Postcards from inside #24. White Terror

Reposted from Limit Experience.

Jing-Mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park, Taipei, December 2015

Co-written with John Hutnyk

Although this will no doubt change in years to come, Jing-Mei currently seems to occupy a tricky position as both memorial site, prison museum and cultural park. It is missing from the current edition of the Taiwan Lonely Planet whose maps of Taipei narrowly crop it off. Both the 2-28 Memorial Park and Museum and the Chiayi Prison museum are given decent attention.

Visiting Jing-Mai on New Year’s Eve (31 December 2015), it was almost completely deserted bar a woman exercising her border collie. Although it was a damp, grey afternoon which over-emphasized the new brutalism of some of the sites architecture, it was still difficult to imagine the appeal of the space as a cultural park in better weather given the proliferation of creative and cultural parks throughout Taipei and Taiwan. The logic of defining the space in relation to other restoration and repurposing also seems problematic given many of these parks such as Huashan 1914 Creative Park (a former winery turned into a series of design-concept stores, cafes, galleries and an arthouse cinema) celebrate culture as consumerism first and foremost.

So who exactly is Jing-Mei aimed at?

The history of the site is documented in the park brochure. Its military education, military prison and military court uses are the stuff of the exhibitions, but especially the ongoing court functions (until 2007) also fold into the emerging story the museum. As with the first displays at Abashiri prison museum in Hokkaido, a portion of the work of the brochure is to document the efforts made to preserve artefacts and buildings for the prison museum – a narrative about itself, which is revealing in its frankly told tale of political manoeuvres. In 2001 the vice president of Taiwan, Annette Lu Hsui-Lin visited and learning that the Ministry of Defence proposed to reconstruct the site, she recommended preservation, and in July 2002 the Human Rights Advisory Panel under the Office of the President tasked the Council of Cultural Affairs to preserve the site as a park. Relocating the Ministry of Defence court functions was largely completed by 2007, and this very valuable and large urban area was renamed, from the ‘Memorial Park of Court Martial During the Communist rebellion’ to, on Human Rights Day, 10th December 2007, as ‘Taiwan Human Rights Jing-mei Park’. Change of Government in Taiwan in 2008 meant another change of name ‘after much deliberation’, with ‘opposition from various human rights groups’ and a public hearing in April 2009 so that in 2010 the park and the facility at Green Island in the south were made a part of the newly announced ‘Taiwan Human Rights Museum’. The brochure ends with a flourish: ‘The objectives of the museum were to preserve the two historic sites and to promote human rights education by fully utilizing the four major functions of museum: to preform studies and research, to handle collections and preservation work, to organise exhibitions and publications, and to educate the public and promote knowledge’ (Brochure of preparatory Office of the National Human Rights Museum, middle pages).

Having visited Jing-Mei a few days after Chiayi prison museum, it was difficult not to draw direct comparisons between the two sites and to reflect on the ways in which different forms of prison museum underpinned by apparently very different ideologies and political objectives re: audience and narrative might nevertheless be complicit in reproducing dominant discourses on incarceration. The Chiayi inmates were absent but in Jing-Mei they are very much present as dissidents, readers, mistaken identities, unjustly jailed or otherwise put upon victims. They are referred to throughout as ‘victims’ by the English language audio-guide. The narrative of their everyday experience structures the layout of the displays in the buildings, from courtroom and lawyer consultation room (though lawyers are de-emphasized as court appointed) through health and shopping, living quarters (bugs), eating, reading, washing and relaxing. Guards are absent in this case.

There is a strange tension at work where the careful reconstruction of the various living spaces of the prison facilities ‘humanizes’ the experience of those detained there and, as such, does more perhaps to affirm a well-regulated carceral state which includes a prison library, provisions store and visitor room than spaces (such as Chiayi prison museum) now devoid of such markers or in which such referents have been repositioned within glass cabinets.

