In the Gray Zone
by Justin E. H. Smith
A civil war in Syria has, since it began in 2011, gradually radiated out to implicate nearly ever major global actor. An apocalyptic and totalitarian death cult has taken control of a wide swath of territory, and succeeded in acquiring many of the attributes of a proper state: tax collection, currency, natural resources, exports. It is perhaps a sort of pirate state, but the absence of many of the usual markers of statehood that emerged in the 20th century (notably, a willingness to maintain diplomatic relations, a seat at the UN, and so on) do not diminish its claim to geopolitical significance. Complicated individual interests dictate how more established powers relate to this new power. Turkey, existentially opposed to Kurdish statehood, stands accused of materially aiding the new power in view, simply, of a basic like-mindedness on the Kurdish question. Russia’s interest is to prop up the old regime of Assad, a strong-armed and undemocratic ruler, but also a hold-out from the earlier era of secular Arab nationalisms that served as a bulwark against the rise of theocratic fundamentalism. The barrier to this shift fell in Turkey with the election of Erdogan more than a decade ago; in Iraq, it fell with the US ousting of Saddam Hussein, and in the borderlands between Iraq and Syria, as well as in pockets of North Africa, the Caucasus, and elsewhere, it is currently falling, int he most spectacular way, to a network of loosely organised militants who openly claim to wish to bring about one of the most illiberal, inegalitarian, repressive regimes not just that the world has ever known, but indeed that could even be imagined. In its most recent stage, this network has begun to export its violence far beyond the territory it hopes, at least initially, to conquer, and to the centres of power of the established, ‘respectable’ states that have been seeking to contain it militarily. Notably, on November 13, just two weeks ago, 130 civilians were killed in Paris in a series of attacks across the city. Some weeks earlier, a Russian passenger plane exploded over the Sinai Peninsula.
This new power, this quasi-state, has some kind of relationship to Islam. There is significant debate –some of it serious, much of it frivolous– as to the true importance of religious belief in the rise of this power. Some analysts have argued that what we are witnessing is not so much a ‘radicalisation of Islam’ as rather an ‘Islamisation of radicalism’: a sort of ad hoc wrapping of a radical political movement in whatever symbols and rhetoric are readily available from the surrounding culture. The ‘deeper’ reason for the radicalism is in turn sought in the demographic study of gender ratios, or in the backlash to America’s blundering foreign policy. The anthropologist Scott Atran has compellingly argued, on the basis of extensive fieldwork, that belief in the promise of an afterlife is only one of many factors that feed into the socialisation of volunteers for suicide missions. Many American commentators, associated with the so-called ‘New Atheist’ movement, have tended to disregard this evidence, and to insist that the problem is precisely Islam and the superstitious beliefs in the supernatural it foists upon its adherents. They insist that there is nothing distinctly Islamophobic about this interpretation, as it is just one regional and recent instance of the more general rule that, as they like to say, religion spoils everything.
Whatever their causal power, the symbols and rhetoric of this new power are indeed drawn from a particular strain of Sunni theology. Under its rule, while Christians and Jews can be spared their lives if they are able to pay a ‘protection’ tax, Shiite Muslims must be killed if they have not converted already prior to the conquest of their territory. The lingua franca of this movement is Arabic, though it also has a slick public-relations division that operates in English, Russian, French, and many other languages besides, targeting in particular disaffected, nominally Muslim youth from what is called ‘the Gray Zone’: the part of the world in which Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side, and generally happily. This new movement would like to eliminate the Gray Zone: to make it impossible for Muslim immigrants to live in harmony with ‘the infidel’. To the extent that Europeans allow an anti-Muslim backlash to occur in Europe in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, they are helping this movement to achieve its goals.
Scholars such as David Livingstone-Smith has analysed the way in which the propaganda of dehumanisation plays a crucial role in the drumming up of pro-war sentiment in a society on war’s brink. My greatest fear, in being invited to speak to a forum like this, at a moment like this, is that I might inadvertently contribute, in even the smallest way, to the drumming. So, let me say right now that by far my most important goal, tonight, is simply to not be misunderstood. I am a pacifist, and am willing to embrace all the accusations of incoherence and self-contradiction this commitment invites. This is not a position one takes as a military strategist: it does not say that no war is in fact winnable, but only that even if you have a won a war, in a transcendental sense you have not really won.
