Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, The Power Of the Image and Stereotype

Just over a week ago I'd never heard of Charlie Hebdo magazine let alone read it. Apart from following the tragic events and inevitable conclusion of the manhunt, the aftermath has also prompted huge debate about freedom of expression versus stereotyping, caricature and racism. It all comes down to the nature of the image it seems to me.

Cartoons are great. Just witness those which came out to express their support for the slaughtered cartoonists; images of pencils erasing terrorist guns; pencils severed by bullets, regrowing leads out of both ends. But there are some cartoons which rely on the instant recognition of stereotype and caricature for their power, leading some people unable to pronounce themselves "Je Suis Charlie" because they see some of the cartoon output of the magazine as racist. Not all Jews wear homburg hats and have peyote (the curly sideburns), yet this is the image resorted to by the CH cartoonists to represent a Jew. Because it provides instant recognition, it is a shorthand that carries the payload for whatever else the cartoon wants to deliver. Such a shorthand relies on certain key features, which after all is the 'art' of the caricature, but such features also represent a form of racial profiling. The Nazis used such techniques in their propaganda campaign against the Jews. Is the only difference the injection of humour?

Last week I sat with a French citizen familiar with CH and she proceeded to translate many of the captions of the CH front cover cartoons. In doing so I realised that there was much subtle wordplay and punning used to lash cultural and political icons to the mast of their satire and critique. Such wordplay was completely inaccessible to a non-native speaker not immersed in French cultural and political daily life such as me. So the overriding image someone like me takes away from those front covers, is of the stereotypical portrayal of the caricature. As a constructor of images through words rather than picture as I am, I am forever struck by the resonances of Magritte's painting.

The painting would not work without the words contextualising and subverting the image. Were there no words, it would just be an uninvolving painting of a pipe. With the words one sees that the artist is pointing out that this isn't a pipe, but the image of a pipe and one painted at that. Without the complex captioning of the CH cartoons, it would just be an image of a stereotypical Jew, or a Muslim cleric or an archbishop (again, as if a bishop stood for all Christians, or an Imam for all Muslims).

Far more informed practitioners than me can try and decide whether CH's layering of caption across image pulls them back from accusations of stereotyping and racism or not. But I want to focus entirely on images of the Prophet Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo published their post-killing issue today with an image of the Prophet on the front cover. Without the context of the last week, I wouldn't have known that was Muhammad, since no images of Muhammad exist so we don't know what he looks like. But since the media are reporting that it is a representation of Muhammad, and the fact that it feeds back into previous depictions of the prophet by the magazine, I am forced to accept that it is a representation of the Prophet. (it could to my mind be a caricature of a Muslim, maybe an Imam, coming to stand for all Muslims). The issue is not whether this particular image is offensive, for in the eyes of Islam NO IMAGES of the prophet are ever to be made, rendered straight or as caricature. The image itself is profane within Muslim doctrine. Just as depictions of the Jewish god are forbidden as idolatrous, because no-one knows what he looks like, nor are we meant to know (nor even know his true name). This seems to be the heart of the matter for me. Can any group in society, or even society as a whole, prohibit the representation of any image?

Images are controlled all the time. Warnings on the news that 'these images may be upsetting to some', or the faces of dead bodies pixelated out 'out of respect for the dead and their families'. We have film certification and TV watersheds to restrict the broadcasting of certain images. There are certain sexual images deemed to be obscene and likely to corrupt and offend that are beyond the pale and outlawed from pornographic publication. However, there are circumstances when an image deemed too upsetting for society as a whole, would still be inflicted on an individual; consider this, crime scene photos of an appalling murder scene might be withheld from the general public, but a person thought to be a witness may very well be shown them in a bid to prompt their recall. Some of these are held up against extant laws, such as the case of obscenity, others are judgement calls such as the case of pixelating faces.

Not representing the Prophet in any image is a fundamental tenet of Islam. Should it be enshrined in British/European law or not? That representing the Prophet is actually an incitement to racial hatred? If it does become law, then it is a victory for violence and intimidation to get the law changed. What about certain laws pertaining to other religions who might start demanding legislative change? Both Islamic and Jewish methods of slaughtering animals for meat are under constant challenge for animal cruelty. Where do we come down on that issue, for at present there seemed to be two different standards applied, one for Halal and Kosher, another for all other slaughterhouses. Can one religion legislate to all others, having special case status? Well it already exists as in the case of animal slaughter.

I don't think you can prohibit an image. In a similar vein that you can't unthink an idea that has already been thought and exists in the human pool of knowledge and ideas. The Swastika is an illegal image to display publically in Germany, but people still know its image and what is represents. Yet how can you know the image of the prophet who has no determined image (unlike Jesus Christ, even if these representations are fanciful and far removed from what he actually looked like)? I really don't have any answers on this one at all.


Li said...

A well thought out post. In America we have our own outbursts of violence against Jews, Muslims, even the Amish. (A few months ago there was a drive by shooting of a horse pulling a buggy.) I suppose as long as there are different religions and cultures living side by side in a society, there will be clashes, hatred and intolerance by a few. I don't see an end to it.

Carrie Clevenger said...

Great post. Good question. How can the Muslims even maintain that the caricature IS of their beloved prophet when no one knows what he looks like?

Icy Sedgwick said...

This is an incredibly thoughtful post and I'm really glad that you wrote it. The inclusion of the Magritte image was particularly pertinent - Magritte was having a go at the investment of an image with meaning based upon its content. He's right, it's not a pipe, it's a painting of a pipe. By the same logic, a cartoon of a particular figure is not the figure, merely a picture of them, but if a given religion prohibits the making of such images, should this prohibition extend to those who do not practice the same religion? I'm not sure that it should - after all, if non-practitioners don't adhere to other tenets of a religion, then why should they adhere to others?

I accept that people may find such things offensive, but a female blogger (I wish I could remember her name) said that she finds images of dismemberment and violence against the female body within the horror genre to be offensive, but she doesn't call for the genre to be banned, or censored, she merely avoids it.

I suppose the question is...how far can one group exert their will over another?