There is an attempt to ‘reconstruct’ objects within the space in which they were used, arrangements on a doctor’s desk, packets and tins on shelves which despite being ‘under glass’ are focused less on the authenticity of the objects (many are replicas or ‘imagined’ as representative of the time and space) and more on creating scenes of snapshots of how life was for those incarcerated under the White Terror than a celebration of relics and fragments taken out of context.

The yard outside the cellblocks which it is possible to walk around was where the inmates were allowed to exercise for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. Although the yard is compact in line with the small size of the prison itself, it is difficult not to draw comparison with the cages where those kept in solitary confinement in today’s U.S. supermaxes (but elsewhere too) get their exercise. In this respect, the role of memorials such as Jing-Mei but also places like Robben Island and Camp des Milles should not simply be about collective memory of human rights violations associated with now defunct political regimes. Calling to mind the notion of ‘human rights’ in this way seems to echo Slavoj Žižek’s now dated but no less relevant ‘Against Human Rights’ paper in New Left Review. In it he claims that human rights are evoked to designate those who have lost all possibility of their ‘humanity’, stripped of personal, national, religious and cultural identity. Human rights only come into play when there is nothing left of what makes us more than biologically human. Might not the same be true of human rights memorials if they only work to ‘remember’. If once again ‘human rights’ only come into play after a moment is past? Instead, we might look at how such spaces permit a questioning of the ongoing techniques of exclusion, punishment (torture) and surveillance which rely on extra-judicial acts regardless of whether those subject to such techniques have been sentences via judicial or non-judicial procedures and, in turn, consider the ways in which the domestic criminal ‘other’ is constructed and framed within contemporary sites of detention according to the same or comparable discourses of fear associated with notions of global terror.

Coming out into the yard from the cells was itself something like a role-play. It was, I think, inevitable to look up and imagine what life within the courtyard, with only a rectangle of sky, despite being in the middle of a large city, would be like. Immediately sound became more important, and the sight was of either walls and security towers, or the distant but small sky. Isolation cell – an experience often depicted in cinema and literature, but here for the first time in my experience enacted thought the sequence of leaving the oppressive close cells and moving into the yard. And these cells were nowhere near as small or as claustrophobia inducing as the ones at Chiayi.

This too was perhaps set up through the earlier role-play with the telephone. We have long been aware that the issue of prisoner or detainee presence in the narrative is an important marker, perhaps something taught by the critique of older histories by the subalterns school and other modes of counter-privilege discourse, that of course then fetishise and celebrate resistance narratives in a kind of mirror exoticism way, but in this case the prisoner experience foregrounding the narrative is seductive. It sets up experiences of albeit remote but empathetic connection. The phone connects the ‘victims’ to the visitors. But the central place for victim narratives just also be considered with its filters. No prisoner, convict or detainee narrative is not recorded under duress. Even where such records are admitted as interrogation transcripts, the intervening screen of perspex and perspective sits between the visitor and the inmates. Role-play with the telephone does not invoke this dilemma, but rather pretends towards accessing unmediated experience – what is it like to talk with my son on an old black telephone through a mediating glass, with security camera by the ceiling corner looking down at us recording? The screen does not convey the duress that was always, to some degree is always, the undertone of prisoner testimony.

Do such sites via both role-playing and their status as ‘exceptional’ sites allow a persistent ‘bracketing’ out which encourages complicity and passivity on the part of those who visit and attempt to engage at whatever level, from whatever background? Or do they demonstrate the difficulty of calling into question the carceral within contemporary society?

SF/JH

*

Afterword.

As an aside, I also wanted to include a reference within this post to a slightly bizarre  collection of laminated posters stuck to the toilet doors in the female restrooms. The stock images of famous, primarily European monuments with short maxims printed below in English and Mandarin seem both at odds with the site’s curated narratives and exhibits but also lacking in an obvious objective as either affirmation or critique of the official curation. I have no idea who posted these here, why or how long they had been there for. Nevertheless, there was clearly some intentionality behind them even if this was simply to provide some amusement to those based at the site.