My second goal is to see whether I might be able to use some of my scholarly training and analytic ability to help to fight against this process of dehumanisation by calling into question some of the more facile dichotomies that are often evoked in claims about the uniqueness of European history and civilisation. This is a case, I hope, in which some old-fashioned intellectual history might play a role in improved intercultural understanding, and might therefore have some actual irenic power. Or, to put it differently, I am proceeding under the conviction that the more you know, the harder it becomes to remain a bellicose yahoo.
What I would like to focus on, in particular, is first of all, the presumption that what is called ‘Enlightenment’ is in some way the intellectual property of Europe, and, second of all, the presumption that the humour and satire that have so often been seen as triggering the anger of violent fundamentalists in recent years, are somehow in turn gifts or by-products of Enlightenment. For the most part, the best commentators were able to do in the wake of theCharlie Hebdo attacks was to invoke the formal freedom of speech that came to be a cornerstone of classical liberal thought in Europe in the 18th century. A favourite point of reference was Voltaire’s famous quip about despising what you say, but being prepared to defend to the death your right to say it. What was missed in this principled stance in defence of an abstract liberty was any serious consideration of what was being said that triggered such wrath on the part of the fundamentalists: of where it came from, what it meant. What was missed was a genealogy of satire.
In my scholarly work in the history and philosophy of science, I am involved in a research group in Paris dedicated to working out rigorous and adequate methods for the parallel study of geographically dispersed, and supposedly separate, intellectual traditions: how, for example, to study classical Greek and Chinese medicine together, or classical European and Indian astronomy, in a way that does not lend preference to the terms and concepts of the one strand more than the other. One of our basic methodological commitments is that there is, precisely,one object of study when we are considering the global history of, say, astronomy, and the local or regional inflections that result in very different styles of expression of, say, Indian astronomy on the one hand and European on the other, should not cause us to suppose that India has ‘its own’ astronomy, Europe ‘its own’, and so on. This approach has made us fairly contemptuous of the balkanized approaches that go under the name of ‘studies’. As the great Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock has recently written, in the latter half of the 20th century the humanities were “turned into a tenement and rented out to a congeries of regional or national philology departments (East Asian, Middle Eastern, Romance, Slavic, South Asian, and of course English and classics), with worse quarters given to those thought to be lower on the cultural-evolutionary scale.” Humanists are no longer able to discern the global reach of important cultural developments, such as science and literature, and to appreciate the regional traditions for what they in fact are: inflections of a diffuse global process, and not, by any means, autochthonous growths, spontaneously generated in the special soil of a given region.
This localism, indeed yokelism, has only been strengthened by the new strain of identitarianism in the humanities, particularly in the English-speaking world, which now takes as a gospel truth that only a member of a given ethnic or religious group “gets to speak for,” “gets to decide” what is distinctive and special about that group, or, by contrast, what is shared with other groups. This identitarianism, a degenerate descendant of the sharp critique of authors such as Edward Saïd of more than a generation ago, is nominally a tendency of the left, but has by now been weaponised by virulently nationalistic thinkers throughout the developing world. A fine example is Rajiv Molhatra, who seeks to promote the study of Indian intellectual traditions, but does so in a way that falsely and unscientifically portrays them as sui generis in human history, and that plays into the ideology of religious purity known as Hindutva which is now part of the Modi government’s broad arsenal for the persecution and exclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in India. When he is taken to task for his bad scholarship, indeed for his plagiarism, Molhatra typically responds, in garbled, derivative academese, that he is being held up to an imposed and colonialist regime of truth.
This is the sad dead-end of the partition of the humanities into regional studies. It is also, ironically, the arrangement that best suits the ideology of European exceptionalism: as it leaves ‘European studies’, so to speak, as the implicit default subject of whatever is not explicitly cordoned off and ‘marked’, in a structuralist sense, as being concerned with the non-European world.
The consequences of this limited perspective have been disastrous, not just for the academy, but for society as a whole, for our understanding of who we are, of who our neighbours are, and of our long shared history together. In science, technology, literature, crop rotation, any domain of human culture that might be of interest, Europe is and always has been a peninsula of Eurasia. My colleague Karine Chemla, the great scholar of the history of Chinese mathematics, likes to say that she “does not care about China,” by which she means simply that what is of interest to her is whatever it is people are doing when they seek to prove things with numbers. This is something that has been done in China, among other places, and is eminently worthy of study. Similarly, I want to say that I do not care about Europe. Whatever happens here is a regional inflection of global developments, and to see this is perhaps the best way to move beyond the false presumption of a clash of civilisations that has obsessed and paralysed so many European and American thinkers over the past several decades.
