Biopower and Security

[published in CounterPunch, 20 May, 2015]

In The History of Sexuality: The Will to Knowledge (L’histoire de la sexualité, La volonté de savoir), Michel Foucault defines biopower as the practices engaged by the modern state to effect an “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (184). Developing his notion of biopower through the many exegeses of disciplinary power he studies throughout his career, Foucault focuses his interpretations of biopower on various styles of governments which have historically devised myriad controls of the body—be it in the areas of public health creation and regulation, heath crises and quarantine, military education, the creation of the mental hospital, the structure of the modern prison or the public policies which evolve discourses of the body and discourses of power onto the body:

[I]t is focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (1976, 183)

Foucault suggests that the somatic, the individual body, is controlled as a means to dominating the general population. Maintaining that biopolitics were developed in the second half of the 18th century and were centered entirely on the body—its health, mortality and continuance—Foucault details this newly born power which has not replaced disciplinary power, but that was instead simply grafted onto disciplinary power, as he writes in “Society Must Be Defended” (Il faut défendre la société):
These are the phenomena that begin to be taken into account at the end of the eighteenth century, and they result in the development of a medicine whose main function will now be public hygiene, with institutions to coordinate medical care, centralize power, and normalize knowledge. And which also takes the form of campaigns to teach hygiene and to medicalize the population (1997, 217).

This distinction between biopower and disciplinary power is imperative to understand in moving forward through his various readings of power: Foucault reads disciplinary power as that which focusses upon people as individuals—subjects to train, teach, punish, surveil and utilize—whereas bio-power focuses on individuals as people—as a “species” to conglomerate, regulate, characterize, and ultimately forecast. Where disciplinary power focuses on particular individuals, Foucault sees biopower as that which focuses upon an extrapolated individual who can be serialized to the point of being interchangeable, repeatable and disappearable.

How does biopower function pragmatically and historically then? In an effort to bring Foucault to the everyday, which I strongly believe is a moral imperative inherent within his writings and life practices, I will mention briefly how biopower has manifested itself in recent history. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities outlines how in colonial Asia was literally amassed through the census: health programs which were established to regulate the population as a mass; the installation prenatal programs to influence birth rates; creation of the census to know the colonial population, and so forth. One of the effects of the British colonial census in Malaysia, for instance, was that the categories became more overtly and “exclusively racial” while religious identity was disappeared after the between the census of 1871 and 1901 while nationalities became “pseudoethnic subcategories,” such as Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and so forth (164-165). Anderson notes the reifying violences of bio-power in the colonizer’s will to homogenize identity:

These “identities,” imagined by the (confusedly) classifying mind of the colonial state, still awaited a reification which imperial administrative penetration would soon make possible. One notices in addition, the census makers’ passion for completeness and unambiguity. Hence their intolerance of multiple, politically “transvestite,” blurred, or changing identifications. Hence the weird subcategory, under each racial group, of “Others”—who, nonetheless, are absolutely not to be confused with other “Others.” The fiction of the census is that everyone is in it, and that everyone has one—and only one—extremely clear place. No fractions. (165-166)

Similarly, these mechanisms of governmentality were deployed in the 19th and 20th centuries by imperialists in many African nation from the creation of the census, health programs, maps, to the “preservation” of the “African past” through the building of museums. Indeed, we see this kind of polemic cast upon the people who are inserted and removed from discourses of nationhood in Canada whereby people paradoxically called “First Nations,” the Inuit and Métis are conveniently inserted or made invisible within the greater playing field biopolitics such as the special dates when independence and nationhood are “celebrated”—be it Canada Day or La Fête “nationale” du Québec. Such celebrations of nationalism are en masse artificial consolidations of identity which conterminously elide those voices and bodies which challenge these quite fictional constructions of national identity which are replete with historical ellipses and devoid of any autochthonous or immigrant presence within its historiography.

Though Foucault did not dedicate much time to studies of Empire or to discourses of nationalism and the body, his writing nonetheless lays the groundwork for studies of biopower in these contexts. For instance, the “testing” zones of various systems of organization were to be found in the colonies of the 19th and early 20th centuries as “French modernity” was displaced upon colonized bodies, architectural spaces and urban sites of modernity as discussed in Paul Rabinow’s French Modern; or the relationship between colonizer and colonized which “was fundamental to the colonial order of things” such that sexuality and race are not separable, nor are theoretical and historical insights to sexuality and the body as detailed in Ann Stoler’s Race and the Education of Desire (4); and of course the techno-politics of the modern state created by the interactions of sugar cane, malaria and discourses of nationalism in Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts. The epistemology and practices of biopower have retained their traces throughout the twentieth century through the present day and the violences of biopower cannot be overstated either domestically or abroad.

One of the most commonplaces manifestations of biopower from the latter half of the twentieth century through the present day is the production of virtual appearances and disappearances on the contemporary object of power—life and the body. Biopower, in its colonial and neocolonial exercises, has focussed upon the corporeal and the collective masses, bodies as populations, rendering the somatic visible or invisible depending upon the political circumstances or logistical feat. For instance biopower is manifested through seemingly innocuous acts such as the commonplace practice in which media underreports the numbers of counter-institutional protestors at political demonstrations or when the mediatization of these events render the visible bodies participating in such demonstrations as “misbehaving,” coding these bodies as dangerous, marginalizing these people from a possible legitimation within more centralized political discourses and praxis. Where Foucault sees biopower as a technology of control, the exercise of various techniques (and technologies) of authority onto the body, Negri and Hardt see biopower as that which implies resistance, that which “threatens us with death but also rules over life, producing and reproducing all aspects of society” (2004, 94) within “immaterial goods” such as knowledge and relationships:

Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it—every individual embraces and reactivates this power of his or her own accord. Its primary task is to administer life. Biopower thus refers to a situation in which what is directly at stake in power is the production and reproduction of life itself. (2000, 24)

Hardt and Negri view a direct link between global capital and biopower which creates wealth and power for a few while individual control of the body is lost. Ultimately for Hardt and Negri biopower is the biological life and labor of the body, produced by the body, as exercised by the citizenry through manual labour and affective exercises (emotional, family, community). What I find essential in Hardt’s and Negri’s approach is their inclusion of “work” and “production” as factors in the quotidian practices of biopower, whereas for Foucault the somatic is immediate, always present and is often a product of biopower and the institutions that oversee its exercise.

