Rotland Inquiry No. 1: Charlie Hebdo
The indefatigable Ryan Standfest at Rotland Press, about whom I have written before, is rolling out his newest publication, Rotland Inquiry No. 1: Charlie Hebdo. As of yesterday, the tabloid is available for purchase on the Rotland site. The physical thing will debut next weekend at CAKE Chicago.
Ryan has assembled an impressive roster of people to engage a crucial topic: the "aftermath of the aftermath" of the attack on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015. Contributors include Art Spiegelman, Paul Krassner, Jeet Heer and others. I'm pleased to be on the list, too. On the topic of my contribution, more in a second post.
Mr. Standfest writes in his introduction:
…As soon as news of the attack on the offices of “Charlie Hebdo” magazine appeared online, I immediately withdrew from any and all tasks at hand and began scouring news sources for forthcoming pieces of information. On Facebook, there began a flood of postings within the community of cartoonists and cartoon historians, critics and editors whose commentary appeared in my newsfeed. I watched as numerous profile pictures within the cartooning community changed over to the ubiquitous 160 x 160 pixel black square with the text “JE SUIS CHARLIE.” “JE SUIS” was in white Sweet Sans Heavy and “CHARLIE” was in light grey Block Condensed typeface. Despite its implied message of solidarity, this Internet meme was funereal in appearance. I briefly gave my profile identity over as well, “becoming” Charlie. But then something started to happen. To those unfamiliar with CH, primarily here in the United States, questions were being asked and then declarations posted about the content of the magazine itself. A sensitivity as to the goals and limits of satire emerged, and what was once a lament for those murdered in Paris transformed into a blanket declaration of solidarity for free speech in the name of cartooning and satire. This subsequently metamorphosed into a discussion of responsibility with regard to representations of “the other.” Debates emerged, arguments raged on, and the “JE SUIS CHARLIE” profile pictures were swapped out for something taking far less of a public stance. The lines between left and right, funny and not funny, justified and unjustified began to blur in the ensuing dialogue.
On January 8 I posted my own response in this space, a slightly refurbished version of something I wrote in 2006, in response to the "Danish cartoon controversy" of that year.
In the following weeks I did not really engage the ensuing debate about what is or isn't–or ought or ought not be–permissible in visual satire. Overall, a desultory discussion–what's permissible should be distinguished from what's objectionable. Happy to talk about the latter, annoyed by the former. In general I think "the right" is too protective of religious sensibilities, and the "the left" is prone to victim-shopping. Satirists have a nose for foolishness, which comes in many forms. So, too, does brutishness.
My interest in the Rotland project had to do with my frustration/fascination with how the CH cartoonists' work (like the Danes' efforts ten years back) were discussed. What species of image are such things, and why don't we look at them closely? All the conversation is about what they they purportedly mean, which cannot be ascertained without confronting how they are formed, and what traditions they engage.
Last month, surprisingly–to me, at least–Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau seemed to side with the finger-waggers in the "aftermath of the aftermath." Trudeau recently outlined a few rules for selecting targets to lampoon. ("The Abuse of Satire," The Atlantic, April 11, 2015). Trudeau begins:
I, and most of my colleagues, have spent a lot of time discussing red lines since the tragedy in Paris. As you know, the Muhammad cartoon controversy began eight years ago in Denmark, as a protest against “self-censorship,” one editor’s call to arms against what she felt was a suffocating political correctness. The idea behind the original drawings was not to entertain or to enlighten or to challenge authority—her charge to the cartoonists was specifically to provoke, and in that they were exceedingly successful. Not only was one cartoonist gunned down, but riots erupted around the world, resulting in the deaths of scores.
It's important to note that the Danish cartoon riots did not "erupt"; they were calculatingly stoked.
I wrote an entry about the incident for "A Chronology of Comics and the Graphic Arts" in Strips Toons and Bluesies: Essays in Comics and Culture (Edited by D.B. Dowd and Todd Hignite, Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). It reads: 2005-2006 The European tradition of political caricature collides with Islamic fundamentalism in the shocking "Cartoon Riots" of 2006. The culture editor for Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, commissions and prints a series of cartoons on the religious figure of Mohammed, central to Islam. The effort is designed to tweak fundamentalist sensibilities, but Islamic proscriptions against representations of the Prophet prove to be more powerful than bargained for. A local controversy ensues. Ambassadors from Islamic countries appeal to the Danish government, unsuccessfully, for legal action against the newspaper. A delegation of Danish imams tours the Middle East to market the blasphemy to other Muslim audiences. Subsequent reprintings of the cartoons spark riots across the Islamic world. More than 130 people are killed in clashes, primarily in Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Danish cartoonists are driven into hiding. (In 2010, prominent J-P cartoonist Kurt Westergaard later narrowly escaped an attack in his home by an axe-wielding intruder who was shot by police).
Back to Trudeau's argument. No one could say, he went on, having noted the loss of life, toward what positive social end, yet free speech absolutists were unchastened. Using judgment and common sense in expressing oneself were denounced as antithetical to freedom of speech.
If a utilitarian standard ("positive social end") were used to measure cultural products, very few would make the cut. That's philistine at best; authoritarian at worst.
Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable, declares Trudeau, quoting without attribution (because the phrasing is just in the language by now) the muckraking journalist Finley Peter Dunne. He goes on: Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule. Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.
Despite my admiration for your work, Mr. T, color me unpersuaded. How shall we determine who qualifies as privileged and who does not? And what kind of power are we talking about? How do asymmetries of power created by firearms or superior physical strength (as in sexual violence) figure into such discussions? Self-satisfaction and hypocrisy are well-represented in the ruling class, but they are not isolated therein, either. That is not to ignore or excuse structural injustice; it is to reject editorial rule-making for others. The human pageant features moral obtuseness, idiocy and small-mindedness in many guises and precincts. As Walt Kelly's Pogo famously observed: "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Journalist Leigh Phillips offers a particularly searching essay on these questions, plainly offered from the left, to the left. All told, Mr. Standfest has assembled an impressive document of serious essays and cartoons. Leaving aside my own contribution, which occupies territory between those forms, the publication should become part of the public record of how some cartoonists and thinkers about popular visual culture processed these dark, dark events.
Tomorrow I will return with highlights from Pugnacious Elegy, my contribution to RI No. 1.