I am not a historian of literature, and am much more at home discussing the transregional diffusion of techniques for the calculation of infinite series, or proofs for the existence of God. But again, the methods we have developed for one domain of human cultural activity will work just as well for any other.
What is literature, anyway? And what does this have to do with our effort to understand the apparent conflict between the Islamic and European worlds? In the wake of the Charlie Hebdoattacks in January, we heard repeatedly a sort of stock genealogy of that magazine, that invoked the venerable tradition of French satire, going back to Alfred Jarry, Honoré Daumier, and of course Voltaire. Satire is seen as a fairly well-bounded genre, and is appraised in political terms, as a lowly but necessary part of the functioning of a free society. Critics of Charlie Hebdo from the left and the right, ranging from Jean-Marie Le Pen to the dissident members of the PEN American Center writers’ organisation, also assess the significance of the magazine in political terms. Le Pen the elder called it an ‘anarchist rag’, and stopped just short of thanking the Kouachi brothers for murdering its most prominent contributors. Critics on the left, in turn, seemed unable to distinguish its cartoons from racist propaganda, the overt intention of which is to drum up hatred of an enemy group in preparation for war or pogroms.
As I’ve said the last thing I want to do is to participate in this drumming, and for this reason it might seem strange for me to come out in defense of Charlie Hebdo— again, not just in defense of its formal right to exist, but in defense of its content and its spirit. I believe that the only adequate defense is the one that considers satire from the longue durée perspective, and that seeks to understand it as a rhetorical mode with special rules governing it, rules that are different from those that govern straightforward political speech. A Nazi propaganda cartoon that depicts Jews as rats is not satire. It has a straightforward purpose: to dehumanize Jews in the minds of readers. Satire, typically, especially in its Juvenalian strain, takes up the voice of its intended target, in order to reveal the inherent moral baseness or logical incoherence of this voice. It is a sort of ventriloqy, and as such it is by definition in danger of being misinterpreted. Critics of satire will often complain that it has ‘gone too far’, but what they really mean is that it has done its job too well, and has discomforted the critics themselves in its ability to reproduce satirically language that originates in prim and straightfaced earnestness.
Now it may be that there is no other way: satirists perhaps must simplyaccept that society will heap its scorn on them, as if they were the earnest evil ones, just as the jester in Tarkovsky’sAndrei Rublyov, is abused and debased by the local prince’s men for the simple fact that he lives in order to make people laugh, which is to say to remind people of the absurdity of human social life and the illusion of power it grants, for example, to local princes. But we as analysts and critics should aspire not to join in this abuse, not to join in the abuse, but rather to understand how this particular category of speech functions: that says what it means by saying the opposite of what it means, that, by lying, exposes the lies on which society is built.
One of the lies, or at least conceits, on which society is built, is, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown, the one that conceals the functions of the body. By holding in expulsions and ejaculations, not just of fluids and gasses, but also of certain words, we become properly social beings, and to let these demons out is precisely to challenge and to threaten the social order. In this way vulgarity becomes one of the most powerful weapons in the satirist’s arsenal, and also one of the elements of satire that makes it easiest for polite society to distance itself from the lowly work of the satirist even while weakly affirming satire’s formal right to exist. Thus in the weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks did we often hear prim bourgeois liberals insisting that, while they are against extrajudicial assassination of course, vulgar cartoons are “just not their cup of tea.” But the vulgarity is not gratuitous; it is necessary. When Aristophanes has his fictional version of Socrates deny the existence of celestial divinities by comparing the thunder of the clouds to farting, he is not just telling ‘fart jokes’, but rather undermining the reigning vision of the sociocosmic order, which perceives divine itnention in great and lofty things, by accounting for it in the same terms as lowly and undignified things. This is, in Douglas’s sense, the intrusion of the body where it does not belong, and it is dangerous indeed. The right to intrude in this way is of course an important formal freedom gained in the West by with the rise of liberalism’s commitment to liberty of expression and of the press, and Charlie Hebdo emerges directly out of the period that saw some of the final obstacles to these liberties falling away, with the decline of censorship laws in the latter half of the 20th century. Yet many left intellectuals today (in contrast with the 1960s) tend to see vulgarity as at best a formal freedom to be tolerated, rather than a dangerous force to be tapped into. Thus for example Eliot Weinberger, writing earlier this year in the London Review of Books, described Charlie Hebdo as a bastion of ‘frat-boy humour’. As if France had ‘frat-boys’, and as if vulgarity were not also central to the aesthetic and moral vision of Cervantes, Boccaccio, and Rabelais.