Without trying to read anything into their existence or the choice of images (celebrated monuments from elsewhere), they did make me think about the potential to disrupt or subvert curated historical narratives evoking in some sense (despite the intentionality) Barthes’ idea of the punctum. Although the punctum is, precisely, not something we can actively seek out, it does strike me that there will always be something, an object, a reaction, an act, occurring within the space of the prison museum that doesn’t fit the intended narrative, curation or guided visit. In future I’m going to pay more attention to these. SF

New York actions. STOP Police Terror Which Side Are You On?

3 Days of Mass Resistance
Oct 22-24 NYC: 
STOP Police Terror
Which Side Are You On?
Thurs, October 22, No More Stolen Lives, Say Their Names
Fri, October 23 “Shut Down Rikers!
Sat, October 24: National March to STOP Police Terror: Which Side are You On?

Initiated by Carl Dix and Cornel West, #RiseUpOctober will bring together 100 families who’ve lost loved ones to police violence, prominent voices of conscience, students, clergy, artists, and more. These 3 days, and the massive Saturday Oct 24 march, will launch a more defiant, more determined resistance aimed at nothing less than stopping

the epidemic of illegitimate police terror and murder targeting Black and Brown people. This is a resistance that refuses to turn a blind eye to the thousands of lives stolen and families shattered, that will not be cowed by media and government vilification or pacified by empty promises of change, but insists Stop Police Terror! Which Side Are You On?
The 3 Days:
No More Stolen Lives, Say Their Names
A Public Reading and Remembrance: A Demand for Justice.

Over 40 families of people killed by police will gather to tell their stories, accompanied by prominent voices of conscience reading the names of just some of the 1000s of lives stolen.

Details here.

2:00 pm, Borough Hall, Brooklyn: National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Murder, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.
Friday, October 23 9:00 am
“Shut Down Rikers!”
A mass, nonviolent direct action. People of conscience are putting their bodies on the line to call for this torture chamber to be shut down. Details here.
Saturday, October 24
National March to STOP Police Terror: Which Side are You On?
11:00am – Washington Square Park, NYC 11 am DETAILS HERE 
1:00pm – March
4:00pm – Closing Rally at Bryant Park
Students, religious congregations, contingents from housing projects, and people from all across the country – we will gather in the thousands and tens of thousands with the demand: Terror and Murder By Police Must STOP.
RiseUpOctober.org   646-709-1961

#RiseUpOctober Advisory Board:
Carl Dix, Cornel West, Gina Belafonte, Eve Ensler, Jamal Joseph,
Arturo O’Farrill, Rev. Stephen Phelps
 
Many prominent voices of conscience have endorsed the Call for #RiseUpOctober including:
Ed Asner; educator Bill Ayers; Harry Belafonte; actor Ty Burrell; actor Mark Ruffalo; Noam Chomsky; theologian James Cone; actor Peter Coyote; lawyer Martin Garbus; Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Bernard Lown; activist Cindy Sheehan; Green Party candidate Jill Stein; David Strathairn; Quentin Tarantino; artist Hank Willis Thomas; singer Dan Zanes, and many others.
Artists and writers: Ken Burns, Shepard Fairey, Alice Walker, Cornel West, and Gilbert Young have donated their work to the $100,000 Indiegogo campaign to bring 100 families from across the country to NYC.
Many dozens of faith leaders from across the country are organizing with hundreds of students, grassroots activists and organizations.
____________________________________________________________________________
Statement from physicians: challenge to donate to Rise Up October:
Confronting the cancer of racism, silence is intolerable if we wish to remain human. Since the founding of our nation, this malignancy has been eating away at our pretensions of democracy. The reason for its persistence is not merely a cultural and social legacy of slavery. It relates to a system of governance that appropriates wealth to a few while ignoring the dire needs of the many who produce the wealth. As Dr. Martin Luther King, in his memorable speech at the Riverside Church in New York City nearly 40 years ago stated, “The time comes when silence is betrayal.”
                            Bernard Lown, M.D.  (winner 1985 Nobel Prize for Peace)

We are physicians who join with Dr. Lown in this match challenge. With love and solidarity with these Stolen Lives families who have suffered so much and are so courageous. Rise Up October!

