I am Charlie (or, satire as dark play)

“Next to the universality of medieval laughter we must stress another striking peculiarity: its indissoluble and essential relation to freedom” Mikhail Bakhtin,

Rabelais and His World

, Indiana University Press, p. 89)

This is me getting in trouble.

The January 7th massacre in Paris, the following day of terror in France are world-changing events. But not as much as the 1.5 million people demonstration in Paris on January 11th. In the wake of horror and hope, and joining many others expressing their opinions online, this is my reflection on why I am Charlie.

First, to know more about my position regarding Charlie Hebdo and their brand of satire, read this. Second, I understand why some people react against the extreme topics treated in extreme ways that Charlie Hebdo covered. But I also think they are wrong, they misunderstand what this type of satire is about, and how to (re)act to it.

In Spain, Charlie Hebdo is relatively well know – after Franco’s death, they dedicated quite many covers to mock to “turn to democracy” in Spain, guided by a king appointed by a fascist dictator. Among the many republicans in Spain, Charlie became a well-known magazine (and it spawned a similar one, El Jueves). That’s the extent of my knowledge of the magazine.

So, it is a satirical magazine that publishes horribly provocative drawings. Charlie Hebdo it’s a child of the (French) Illustration (via 1968), and of its culture – it is, literally, a French satirical magazine, deeply rooted in an anticlerical, left/anarchist tradition in French culture. And that’s why I disagree with those who see the drawings as “racist” or “hate speech”. Charlie Hebdo is a jester – it has as a mission to poke and make fun of power, of establishment, of conventions, of good taste and good faith. Not to construct, to argue, or to promote ideas, but to question them, to mock them, to provoke us to defend them. For them, politics, society, are a carnival were nothing is sacred and everything is, should be, excessive. These are not journalists writing opinion pieces, these are jesters: childish, offensive, but much needed.

Charlie Hebdo never asked for power, and never wanted the power or the moral stature they are now given. Unlike proper political cartoonists, like Joe Sacco, Charlie Hebdo always stays away from power. It is the only possible position for the jester: to refuse everything so they can mock everybody. Charlie Hebdo does not want to be Newsweek, or Time. It is a magazine of satirical, juvenile, carnivalesque cartoons. Build them a pedestal, they will burn it.

In the context of Play Matters, I’d say that Charlie Hebdo, like the Spanish El Jueves (in its good old days) or other similar magazines, are the outcome of a cultural tradition of satire as _dark play_: offensive, provoking statements made against power from outside any power, to provoke and de-sacralise. It is dark play because it wants to hurt, offend, irate and provoke, but it is “just” cartoons, drawings that could be dismissed as “juvenile crap”, and that’s where they draw their effect from. It is dark play because it constantly shifts between being play and not-play, between being serious and not being so, and in that shift its cultural power resides. It is an old form of carnivalesque dark play.

Bakhtin argued that modernity came from the carnival, and for carnivals we need fearless jesters:

“Laughter purifies from dogmatism, from the intolerant and the petrified; it liberates from fanaticism and pedantry, from fear and intimidation, from didacticism, naïvité and illusion, from the single meaning, the single level, from sentimentality. Laughter does not permit seriousness to atrophy and to be torn away from the one being, forever incomplete. It restores this ambivalent wholeness. Such is the function of laughter in the historical development of culture and literature”

Jesters can, ought to be offensive, and we can be hurt by them. But the answer is not to denounce them, to call them names. It’s enough not to laugh, to refuse to play their game. If you are offended by Charlie Hebdo, don’t look at it, don’t take it seriously, don’t play along. The worst offence for them is not to laugh. This type of dark play needs, wants, demands your enragement, so ignorance is the best response to outrage.

This whole situation reminds me how much we need to have offensive material of this kind out in the public. We need to acknowledge that there are, and we need, particular modes of speech that hurts without being hate speech. Satire is an instrument for enlightenment, a questioning of what we take for granted, what we assume is right, it’s a reminder that we are not always meant to be comfortable. In fact, from this discomfort, from this extreme agonistic position, we can become better, individually and also collectively.

What does it mean, then, to say “I am Charlie”? I cannot make a general claim, so this is my personal, individual take. I am Charlie because I am a coward. I would never dare saying what Charlie says, because it can hurt, harm, offend, and I am too complacent, too conservative, maybe also too kind to say things like Charlie says them.

But I also need them said. I need (something like) Charlie to exist to offend and enrage and make fun of the power I am afraid to offend. I need Charlie to say what I don’t dare to say, to think what I don’t dare to think, to remind me that it is possible to be free from all these assumptions, constraints, conventions, powers.

I need Charlie to exist even if it hurts and I disagree and I am offended. Even if the jester makes (hurting) fun of me too, even so, I am Charlie.

_____ (most of this was posted before on a Facebook conversation – thanks to TL Taylor, Gillian Smith, Gonzalo Frasca, Sean C. Duncan, Doug Sery and the others who contributed).

____ Notes for those who want to read more: The French satirical tradition is deeply rooted in a form of culture that emerged with Rabelais, and that Bakhtin defined as the carnivalesque. In Spain, our satirical tradition is defined by Quevedo, and that’s why though we might be closer to French satire than the anglosaxon world, there are still differences (many of which are also explained by the fact that Spain never had a proper Enlightenment movement).

And to finish, a great reflection by Bakhtin (from Rabelais and His World):

“Laughter at the feast of fools was not, of course, an abstract and purely negative mockery of the Christian ritual and the Church’s hierarchy. The negative derisive element was deeply immersed in the triumphant theme of bodily regeneration and renewal. It was ‘man’s second nature’ that was laughing, the lower bodily stratum which could not express itself in official cult and ideology”

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