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The Myth of Unfamiliarity

1 Banukaraca

Chto Delat?, Study, Study, and Act Again, 2011–2014. Image: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid / Joaquín Cortés, Román Lores.

Je marche, mais je suis conscient de la confusion et de l'hypocrisie de la situation1

(Slogan held up on a poster by a participant during the Paris "Unity March", 11 January 2015)

The attack on the cartoonists and the editorial team of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015 and the two days of violence that followed it have produced outcries and protests around the world. News coverage and commentaries have wrestled with the event, at times escaping to facile assessments, and at others, attempting nuance and calling against oversimplification. One assessment, however, stood out quite early on, and is likely to hold ground: the notion that this was an attack on freedom of expression. Questioning what was the 'ultimate' target of these acts of violence has been especially poignant, and, perhaps particularly complicated for those working in the field of arts and culture. By raising the question of the ultimate target, I do not mean to discount, dehumanise or abstract the lives that were lost, the persons who were killed in the offices of the magazine, the police officers, and the hostages at the kosher supermarket, but to open up a series of issues that the attacks have painfully brought into focus. I want to suggest that it might be helpful to think about the attacks as aiming against the entrenched conditions that enable a certain repertoire of representations and their circulation, beyond the question of whether publishing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad is right or wrong. Some of these issues might seem self-evident at first, but are still worth unpacking with regards to their less scrutinised facets.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not iconoclastic in the sense that it did not aim to destroy specific images – a possibility foreclosed by the fact that they had long been distributed as well as by their reproducible quality – but against the producers of these images, to kill, annihilate them. One could argue that the attack was hence deterrent in nature, designed to discourage future images. But this possibility seems too narrow, and I will try to detail this point in a moment. The attack was at once precise and yet arbitrary in its address, not only because it involved victims that were not formerly selected but who by way of their duty, or coincidence, were caught in the line of fire (although surely the singling out of the kosher deli for hostage-taking was intentional). This arbitrariness of violence is manifest in that it met primarily unarmed persons, civilians who were going about their everyday lives. As such, the Paris attacks – albeit on a different scale – mirrored the experience of civilians in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have been legitimised in the name of freedom, democracy and human rights. Their deaths have been grieved differentially – or not at all (Butler 2008); they have been made invisible in categories such as "collateral damage" that are portrayed as unavoidable in operations of war and in the "targeted killings" of "imminent threats" through drone strikes. Or, more recently in Syria, they appear to us as anonymous victims of seemingly 'incomprehensible' and 'utterly foreign' sectarian violence. Collapsing the purported difference between war and terror, the Paris attacks drew on a repertoire that is quite familiar to us, even if under divergent ideological propositions. Not unlike the leftwing armed struggles in Europe, the United States and Japan of the 1960s and 70s, they "brought the war home" (Varon 2004). This was after all what the militants of the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Weather Underground in the U.S., and the Red Brigades in Italy sought to do. They brought the Cold War, mostly fought through proxies in South America, Asia and the Middle East, into the centres of the 'West'.

First Al Qaida, and now ISIS, have reminded us once more that every war is also a war of images (Sontag 2003). Although the image production of the 'war on terror' in its latest incarnation is more controlled than previously (exemplified by the restrictions on showing returning coffins of U.S. military personnel), infrared pictures of bombings and drone strikes, of prisoners in orange jumpsuits and sensory deprivation gear at Guantanamo Bay, just as the images of the World Trade Center are all part of war-making, terrorism and counter-terrorism. The Paris attacks produced their own kind of images, representational vehicles of disturbing efficacy that added another layer to the visuals of ISIS's violent exploits posted on social media that include executions of journalists and aid workers, and atrocities against local populations. If we see representation – the image – at the centre of the Paris assaults, then it is in this rather complex configuration.

To consider the attacks in Paris, and shortly after, in Copenhagen (14–15 February 2015), as 'war brought home' works against the puzzlement expressed by the 'West' that suggests that such violence is both ostensibly foreign and unconnected to its own sphere, and territory. As Teju Cole has noted with regard to this puzzlement in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: "[...] at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation" (Cole 2015). This ahistorical fantasy has led to identifying the Paris attacks as assaults on free speech which is considered to be an accomplishment of the Enlightenment and thus – so the argumentation goes – at heart a European value. To cling to this argument, however, is to (re)invest in the "grand illusion" of Europe (Judt 1996). The invocation of thus construed 'European values' has helped facilitate the project of Europe (and its political manifestation in the European Union) by obscuring its very own violent collective past: the history of class divisions, religious warfare, the atrocities of colonialism, two World Wars, and the complicities in National Socialism and fascism across the continent. It relegates violence to 'barbarism', exerted by those who are not us, who are far away, and who appear to us only as aberrations in our midst. This aberrant quality tends to be projected onto the figure of the 'immigrant', who is deemed either 'incapable' or 'unwilling' to integrate into the majority society. These constructions deny that what we call freedom, liberty, and welfare is predicated on histories of violence that continue to reverberate in wars abroad and structural violence at home, that these histories of violence in their colonial and imperial formations have long connected us – and intimately so – with seemingly far-flung places around the globe. 'Our modern values', and the privilege constructed from them, are indebted to these histories of violence that are in constant need of disavowal. It is this denial that keeps the myth of unfamiliarity with the Other and with violence intact.