Coincidence Theory – side of the bus yet again – tradecraft

The film “Zero Dark Thirty”, directed by Katherine Bigilow, written by Mark Boal, was careful to doctor any non-sponsored ads from the side of (some of) the buses shown – number 10, not number 30 – in the recreation of the July 7 2005 London bombings.

This first image of the erased cola ad is un-clear enough. You can see its a bottle, but cola did not have the bottle to go through with name association here. We can of course understand why, since 7/7 was a terrible event, and its consequences extend on and on. From the death of the day, to that of Jean Charles de Menezes and literally thousands and thousands in the horrific ongoing aftermath.

cokeaddeddoctored

Even then, when the bus is trundling along London’s streets, to a Londoner I guess, it does look a little strange – the empty red panel like the stain of naked (undercover corporate) terror on our screens:

busnoadd

And it of course gets you to thinking of all the coincidences that are associated with this bus. Having written about the buses in the intro to PANTOMIME TERROR, I am still weirded out by the uncanny aspects, that sure, I get it, are not conspiracies – such as the Peter Power rehearsal of a terror attack at the same time in the same stations sort of thing. Taking all that in, with the effort that has gone into removing ads from these images that are, yes, surely, bad associations, and indeed painful associations, I am still fascinated by media working. What in the film is called tradecraft – the skills of misdirection in media surveillance.

withdate

July 7 is overdetermined. I guess there is reason enough to overspray anything that may reek of ambiguity and mixed messages. You could be forgiven for thinking that effective tradecraft seems to be well honed in Hollywood. And indeed beyond, especially because this front-on shot from the film, which quotes or recreates a shot we all know. Here is the film version, below, but the original seems to not appear all that often anymore – it is no longer the go-to image of the 7/7 atrocity:

front shot no ad

Though we do recognise it. Here again we have no ad on the side of the bus. Maybe its worth going back to look at the actual pics of the day. You can see them with commentary that is an earlier version than that offered in the intro to Pantomime Terror, here: Undercover transportsPDF. Or in shorter form, without the essay, here. Or let’s have it from the newspaper on July 8 2005:

I’ve also written about the cropping of the image in articles that illustrate studies of tradecraft by the state authorities- I think cropping also does a certain duty to edit out critical thinking,as we cannot handle ambiguity. What I cannot handle is being managed, being taken as someone who needs a clear message, full frontal. I think that is the atrocity too – plus the wider bombing campaign justified by this propaganda, this tradecraft. See and example of such cropping here:

So its not at all, not at all new, to say it as there is plenty of reason to rethink the film – Zero Tark Dhirty – is wholly fiction, and as all the Seymour Hersh stuff attests to as well, there is plenty here. But mostly I am wondering if the Cola corporation had originally been on the side of the bus in the film and later pulled out, or what happened? How did the bus used in the film go from cola ad to no ad, and the actual ad – bold and brilliant, total film – has been erased as well, while the film itself worked pretty much as an ad from beginning to end for the CIA.

Funny how the backdrop here of the last scene of the film, as the heroic secret agent flies off in the transport, looks sort of like a (false) flag. Just saying.