I would suggest that both definitions of biopower are correct inasmuch as Negri and Hardt emphasize the productive value of the biological, emitted from the body outward, and Foucault stresses the institution as ontology in his many analyses of systems of power that effect the somatic: from the welfare state to Fordist controls of the body. It is this conterminous effective and affective body that contributes to biopower today such as the sequencing of the Human Genome and recombinant genetics, the pharmaceutical industry which has turned the female body into a laboratory for Assisted Reproductive Technologies and the male body into one continual and necessary erection, or biometrics which is quickly becoming a procedure that is adopted across governments and private industry. Foucault cites this control of biopolitics in “The Mesh of Power” (“Les mailles du pouvoir”):

Life has now become, from the 18th century onwards, an object of power. Life and the body. Once, there were only subjects, juridical subjects from whom one could take goods, life too, moreover. Now, there are bodies and populations. Power has become materialist. It ceases to be essentially juridical. It must deal with these real things that are bodies and life. Life enters into the domain of power. (2001, 1013)

Foucault views biopower quite differently than the classical vision of sovereignty in which juridical forms of power dominate — biopower is not a version of juridical power, though it is often based upon law or laws are made to reflect its force. Instead, biopower is a set of practices that politicize life by rendering life an object of science and of political intervention whereby power is exercised onto her body carrying a specifically anatomical and biological effect. To this extent, Foucault views biopower as the knowledge that can impact the species through organization and modification such that life can be conceived as both inside and outside human history. Ultimately Foucault opposes biopower to law in The History of Sexuality and “Society Must Be Defended” since his view is that life, not law, is the central issue of all political struggle even if the legal arena might seem to dominate: that the rights to happiness, freedom and so forth all derive from the body and not the juridical structures of sovereignty. Most interesting, however, is that for Foucault biopower continues to produce all forces that resist it, which in turn only extend its reach, like the function of subversion for Judith Butler, biopower is self-producing and self-contesting.

Yet, from the late 1970’s through the end of his life, beginning with The Birth of Biopolitics (Naissance de la bioplitique), Foucault makes another shift in his evaluation of power and in his strategic analysis of security through governmentality, specifically his critique of the liberal government and its power over life. Where Foucault views sovereign power as having the ability enforce power over life or death, exercising its power uniquely through violence. Yet, Foucault points out that since the 17th century, there has been a radical shift in how power is exercised as sovereign power was slowly replaced by bio-power. Biopower gradually replaced the sovereign right to take life, for instance, and instead this absolute control over life was obscured by the normalization of biological life and social technologies. Liberal governmentality aided this concern for biological life by engaging in the fiction of “nature” in order to shift its governmental practices towards newly emergent processes:

What matters is not whether or not this is legitimate in terms of law, but what its effects are and whether they are negative. It is then that the tax in question will be said to be illegitimate or, at any rate, to have no raison d’être. The economic question is always to be posed from within the field of governmental practice, not in terms of what may found it by right, but in terms of its effects… (17)

Here Foucault reflects upon how the government can be effective in terms of understanding these “natural” processes which it seeks to normalize while attempting to comprehend an entire range of relations within the social body (ie. between man and woman, tax officer and tax payer, doctor and patient, and so forth). These sorts of recognizable structural relations employ power in the everyday, yet Foucault’s notion of biopower takes such relations even further. He maintains that how we live within and outside these institutions has become an object of power and knowledge, something that needed to be controlled, even regulated, where the “power over life” upholds relationships of power today. Following from this relationship of power through various state institutions, Foucault recognizes that “nature” itself can be be manipulated by governmental practices putting into question the “natural” that political power disturbs: “What makes a government, despite its objectives, disrupt the naturalness specific to the objects it deals with and the operations it carries out?” (19). Foucault analyzes the relationship between “nature” and “governmentality” locating the governing force to turn subjects into free, neo-liberal individuals. It is here where see the birth of biopolitics as nature cannot be reconciled in terms of governmentality with each valence retaining its relative separation to the other, posing future questions of how juridical power might and can effect change in nature and how nature can affect juridical discourse.

And we see this type of contestation as Foucault attacks liberalism since its “jurisdiction” necessarily encroaches upon the “nature” of individual freedoms: “That is to say, the liberal art of government, is forced to determine the precise extent which and up to what point individual interest, that is to say individual interests insofar as they are different and possibly opposed to each other, constitute a danger for the interest of all” (67). Foucault continues to maintain, however, that liberalism’s danger is not so much univocally poised against the individual or the collective, but rather that liberalism must first and foremost respond to the “security strategies” that actually go against the very condition of liberalism itself:

The game of freedom and security is at the very heart of this new governmental reason whose general characteristics I have tried to describe. The problems of what I shall call the economy of power peculiar to liberalism are internally sustained, as it were, by this interplay of freedom and security.’ (67)

When individual will endangers mass markets or private enterprise, where factories must not pose dangers to its workers, the economy of power to which Foucault here refers, marks this juncture where the states right/obligation to “protect” threatens the freedoms of the individual. What is “natural” to this social order, once threatened, can unleash a series of arbitrations that actually provoke a confrontation between juridical power and biopower.

Certainly there are many instances when we see the absence of the juridic agencies and where power effects the body directly. Yet, there are so many instances today whereby we are not seeing a gradual dissolution of the role of the state, the institution, in the continuance of biopower, and instead we are seeing an increased interest in the production of biopower through the role of the state and private institutions often stepping in for the state. We see many historical instances where biopower is attempts to normalize or order as mentioned early and in recent years: Halliburton’s contractualization of war-torn Iraq to bring back “order;” the United States’ use of mercenaries in Iraq basically surrogating war through the security firm Blackwater; Bechtel’s unsuccessful attempt to dispossess Bolivians of their water resources in the late 1990’s; a series of right to die cases from the United States, to Switzerland, to Italy; and the long distance, video game-like manner of fighting “wars” through computers, drones and the more recent trend of outsourcing war through local, darker-skinned bodies (our future potential “enemies”). And at other times, biopower has historically rested within the realm of the legal as the disappeared body is absent and its past presence or its present absence could only be authenticated by the very legal frameworks of documents, testimonies and recorded data, such as the processes which have attempted to bring back the dead, the missing, the desaparecidos. What we notice more and more in recent years, however, is that in the name of security, nothing is sacred, not even the life that security ostensibly sets out to protect. And as a result today, even the legal references of biopower are changing and being overshadowed by other discourses (more on this below).

Foucault makes reference to this intersection of law and life detailed in “Society Must Be Defended” wherein he distinguishes the “juridical rule derived from sovereignty” from what he terms “natural rule.” For Foucault the idea of emancipation is displaced by another ideal of preserving sovereignty wherein juridical and medical discourses function to create a “society of normalization” (34-36). Certainly the twentieth century has already marked itself as an era where jurisprudence has become somewhat demoted by the current favor of media consensus and medical discourse regarding the “normalization” of the individual, whereby now the subject more commonly seeks affirmation and legitimation from the larger blogosphere or medical community. No longer is it the institution seeking out individuals to normalize, for there is neoliberal social nexus where individuals voluntarily seek out their legitimacy within the structures of various institutions. The body, part of this panorama of securitization, is now procured by the subject who seeks to consolidate her identity through institutional narratives of legitimation. In his study of biopolitics as well as The History of Sexuality, Foucault documents how power shifted in western society throughout modern history: from the Hobbesian theory of the sovereign right to kill to a new regime of biopower in which biological life became the object of political power and surveillance during the eighteenth century, where power implicated the control and the promotion of life. The state of security evidenced in the early twenty-first century, however, demonstrates a biopolitical structure which turns the surveillance of the body both inwards and outwards, from the subject to herself and towards others, where individual will and the good of society are not necessarily antithetical.