The expletive that this was an attack against free speech is not dissimilar from George W. Bush's infamous post-9/11 formulation that "they", i.e. the terrorists, "hate our freedom". Seemingly more sophisticated, the discourse of free speech as an intrinsically European value – and a fulfilled one at that – remains nonetheless wedded to asymmetrical representations of the world, of 'West' and 'East', Christianity and Islam. Talal Asad and Roger Owen once aptly described these kinds of representation as seeking "to describe Islamic political life by looking for absent kinds of concepts – 'liberty,' 'progress,' 'humanism' which are supposed to be distinctive of Western civilization" (Asad and Owen 1980, p. 35). Postcolonial theory has argued that it is in asymmetrical representation that power lies. It strikes me that, more than anything else, power was at the heart of the Paris attacks. Amongst the images produced by the attackers is a video recording in which Amedy Coulibaly talks about the coordination of the impending assault, before attacking the kosher deli: "You get to decide what happens on Earth? Is that it? No. We are not going to let it happen. We are going to fight." This question of power shapes the conditions of the production and circulation of images that I referred to above.

However, postcolonial and feminist critiques have also taught us that we can work against notions of radical alterity by revealing forgotten histories, obscured encounters and connections that allow us to understand the past and envision the future in a different manner. The phenomenon of the Islamic State has been the latest instalment of configurations of violence that show us that learnt ignorance of history is no longer a luxury anyone can afford, that we need to account for the conditions that have enabled its emergence, conditions that are rooted in colonial encounters as much as in the "Green Belt doctrine" of the Cold War.

Artistic expression has been a powerful vehicle in enacting these critiques of representation, recovering these connections, and opening imaginative horizons. Yet, the institutional outlets for arts and culture have had greater difficulties in this process, especially in their search for funding (on European Union level and beyond) where ideas of 'multiculturalism' and 'tolerance' still abound and continue to frame the field, regardless of individual intentions. These frames are themselves entrenched in the "global hierarchy of value" (Herzfeld 2003) that continues to pervade the transnational circulation of contemporary art through dichotomies of 'East' and 'West', 'ethnic art' and 'art proper', 'artistic centres' and 'peripheries'. These dichotomies persist despite Edward Said's Orientalism (Said 2003) and the critiques of visual representations of the Other it has inspired, and despite the fact that the end of such hierarchisations has been postulated many times over.

These conditions have a certain seductiveness that calls us back to well-rehearsed positions of privilege, positions which demand political transformation without putting ourselves at risk. But giving into this call leaves us trapped within the liberal framing of freedom of expression which, infused with the performative repertoire of 'tolerance' (Brown 2006), ultimately skirts questions of justice and equality, displacing them instead onto discourses of diversity.

This is not to say that freedom of expression is not under attack, for it is under attack across borders and in different manifestations. Censorship (on- and offline) and restrictions on freedom of information present grave impediments to a whole range of rights struggles of very real and great urgency today. But rather than presupposing that free speech is a clearly defined 'thing in itself', a determinable endpoint, it might be helpful to see it as a terrain of struggle in which freedom of expression is in constant need of discussion in terms of power, place and history. It is in this struggle, in creating the conditions for debate along these parameters, that freedom of expression is located. Thinking of free speech in this manner might be a way out of its liberal trappings, a way in which we can march without a sense of hypocrisy, and, perhaps, a way to break indeed unfamiliar ground.


Asad, T. and Owen, R. 1980, "The Critique of Orientalism: A Reply to Professor Dodd", Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), vol. 7, no. 1.

Brown, W. 2006, Regulating Aversion. Tolerance in the Age of Empire, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Butler, J. 2008, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Verso, London.

Cole, T. 2015, "Unmournable Bodies", The New Yorker, 9 January, viewed 7 April 2015.

Herzfeld, M. 2003, The Body Impolitic. Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, Chicago University Press, Chicago.

Judt, T. 1996, A grand illusion? An Essay on Europe, Hill and Wang, New York.

Said, E. 2003, Orientalism, Vintage Books, New York.

Sontag, S. 2003, Regarding the Pain of Others, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Varon J. 2004, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, University of California Press, Berkeley.

"I am marching, but conscious that this situation is full of confusion and hypocrisy."

The views and opinions published here mirror the principles of academic freedom and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of the L'Internationale confederation and its members.