Now it might seem a bit overblown to invoke such canonical and timeless authors in connection with an operation as humble, and as focused on the constant stream of current events, as Charlie Hebdo. But the novel, as its very name suggests, is similarly humble in its origins, and similarly preoccupied with what is ‘new’. It also shares an evolutionary ancestor with the joke. As Jim Holt recounts in a remarkable study of the origins of European literature:
During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote.
Thus when we are wathcing Pasolini’s cinematic rendition of Boccaccio’s masterpiece, blocked by the Italian government censors on its release in 1971, when we re-encounter the tale of the young man who pretends to be deaf and dumb, and sneaks into a convent in order to have sex with the lusty sisters, we should be aware that we are enjoying a story with a deep, trans-Mediterranean pedigree, with subspecies variants scattered throughout the Arabic-speaking world like so many different varieties of Mediterranean cat. Arguably the crowning achievement of the French Annales school of historiography is Fernand Braudel’s work The Mediterranean, published between 1923 and 1949, which takes that body of water not as the boundary between civilizations, but rather as the center of a single civilization. The mistake of the present age, perhaps resulting from changes in our modes of travel, is to take continents, rather than seas, as the basic units of cultural cohesion. Braudel’s work called this presumption into question, in part by charting the trans-Mediterranean transmission of cultural motifs in the period of the late-Middle Ages and, more explosively, into the Renaissance. We have mostly come to terms with the trans-Mediterranean heritage of European philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. Literature by contrast, particularly since the 19th century, when it became centrally implicated in the construction of European national identities, has remained rather more resistant to this broader regional contextualization. This resistance likely has less to do with Eurocentrism than with abhorrence of the idea that this great art could have lowly and folkloric ancestry, and that styles and genres could have paths of oral transmission. But the historical record is clear enough: wherever we can detect the activity of traveling bards, the recitation of erotic fabliaux, the sheer illiterate delight of a raunchy joke, we can detect both the spirit that would under slightly different circumstances yield up great canonical novels, and, at the same time, we can detect a spirit that is by no means unique to the European continent.
In much more recent history as well, it is worth noting in passing, under somewhat different political circumstances, the basic spiritual unity of the lowly joke and the lofty novel has made itself known. Thus in the Soviet underground network of samizdat publishing, joke books circulated right alongside the great literary works of banned authors. Jokes, in turn, were and are called in Russian anekdoty, anecdotes, and the power of these vulgar little stories to subvert the political order is well known. Putin, it is worth noting, is no fan of Charlie Hebdo either, and actively encouraged an anti-Charlie Hebdo rally under the sponsorship of his puppet governor in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The great modern satirical novels are characterized, of course, not only by vulgarity, but also, often, by a sharp self-awareness, even a self-defeating preoccupation with the impossibility or futility of what it is they are trying to do. The most well-known exemplar of this is assuredly Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the novel that ends before it even begins, because the narrator cannot figure out a way to get started: though in the course of not-beginning, he also manages to take down the conceits of the puffed-up philosophers, the pointless violence of the war-makers, and so on. Throughout the modern period in fact, many great satirical novels appear preoccupied with the moral weight, the gravity, of the very project of fiction: impersonating voices, inventing worlds, and claiming as true what is in fact false. Cervantes cleverly attributes the authorship of his own Don Quixote to the Moor Cide Hamete Benengeli, on the supposed grounds that Muslims have a different comportment to the truth than Christians do, and fewer moral qualms about making things up. But what he is in fact doing is subverting the medieval genre of knights-errant literature by producing a novel that is openly ‘Moorish’, which is to say openly deceitful, and also openly tricksterish, in the comparative-mythological sense of a supernatural being that is able to deceive not just by regular speech, but by spinning out counterfeit worlds. For Don Quixote, who is perhaps the truly simple-minded character in the novel, knights-errant novels express the ‘truth’ in the sense of ‘moral truth’: they offer up a proper image of the way things should be. But for someone involved in the production of the Don’s tale, perhaps the Cide, offering up moral fables as truth is the greatest falsehood of all, and accordingly the proper response is to subvert the genre, via satire, and with an aim that is eminently philosophical: to destroy the pretense to truth of genre-conventional works by making the writing of fiction principally an exploration of the moral and metaphysical dimensions of recounting as true events that are strictly false.
