Thursday, January 14, 2016

An Open Letter to Riss, Care of The Internet (by Daniel Schneidermann)

On Thursday, the well known French media critic Daniel Schneidermann, founder of the left-leaning media critique website "Arrêt Sur Images," published this column at the site.

It takes the form of an open letter to Riss, the Charlie Hebdo cartoonist who drew the already notorious cartoon (published Wednesday) depicting Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian refugee child, as an adult groping women in the street. Below is a translation.


An Open Letter to Riss, Care of The Internet
by Daniel Schneidermann

Hey Riss! Can I talk to you for a minute? We don’t know each other, I don’t have your cell number, or even your publicity department’s. But since je suis Charlie, I’ll allow myself to address you as tu, and to send you a letter, care of The Internet.

Yesterday afternoon, the social networks, buzzing with outrage as usual, were spreading around this drawing, apparently taken from the latest Charlie Hebdo, which had come out that same morning.

The drawing did not especially disturb me. Nor did it make me laugh. It only brought to mind the spirit of Hara-Kiri [CH’s anarchic 1960s forerunner], the spirit of its Choron-Cavanna-Reiser era, indiscriminately going after everything that moves -- the cops AND the protestors, the generals AND the pacifists, the idiots, the government bureaucrats, the fascists, the academics. And so, why not, the migrants too, without giving all that much thought to whether we’re talking about the migrants themselves, or the migrants as les fachos depict them. Throw it all in, it’s all good for ink.

Yeah but, you see, here on staff, people didn’t take it that way. The young members (practically zygotes), those for whom the great Choron-Cavanna-Reiser go-after-everything-that-moves era is just something they’ve read about in books — you know what? They totally saw a racist drawing.

It should be said that yes, this is a generational issue. What image do they have of Charlie Hebdo? A journalistic oddball, the main debate about which is whether or not it’s made up of Islamophobes. A paper whose content we’ve meticulously combed for traces (or not) of Islamophpbia. And, recently, a paper known for stints by [Philippe] Val and [Caroline] Fourest, footsolidiers of French Islamophobia, even though — I know, I know — they haven’t been there for a while.

Seen from that point of view, nothing differentiates your drawing, Riss, from a drawing that could be published in Minute or Valeurs Actuelles [publications aligned with the FN]. Nothing. To see the difference between it and a drawing in Minute or Valeurs Actuelles, one would have to have a picture of the whole page or the whole issue it was published in. I’m not going to show all the drawings from the issue. Above the fateful doodle, another sketches Valls and Taubira [the prime minister and justice minister]. Below, another mocks the cartoonists themselves. Just as savagely, throughout the issue, sketches of Bowie, the imam-priest-rabbi trio, God, Hollande, the cops, Johnny Halliday, Depardieu, the Dakar motor race, Sarkozy, Juppé, Trump, a pedophile priest, etc., etc. I draw no conclusions. But this is one of the elements that characterize the “lieu d’énonciation” [a semiotic term meaning, roughly, the context of the speech-act], which is important for anyone who wants to make their own judgment on the drawing.

The problem is that this drawing, assiduously propagated by the very people who want to denounce it, will reach audiences who will never have access to the whole issue of Charlie Hebdo. And the same goes for this letter that I’m sending you with my meager weapons, my words, seeing as how I draw about as well as a saucepan. It’s a huge problem. We talked about this with Luz [former Charlie cartoonist and survivor of last year’s attack – video of that interview is here], this terrible risk of misunderstanding, multipled a hundredfold by the social networks, when he came here to talk about his lovely book, Catharsis (and was left perplexed by one of your drawings, mashing up Boko Haram sex slaves with child benefits). 

The problem is still there. With no other solution than, laughably, to patiently explain the lieux d’énonciation, which I proposed recently in a little book. Patient-explanation-of-the-lieux-d’énonciation. Just writing those pompous words, I feel how laughable that solution is when faced with the power of a drawing.

There are things that can be done, however. If you really tried, you could find ways to signal that the message of your drawing (“don’t hassle me about Aylan, if he’d lived he would have become a rapist like the others”) does not express your thought — the author’s — but that of a narrator who might be, for example, a fat, ugly, racist Archie Bunker[1] type. A talented and experienced cartoonist like you, if he really wants to, can always signal, if he really does want to do it, this distance between author and narrator. But he still has think through this distance. And this distance still has to exist. 

Salutations Charlie.

[1] A side note: The French word used here – beauf (short for beau-frère, or brother-in-law) – refers to a Drunk Uncle/Al Bundy/Archie Bunker type. It was the name of a character made famous in the 1970s by the cartoonist Cabu, and is now an everyday word in informal French (to the point that many French people use it without knowing where it came from). Cabu was also killed last year in the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

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