As most readers should know, in January two gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French paper based in Paris, and killed eleven people, injuring eleven more. The gunmen, members of Al-Qaeda, declared their violent acts to be retribution for the anti-Islamic satirical cartoons that Charlie Hebdo had published. In the following days and weeks a flurry of punditry swept the media, with individuals of all backgrounds and persuasions weighing in. The basic issue at stake: should Charlie Hebdo have published such cartoons? Or, another angle: were the killings (in some twisted way) justified? Which is to say, was Charlie Hebdo asking for it?
Everywhere solidarity was expressed: the brave employees of Charlie Hebdo most definitely did not deserve the fate given them. The slain were made into heroes, martyrs, even, of the glorious faith Free Expression. Freedom of speech, the nineteenth article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, became like unto a Platonic ideal, preexistent and eternal. Other, quieter voices, however, wondered whether such reckless valorization was merited. Indeed, the shootings were a tragedy. But perhaps something deeper was at play. Perhaps that something deeper is still at play months and millions of je suis charlies later.
For class today we read the Paris chapters of George Orwell’s first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Purportedly a memoir but more accurately a novel based on certain (loosely) remembered events, Down and Out, like Charlie Hebdo, deals much in the grey area of racial representation. But, unlike Charlie Hebdo, Orwell’s book affords us the benefit of distance from which we can hope to assess it more objectively.
Orwell is largely known for his two most famous books, 1984 and Animal Farm. In each, the Orwell that is ORWELL demonstrates a sharply critical mind coupled with a strong political drive, all to great effect. 1984 was one of the first books to ever make my perception of the world tremble. It still comes to mind whenever I see a picture of Joseph Stalin or talk about World War II. But, where in 1984 Orwell is remarkably conscious of his material, in Down and Out, there is a surprising, unsettling lack of that same consciousness. He reports the “true” events of his time spent “down and out” with an almost flippant tone, bandying stories of brutality and prejudice as simply “curious” and nothing more. The critical eye that I have come to associate with Orwell does not emerge in force until Chapter 22. His discussion of the life of the plongeur, and by extension, the entire working class, is characteristic Orwell—clear, concise, and insightful—and yet it does not make up for the casual quality of the first twenty-one chapters.
And so, in class today, as in the media in January, we went back and forth on the issue of racism and representation, essentially asking the ethical question of what is okay to represent and what is not. Though strong arguments can be made in favor of such typification,1 I nevertheless have difficulty attributing anything resembling consciousness to Orwell’s treatment of race. For instance:
“After knowing him [a wily Armenian doorman] I saw the force of the proverb ‘Trust a snake before a Jew and a Jew before a Greek, but don’t trust an Armenian’” (Ch. 13).
This passage is troubling for a few reasons: (1) Orwell’s generalization, judgment, and dismissal of three unique people-groups for the use of humor; (2) His reliance upon preexisting, firmly established Jewish tropes in culture (let alone those already employed in the same book) so as to emphasize the alleged untrustworthiness of the Greeks and Armenians; (3) The utter lack of critical reflection, given his reputation for astute social criticism.
Like I said, strong arguments can be made for an ironical / satirical reading of Down and Out, but I am not persuaded. I fear that such arguments are rooted in a desire to rehabilitate young Orwell for the modern age, giving him a greater benefit of the doubt than the text itself warrants.
To conclude this post, and to leave you, reader, with some food for thought, I want to draw from the writing of Homi Bhabha. In “Of Mimicry and Man” (1994)2 Bhabha looks at the “conflictual economy of colonial discourse” in order to discuss the nature of authority and representation in the relationship between colonizer and colonized. The process of colonization is one of partial looking, where the colonized must be made into the image of the colonizer so as to be a useful citizen of the empire, but not so much so that he is made an equal. The “colonial subject” is reduced to a “partial presence,” a mask with “no essence, no itself [my emphasis]” beneath. The subject’s original identity is replaced with the farce of colonial identity, no longer a native, but not a colonist, either. He becomes trapped in the ”repetitious slippage” of mimicry, where he continually seeks similitude but never attains it. Similarly, the colonizer desires that his subjects behave properly, but even when they do, the not-quite-ness of their performance is unsettling enough to require the re-othering, the deintegration, the separation of the colonial subject from the “normalized” identity he is required to, but can never fully, attain. Thus, mimicry (“a difference that is almost nothing but not quite”) transforms into menace (“a difference that is almost total but not quite”), and the cycle goes around and around again.
This in mind, I have trouble with Orwell, and I have trouble with Charlie Hebdo. I cannot help but feel that both (though much lesser in the former than the latter) participate in a system of colonial / imperial oppression and domination that continues to be validated through art. The views here perpetuated only serve to encourage violent modes of looking that define and delineate entire groups of people with nothing more than a superficial appraisal of value. Rather than sensitively engaging with the unique characteristics and qualities of different peoples, an engagement that produces a deeper understanding of and a drawing in of the Other, what the reader finds instead are complex human beings reduced to crude, prejudicial, and ultimately farcical representations. There is a place, in society, for satire, for caricature, for farce. But the genre as a whole is not morally defensible. Before we leap to defend, to valorize without question, we must first ask what it is, exactly, that we are applauding.
From sociologyindex.com3: “Typification is typical social construction based on standard assumptions […] in all of our encounters with others, with the exception of the most intimate of relationships, we experience and understand the other in terms of ideal types or typification. In the process of typification we form a construct of a typical way of acting, assume typical underlying motivations or personality. For example, we make prior assumptions about the personalities and behavior of a doctor, priest or judge.” Importantly, here, is the phenomenological understanding of society: “In the early development of Phenomenological sociology, a distinction was drawn between phenomena (things as they appear in our experience) and noumena (things as they are in themselves). Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that all we can ever know are the former. Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) argued that natural and social environments differ in that social objects appear only as perceived objects (i.e.: there is no ‘noumena’), they depend on human recognition for their existence and because of this social reality is in constant flux and ambiguity. Social reality is only an experienced reality rather than a natural reality. The experience of objects, events, activities, etc., is all there is [my emphasis].” So, from these two excerpts, one can see how the natural process of typification, though necessary and unconscious in day to day social life, should never be a foundational principle for social cohesion. Typification and the “social reality” it is a part of is entirely phenomenal, and thus, an effect, not a cause. In Bhabha’s words, then, to metonymically use the tribal mask, for instance, to stand in for an entire people’s identity and meaning, is to reduce their essential existence to a “normalized” and “appropriate” representation of their difference, their unsignifiable otherness, subjecting them to the oppression of colonization while depriving them of any social or even individual meaning outside the purview of colonial control. ↩
Bhabha, Homi K. “Of Mimicry and Man.” The Location of Culture. Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts, 1994. 85-92. Online. ↩
I can in no way vouch for the scholarly credibility of this site, but after clicking around a bit, I decided these definitions were worth using anyway. ↩