All of these preoccupations –vulgarity, self-awareness and self-defeat, the limits of the straightforward truth-claims of philosophy, the moral gravity and simultaneous necessity of fiction– come together in Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s remarkable ‘novel’, Leg over Leg; or, the Turtle in the Tree, concerning the Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature He Might Be, first published in Arabic in Paris in 1855. The work does not have a typical narrative structure, and in the era it was often described in French and English as a non-fictional travel report of an Arab in Europe. But it consciously draws on Sterne, as well as on classical Arabic poetic forms such asshukf, in order to engage with philosophical ideas, among them the ideas taught in the traditional Arabic system of learning, having significant roots, ultimately, in Aristotle. Thus for example there is a long discussion of the questions whether grammar is a science, and an illustration of how lessons may be drawn from grammar for the resolution of philosophical questions. A tutor explains to his student, for example that he “had long harboured doubts over the question of the immortality of the sould and inclined toward the dictum of the philosophers to the effect that whatever has a beginning must have an end. But when I found that grammar has an ‘inchoative’ but no ‘terminative’, I drew an analogy between that and the soul and ceased to be confused, praise God.” The tutor goes on to give the student a deliriously ornate analysis of the different types of metaphor that one must master in order to be a true grammarian (and thus, in order to have the elements of philosophy). These include “the aeolian, the ornitho-sibilant, the feebly chirping, the tongue-smacking, the faintly tinkling, the bone-snapping, the emptily thunderous, and the phasmic, while the aeolian itself may be sub-divided into the stridulaceous, the crepitaceous, and the oropharyngeal, the crepitaceous may be sub-sub-divided into the absquiliferous, the vulgaritissimous, the exquipilifabulous, the seborrhaceous, the squapalidaceous, and the kalipaceous.”
What explains this astounding cascade of vocabulary? For al-Shidyaq, the overabundant and often agressively repetitious style is intrinsic to the very raison d’être of the work. “I have imposed on the reader, he writes, “the condition that he not skip any of the ‘synonymous’ words in this book of mine, many though they be (for it may happen that, on a single road, a herd of fifty words, all with the same meaning, or with two meanings that are close, may pass him by). If he cannot commit to this, I cannot permit him to peruse it and will not offer him my congratulations if he does so. I have to admit that I cannot support the idea that all ‘synonyms’ have the same meaning, or they would have called them ‘equi-nyms’.” As Rebecca Johnson argues, al-Shidyaq’s aim of critiquing institutionalized conceptions of sacred texts, of breaking down ecclesiastical authority and social conventions, is directly facilitated by his method of equinymy: the “simple definitions of words” that “seem to collapse under the weight of his lists of subtly differentiated synonyms — does not establish him as the ultimate linguistic authority as much as it shows that language itself is the key to dissidence” (xxviii).
Language as the key to dissidence: this is precisely the gravity of satire. We should not be surprised that one of the earliest and most aggressive synonymic bombardments in the work focuses on the many different names for female genitalia –‘the sprayer’, ‘the gripper’, ‘the nock’–, male genitalia –‘the thimble’, ‘the snub nose’, ‘the falcon’s stand’–, and so on. Here the author is drawing on his massive erudition and internalization of medieval Arabic dictionaries, and also ofshukf, a genre of obscene classical Arabic poetry. As the scholar Adam Talib has shown by some very clever side-by-side comparisons, this genre makes the most aggressive, sexually explicit rap lyrics look prudish by comparison. In both genres, the overt purpose is to be so exaggeratedly obscene as to sever the link to any conceivable act that one might actually carry out in this world, to let the imagination run free, and so to subvert not only ordinary sexual morality, but also those who would insist that the function of the narrative arts is to track reality.
Al-Shidyaq is writing as an Arab in 19th-century Paris, and indeed the first edition of his work is presented as a straightforward travelogue. Some of what strikes him about that city may be thought of as its inescapable clichés, indeed many of the same clichés that continue to fascinate and defie the people who recently attacked it. At one point he focuses his method of repetition on the concert-hall organ as the embodiment of Frankish bon-vivantism. The organ produces its sound, he effuses, by “strumming and humming, mumbling and rumbling, jangling and jingling, squeaking and creaking, chirping and cheeping, burbling and barking, clicking and clacking, gnashing and crashing, chinking and clinking, gurgling and gargling, purring, cooing, and bleating, thrumming and drumming, roaring and guffawing, gulling and gabbling, la-la-ing and lullabying, horses’ neighs and the roaring of waves, clubbing of billy goats and cricking of cradles, cries of men at war, calls of merlins and raven’s caw, old women moaning and heavy doors groaning,” and so on.
