New states are usually the product of catastrophe. Violence is the air they breathe. – T.J. Clark.
By terror thereof. To forme the wills of all. And whoever calls this into question proposes an end to what we know of politics as such. — Hobbes
Why does the collective “we” focus so intensely on the Islamic beliefs of the attackers in Paris, but not on the attackers’ beliefs, no different from “ours,” in founding a state?
If it is true, as is being reported, that the Paris attackers are linked to IS, then we must ask ourselves:
¿Where does all the insistence in repeating the religious cause come from? ¿Why do we refuse to discuss the problem of the state and the violence that all states originate from?
The will to reduce the attackers to barbarians and savages —different from “us”— extracts these battles from, one, their political origins, and two, their inherently spectacular modernity. Even some of the best writing from an anti-racist perspective misses this. Teju Cole wrote a brilliant short essay for The New Yorker. Cole masterfully identifies the liberal problem of relating with certain victims of violence and not others. But what Cole misses is the essential quality of violence in state formation and protection.
Furthermore, even in the lefty renunciation of Charlie Hebdo as a racist publication (myself included), the usual condemnation of the attacks on the basis of “freedom of the press” gets muddled with how purportedly unimaginable the attacks were, since the press is thought of as sacred. But established states wage warfare on the press all the time. Obama recently unplugged North Korea’s internet, for example. Israel, the United States, and NATO routinely bomb media targets. The list is endless.
Attacks that spread fear and strategically situate sensational violence in the news stream serve to augment recruitment, increase radicalization, and continue to draw causes for war. France already declared it. The discourse of hitting at religious fundamentalism without discussion of state fundamentalism reproduces the demagoguery of people like Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity, and the rest who insist on persecuting Islam.
In effect, a categorization of violence against the media as Hobbesian ‘terror’ is an extension of state politics as we know them. To be clear, violence against the media is horrible, but it is absolutely normal in the condition of our present. Further, the media conditions and greatly monopolizes the conditions that create an experience of the present, making media itself a strategic military target within the logics of state formation.
To “be” Charlie Hebdo as a paragon of press freedom is an affective identification with what the Retort collective called an “afflicted power” almost ten years ago, post-9/11. To paraphrase a friend’s hilariously biting comment on Facebook, none of us is a magazine, and even having to declare that one isn’t one looks suspiciously like the people who claim to “be” Charlie. Perhaps one only needs to stipulate that one is not Charlie within a certain logic of state formations based upon these types of mediatized, distant, affective identifications.
The 2015 attacks in Paris are a form of state violence also. Basic history would convey that, much like European conquerors did not come to the Americas to convert indians, the point of the Paris attacks is not Sharia law in and of itself. The inherent cruelty of these attacks, and their media function, is inseparable from the same political foundations of all modern states.
I. It’s surprising to have to spell out these notions, but here goes…
One can condemn violence and at the same time sustain a critical stance against Charlie Hebdo.
One can condemn the “asymmetric warfare” of masked gunmen and also reject racism, tyranny, and hate.
One can denounce cold-blooded massacres while also unsubscribe from the horrible, orientalist titillation of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the mental passivity of liberalism.
II. It is imperative, at this frightening intersection, to resist the coercive call to stand behind a vacuous, hypocritical, shallow slogan about “free speech.” The response to the horrible tragedy in Paris already seems to become folded into the same previous mode of thinking that enabled the magazine to exist and thrive. It is a mode in which there is no deliberation of better or worse ideas; just a liberal “freedom” excuse to embrace hate (albeit hate selectively applied, despite liberal disclaimers otherwise).
Western culture is arbitrary in its principles; it is arrogant, self-centered, and self-deluded about its respect and care for the weak and oppressed. A glance at statistics about drone strikes tells the story. Ebola tells the story. Palestine tells the story. The migrant labor building imperial stadia for futbol and Olympics tell the story. The fact that a hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter exists. The deportations of millions and deaths on the high seas…
This is a frightening moment — a moment charged with reactionary simplifications and reductions. These reductionisms serve a purpose. Among other things, the point is to ignore the very complex circulations through which the killers were likely trained, funded, armed, and recruited. If we explored these circulations, more than the usual suspects that might be rounded up in the coming hours or days would be implicated.
Instead, political doctrinaires murmur slogans about an ancient religious cause behind the killings. They equate vast social processes with merely “terror,” nothing more; and none of it has anything to do with the actual, mediatized and quite modern ways in which the operation came about. These dimensions must remain unthought and unimagined.
Who identifies with “#JeSuisCharlieHebdo,” and who does not? It is exactly at these points where one should resist and explore ideas more critically and openly and generously, but this is politically dangerous for the neoliberal parties.
III. The cartoonists and reporters killed earlier cannot speak now, obviously. The voicelessness of death never dies. It lives on in martyrdom. We thus create Western martyrs, ventriloquizing with their corpses. Sadly, the victims themselves are appropriated. The dead suddenly appear solemn. They are actually being used as blunt tools against dissenting thought and radical ideas. The morbid fascination with the dead falsely assures the living that life isn’t meaningless. But ironically, it has been Charlie Hebdo and many more who have been complicit with precisely such a cheapening of life. The response pathetically shows exactly how we live in such terrible times; in societies of alienation. I would post the images of the covers, but it is not worth it to continue giving them more views.
To work in collective and common ways against alienation requires critical thought and analysis. But huge forces exist to force closure, such as #JeSuisCharlieHebdo. The massive public spectacles in plazas are smoothly incorporated into these forces.
To make matters worse, our Western governments and corporations have operated in the spaces of totalitarianism: they’ve spied, bombed, tortured, and killed in (semi-)secrecy.
What can be said or done to counter the outpouring of craven solidarity with nothing but an abstract notion of “free speech”? This outpouring insults real people who have differences and needs, but seek to live together. It also closes down a discussion that builds on a true public knowledge, exposing all that is done in our names. #JeSuisCharlieHebdo is patently antithetical to collective and common life, alienating entire groups of people who never saw their lives represented in this rag. And it is therefore contradictory to abdicate power, as happens at these moments, to the states which have proven time and again to be incapable of facilitating this shared life.