Notes on Freedom

Category: Charlie Hebdo

The role of Islam in terrorism

After the terror attacks of the past two weeks (gays in Florida, police officers in France), the primary response has been to assert that the attacks have nothing to do with Islam.

French and American leaders studiously avoided the word ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islam’ in their condemnation of the attacks. It is strange: both attackers left theatrical dedications to the leader of Islamic State. The killer of the French police officers recorded a 12-minute discourse in which he urged the Muslim community to attack unbelievers by any means possible and to ‘make France tremble’ (Allah would inflict painful punishments upon them if they did not ‘march forth into battle’). Yet the attack cannot be called an Islamic terrorist attack, and Islamic State cannot be called Islamic State but instead must be called Daesch or ‘so-called’ Islamic State.

The attackers are described as evil, homophobic or disturbed, as if the violence is a result of mental disorder or prejudice. Some lefties see Islamic terrorism as a twisted form of protest or politics, the result of historic foreign intervention or segregation within French society (for which they apologise). While the terrorists are obsessed with drawing lines (you and us, believers and unbelievers), there is a great effort to avoid any lines whatsoever – to, as they say in France, avoid any ‘amalgame’ between terrorists and Islam.

Of course, the attacks are not the result of Islam per se; this is not the faithful rendering of the teachings of seventh-century caliphs. And yet this religion is not incidental either. Radical Islam is at present playing a particular historic role: to provide a guise for tendencies towards destruction and collapse, which in this religious form appear as something substantial and transcendent. It is thanks to the Islamic guise that commonplace nihilism appears to be on the other side of a line: to be for something else, for another people, another place.

In their actual content, the recent Islamic attacks are relatively indistinguishable from attacks such as the US school shootings. The attackers are largely frustrated no-hopers, some of whom failed in their attempts to get into the police or army. There is a rage against the world and a desire for a great explosion. ‘I’m going to make everything explode’, was the way two of the Paris attackers independently described their actions. There is a stated desire to humiliate, to make things pop or burn, to make France or Europe or America tremble.

The attacks have the vanity of the school shootings: the videos, the desire for notoriety and to show that they have done something big. The murderer of the French police officers streamed his testimony live while still in the couple’s house, while the Florida shooter phoned 911 before he had finished shooting. Militarily these are not sensible actions, but narcissism overrode practical considerations. There was a desire not just to act but to have their act recognised: to take ownership of it and say ‘look what I did’, and this was as important as any actual results. There is not a concern with killing great numbers of people, only to commit an act of destruction that you can make a speech about before you die.

There also appears to be the death wish of the school shootings – terrorists want to go out anyway so may as well take others with them, make it a party. And yet this nihilistic content appears in quite a different guise to that of the school shootings. Islamic nihilism appears in the form of a war, a battle; the attacker is a soldier. His acts are shown on videos overlaid with nasheed warrior songs and galloping horsemen. He stands on another side of the line from the people he is attacking, or the place he has grown up. He stands outside Europe and condemns it as a place of ‘nonbelievers’: the fantasy world of Islamic history has become another place to belong.

The murderer of French police officers addressed his video to his ‘dear brothers’ in the worldwide Islamic community, and gave instructions for how they can follow up his glory: he gave a list of targets, including prison officers, police, journalists, politicians, and rappers, as well as a list of particular public figures who he believed deserved to get it. His personal gripes are announced as a political programme. His death wish is also universalised and made transcendent: ‘It’s enough to throw yourself forward, to die, and you will arrive in paradise. At that moment there will be no more worries, no more tests, only an enjoyment.’

Some observers of Islamic terrorism have insisted that it is not merely nihilistic, that it also idealistic and transcendent: it aims at sacrifice for a cause, at serving something bigger than yourself. Yes, it has these two elements of destruction and transcendence, hence the insignia of Islamic State, the black flag and the finger pointed skywards. But the transcendent element is merely a delusion: it does not point towards something about to rise from the ashes, or to any mystified will or wellbeing of Muslim people.

We are now seeing a desocialised brand of Islam, stipped of relations with Muslim communities or schools of Muslim thought. Previous forms of political Islam provided a religious guise for particular social interests and forces. Political Islam had a social content, whether that was anti-colonialism, or the mobilisation of civil society against corrupt elites. The Iranian revolution translated Marxist concepts such as civil society and party into pseudo-Islamic terminology: Islam acted as a veil for social forces, a means by which they could be articulated.

