Je suis Charlie? An Analytical Framework

This week my friend John Halle posted an initial and, in my judgment, overly hasty assessment of Charlie Hebdo. It ran as follows:

Eight Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

1) The basic philosophy informing Charlie Hebdo (having deep roots in French culture) is misanthropy. Those who produce it are misanthropes: they hate all members of our species.
2) A subset of our species are those belonging to marginalized and oppressed races, religions and ethnicities.
3) It logically follows from 1) that Charlie Hebdo hates those denoted in 2).
4) It follows from 3) that Charlie Hebdo is racist and those looking for it will be able to find plenty of evidence to that effect. But
5) According to another definition, given that Charlie Hebdo’s hatred is indiscriminate, i.e. not directed to any particular segment but all segments of humanity, it is not racist.
6) It follows from 1) that Charlie Hebdo is fundamentally suspicious of the capacity of humans to act decently towards each other, to accept responsibility for their own actions or to be trusted with state power.
7) It follows from 6) that whether or not it is racist, Charlie Hebdo is objectively reactionary.
8) All misanthropes-and a lot of self-identified leftists are misanthropes-are reactionary and they should be viewed by the left as such.

Although years ago I took one of my comprehensives at Chicago in contemporary French social theory, I am no expert on French culture, which I suspect is far more heterogeneous than the appellation “French” culture might suggest. I therefore can claim no particular insight into whether French culture in general is misanthropic.

However, even were I to agree that misanthropy is reactionary, and that much of the Left shares in Charlie Hebdo’s misanthropic or reactionary tendencies, I am not sure that any of these assessments rise to a level of analysis of which I know John to be capable. But as John himself admits, these are “eight thoughts” and, at the very least, they get the ball moving; although moving where I am not sure.

It would be more helpful, I think, to ask whether either “reaction” or “misanthropy” are sufficiently precise terms to identify the shortcoming — whether of French culture, Charlie Hebdo, or the Left as such — and then to identify an analytical framework able to specify Charlie Hebdo’s or the Left’s shortcomings (or French culture’s shortcomings) more rigorously.

Let me suggest at the outset that, although I can think of pockets of society and of specific individuals that prior to the fourteenth century I would not judge misanthropic or reactionary, I cannot think of a single “culture” that was not. Moreover, if P Bourdieu is correct, then on some level we are all condemned to reproduce our habitus, even (or specially) when we may feel that we are challenging its foundations. Of course, perhaps John would include Bourdieu among the French leftists who are misanthropic and therefore reactionary. And perhaps in citing him as an authority I am displaying my own misanthropic and reactionary tendencies. Let me put that on the table at the outset.

Why the fourteenth century? Or, why, having identified the fourteenth century, might we be any closer to more carefully specifying our or Charlie Hebdo’s or French culture’s specific pathology?

Well, simply put; it was in the fourteenth century, for the first time ever, that social actors who happened to live in western Europe began to mediate their relations with one another in terms of a substantively empty abstraction that would both prove hostile to all specificity and mistake itself for universal. Much has been written here and elsewhere (M Postone, EP Thompson, G LeGoff, J Lough) about why this specific social form might have appeared and flourished in western Europe in the fourteenth century; but that it did is nowhere seriously contested.

Briefly and for whatever reason, when human beings stumbled upon equal units of abstract labour time both as the measure of social value and as the mediation of social relations, they also began to reproduce a form of social subjectivity grounded in objective social action that could not help but perceive and fault the particularity or specificity of all social action and all social subjectivity not grounded in this unique social form. Economically speaking, these particularities will come to be thought of as “inefficiencies” or “distortions” or deviations from equilibrium. Politically speaking, these particularities will come to be thought of as threats to universal, natural law and human rights and liberties. More importantly, however, these thoughts will be practically reinforced and reproduced by a seemingly transcendental regime of practice that appears to operate quasi-scientifically by natural necessity. This will automatically make those shrinking numbers of societies whose members continue to resist this “universal” social form appear obsolete, antiquated, anachronistic, and backward.

