‘Charlie Hebdo’ and the Politics of Response

Photo by Rhodri Davies, used with permission.

Photo by Rhodri Davies, used with permission.

There have by now been many pieces published in response to the events that took place in Paris between 7 and 9 January 2015 that we now associate with ‘Charlie Hebdo’. Indeed, so much has been written that the novelist Hari Kunzru claims that he can barely bring himself to sit down and read the commentary. Many of us will share the feeling that we can’t bear to hear any more about the War on Terror: about the familiar discourses of ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ (Marshall), the ‘political-theological spectres’ that hang over the event (Leshem), the recognisable pattern of ‘mobile, irruptive violence’ (Coward) and the style of the event, which quickly finds its ‘genre’ in 24 hour news media (Anderson).

Spectacular acts of violence such as those witnessed at the Charlie Hebdo offices on the 7th January 2015, where 8 journalists including the magazine’s editor, 2 police officers, 1 caretaker and 1 visitor were killed, are of course designed to demand a response. Such events, and the responses by political leaders to them, are also designed to polarize opinion, and to bolster ideas about ‘us’ and ‘them’. On this occasion, those ideas played out in the affective atmospheres conjured by the #jesuischarlie hashtag, which invited people to position themselves as either ‘for Charlie’ or ‘against Charlie’. Tariq Ali writes that this compulsion to announce ‘Je suis Charlie’ reminded him of the mood in the UK and US following the events of 11 September 2001, a mood described by Judith Butler as one of ‘heightened nationalism’, which made it impossible to oppose having to be ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, or query the terms through which that opposition was framed.[1]

What is going on, then, in this compulsion to respond? What is at stake in the scenes of ‘liberal solidarity and resentment’ (Baldwin) that we witnessed on the 10th of January, in one of the largest collective gatherings to take place in Paris since the Second World War? How do some of the responses circulating serve to solidify identity positions, re-draw power positions, so that the shock of the event nevertheless returns us to a familiar politics, where some can feel comfortable whilst others, especially minority communities, are placed on the alert? If these attacks, and others like them, are purposefully designed as ‘affective forms of violence’ (Coward), then perhaps remaining indifferent to the event of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ might offer an alternative ethical response.

This collection of short, largely spontaneous responses were first presented at an event organized by the Politics-State-Space research cluster at Durham University Geography Department. All of the contributors seek ways of responding to this event that refuse the ‘imaginative geographies’ of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Closs Stephens), as well as other familiar framings through which this event has become known, but all nevertheless note the very difficulties of addressing ‘Charlie Hebdo’ otherwise, and in ways that refuse the ‘languages of terror’ (Ferreboeuf) in particular.[2]

[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2006.

[2] Thanks to all the participants who took part at the original event, all the contributors, and especially to Ben Anderson, Martin Coward, Paul Harrison and Natalie Oswin for their encouragement.

Angharad Closs Stephens, Department of Geography, Durham University

Ben Anderson, Becoming-Event

Andrew Baldwin, Tolerance and Resentment

Angharad Closs Stephens, Aesthetic Responses

Martin Coward, On Urban Violence

Rebecca Ferreboeuf, Languages of Change

Noam Leshem, Toward Another Political Theology

David Jones Marshall, Scales of Response: Between Elsewhere and Civilization Itself


Note from the editors: Also on this site, see the related commentaries Hate, by Mustafa Dikeç, and Resisting through and with comics, by Juliet J. Fall.  

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