Grim start of the year. Ignoring the elephant in the room would be pointless.
There is something about the Paris shootings that shook us to the core. Is it because the ‘clash of civilizations’ hit our doorstep, a place culturally so close that we can almost hear the gunshots? The more I think about the Paris events and the debate that followed, the more confused I am. Unanswered questions pile up. Immediately afterwards all you could hear was the loud cries of those mourning the decline of the West, unaware (or maybe not) that they were endorsing islamophobic, racist, even colonialist agendas. It seemed like we could not mourn the dead without exhuming the good old ‘clash of civilization’ narrative – a great classic, we are never tired of it. In this fashion, what would normally be called ‘shooting’, became a ‘terrorist attack’ and a satirical magazine was glorified to champion of free speech. The immediate gut-responses have been disappointing at best, crass, boorish and borderline fascist in the worst case scenario. So far, I’ve found only two truly compassionate, insightful, and thought-provoking interventions, here and here. But then again, these are not ordinary minds.
Mainstream media and social media jumped on the bandwagon, felt compelled to defend freedom of expression via hashtags. Changing our facebook profile picture for the occasion makes us feel ever so democratic. A week later we finally started discussing what is it that we actually mean by ‘freedom of expression’, where does it turn into bullying and hate speech, and where do you draw the line. Journal irresponsable, admits Cherlie Hebdo’s subheading. Responsibility, cumbersome word. Should satire be responsible? To whom, of what?
Many complex issues interweave in the current discussions, terrorism, religious fanaticism, communication, free speech, responsibility. The debate that is likely to develop in the next few months should attempt to separate them.
I have no authority whatsoever to talk about crime, terrorism. I would rather leave any comment on the matter to those who have a better understanding.
I am a theatre expert, though. And a political theatre specialist. Representation and politics are my bread and butter. From this corner of academic expertise (limited as it is) something very interesting is happening. For the first time in decades we have started a broad, popular debate on free speech, often only by misquoting Voltaire, but there we go, it’s a start. The Paris events are challenging European values, uncovering the ambiguity of the narratives we live by. Questioning values we take for granted, reminding ourselves why they matter (or not) is usually painful but ultimately healthy.
As Michela Murgia argued, there is something disconcerting, and even ironic in the fact that the target of Islamic fanatics was a satirical magazine. Iconoclast religions – Islam is not the only one – are ill at ease with the West’s obsession with representation. The divine is unknowable and representing it in human form is a blasphemous attempt to invert the factors of creation – the creature substitutes herself to her creator. Good satire reminds us that our worshiping and trading of images, our dependance on images is ludicrous and that the the symbols we live by are often questionable. The tragic irony of this nasty story is that politics and media have now charged Charlie Hebdo with a set of symbolic meanings they perhaps never intended to carry (Western values, free speech, non-confessional democracy, etc. ). Those who dedicated their professional lives to ridicule symbols, have been transformed into symbols themselves.
Few years ago Daniele Luttazzi reminded us that satire is essentially about four things: politics, sex, religion and death. True. And it is by definition grotesque, excessive, and, yes, iconoclast. Yet, defending satire for satire’s sake will not take us anywhere. I don’t buy the argument ‘you-either-support-free-speech-or-you-don’t’. I wish it was that simple. Sadly, power relationships are always a lot messier. When it comes to communication, context is fundamental. The decoding of an image, any image, does not happen in a vacuum; it is embedded in and shaped by complex networks of images, narratives, social and cultural practices. It is precisely the relationship between the image and its context which makes it subversive or conservative, sagacious or puerile, irreverent or racist. It’s not only a matter of what we are representing, but of who is speaking, from where, from what cultural, economic and social background the image is stemming from. We should remember it next time we defend satire sight unseen.
Anyway. In far less important PhD news, I can finally see the end of the extraordinary adventure that has been chapter four. The section on Compagnia della Fortezza has shaken few assumptions about theatre in prison and confirmed the political relevance of their work. For more details, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.