At the same time, however, the capitalist social formation — since that is what we are talking about — metes out punishments and rewards on social actors relative to their possession or lack of the immaterial substance that mediates social relations and places them in dependent or commanding relations to one another accordingly. For as Mr Smith notes:

Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniencies, and amusements of human life. But after the division of labour has once thoroughly taken place, it is but a very small part of these with which a man’s own labour can supply him. The far greater part of them he must derive from the labour of other people, and he must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase. The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities (Wealth I.v.i).

And since all material wealth and all social subjectivity and all institutions are pulled into the orbit of this universal form, it imposes its own socially and historically specific hierarchies on the particularities that fall in its path: all linguistic particularities or cultural particularities or legal particularities or religious, and so on, are held for this reason to be suspect.

Of course, these particularities no more govern or mediate social relations today than do any other pre-fourteenth century social forms and institutions. Rather does the service they provide function as a kind of social and cultural index. For were, for example, the Holy Koran or Bible or Gitas permitted to actually mediate social relations they would surely generate huge inefficiencies and distortions that, without weakening the overriding universal social form, might be sufficient to terrorize large segments of any public whose social relations were mediated by the universal form.

Which brings us back to John’s thoughts. No doubt much of the Left’s misanthropy and reaction is grounded in the conviction that all our social relations are mediated by the universal form and therefore that compliance with this, the dominant, form makes us complicit in its pathologies as well. However, rather than diagnosing these pathologies socially and historically the Left often falls back upon predigested memes that, instead of pointing the way forward to alternative mediations, isolate and fix social actors and groups into precut molds. We reject the anthropos, humanity, confusing it with the social formation, and we reject the current social configuration. Yet, absent sufficient theoretical rigor, our rejection becomes reactionary.

Indeed, on the Left we often misread the universalism constituted by capital as though it need only be isolated from class difference, private property, and inequality; as though we can retain the universal while rejecting its constituting social form. Charlie Hebdo is a prime example of a social critique whose radical embrace of the universal brings it to satirize every and all particularity and specificity. Until all social actors everywhere are reduced to a bland, undifferentiated social totality, one senses that Charlie Hebdo will enjoy plenty of particularities to satirize.

This may also help us to more rigorously theorize the break that John inserts between 1-4, on the one hand, and 5-8 on the other. For there is surely a way to read Charlie Hebdo not as reactionary, but idealistic. It is its idealistic embrace of the undifferentiated universal and its rejection of particularity that brings Charlie Hebdo to its critique of all particularities, such as Islam, that display universalist pretentions. It is misanthropic. But it is misanthropic because of humanity’s failure to live up to the universal ideal to which Charlie Hebdo — and I suspect most of us —are attracted.

It is at this point, between thoughts 1-4 and 5-8, that G v Lukács would want us to identify the common thread connecting reaction to its idealistic double. (Failure to identify this critical relationship is perhaps the greatest weakness of, e.g., I Wallerstein’s analysis.) As material beings, human beings are (all pretentions toward the universal notwithstanding) particular. There is no universal to which we are being ineluctably drawn and not only because this constitutes a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments (M Horkheimer). If in the name of capital many previous violent and misanthropic particularities were swept into the dustbin of history, this fact sheds little light on the violence and misanthropy peculiar to capital, whose supercession, good or evil, will assuredly give rise to still another particularity.

I cannot speak to humanity’s capacity to develop institutions and mediations that no longer punish particularity and difference. I am not hopeful. But I do not believe this makes me either misanthropic or reactionary. Nor is it for these qualities that I would fault Charlie Hebdo. Rather would I fault its implicit universalism and idealism by which it is misled into an undertheorized attack on all particularity and difference. A more rigorous analytical framework would identify the socially, historically, and culturally specific conditions shaping Charlie Hebdo’s cultural production and would show interest in teasing out the elements within this production that point beyond it to something genuinely emancipatory; it would also tease out those elements that show it to be, like all of our production and my production, shaped and structured and utterly dependent on the dominant social form. For, as T Adorno has rightly noted:

Finale. – The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light (Minima Moralia 247).