinion that takfiri insurgency is an “indigenous reaction” to empire, which more or less reproduces Cold War discourse and hasbara on Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. More cynically, the offensive content of the images could even be highly strategic a choice for targeting, as it will polarize precarious segments of the popular classes, and such a target functions well both strategically and symbolically for the purposes of war. The French state armed and trained FSA “rebels” in Syria that would later be declared terrorists in both contexts of domestic security and “defection” to Nusra and ISIS in Syria. That is, volatile situations where shifts in location and allegiances (the Islamic Coalition that saw the convening of all the Syrian opposition groupuslces into a belligerent front) curiously transformed their epithets. This inability to get past the clash of civs vernacular is more a reflection of Western “left” myopia, a refusal to look past cartoonish tropes it steeps itself in as well as the tropes it manhandles Others into, than such looming threats to “our civilization.” That is to say, all that has been discussed in the broader echo chambers of French “how could this happen” is that modern secular values are imperiled at the hands of intolerant cave dwellers.

Fruitless it would be to engage in another debate teeming with contextual acrobatics over if the cartoons were *really* intended as commentary against the right or meta-critiquing the racism contained within the images, when such images are so ripe for ideological re-purposing, such pliable clay as to be so readily appropriated by the French state in its current demands for national unity. The endless hand wringing in the capitalist west over free speech, its martyrs, and the necessity for such freedom’s “redistribution” totally and deliberately elides some inconvenient facts: a) that freedom of expression, like any other right in bourgeois law (to assembly, property…), is form without content, scarce and highly concentrated (like capital, to the propertied); b) that terrorists seek out precisely those avenues of action which heighten and sharpen social tensions and foment precarious conditions–that is to say, by playing right into the hands of expanding French fascism they actively engender a situation where the most vulnerable Muslim citizen and immigrant workers will be alienated by the increasingly xenophobic and violently racist community of “national unity.” That is, perhaps, acting in hopes that they will be rendered vulnerable enough to sympathize (it is no wonder then that, already, IS, Al-Qaeda in Yemen, and Al-Qaeda in Syria have scrambled to compete for the spotlight). This desperate refusal to see potential strategy in the imperial spawning of terrorism and its domestic false flag attacks that generate endless justification for the permanent state of exception and aggressions in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Yemen is more a reflection of your own decayed-civilization complex, one that is being exploited to oil the war machine and continue plundering Syrians. And these stubborn facts, so unfortunately overlooked, sort of totally neuter Europe’s mighty pen.