Later in the 1980’s Foucault maintains this dichotomization between individual will and the good of society wherein he summons the reader to dispense with the antediluvian dichotomies of domination and emancipation in favor of a subject who can function despite her limits simply because “historical ontology” enables this subject to constitute herself, to question herself, and ultimately to change in the face of power relations:

[T]he historical ontology of ourselves has to answer an open series of questions; it has to make an indefinite number of inquiries which may be multiplied and specified as much as we like, but which will all address the questions systematized as follows: How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions? (“What is Enlightenment,” 576)

Reading Foucault’s conceptualization of the individual responsibility for herself requires the subject to adopt a posture of active engagement rather than one of passivity or of objectification in order to understand how “we constitute ourselves,” lending the active voice to traditionally passive manoeuvres in addressing power. This sort of challenge that Foucault offers, specifically his notion of critical ontology of ourselves, extends a Kantian critique of actualité within a philosophy that is neither concerned with telos nor origin, but one that is invested in locating the subject in the here and now. The ontology of ourselves, Foucault advocates, must disavow all projects that claim to be “global or radical,” adding: “In fact we know from experience that the claim to escape from the system of contemporary reality…has led to the return of the most dangerous traditions” (284). So while offering a voice to power, a maneuver that does not reify the subject at the very least, Foucault nonetheless acknowledges the problems of emancipatory narratives through which the subject can ostensibly liberate herself, while in fact such narratives, just like the homeomorphic surface of the Möbius strip, seemingly lead one back to the subject’s foundations of oppression.

So what is the factor which mediates between the individual’s freedom and the security of the people in an age when the body is produced by the techniques of power and likewise where this body reproduces or simulates these very techniques? Foucault continues this distinction between these two interests:

What, then, will be the principle of calculation for this cost of manufacturing freedom? The principle of calculation is what is called security. That is to say, liberalism, the liberal art of government, is forced to determine the precise extent to which and up to what point individual interest, that is to say individual interests insofar as they are different and possibly opposed to each other, constitute a danger for the interest of all (2004, 65-66).

Since the turn of this century, international political economies have focused upon questions of security, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001. More directly, the body has become the immediate focus being targeted by the liberal juridical powers in the United States among many countries in attempting to, as their political rhetoric states, “target terror.” In proclaiming a “war” against terror, the US government has created, more overtly than any other government—although many governments do participate in the Global War on Terror—a tactical agenda completely in line with Foucault’s notion of “security devices” (dispositifs sécuritaires) and biopolitics whereby the body becomes the tactical line of evidence and division as well the conterminous object and subject of his own atonement or redemption. The security strategies utilized throughout the Global War on Terror—and the Obama-rebranded “Overseas Contingency Operation”— hold the subject hostage because his body, once private, is now rendered public: his potential as a security “threat” is scrutinized against itself and the orbiting juridic, medical and mediatized discourses which judge it either more innocent, or more guilty. Inevitably, the body occupies this space of dédoublement wherein it is enciphered with the signs of race, citizenship, ethnicity, and even humanity, from within and from without—the subject is doubly inscribed through the mediatization of his “identity.” Distinguishing fictions from truths to include those of race or citizenship, for instance, do not concern the systems of biopower. Rather biopower effects a recreation of the recreated truth, albeit temporal, which generally suit the political climate of the moment.

Biopower is the bastard child of neoliberal societies which have created elaborate systems of surveillance to control the body in pursuit of securitizing culture. As we witnessed the involvement of medical, psychiatric and anthropological professionals during the last fourteen years of the United States’ War on Terror, the use of jurisprudence, medicine and social science has helped to create the body as political object, the body that necessitated being acted upon, being controlled, and even being locked away. The discourses of race and religion since 2001 quickly became conflated by various state apparati whereby the body as affect became part of the larger scope of racial, ethnic and religious profiling throughout the west. The barometer of tolerance was lowered and the biopolitical techniques used against the subject were excused in the name of the “greater good,” the securitization of the state and the protection of “our freedoms” against those who are, in the words of George W. Bush, “jealous of our freedoms.” The tautology is clear: “we” are an ideological threat to “them” because they covet our freedoms. This is a complete reversal of what is exercised in the War on Terror (ie. “they” are a physical/security threat to “us”). Yet this Manichean terrain of freedom/terrorism and security/threat functions on a purely facile and blind acceptance of racial profiling, religious allegiances, and xenophobia. Never was it put into question what these freedoms are (or even if “they” actually exist) nor if these ostensible freedoms to disciplinary and regulatory power might actually have real effects on the lives of others. Very rarely did our media and juridic structures analyze the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), also known as Special Registration, which focussed its surveillance on twenty-four predominantly Muslim nationalities requiring certain male non-citizens over the age of sixteen to register with Homeland Security. Everything down to the Muslim male body was re-naturalized and repositioned in the biopolitical theater where the recreated truth of the Muslim male was that of jealousy, danger, savagery, and inferiority. We have returned full circle to Edward Said’s orientalist analysis of Mohammadism, a purely western construct whose meaning had no resonance to Muslims. Fertilizer, a copy of the Qur’an, an accent, a video camera, or a prayer mat suddenly all became motives to search, sequester and detain, whilst the liberal citizens in whose name such racial profiling is carried out can be secured that indeed they are freer. The War on Terror evidences the most perverse and cynical of all possible self-fulfilling prophecies.

The extra-legal spaces created to control life—from myriad black sites, to Guantanamo Bay, to Abu Ghraib, to various prisons within the United States—all maintain the narrative of security, albeit unlawfully circumspect as arenas of political exception. The Muslim male body is made the surrogate for unlawful behavior, all in the name of security: his skin tone, his accent, his dress and manners, even when resembling that of the westerner, all render him immediately and always guilty. The suspension of the law in the name of “exception” has now become the norm and the body of the accused functions as a cultural synecdoche for the larger social body of Muslims. It is not at all surprising that the nude, duct taped body of John Walker Lindh, also known as “The American Taliban” or “Detainee 001” in the War on Terror, became the object of a mediatized vivisection, the terrorist body laid bare to demonstrate that terror can come from within, even from a nice, “all-American” boy from California. Is it in the least shocking that John Walker Lindh did not take part in terrorist activities as he remains locked up in an Indiana prison for another seven years while the government which actually did aid the Taliban, United States, to the tune of at least $43 million has through the present day remained conspicuously uninvestigated?

