“Can one still laugh about everything?” by Eszter Szép

21 Mar

A report on the Symposium at the Ohio State University on Charlie Hebdo and the terrorist attacks of January 7th 2015

The Charles Schulz auditorium, just above the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library at the Ohio State University (OSU), served as the venue of a mini-symposium on 19 February 2015 on the attack against Charlie Hebdo. This is a place where comics is in the air, and so is the need for dialogue: as event organizer Jared Gardner, professor at the Department of English & the Film Studies Program, highlighted, the symposium was called into being by the need to have a conversation and to share learned opinions on events that have stirred debates in society, in academia, and in the comics community. Conversation is what makes universities necessary, added Gardner, and it was in this spirit that he invited scholars with different perspectives and backgrounds to discuss the events of January 7th.

The symposium started with a lecture by Mark McKinney, professor of French at Miami University, co-editor of European Comic Art, and author of The Colonial Heritage of French Comics and Redrawing French Empire in Comics. The subsequent roundtable helped us to see the magazine and the terrorist attack as complex cultural phenomena that can be approached and interpreted very differently between disciplines. The participants were Daniele Marx-Scouras, from the Department of French and Italian, OSU; Youssef Yacoubi, from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, OSU; Erik Nisbet, School of Communication, OSU; and Caitlin McGurk, Billy Ireland Cartoon Library.

Mark McKinney’s lecture, entitled “Race, Religion and Charlie Hebdo,” served as a detailed and visually demonstrated defense of Charlie Hebdo against attacks of racism. McKinney argued for interpreting the magazine in the French, more closely in the Parisian, context where it came from; he introduced us to the history of the magazine, and showed us an array of works by various Charlie Hebdo cartoonists that demonstrate their sensitivity to issues of religion and race. McKinney showed that the main focus of the magazine’s satire was not religious; rather, it featured a vast array of social and political topics. From the various examples that McKinney showed us let me mention Luz’s (Rénald Luzier) anti-racist cartooning, and his satirizing the French far right and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Charlie Hebdo’s stance towards religion is not easy to judge outside of context. One particularly ironic comic strip created by artists working for the magazine represents Catholic fundamentalists protesting against a certain blasphemous theatrical production and Muslim fundamentalists demonstrating in support of the Catholics. This strip allows insight into the magazine’s general view of religious fundamentalism, be it Christian or Muslim, as essentially similar, harmful and aggressive. McKinney claims that the magazine was a lot more disrespectful and harsher in its treatment of Catholicism than in its treatment of the Islam, its criticism forever backed by faith in the freedom of expression. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo was attacked; the office was firebombed, and the cartoonists received death threats. The spark for the attack was the magazine’s “Charia Hebdo” issue published on 2 November 2011, which listed Muhammed as one of its editors. In response to the Libyan politician Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s statement that Libya would adopt sharia as basis of its lawmaking, the cover, drawn by Luz, featured a cartoon of the prophet saying: “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing.” The magazine also had repeated lawsuits involving both Catholic and Muslim communities, yet a court ruled that Charlie Hebdo appears to be free of any deliberate attempt to offend Muslims as a group. Moreover, two editorials highlighted that Muslims themselves are the major victims of fundamentalism, while the cartoonist Cabu’s (Jean Cabut) works can clearly be inserted in the history of anti-racist cartooning in France. The fact that Cabu was aware of the touchiness of satirical cartooning is reflected by his question in his last publication: “Can one still laugh about everything?”

Finally, in a revealing twist, McKinney inserted Charlie Hebdo in the context of some explicitly racist far right French cartoons, shedding new light on the various images that have been introduced to us either by him or by any website in the past month. Attacking post-colonial minorities has been a favorite topic of far-right cartoonists since the 1980s. Political cartoonist Chard (Françoise Pichard), whose comics have been published in far-right weeklies, is a mouthpiece for homophobic ideologies. In the name of a homogenous white conservative society she racializes minorities in a way that lets her get away with it – and she never satirizes Catholics.

The roundtable that followed the lecture was a really productive and engaging discussion of cultural heritage, minorities, literary traditions and the exhibition commemorating the artists of Charlie Hebdo in Angoulême. Daniele Marx-Scouras argued that the attack against the French satirical magazine should not be discussed in isolation, but in relation to Western foreign policy in the Middle East. Her provocative question, why is it this event that got media coverage, and not others, was left unanswered. She also raised the issue of the French citizenship of Lassana Bathily, the Malian grocery worker who saved a great number of lives: in her interpretation the gesture of giving him citizenship on the 20th of January shows a model of how the majority imagines the successful integration of minorities: one has to risk one’s life to earn acceptance.