CIAflagbackdroponherc

Palestine Solidarity London Friday 10th July, 2015, 5.30-7.30pm,

Palestine Solidarity CampaignJoinDonate
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign works for peace & justice for Palestinians, in support of human rights & against all racism
Gaza: one year on
Friday 10th July, 5.30-7.30pm,
Richmond Terrace, opposite Downing Street, London
Gaza September, 2014. Credit Agencia de Noticias ANDES – shared under Creative Commons licence
We are approaching the first anniversary of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza last summer, which terrorised the Palestinian population of 1.8 million for 51 days, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians and reducing much of Gaza to rubble. Now is the time toshow Palestinians and the world that we remember their losses, and are with them in their struggle for peace, freedom and justice.
On Friday 10th July we are holding a vigil in London to remember those who were killed and those who grieve for them. We will be asking people to share the names of those Palestinians who died during Israel’s attacks. If you can, please bring along flowers and the name of a person or family you want to remember. We will collect all the photos of those who come to remember. More information>
Gaza vigilA message left at a vigil after Israel’s deadly attacks
By signing our petition and attending our vigil (or an event near you)  we can send a global message to government: Israel’s attacks must end, Israel’s blockade must end, the occupation must end. Send the message to government – support peace and justice for Palestinians. 
If you are able to help before or at the event please contact info@palestinecampaign.org
UK Complicity in Israel’s war crimes continues
Arming Apartheid report
The latest official government figures, collated by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Campaign Against Arms Trade, and War on Want, reveal that the UK approved £4 million worth of arms sales to Israel in the four months that followed last year’s bombardment of Gaza (read the Independent’s report on the report)
The revelations are included in Arming Apartheid: UK Complicity in Israel’s Crimes Against the Palestinian People  a new report which focuses on the extent and nature of the arms trade between the UK and Israel.
Email your MP to demand an immediate end to the two way arms trade with Israel

the mortality of paraphrase – book scraps left on the cutting room floor.

It has often been noted that war is hell, or ‘heck’ in the old 1970s ‘M*A*S*H’ anti-war comedy version, but the cold war too has its unwelcome replays as austerity today, this time as grotesque rerun of terror and economic malaise.

For many in the West, a first look at ‘Asia’ came with Altman’s 1970 film M*A*S*H following the adventures of a front line medical unit in the Korean war, but the Vietnam War was the allegorical context. The long-running television series featured Alan Alda as Hawkeye and his bumbling foil Major Frank Burns, an incompetent officer and surgeon played by Larry Lindville, who offered the mortal paraphrase – ‘war is heck’. An occasional character, the paranoid Colonel Flag, played by Edward Winter, should also be remembered for his surrealist reinforcement of the absolute winning incoherence of the phrase ‘military intelligence’.

Cartoon politics

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 22.54.48In Arizona today, as I write, a large motorcyclist rally is being staged outside a mosque where two attackers of an earlier Texas ‘cartoon contest’ to draw the Prophet Mohammed are alleged to have ‘associates’ who need to be ‘warned’. The attackers in Texas were killed (fair warning!), and the justification of the Texas cartoon contest, like Charlie Hebdo in France, has been much debated. Round two however involves a symptomatic escalation: the bikers will display their shotgun weapons in a demonstration where their nifty advance publicity strapline suggests ‘participants should come armed to defend the
first amendment with their second amendment rights’. Free speech protected by threat of arms is the standard muscular militant democratic line. But this looks to me like a latter day cartoon retake of the ‘shoot first talk later’ strategy of all out war. The bikers will remain peaceful, they say, and intend their own cartoon competition – entries for the prize must be displayed outside the mosque, and the prizes awarded [at the after-party at ‘Wild Bills’. Wild Bills closed for the day, as did Denny’s]. That these provocations of cartoon contests to draw the prophet are in direct support of the Charlie Hebdo attack might seem a turn up for those who had decried France’s recalcitrance to be involved in the Iraq War – ‘Freedom Fries’, remember – but few seem to need to question the wholesome motives of a motorcycling rally for freedom here. Sons of Anarchy indeed: to be clear, the event inversely reinforces a simplistic binary logic, and promotes the cause and intent of the head-choppers.

So I was calling on Kurt Sutter to intervene. Ah well. Celebs.