It is axiomatic that this War on Terror, almost in its fifteenth year, has nothing to do with investigating or stopping “terror.” Instead the Global War on Terror thrives upon constructing and disseminating innumerable fictions of perceived terrorist acts and terrorist bodies whilst abstracting a panorama of violence that will unceasingly be impossible to defeat both domestically and abroad. Ultimately, the War on Terror can never end. The nature of biopower in the context of state security today is two-fold: first, to de-personify the object of western violence while humanizing the western pathos of the Global War on Terror; second, to re-create the enemy, re-embodied and pre-packaged as the Muslim “terrorist.” In this way, biopower functions to place focus on the body of the individual over the act, such as Foucault’s discussion of capital punishment which invokes less “the enormity of the crime itself than the monstrosity of the criminal…One had the right to kill those who represented a kind of biological danger to others” (1976, 138). Given the focus on the Muslim male body in contemporary western politics and the various behavioral typologies set up through the discourses of biopower today, it is not at all surprising that David Bruck is basing the defense of his client, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, upon convincing the jury through photos of the “unrelenting punishment” of the ADX Supermax facility (known as a “clean version of hell”) while leaning heavily on western stereotypes of the Muslim male who, once executed, would necessarily become shahid (a martyr). In order for Tsarnaev to escape death, he must paradoxically be proven to be the stereotypical Muslim terrorist who will suffer more and achieve less fame in life than in death, rather than be shown as yet another angry man whose acts of murder might just speak to the larger issues of male violence the world over.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2014). She can be reached at:

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. (Revised Edition) London: Verso, 2006.

Foucault, Michel. Naissance de la biopolitique. Paris, Gallimard, Seuil, 2004.

Foucault, Michel. « Il faut défendre la société ». Cours au Collège de France, 1973-1974. Paris: Hautes Etudes;Gallimard;Seuil; 1997.

Foucault, Michel. « Les mailles du pouvoir ». Dits et Écrits II. Paris: Gallimard, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. «Qu’est-ce que les Lumières». Dits et écrits, Vol IV. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. La volonté de savoir. Histoire de la sexualité, 1. Paris: Gallimard; 1976.

Hardt, Michael et Toni Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Hardt, Michael et Toni Negri. Multitude: war and democracy in the age of Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Negri, Toni. «Negri on Foucault.” 9 October, 2004.

Stoler, Ann. Race adn the Educaiton of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Islamophobia and the Aegis of Freedom of Speech

[published in CounterPunch, 12 May, 2015]

In 2002, I would meet up with two friends, a couple, for frequent dinners in New York.  My friends had this theatrical side of their relationship where they would “critique” conservative ideologies employing the effect and tone of certain comedy skits (it must have been their “inside joke”) in order to attack, ostensibly, racist stereotypes, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and the already evident anti-Muslim sentiment before and certainly after 9/11.  These performances usually took the form of a satire, embodying the racist and homophobic discourses, emulating the likes of Glens Beck and John McLaughlin.  Even when we would discuss the horrors of what were still the early months of the burgeoning Global War on Terror, my friends would intermittently respond rehashing FOX news taglines and popular culture epithets through these performative ten-second skits. One would refer to the beleaguered Afghans as “rag heads,” in showing his sympathy to the overtly racist reporting that had been taking place on CNN, Fox and other media sources, performative satire which was meant to evoke laughter since this was a racist term not uncommon in the military where my friend had served years earlier. The other would state how “all Muslims go to madrassa” (another long-standing media myth that madrassa meant “terrorist training camps” and not “school”) in order to contextualize the inaccuracy and insanity of media reporting.

As our visits continued throughout 2003 and 2004, I started to see this form of satire as something that went beyond pure critique and as a result I become uncomfortable with this format. Sure, I got it:  I understood that this was their modality for expressing disgust with major media or for the historical wrongs done to dark-skinned people and other marginalized groups. But at a certain point, the satire wore down and the re-invoking of the stereotypes of the Right was simply no longer funny because it seemed to prey on the very representations inaccessible to most of the objects of such bigotry.  My friends’ form of satire repeated the timeworn hurtful sentiments and language which, even if intended to critique, lost its power amidst the repetition and the reality that in fact, this satire of racism only extended the very tropes of racism by utilizing the very same gestures and language in the hope of mocking the very same gestures and language of racism. The problem is that such repetitions have their limits both in the performative and the real and what residue remains are the very artifices of what is still a long-standing, unresolved social problem.  The residual tropes of racism are merely reified through satire and no actual critique ensues—all that remains is just a continuance of the familiar stereotypes, now recast for in-crowd entertainment because many who perform these “in-jokes” are not privy to the political weight and social oppression that such symbols manifest in the everyday.

More recently, the public revelations of police violence from Ferguson to Baltimore underscore only too well the reality of racism in my own country.  And I am not referring to what some falsely believe to be a “recent upsurge” in racism, but rather I signal what, in reality, is part of a much larger continuum of racism in the United States: a long documented pattern of violence towards African American males by police forces across the country.   Now mobile phones allow the encoding of such information with great facility and testimony; but let us make no mistake that there is nothing recent about these abuses and murders. Certainly, were it not for the mobile phone recording of the murder of Walter Scott, it is highly likely that Scott’s actions would be under question and not those of the police officer who murdered him.  The realities of racism in the United States could not be more starkly marked today by the weekly accounts of police murders of unarmed black men and although most are only made aware of a few highlighted cases, there is considerable cause for concern with almost 1,500 police-involved killings over the past sixteen months.  Yet in all the months of media coverage of these horrific, racist events, I have not seen any satire of these tragic deaths which recycles woeful racist tropes and turns them inward onto the victims of police violence.  Most every comic representation of Ferguson has been either one of a harsh critique of the judicial system in Missouri or an even harsher critique of the double standards of racism within that town and within American society.

Over the  past two weeks, I have been privy to frequent virtual discussions about the PEN awards where six prominent writers began a boycott of this annual event, among which were Rachel Kushner, Teju Cole, Taiye Selasi, Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje, and Peter Carey. The reasons given for this withdraw were compelling and thoughtful responses with Kushner asserting that she is uncomfortable with the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and endorsement of what she calls a “kind of forced secular view” and Peter Carey writing to the New York Times contends: “A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?…All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

The response to this boycott ranged from people publicly disagreeing while stating their respect for their colleagues’ positions, to those who accused these writers of being apologists for terrorism, to Salman Rushdie’s admonition to these authors, calling them “pussies” and  Richard Dawkins’ tweet which equates these individuals as complicit with the murders of these journalists: “Appeasers of Hebdo murderers.  If motive is physical fear, OK.  Contemptible if you think religion deserves free pass.”  Following the initial boycott, a letter was sent out to the members of the PEN American Center signed by thirty-five writers (with 204 PEN writers having signed thus far) communicating the desire to distance themselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, stating:

[I]n an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

I read this statement and wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment of the signatories.  However, consequent to my agreement with these writers, I posted an article on Facebook which resulted in many exchanges regarding this affair, many of which were ad hominem assaults directed at me.  The public Facebook discussions usually involved the defense of the   Charlie Hebdo images, one woman in particular pointing to the importance that I remember “that people were murdered for blaspheming not for racism.”  I was then told to look at the history of Charlie Hebdo, the story behind the Taubira cartoon, and the whole essence of laïcité (secularism) in France. Having lived in France years earlier, I was quite aware of this country’s quasi-religious fervor for secularism; yet, I saw the myriad contradictions in France’s practice of secularism, beginning with its Islamophobic stance on hijab (the veil) in the 1990s while other forms of religious garb simply have not received the same sort of condemnation.  Likewise the political connections made between thehijab and fundamentalism, and then between fundamentalism and terrorism, were daunting as a blueprint to cultural and religious essentialism. Mohammad Mazher ldriss eloquently documents this debate:

While the French government have claimed that the new legislation will not permit any religion to express itself in the public educational sphere (ie the wearing of ostentatious religious dress by Catholics would not be allowed in state schools), there have been few or no reports of Christian or Jewish schoolboys being expelled for wearing crosses or kippahs and it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the legislative policy pursued by the French government is really directed against only one group of individuals—Muslims. The legislative policy imposed by the French government demonstrates that a modern democracy has, probably for the first time and by legislation, ruled on what certain girls (or more specifically, Muslim schoolgirls) can wear in state schools.  The principal reason put forward by the French government for justifying the new legislation has been the need to suppress “Islamic fundamentalism” and the government strongly believes that “radical Islam” now threatens the French Republic and needs to be controlled. One method to control this insurgency is to ban the hijab because it symbolises terrorism, or at the very least, implies that the wearer supports terrorism. However, what is the connection between the hijab and terrorism, and what is really meant by “fundamentalism”? To what extent is it fair to label a Muslim schoolgirl who wishes to wear the hijab a “fundamentalist.” (279)

If indeed religion were to be uniquely a private question then, why have so much media inside and outside of France, to include Charlie Hebdo, focused an inordinate amount of space to one particular religion’s cultural practices over the rest?  And why focus so cruelly on a religion whose immigrant practitioners in France are at the butt end of jokes, the immigrants who are the most economically and socially disenfranchised in the country?

Generally there are several arguments that champions of Charlie Hebdo give to support the publication’s satirical cartoons. First, many argue that this publication follows a long line of literary and artistic satire dating back to Voltaire and Diderot where religion is “fair game.” While it is true that Charlie Hebdo continues a nineteenth-century style of political satire, such as the work of Honoré Daumierwho served a six-month prison term for his 1831 cartoon depicting King Louis-Philippe as Rabelais’ Gargantua, what is rarely discussed by those who unilaterally defend Charlie Hebdo’s satire is the fact that at the receiving end of these contemporary representations of the Arab/Muslim/Algerian as terrorist—usually rendered as one indistinguishable monolith—is also the very population of Muslim immigrants (or the children and grandchildren of these immigrants) who understand quite unequivocally the relationship between these images and the reality they live today in France. These individuals who are the living proof of France’s colonial legacy, the products of their nation’s or adopted nation’s colonial heritage and racist undertows still widely felt across France as the manifestations of 2005demonstrate, are directly affected by such representations and these very same people are likewise powerless to speak back due to their social and institutional disenfranchisement.

Secondly, defenders of Charlie Hebdo claim that the journal is an “equal opportunities offender” which takes to task all religions. The reality is that many of its journalists have publicly denounced what Olivier Cyran calls an “Islamophobic neurosis,” as he notes a radical shift in the publication’s ideology after 9/11 in his open letter to Stéphane Charbonnier and Fabrice Nicolino (2013):

Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production. “Investigations” began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact, like the so-called infiltration of the League of Human Rights (LDH) or European Social Forum (FSE) by a horde of bloodthirsty Salafists. The new impulse underway required the magazine to renounce the unruly attitude which had been its backbone up to then, and to form alliances with the most corrupt figures of the intellectual jet-set, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy or Antoine Sfeir, cosignatories in Charlie Hebdo of a grotesque “Manifesto of the Twelve against the New Islamic Totalitarianism”. Whoever could not see themselves in a worldview which opposed the civilized (Europeans) to obscurantists (Muslims) saw themselves quickly slapped with the label of “useful idiots” or “Islamo-leftists.”

And earlier this year cartoonist, Halim Mahmoudi, writes of his experiences at Charlie Hebdo linking the offensive images to his experiences of secularism in France, cementing the reality of life for many Muslims and North Africans:

The façade of secularism that made me suffer humiliating identity checks which have stained my heart and where I had to swallow my rage, evenings ruined because we couldn’t even get into clubs, a girlfriend who told me at the threshold of her front door that it was over because her parents do not want “me to go out with an Arab,” or even jobs refused to me because of customers who would not understand. Hundreds of letters and no job interviews! Few financial resources, and boredom stuck to cheap shoes sold in Tati’s shops.

The social, political and economic realities for Muslims in France today, even over five decades after the liberation of Algeria (and numerous other former Muslim-majority colonies) from France, is dire.  The economic disenfranchisement alone speaks to the severity of the situation as unemployment rates for all immigrants in 2013 was almost 80 per cent higher than for non-immigrants with a 26.5 per cent unemployment rate for North African university graduates. These statistics mirror similar problems for British Muslims to find work as the unemployment rate for British Muslim men is at 13 per cent, about three times higher than for men of other faiths and backgrounds.  In short, one cannot reasonably believe that such satirical representations can be made with the expectation that those affected French Muslims decontextualize and ahistoricize their very condition, casting off their humiliation, just for the sake of mostly light-skinned, privileged cartoonists and journalists to continue their political exercise of the French tradition of laïcité which supposedly critiques all forms of organized religion.

Lastly, defenders of Charlie Hebdo’s satire state that the images that cause offense to many are actually harsh critiques of racism.  The subject of the Christiane Taubira cartoon became the focus a Facebook discussion with a few complete strangers on my wall and one private conversation with a dear friend from Paris, all of whom took an opposing view to my own.  Assuming I did not understand the story behind Charlie Hebdo’s satirical comic, my friend explained how this Charlie Hebdo image was actually a critique in response to the Facebook representation  of Justic Taubira by a member of the National Front, Anne-Sophie Leclere, who had taken an image of a baby monkey (labelled “At 18 months”) and juxtaposed this image with the “Now” photograph, that of Justice Taubira.  The Charlie Hebdo image, my friend told me, was a response to this racist rendering of Christiane Taubira, literally embodying her as the monkey that Anne-Sophie Leclere pretended Taurbira really was.  But I understood this level of counter-critique when I first saw the cartoon and read various articles related to the image in question.  In fact, many of the ripostes against those who are critical of certain Charlie Hebdo cartoons is that we do not understand the history, the language, and/or the cultural context. But it is clear from the polemic on this subject that people actually do get it—they just disagree with what appears to be anything from thinly veiled attempt to justify racism to a sloppy counter-critique of racism.