In his fascinating ten minutes Youssef Yacoubi was looking for manifestations of the incomprehensibility of Eastern and Western cultural traditions – the differences in conceptions about certain things – highlighting three fields of tension: humor, the understanding of violence (based on Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh’s Writing of Violence in the Middle East,) and the crisis of knowledge within the Islamic tradition. This crisis touches upon the most cardinal issues, such as authority, representation, and  freedom. As humor is an area where these issues meet and clash, Yacoubi asked if we are all equal before humor – and answered by drawing a distinction between satire, the humor of the elite of society; and the humor of the immigrant, which aims at mobilizing the energy of marginalization to satirize his/her own community as well as the broader society. Quoting the Syrian poet Adonis, Yacoubi went on to discuss differences in the Western, post-enlightened perceptions of violence and the heritage of Islam. “I am the hour of dreadful agitation and shaking loose of minds,” wrote Adonis. “This is what I am: Uniting strangeness with strangeness” – are the final lines of Adonis’s poem, giving voice to the degree of incomprehensibility involved in dialogues between East and West. At the end of his talk, Yacoubi argued for what he called intellectual patience in this present time of tension, the practice of resisting one’s first emotive response.

The next speaker, Erik Nisbet examined the media event of the attack and the phenomena of islamophobia and anti-Americanism from a social scientist’s perspective. In strong opposition to McKinney’s lecture, he argued that Charlie Hebdo was a victim of and a vehicle for the alienation and not the acculturation of minorities. Yet we should not forget that media provide a reflection of society, and Charlie Hebdo channeled the expectation existing in French society that anyone can be a Frenchman, but they have to accept French culture (even if French culture is criticizing one’s original culture.) Nisbet also called attention to the fact that Charlie Hebdo satirized all religion, in a country where the free expression of religion is limited for certain groups, for example the wearing of the headscarf in an educational setting is forbidden by law. He also highlighted the importance of considering the social status of Muslim minorities in France and in the EU: in France 5-10% of the population is Muslim, however, the proportion of them in prisons is much larger. Similarly, Nisbet problematized the ethos of satirizing all religion by stating that there exists a difference between satirizing the religion of power, i.e. Catholicism, and the religion of a minority (the history of racial tension and struggle was elaborated on by many speakers of the event.)

Caitlin McGurk, the last participant of the roundtable, talked about her personal experiences at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, where an exhibition was put up in just ten days to commemorate the dead cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. McGurk had the luck to talk to one of the organizers of the exhibition, who told her that he was really frustrated by the hysteria over the magazine. Four weeks before the attack no one cared about Charlie Hebdo; they were on the outs, they were not considered stable and had serious financial problems, and now people seem to be too fond of it.

In his closing remarks Jared Gardner projected a Charlie Hebdo cover that shows a person with oil in one of his hands and fire in the other, while a textual insert labels the drawing as “The origins of humor.” As Gardner showed, putting the two together might be a good joke, but its first victim is bound to be the joker himself. The cover suggests that the artists of Charlie Hebdo understood that humor and satire are related to the Molotov cocktail in more than one ways. The cartoonists were aware that  their work could have the potential to blow things up, even themselves. Similarly, the cover the magazine appeared with after the 2011 attack, a cover showing a person in a Charlie Hebdo T-shirt kissing a Muslim person, can be interpreted as a hint at the relationship of mutualism between free speech and terrorism or violence. These covers and interpretations complicate some of the immediate and heated reactions articulated directly after the attack and call for a re-examination of the perception of the magazine as well as the attack against it.

Eszter Szép is a PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. She earned her M.A.s at the same institution in English Language and Literature (2008) and in Hungarian Language and Literature (2010). Her research focuses on vulnerability, materiality and the role of touch in 21st century graphic narratives. Eszter is an active member of the really small yet devoted Hungarian comics community, is a board member of the Hungarian Comics Association, and is one of the organizers of the International Comics Festival Budapest. With her reviews, interviews and lectures she tries to raise the acceptance of comics in Hungary.


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