The Arizona episode follows a recent PEN America decision to make an award to Charlie Hebdo in recognition of their continued defiance of terror in the name, as it is articulated in the award, of ‘freedom of speech’ should be considered an instance of caricature stance-taking. In different ways, also the firebombing of mosques in Germany and England in absurd and disproportionate, and misdirected, response to community ‘targets’; the rise of explicitly anti-immigration parties in Holland, the UK and other European states follow the success of the Front National (FN) in France; the shrill commentaries of the press on other ‘similar’ cartoon attacks – in Texas, and the earlier (2005) case with Jyllands-Posten publishing cartoons critical of the prophet in Denmark, with subsequent attacks and counter-attacks; while we can also look at Iran’s own counter cartoon contest called to mock ISIS and the death squads themselves. All these cartoon caricatures make the defense of freedoms of various kinds also something to be examined, since this goes to the heart – if not the head – of much of the discussion and events contingent upon the ‘war on terror’ and its related ‘projects’.

Projects? Yes. Apart from a critique of jokes, and defence of proper bikers, the main argument I want to present is that alongside the terror war and its military drama runs a project of cultural or moral economy. This operates in all theatres, extending across a mediasphere reaching from television news and radio to disembodied voice announcements at railway stations reminding us not to leave our baggage unattended. The cultural project appears in radio, television, cinema, literature, magazines and newspapers operates to make cartoons something much more serious, and to make serious politics seem like a cartoon. The irony of this should not be lost, nor should it obscure the arms trade and security industry dollars peddled beneath.

The projects are clearly not neutral, and provoke attachments and investments that must further be condemned as racist and chauvinist. Jingoism and prejudice of the highest order are encouraged by distraction and provocation. Reporting cycles are now predictable. A ‘terror incident’ is reported, lack of information leads to speculation of the identity of the ‘terrorists’, assumptions lead to accusations, attacks on persons of Muslim appearance, firebombing and desecration of mosques, further cycles of violence – which itself often goes unreported or is unevenly rported, for fear of fanning the flames. Though massively increased figures for incidents do appear in Police statistics, these are often less newsworthy in the aftermath of a ‘national’ crisis. The flames however are fanned.

The military side of this should not minimised by a focus on cartoon culture. Not just gun sales to bikers, I am also painfully aware that the turnover of armaments and supply production, the logistics and geo-political manoeuvers, the investment and jobs in defense contracting, military careers, strategy, electronics, surveillance and security are not simply economic concerns. But alongside the military industrial investment, I want to argue another economic investment supports this ideological programme. It is reliant on the production and mass distribution of incidents, figures, sensation and affect that provides not only a supplement to justify the military budgets and subsidises credit for global investment, but operates productive cycles within the mediasphere by creating villains, pantomime figures and monstrosity in a way that impact upon us all, all the time.

The politics does not start nor end with cartoons. Even so, the Hebdo cartoons are insulting caricatures. To lampoon the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, is not a practice that can be expected to pass without censure in the eyes of a great many people in this world. The insult to the prophet, as Rushdie surely knows, is not the end of it. Going beyond cartooning, there have been efforts by some to make evident the complex sensitivities involved, but this evidentiality has become the fulcrum for a cynical opportunism that intentionally makes political mileage – political incident, political football, cartoon caricature – out of questions of representation and offence. Attacks upon journalists, cartoonists and translators on the one side, competitions to see who can most provoke on the other, and manipulation of news imagery to grab attention – the essence of both terror attack and public declaration of solidarity after all – are parallel examples of a confrontation in which no one in the stand-off seems likely to win. My argument is that these projects and the cartoon character of politics, have other, less visible, motivations and consequences.