Similarly, the Islamic duty of jihad is a mystified expression of one’s duty to defend one’s community (1). Every Muslim has a holy duty to defend his community when it is being attacked; he has a provisional duty to join his community’s wars for expansion. This collective duty of self-defence would have been familiar to members of a Greek city state or indeed modern Christian nations. It took a particular priority in Muslim lands, as a means of welding disparate desert peoples into a unified fighting force.

Now the Islamic duty of jihad has been stripped of its collective meaning, and has become reduced to the immediate whim of each person. Anything they want to do is immediately raised into the divine obligation of ‘jihad’. Similarly, ‘ummah’ has become an abstract, fantasy construct, to be chucked around in your own self-justification. The will of Allah seems to always precisely coincide with terrorists’ own: Allah is an imaginary friend, giving his blessing and urging them on. Faisal Devji notes how Islamic concepts have lost any systematic or established content, and are ‘available only in fragments’ (2).

The ground for this desocialised Islam has been prepared by recent neofundamentalisms such as Salafism, which are set against all existent forms of Muslim communal life as well as European and Western culture. Whereas the political Islamists of the 70s were modernist and socialist, neofundamentalists seek to build an Islam from scratch: they are firmly opposed not only to Western influences, but also to local Islams and practices as well as to schools of Islamic theology or jurisprudence and existent religious authorities. Theirs is the purity of asociality, the setting of religion against culture and intellectual inheritance.

Islam in its globalised form becomes a detached‘marker’ (in the words of Olivier Roy (3)), a free floating transcendent element to be used for any purpose. The role of Islam in terrorism is not because of anything specific about Islamic history or the situation of Muslim communities in Europe (around 25% of European jihadis are converts). Instead, it is by taking an Islamic form that nihilism can be pursued as if it were a universal cause.

So the attacks are not the result of Islamic theology or doctrine, and yet Islam is playing a particular historic role at the moment, quite unlike that of any other religion or cultural principle. It is only this religion – the only rival universalistic monotheism to Christianity – which provides the means by which internal tendencies towards collapse and destruction appear as an oppositional principle and a revelation.

(1) L’Islam et La Guerre, Jean-Paul Charnay, Fayard, 1986

(2) Landscape of the Jihad, Devji, Hurst and Co, 2005

(3) Holy Ignorance, Olivier Roy, Hurst, 2010

Terrorism and the crisis of Western culture

Islamic terrorism has no positive meaning or drive in itself. Instead, it is merely a negative, shadow form, an externalisation of the vacuum within Western culture and societies.

The defining feature of Western jihadis is their complete disdain for the places they are from: for their families, neighbourhood, country. They see their country as a nowhere place, somewhere they stand completely outside of and hold only in contempt. Their radicalisation is an activation of this negative orientation towards their home, a definitive cutting of ties. The attacker of the Paris Kosher supermarket branded his nine sisters ‘infidels’, and said that ‘for me, religion comes first, I don’t give a damn about family’.

This is not a religion in any classical sense of a practising community. There was a radical Islamic mosque network in the 90s, but today’s jihadis are deracinated and individualised, existing outside of community or institutional forms. As the Islam expert Giles Kepel says: ‘They situate themselves in rupture with society and shut themselves away…they fabricate their own beliefs and practices’.

This, then is the basis of the jihadist identity: not Islam as a thing in itself, but only an Islam held in a pose of hostile conflict with Western culture and society. Islamic observances are an adjunct to the attack, and not the other way around. Two of the Paris attackers only started to pray and stopped smoking dope in the weeks when they began to prepare for the attack. The cousin of the organiser of the Paris attacks was shown in a headscarf flashing V’s at the camera: the headscalf is the accompaniment to the V’s and not a sign of religious devotion.

To be in the state of jihad, of oppositional identity, becomes their new ‘place’ and their new grounding. ‘Since I began with religion that has always been in jihad and I knew that this was my place here’, said one of the other attackers.

This process is suggestive not so much of exclusion, but of the lack of a positive pole into which they might be included or excluded. The Conservative French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut said that he had been assimilated as a young Polish Jew through an education that ‘introduced me to a world older than myself’, to a philosophical and cultural tradition (1). This inheritance was not specifically French but European or civilisation-culture: you had to really know your Plato.