He is fascinated by the distinctively Frankish fondness for revelry in the presence of such a strangely vital, breathing instrument as the organ (already in the 17th century Marin Mersenne had noted the appropriateness of the instrument’s name, given its resemblance to a living, breathing animal). Al-Shidyaq contrasts this cultural trait, this easy self-abandonment to the irrationality sensuality of music, to the pervasive musicophobia of the traditional villagers in his home in Lebanon:
The natives there [in the Levant] are fanatical about religion and warn against anything capable of causing sensual pleasure. Consequently, they do not want to learn to sing or play an instrument or to use the latter in their places of worship and their prayers, as do the Frankish shaykhs [i.e., the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church], lest this lead them into disbelief. Thus every one of the gentle arts, such as poetry and harmony, for example, or painting, is an abomination. Could they but hear the humans sung in the churches of their aforementioned shaykhs or the tunes of the organ that people are so fond of and that are played in places of entertainment, dance halls, and cafés to attract men and women, they’d find no sin in the tambour.
The organ al-Shidyaq is describing might easily have been found, fifteen or so years after his book’s publication, in the recently opened café, Le Bataclan, which dates to 1865. The killers who came to that venue on November 13 of this year did not stay long enough or live long enough, of course, to reconsider their idea of sin. They had grown up themselves in the Gray Zone, but by the time they came to this concert hall in the very heart of it, where Muslims and non-Muslims happily revel alongside one another, they had been converted to a version of their nominal religion that left no room for reconsiderations of any sort, for thoughts of any sort that are not dictated by some revered authority. Al-Shidyaq for his part had been born a Maronite Christian, but after moving to Istanbul to take up work as a chief typographer to the Ottoman Sultan, he happily converted to Islam. Some commentators see ample signs of his coming conversion already in Leg over Leg. Back in Lebanon, at the end of his life, he insisted on being buried in the Christian cemetery of his ancestors, but with a bold Islamic crescent on his gravestone. Al-Shidyaq, we might say, wanted to stay in the Gray Zone even in death.
Now it might be objected that my reflections here are suited to a post-January 7th world more than to a post-November 13th world. Imperial powers are now downing each other’s fighter jets, and NATO is holding emergency meetings. What use is literary criticism at such a moment in history? The most recent attack in Paris was overtly military, rather than simply criminal (though I am uneasy about making such a distinction), and it was not based on the killers’ inability to appreciate the literary output of their victims. I might be tempted to claim that Daesh has failed to appreciate the literary inspiration in the name that the band playing at Le Bataclan took for itself –the Eagles of Death Metal– but we all know that the ironic playfulness of some subgenres of indie rock had nothing, but nothing, to do with the choice of targets. And yet we might take this evident lack of interest as itself a measure of the distance –in imagination, in hopes and expectations from life– between the killers and their victims. This is not, at all, a civilizational divide, between the pious Muslims on the one hand and the wayward post-Christian secular Europeans on the other: the ‘infidels’, as Daesh calls them. But it is most definitely a divide within a single trans-Mediterranean civilization. In this divide, the dour and self-serious fundamentalists find unwitting support from the prim bourgeois liberals who think the defense of obscenity is merely a matter of upholding a formal but largely regrettable freedom, as well as from those on the left who mistake satire for a mechanism of colonial domination. Jokes are serious. What we are defending when we defend satire is not simply ‘the right to offend’, but rather a particular disposition to the world, one that differs as much from the literal or straightforward disposition as the novel differs from the police report or medical file. What we are defending is imagination, playfulness, and, yes, freedom: freedom from the simple lies that keep society running, the lies that tell you what is right and what is wrong, that you should behave thus rather than so: the lies that the small spirits of the fundamentalists crave to believe. What we are defending is the Gray Zone.
This is the text of the Pierre Bayle Lecture, “The Gravity of Satire: Offense and Violence after the Paris Attacks,” delivered to the Pierre Bayle Stichting in Rotterdam on November 27, 2015. Crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.