The Taubira cartoon has been widely critiqued by French Muslims, however this debate was largely sidelined by the media in France. It was the New Statesman which published Mehdi Hasan’s response wherein he explains his position: “Lampooning racism by reproducing brazenly racist imagery is a pretty dubious satirical tactic.”  Elucidating this sort of neo-orientalist posture, Hasan eloquently situates the tragedy of January 2015 within the larger social context:

In the midst of all the post-Paris grief, hypocrisy and hyperbole abounds. Yes, the attack was an act of unquantifiable evil; an inexcusable and merciless murder of innocents. But was it really a “bid to assassinate” free speech (ITV’s Mark Austin), to “desecrate” our ideas of “free thought” (Stephen Fry)? It was a crime – not an act of war – perpetrated by disaffected young men; radicalised not by drawings of the Prophet in Europe in 2006 or 2011, as it turns out, but by images of US torture in Iraq in 2004.

Hasan’s analysis indicates what most political pundits ignore: that the Charlie Hebdo murderers, Sharif and Said Kouachi, were born, raised and radicalized in Paris and that their inspiration came not from the Qur’an or the Hadith, but from a combination of their adolescence spent in care homes, marginalization as the children of immigrants, their mother’s suicide, poverty, unemployment, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.  Such analyses are not surprising given that research by specialists in this subject such as Juan Cole and Garikai Changu demonstrate the influence that such social and political realities have in creating young radicals.  Moreover, organizations such as the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and the National Intelligence Council document the correlation between the War on Terror and the increase in terrorism.  So what we are seeing in not a problem of radical Islam which is mysteriously creating a body of willing recruits for the intra-Wahhabi conflict between al-Qaida and the Islamic State, but it is the life-long formation of these recruits born, raised, racialized, and alienated within the west.  Just as Timothy McVeigh was deeply influenced by the Christian Identity movement, the west hardly waged a war on Christian fundamentalism after the Oklahoma bombings. Nor did the west declare war on the Church, going after myriad violent anti-abortionist and homophobic militants, many of whom are fundamentalist Christians claiming to be “doing God’s work.”  It is undeniable that when dealing with domestic issues there is a different yardstick used to understand the roots of violence, as opposed to the very racialized and Islamophobic reactions to any act of violence committed by young men from la cité (the projects) in France or young Muslim immigrants from Kazakhstan.Tariq Alidemystifies the political discourse driving Islamophobia quite plainly:  “The real problem is not a secret: Western intelligence services regularly tell their leaders that the radicalisation of a tiny sliver of young Muslims (more work for the security services in Britain and France than for al-Qaida or ISIS) is a result of US foreign policy over the last decade and a half. Some of these Muslims have been happy to acquire new skills and priorities while fighting in Bosnia and, more recently, Syria.”  Like any form of violence, the Paris killings in January must be understood in their own terms and not through a political spin of good versus evil, democracy versus Islamic fundamentalism, or even “our” freedom of speech versus “their” savagery.   All violence must be understood within part of the larger socio-cultural framework in which it was born and not isolated through age-old Orientalist tropes of the bulbous-nosed Muslim seeking to convert the west to its belief system and replace its freedoms with calls to prayer of the muezzin.  Indeed, read from the other side of this all too neat dichotomy, taking the position of those occupied and caricaturized, the neo-liberalism of western governments domestically and their constant wars overseas foment a radicalism of a different kind.

After posting an article about race in France putting the Charlie Hebdo images into its national and cultural context, one woman on my Facebook wall chose to question my political allegiances to women’s rights, all because I had recently signed a petition in support of Meghan Murphy’s work on the sex trade after a recent smear campaign against her.  Yet this feminist failed to understand that the War on Terror is not a war for women’s rights even if the political discourse often parrots the freedom of “our women” using western women as a convenient symbol of freedom (meanwhile the rights to women’s bodies have been radically eroded over the past three years in the U.S.),  with images of women in burqa and hijab paraded as some sort of elliptical “proof” that western sartorial tradition equals freedom.  This same woman was quick to list me books and publications which she assumed I had not read, knew nothing of, informing me that I did not understand the history of feminist critiques of Islam nor the history of Charlie Hebdo, taking on a condescending tone about my own critique.  (Had this woman been a man she would have been accused of mansplaining to me.)  I told this person that I not only know the history of this matter quite well but that I find many of these accounts troublingly Islamophobic—not because they have no merit as to the truth of the biographical facts contained therein, but because, similar to the west’s conflation of Islam with terrorism, there are numerous media and educational institutions which happily open their doors to these “feminist” Muslim immigrants.  And these women, despite having a sincere story to tell, are often more than happy to contribute to the growing Islamophobic exploitation of “Islam as the problem” with regards to women’s rights, in a new cultural topography where women are more easily digestible as victims and where the cause of their problems is one single religion.  One can get a book deal and television appearances on neo-liberal talk shows to engage a receptive audience willing to hear about the “evils” of Islam.   Hell, you can even start your own forum since there is a $57 million network of Islamophobia in the United States with money to spare. Like some of the PEN authors denouncing the boycott, you might even further the ethos within the western media to convince the public that the problem is not “us,” but “them”—that our multi-billion dollar wars and occupations have absolutely no bearing on how others across the globe perceive us, or how media images meant to critique violence cannot possibly end up legitimizing other forms of violence whilst victimizing the weakest in our societies.  You can even obtain an academic position to posit “courage” as a unique quality (which will apparently count towards your degree at New York University)—courage to “do the right thing in the face of your fears.”  Except, of course, if that means speaking out against Islamophobia. Then that’s not courage, of course—that’s terrorist sympathizing, a twist of the legendary wordsmith‘s original phrase,: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Even writers like Zineb el-Rhazoui, a French-Moroccan writer, whose 2013 article, “Si Charlie Hebdo est raciste, alors je le suis” (“If Charlie Hebdo is Racist then So am I”), a rejoinder to Olivier Cyran’s aforementioned article, employs the same false parallels between grave social problems (ie. women’s oppression) and Islam that my Facebook interlocutor presented me.  In my own world view there can be no good that comes out of tarring one section of the earth’s population and cultures when lived experience suggests that women’s rights are under attack unilaterally and internationally, regardless of society, religion, or political persuasion. From regressive abortion legislation in the United States, the hundreds of women and girls kidnapped and systematically raped by Boko Haram, to the decline of women’s rights in Macedonia, the rapes of Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, the pervasive problem of femicide in Italy, and a documented decline of women’s rights in Canadait would be intellectually dishonest to pit the oppression of women in countries like Morocco as the fault of Islam.  Certainly religion can and does play a role in women’s oppression, but this is unfortunately part of a larger of a larger metadiscourse that is fed from social, political and economic narratives and which are likewise found in every single religion, be the subject secular or not.  We also have evidence that religion is just an easy scapegoat as Anita Sarkeesian’s experiences with GamerGatedemonstrates and as the revelation of misogyny at the heart of  New Atheism, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, demonstrates.  Incriminating an entire religion for social ills when the very real causes and cultural myths which buttress misogyny are simply not being addressed seems illogical at best.  Likewise, my Facebook interlocutor, in offering me “proof” that Islam (and Islamism—she conflated the two) was the problem, she quickly named Gita Sahgal, a writer and activist who has labored tirelessly to demonize Moazzem Begg and his work “to empower communities impacted by the War on Terror,” becoming director of Cage (formerly Cageprisoners) in 2009.  My interlocutor then informed me how Sahgal was not religious and how she also critiques Hindu fundamentalism.  Strangely, I could find no evidence of Sahgal making any attempt to link the Delhi rape of December 2012 to Hinduism or the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), nor taking such a similarly demonizing position to anything related to the Hindu faith.

