In the Grey Zone

In the Grey Zone
In the Grey Zone

The formula of pathetic identification ‘I am …’ (or ‘We are all …’) only functions within certain limits, beyond which it turns into obscenity. We can proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie,’ but things start to crumble with examples like ‘We all live in Sarajevo!’ or ‘We are all in Gaza!’ The brutal fact that we are not all in Sarajevo or Gaza is too strong to be covered up by a pathetic identification. Such identification becomes obscene in the case of Muselmänner, the living dead in Auschwitz. It is not possible to say: ‘We are all Muselmänner!’ In Auschwitz, the dehumanisation of victims went so far that identifying with them in any meaningful sense is impossible. (And, in the opposite direction, it would also be ridiculous to declare solidarity with the victims of 9/11 by claiming ‘We are all New Yorkers!’ Millions would say: ‘Yes, we would love to be New Yorkers, give us a visa!’)

The same goes for the killings last month: it was relatively easy to identify with the Charlie Hebdo journalists, but it would have been much more difficult to announce: ‘We are all from Baga!’ (For those who don’t know: Baga is a small town in the north-east of Nigeria where Boko Haram executed two thousand people.) The name ‘Boko Haram’ can be roughly translated as ‘Western education is forbidden,’ specifically the education of women. How to account for the weird fact of a massive sociopolitical movement whose main aim is the hierarchic regulation of the relationship between the sexes? Why do Muslims who were undoubtedly exposed to exploitation, domination and other destructive and humiliating aspects of colonialism, target in their response the best part (for us, at least) of the Western legacy, our egalitarianism and personal freedoms, including the freedom to mock all authorities? One answer is that their target is well chosen: the liberal West is so unbearable because it not only practises exploitation and violent domination, but presents this brutal reality in the guise of its opposite: freedom, equality and democracy.

Back to the spectacle of big political names from all around the world holding hands in solidarity with the victims of the Paris killings, from Cameron to Lavrov, from Netanyahu to Abbas: if there was ever an image of hypocritical falsity, this was it. An anonymous citizen played Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the unofficial anthem of the European Union, as the procession passed under his window, adding a touch of political kitsch to the disgusting spectacle staged by the people most responsible for the mess we are in. If the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, were to join such a march in Moscow, where dozens of journalists have been murdered, he would be arrested immediately. And the spectacle was literally staged: the pictures shown in the media gave the impression that the line of political leaders was at the front of a large crowd walking along an avenue. But another photo was taken of the entire scene from above, clearly showing that behind the politicians there were only a hundred or so people and a lot of empty space, patrolled by police, behind and around them. The true Charlie Hebdo gesture would have been to publish on its front page a big caricature brutally and tastelessly mocking this event.

As well as the banners saying ‘Je suis Charlie!’ there were others that said ‘Je suis flic!’ The national unity celebrated and enacted in large public gatherings was not just the unity of the people, reaching across ethnic groups, classes and religions, but also the unification of the people with the forces of order and control – not only the police but also the CRS (one of the slogans of May 1968 was ‘CRS-SS’), the secret service and the entire state security apparatus. There is no place for Snowden or Manning in this new universe. ‘Resentment against the police is no longer what it was, except among poor youth of Arab or African origins,’ Jacques-Alain Miller wrote last month. ‘A thing undoubtedly never seen in the history of France.’ In short, the terrorist attacks achieved the impossible: to reconcile the generation of ’68 with its arch enemy in something like a French popular version of the Patriot Act, with people offering themselves up to surveillance.

[Extract. Appeared in the London Review of Books on February 5th 2015.]

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