An insult can be an invitation and provocation to risk intervention. The calculated manipulation of the media cycle, the staging of outrage, the intentional dramatization of innocent offence. Man Horon Monis’s crazed attack in Sydney in late 2014 was staged in a café directly opposite the studio window of the Chanel 7 live to air television breakfast show. The bikers who have promoted their ride with guns to the Arizona mosque are not without a sharp sense of media impact, on twitter and facebook, with merchandising tie-ins with t-shirts and flags. And guns. There is no doubt that the PEN America award controversy was also anticipated as controversy, even if it seemed to blow up and backfire somewhat. To give an award to knowingly offensive cartooning was intended to stress that freedom of speech was a principle that included defending the right to be offensive. Some were offended that this entailed giving an award for offence. Clapping or not clapping was mooted. Storm in a tea cup and significant because able to command media time, celebrity intervention of authors like Peter Carey, and return fire from Salman Rusdhie. Carey withdrew from the PEN award dinner that would honour Charlie Hebdo with first six but later over a hundred other signatories to a letter expressing concern that insulting cartoons were here not only protected by freedom of speech, but were being further lauded. Behind it is the intentionality and bravado of the American PEN lining up with a jingoistic militarism that, though not articulated so clearly in the letter of protest, was clear enough. Rushdie weighed in with a succinct tweet – ‘six authors in search of a bit of character’ – which is perhaps wasted talent, but given Rushdie’s significance for any discussion of freedom of speech versus terror assured airtime for PEN.

Amitava Kumar succinctly set out a position in response as a signatory, as reported in The Guardian on 29 April 2015:

“a bunch of overdressed writers in a large room getting up to applaud or, for that matter, not applaud an award isn’t going to change much in the world. Not the number of people getting killed by drones, or getting drowned in the Mediterranean, or dying at the hands of the police in the US.

That said, one of the things that folks like Salman Rushdie taught me when I was coming of age as a writer was that you have to take sides. On the Charlie Hebdo question, I wish I had the triumphant certainty of those who are all gung-ho about the award. I mean, fuck the killers who gunned down the cartoonists.

But as I think of the wars unleashed upon whole peoples and the brutal realities of occupation as well as theocratic rule in the Middle East, you have to ask yourself if one shouldn’t instead be championing those who see the greater violence and who rebel against our own cravenness and our complicities” (Kumar 2015)

Kumar added that many artists and writers continue to fight for expression without western fame, and that he hopes that the gesture of the letter is an “appeal for a small pause”.

“Before we begin clapping, let’s ask if we aren’t just clapping for ourselves” (Kumar 2015)

The question of celebrity authorship is entangled here while terrifying attacks on the population of Muslim lands are justified in the name of ‘terror’ and ‘at home’ racist and chauvinistic prejudice means mosques are firebombed, people are assaulted, police powers disproportionately applied in stop and search and mistaken identity assassination – recall the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes killed on Stockwell tube by the security forces because he resembled (not very) a Muslim surveillance target. Rushdie of course is well familiar with surveillance himself, as now documented in his celebrity points-scoring biographical exercise Joseph Anton which narrates his time in hiding after the fatwah levelled at his earlier novel The Satanic Verses

This becomes all the more interesting when we take up the slogan that became prominent after the attack on the cartoonists in Paris in January. As Jeanne Kay points out Je suis Chalie has many antecedents and she traces the phrasing of Je suis Charlie back to various events such as Kennedy in Berlin [though not there as a donut, too often assumed], and in 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit being vilified for his German Jewish ancestry by political commentators and the response Nous sommes tous des Juifs-Allemands (‘We are all German-Jews’) gaining prominence. Consider also I am Spartacus. I would add: I am Brian, We are all Zapatistas, We are Everywhere. Kay (2015) makes the case that the unresolved colonial hangovers of the French public sphere meant identification with racist anti-Islamic cartooning – even as Charlie Hebdo could also be offensive to Christians and Jews – was a simplistic binary declaration, here in favor of the Enlightenment over against fundamentalism and the oriental. ‘Through its Mission Civilisatrice, the French Colony had the unambiguous objective to transform its natives subjects into what it called ‘évolués’ – literally, the evolved – through culture, education and moral edification’ (Kay 2015). She also notes the ‘I am Trayvon’ slogan in Ferguson (US) and the ‘Where’s Wally’ (WW2 US slogan, to which we might add ‘Kilroy was here’) as well as Je suis Ahmed, being the name of the French police officer Ahmed Mehrabet killed during the Hebdo office attack and used to indicate a wider identification than that implicated by Je suis Charlie. Kay writes:

‘The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’, therefore, is more than taking issue at the paper’s editorial stance. It is not simply that one should not identify with a racist, misogynistic and islamophobic publication. In the light of its genealogy, it is clear that to identify with Charlie is much more than a show of solidarity or a badge of condolences. It, too, signifies belonging to an identity group that posits itself as morally righteous in the face of barbarism. And this identity group, in the context of contemporary geopolitics, international islamophobia and race-relations in France, comes fully formed’ (Kay 2015).

To reinforce this point I would simply add that another ‘origin’ of the Je suis Charlie slogan has a deeply concerning conservative, even fascist, reference in that the same phrasing structure was used in World War Two as the name for the extreme anti-Semitic and collaborationist French Nazi newspaper, which was called Je suis Partout (I am everywhere). Under the editorship of Antoine Cousteau, and until the liberation published hateful commentary and pro-Nazi diatribes. To proffer a similarly racist politics and see the same Je suis … slogan structure now proclaimed with approval in contemporary France, should give us reason to be cautious with any such ‘solidarity’. Not far away the simplicities of the 99% ignores the need to ‘decolonise’ the anti-globalisation politics of Occupy Wall Street. Such slogans desiccate politics and understanding in a membership drive that precludes critical thinking and demands mass participations in the national consensus.

Don Miller, writing in Australia and author of a book Called Will to Win (2014), has said there can be no clear winner in the new global guerrilla warfare that makes a ‘game’ of politics where aerial and drone attacks from afar are arrayed against knife-wielding head-choppers and suicide attackers in a ‘battlefield’ that is potentially ‘anywhere’ (Miller 2015). In this all become losers, even the bystanders, and even as Governments take advantage to push through new legislations that seem ineffectual against terrorists who terrorise but undermine their cause, everybody else is left to quiver in media sponsored fear, unsafe in the cheap seats, watching the spectacle of endless war. The cover for repressive legislations, spying and surveillance, legal entrapments and constraints on civil liberty is provided by incidents and media focus can only seem like a concentrated ideological effort to maintain geopolitical control in a situation of uncertainty and lack of control.

The cultural project is itself a military economy. Je suis Partout is the dark war-time antecedent of a less grievous but nevertheless misdirected solidarity of those that would protect freedom of speech without restraint. This opens a field for the right and the racists, and many of those who stand in solidarity with cartoonists would not endorse the cartoon macho antics of the Arizona bikers massed with shotguns outside the mosque that is in preparation today.

notes for a hebdo talk (more links, questions, angles welcome)

  • What is it to give offence? To insult with intent? To use insults as a mode of revenge? Are these only insults or always also weapons of mass destruction?
  • What is humour in a time of war? Humour and culture – from the Keep Calm slogans to the Je Suis Charlie and ‘pardon’ image. The aesthetics and context of cartoons, and what can be said inside a box and not elsewhere.
  • On cartoonists, translators, books, mosques, persons, countries, faith.
  • Irony and contradiction. Freedom fighters opposing freedom of speech, and vice versa. The recoding of events as freedom of speech versus terror (Spivak 2002). Binary thinking that opposes civilisation and barbarism, liberalism and fundamentalism, occident and orient (Kay 2015) or medieval and modern, uneducated or sophisticated, religious and secular (Miller 2015).
  • What is revenge? Militarily and culturally? Can anyone win in this sphere? Or are we dealing with perpetual war? – as distraction for other more fundamentally economic interests? Taking sides (Kumar 2015) and anti-racism, anti-imperialism, justice and the creation of Death Squads as traps for alienated youth (Chandan 2015).

[pic is of the collaborationist newspaper of the French Nazi’s edited for several years ’43-44 by Antoine Cousteau (yep, Jacques’ brother)]