Just as Muslim political prisoners’ human rights are incidental to Sahgal, this paradigm is similarly paralleled by el-Rhazoui for whom human rights seem only to exist for those in her universe—journalists in Morocco, writers in France, and finally her colleagues murdered at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January.  El-Rhazoui’s experience of political repression as a journalist in Morocco was not unique, however, and is entirely representative of the experiences of many writers in her country of birth—both male and female—from the beginning of King Hassan II’s reign in 1961. And much of the more recent repression of journalists under King Mohammed VI is simply indicative of a society which pays lip-service to royalty and the ruling elite who have ushered in the same sorts of post 9/11 surveillance of alleged terrorists and control of the media in order to keep their political detractors at bay.  (Such such censorship is not unique to Morocco.)  What is problematic about el-Rhazoui’s article is that she employs the same conscious misreading of Cyran’s piece in precisely the same manner as the woman on my Facebook wall.  El-Rhazoui consciously misreads Cyran, creating one straw man argument after another, even accusing Cyran of amalgamating all Muslims throughout the world as “one race,” when in fact this is precisely Cyran’s critique of what he witnessed at Charlie Hebdo post 9/11:

But let’s return to the question of “relationship” between Arabs and Muslims, racism and Islamophobia. Is the boundary that you trace with such bold assurance between the two categories really so clear in your minds? To read the beginning of your opinion piece, it’s possible to be skeptical. The edifying story about the “Arab taxi driver”, who refused the business of a contributor to your journal “because of its cartoons mocking Islam”, reveals a certain confusion in this regard.

El-Rhazoui goes much further completely jumping the shark in her article by indirectly holding Olivier Cyran responsible for a defamatory article written by a Moroccan journalist who claimed that el-Rhazoui had obtained her position with Charlie Hebdo by sleeping her way to the top and that her reporting was financed by Mossad.  Much of el-Rhazoui’s article relies on similar complete distortions of logic.  That Cyran’s critique of Charlie Hebdo will make her detractors back in Morocco happy premises that we must consider whose enemies or friends will be unduly pleased or saddened by our future writings.  Or that Mohammed imposes his law on Morocco many centuries post-mortem, assumes that that Moroccan law is not largely based on French law.  Sadly, el-Rhazoui frames her entire debate as one that is uniquely owned by the intelligentsia and which exists purely on intellectual grounds. For el-Rhazoui, the Charlie Hebdocartoons should only be evaluated and discussed by those who understand their nuances even though their impact is far greater than the elitist audience she imagines. How the marginalized North African youth of the banlieues interpret these cartoons or how they are affected by them on a human scale is immaterial to el-Rhazoui.

El-Rhazoui comes from a country with a long history of political repression of its writers specifically.  Former King Hassan II was known to be a brutal dictator when it came to protecting his authority and stories abound throughout Morocco of the political imprisonmentof students, political protestors, and the Sahrawi (the people living in the western region of the Sahara Desert which is not claimed by the Polisario). Most notably, a great number of writers had been imprisoned by King Hassan II, to include several of my favorite writers to include:  Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Salah El Ouadie, Fatna el Bouih, Ahmed Marzouki, Abdelaziz Moride, and Abdellatif Laâbi.  Having founded Anfas-Souffles in 1966, Laâbi was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1972 for “crimes of opinion” which he expressed in this journal.  He was subsequently tortured, imprisoned, released in 1980 and, like el-Rhazoui, sought exile in France in 1985. In the mid 1990s I had the good fortune to meet Laâbi and his wife upon his return from exile to Casablanca, where they welcomed me into their home.  Abdellatif spoke freely about the monarchy and he expressed hope for future changes towards a Moroccan democracy and the need to fight the growing inequalities between rich and poor.  Several years later Laâbi would couch these same problems of the Arabo-Islamic world as specifically linked to the larger questions of trans-national politics which support unequal class structures:

Everything which the Arab reality offers that is generous, open and creative is crushed by regimes whose only anxiety is to perpetuate their own power and self-serving interest. And what is often worse is to see that the West remains insensitive to the daily tragedy while at the same time accommodating, not to say supporting, the ruling classes who strangle the free will and aspirations of their people. (x-xi)

While it is obvious that one cannot homogenize all Muslim or Arab countries as monolithically Muslim or whose inhabitants are all practicing Muslims, it is important to understand that one offensive cartoon can and does affect secularists as well as the devout because such representations speak in the name of stereotypes: that all Muslims are politically radicalized, homogeneously religious, and necessarily supportive of the terrorist acts.  Because of this history and the prevalent discourses of Islamophobia, regardless of an immigrant’s potential secularism, s/he will inevitably be interpreted as a practicing Muslim and privy to the treatment that such reductions assume onto the subject.  To defend the offensive nature that many feel from certain of Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons because this publication has been staunchly against the Jean-Marie Le Pen and the FN (Front National) denies the reality of how racism is felt by the objects of any one representation, intended or not, and it disavows the mechanisms of racism that are not linear nor unilaterally maintained because of a publication’s general political allegiance to the Left.  Likewise, to deny France’s problem with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia all because there are secularists out there reproduces the same hegemonic pattern of thinking which hierarchizes “good” from “bad” Muslims (ie. that “good” Muslims should first liberate themselves from this “backwards” religion) while presuming that the most enlightened of immigrants are necessarily the secularists and that the real problem is having a belief system that unfortunately coincides with the current western onslaught against Islam.  What Laâbi offers above is, in my estimation, a more thoughtful and sane rendering of the current reality that puts the free will to desist from such base representations into perspective by throwing back the question of power to those who actually have access to it (ie. governments, media, the ruling elite).

Let us not forget that this War on Terror comes at a high price for people originating from Arabo-Muslim countries, a cost which simply does not end when one emigrates to the west, nor does it forgive the “culturally Muslim” subject whose body represents a potential threat to the myth of the danger their life does not uphold  Moreover, there is a tight-knit relationship between the discourses of terrorism and nationalism whose vocabulary most every Muslim must learn in order to survive the surveillance of her body by the state. For not only has “terrorism” fed the divisive wars “over there,” but many world leaders, to include Morocco’s King Mohammed VI,  have adopted the U.S. “terror model” in order to feed the larger economic and nationalistic machines that very willingly adopt the neoliberalism of the ruling class.  Sarah Marusek writes cogently of the interrelationship between terrorism, nationalism, and neo-liberalism: “[T]he US has exported its discourse of “terror” so successfully that both allies and foes alike are now embracing the hegemonic framework, ultimately empowering this neoliberal axis of elites who financially benefit from the world being in a perpetual state of war.”  Who is to say that the fanaticism which fuels the social interests and military movements of the Islamic State’s terrorism is really so different than the economic fanaticism and ideological justifications which drive the terrorism of China, Egypt, France, South Africa, Ukraine and USA in selling weapons to the Democratic Republic of Congo, sustaining the killings and rape in that country?  Here, I am reminded of the Moroccan writer, Tahar Ben Jelloun, who wrote, “The mistake we make is to attribute to religions the errors and fanaticism of human beings.”

Certainly, the Charlie Hebdo murders cannot be overstated as a horrific tragedy. But I question if the correct response to this crime is to decontextualize the socio-cultural history of the murderers, to disregard the voices of those who object to what they deem racist and Islamophobic representations, and to deny the deeper repercussions of such representations for the sector of the French population for whom the freedom of expression is a luxury simply because they are still struggling to live free from humiliation.  The PEN Awards boycott is a challenge to all of us, pushing us to rethink the limits of satire and the ills that the “satire of racism” performs, even if the intention is to exercise another, separate muscle of freedom.

Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2014). She can be reached at:

Works Cited
ldriss, Mohammad Mazher.  “Laïcité and the banning of the ‘hijab’ in France.” Legal Studies. Volume 25 Issue 2, April 2006 (260 – 295).

Tonneau, Olivier.  “On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to My British Friends”  MediaPart. 11 January, 2015.

Laâbi, Abdellatif.  The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems.  Trans.  Victor W. Reinking and Anne O. George.  Foreword by Ammiel Accalay.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003.

Gilbert and George Discuss Memory and Art

During the Serpentine Gallery’s Memory Marathon, I conducted an interview with the artistic duo, Gilbert and George. Moments before they had just finished presenting The Singing Sculpture which encapsulates for them the past, present and future.  Here is our discussion on memory and art.


George, Gilbert and Hans-Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery


Vigo: I wanted to ask you about this connection between memory and art.  Various theorists have discussed how memory is a combination of the past and present, that memory impedes us from forgiveness, and various other theories. But now that we can record memory digitally, there is a sense of immediacy that by the time a work of art is produced by tomorrow it becomes already something else.  How does your installation ‘London Pictures’ address this notion that what is news today is forgotten by next week?

Gilbert: But we don’t believe in that.  Every picture is still there, nothing disappears, it becomes more visible.  It depends how you do it.

George: We still  have Shakespeare on stage all over the world and we have been reading books of people long dead .

Gilbert: In the new expressions of modern art, it is sometimes this art which is more dismissive of the past.

Vigo:  Yet we still have this cultural desire to see the new–from Star Academy to X Factor–whereby people desire to see the new constantly supplied to us, renovated over and over.  So it would seem that in our society especially, that we do have an obsession with the new.

George:  Some French philosopher said that we paved the way for reality television.

Gilbert:  Certain things stay in your mind forever where other things disappear.  We only believe in the permanence.

Vigo: Like the song you sang earlier that you still remember after–

George: –forty years.

Gilbert:  More than forty years.

Vigo: Certain customs are lost, for instance, I can no longer write by hand because of having spent so much of my life on a keyboard.  So memory is not only cerebral but it is muscular, it involves the entire body.

Gilbert: Amazing.

George:  The same thing happened with typewriters before that.

Gilbert: And for us the computer is fantastic–we can use the computer to do things so easily and manipulate things how you want it. And we don’t have to go through the smelly chemicals.  It is like the modern brush for us.

George: It is not new–it is a continuation.  We had been practicing for twenty-five years for that preparation for a computer.  If you were to give a young artist a computer today it is not the same.

Gilbert:  We knew exactly what we wanted to do.

George:  The language is the same–the layers and the coloring.  Exactly. The move from the darkroom to the digital space, nobody can see which pictures were produced in which way.

Gilbert:  The end result is that there is a big picture, a frozen sort, like a medieval picture.

It is a different thing to understand, but we know from people speaking with us that it is a totally different experience to stand in front of an artwork from some long dead person. It is like reading a book from a living novelist–it is different from reading a text from someone who is long dead. We don’t why but people feel it in a different way.

Vigo:  A narrative techniques have changed in literature,  perhaps similarly artistic techniques have changed.  Perhaps people perceive this and the different styles and form which inflect themselves differently upon the viewer?  For instance, when you discussed how you moved from one form of mechanical photography and composition to Photoshop, this necessitated a change in form based on the change in technology.

Gilbert:  When you see the movies from the 1930s they are extraordinary and you think, “How did they do it?”  But they didn’t have digital and still did extraordinary stuff.

Vigo:  But along with these technologies in cinema the editing techniques set the style.  To what degree did your use of technology effect your style?

Gilbert: It is an amazing machine to make art so in the end the developments of technology develop the images through time.

Vigo:  I attended the week of Abramović’s ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ at the Guggenheim in 2005 and one critique leveled at her during this time was that she was accused of re-creating and appropriated other artists’ piece. Many people felt this was fraudulent.  Is archiving one’s own work a reconstruction of the art, is it an appropriation or a recording of work?

George: I think it is very honest.  We are not appropriating them.

Gilbert:  No, we don’t do that.  But we photograph our original works for the books–for history.

George:  We are just looking for the best examples from each period.

Vigo:  But how will your be performances be regarded once photographed or videotaped?  Or left not to be.

George: They will be in the book.  And there are videos as well.

Gilbert: We even leave instructions as a blueprint.  It is written down.  It’s not random.

George:  Even someone else can do it based on our instructions–how many minutes is this and that.

Gilbert:  It is like a play and you can do it again and again and again. It is the same construction.  But it is the same construction.

Vigo: When you talk about victims of crime, this installation shows this.   I noticed your piece in New York’s Chelsea:  it remembers history in the poster, commemorating memory in plastic.

George: How privileged we all are.

Gilbert:  Nobody remembers the the poster because it disappears the next day.  Forever!

George: Unless it says John Lennon.  The rest is useless.

Vigo: So this makes the space of art a place of remembering.

George: It is a huge modern cemetery.

Gilbert: Art is always that. You remember the feelings–even the Renaissance. You remember that period. You you don’t remember  your memories or the pope. You only see the leftover picture.

George:  Why do couples find cemeteries quaint? Courting couples love cemeteries–it is extraordinary. You don’t think, ‘What a horrible place with dead bodies.’  You just don’t think that.   There is a certain beauty in the cemetery.

Vigo:  There is a certain sense of closure in the cemetery:  it is like art in the sense that it is finished.  It is a place to which you can return; it is real.

Gilbert:  That is why art is extraordinary because they are freezing time.  We only know most of what we know from medieval time from pictures and books.  There is nothing else, except for the fact that there are decomposed bodies.

George:  And then you must put the facts, thoughts or feelings down somewhere.