Now, says Finkielkraut, there is a turn against ‘old school’ culture, the self-dismantling of a cultural inheritance. The teaching of French language and literature is reduced in favour of ‘preachy eco-citizen and practical interdisciplinary assignments’. The position of the teacher is ‘de-intellectualised’ and seen as a facilitator rather than a transmitter of knowledge. To assimilate is to maintain the connection with a cultural tradition, says Finkielkraut: ‘today we break it, and the same dissaggregation strikes native French as new arrivals’.

The self-negation of Western culture is not a genuine New School. The left-wing philosopher Alain Badiou laments the equal loss of the ‘revolutionary tradition’ in France, which was first republican, then socialist, anarcho-socialist, communist and leftist. The new order is not radical or libertarian, instead it has a nothing quality, illiberal but devoid of values or content. It amounts to a cultivated non-attachment to values and a particular self-distancing from the works and history of Western civilisation.

It is only in relation to the non-place of Western culture that the jihad is something and attains the status of an obligation. One jihadi’s phone had an image of the Eiffel tower up in smoke, and the message: ‘Oh France! We are coming, prepare yourself for bombs and assassinations on your territories’. It is now ‘we’ against ‘you’ and ‘your country’. They plant their feet in a war-torn desert and point to say they will kill kuffirs ‘over there’. The owners of a Brussels bar return to Europe to shoot at people sitting in bars.

The form taken by Islamic terrorism has become increasingly arbitrary and fragmented over time. The attacks of 9/11 were the structured negation of the West, an attack on the military, political and economic centres of American power. The attackers were highly trained and disciplined, part of a hierachical organisation and following orders. It was the organisation that sent their plane tickets and paid for their flight training.

By contrast, as Giles Kepel observes, the attackers on the Jewish supermarket and the Bataclan behaved like ‘wicked adolescents’ playing video games (2). They have the moeurs of criminals or hoodlums, without ‘ideology or grand doctrine’. The terrorist act has become arbitrary, DIY: any act of violence or destruction can be pinned with the flag of jihad. They source and pay for their own weapons and plan their own attacks, often badly.

Much had been made of the ‘professionalism’ of the Paris attackers, but this should not be overstated. They apparently under-specced their suicide belts such that they failed to kill anyone in blowing themselves up: the ‘attacks’ at the Stade de France basically amounted to a series of Islamic extremist suicides. One would-be bomber bauked and abandoned his suicide vest in a Paris suburb, while the ‘mastermind’ allowed himself to be found by police at the same flat the team had used to hide out.

If 9/11 was the structured negation of Western culture, contemporary terrorism is the immediate negation, the arbitrary and nihilistic turn against Western culture and society. It is less and less distinguishable from plain gangsterism or events such as the American school shootings. One European Isis fighter announced that European Muslims should ‘kill anyone’ they can get their hands on back at home. Two of the Paris attackers independently used the same phrase to describe their actions – to ‘make everything explode’ – suggesting the undirected nihilistic impulse.

The black flag is used to give a universal and historic guise to lone operators acting on impulse against the things they do not like (such as Jews), or acting out petty resentments, such as the US Christmas dinner shootings or the Muslim employee who decapitated his boss. Workplace disputes are transmuted into the terms of some grand religious clash, whereas they in fact remain in all their banality as a workplace dispute. The abstraction of an ‘IS attack’ is stuck like an afterthought on violence of the basest particularity.

In this context, there is an equal inutility to repressive and appeasing measures targeting Muslim communities. The French government is currently preoccupied with an effort to strip French nationality from dual-nationals convicted of terrorist offences. Do they really think that terrorists care about their carte d’identité? He who wants the Eiffel tower up in smoke would gladly add his ID card to the bonfire, and indeed this is perhaps what the bonfire is about.

Meanwhile, the appeasing measures are even worse. There is a pedagogical discussion about ‘having the conversation’ with Muslim students after terrorist attacks – i.e., how to tell them that the attacks were wrong. If you cannot tell them that then you cannot tell them very much. Education experts are developing methods of ‘engaging’ Muslim students, for example teaching them to critique the conspiracy theories that are common in their ranks. One exercise involved setting the students a conspiracy theory assignment, designing a world-wide plot linking their French teachers and the CIA. This ‘engagement’ is only an encouragement down their disintegrative lines of thought. What is actually required with Muslim students is to have something to bear before them, something bigger than themselves.

Islamic terrorism is the self-negation of Western culture appearing in an external form: as a hostile, foreign force existing in a state of war against it. Their strength, their belief, is only the inverse of our lack of belief.

This situation makes clear the sacrifice that has been made: when a civilisation gives up on its values there are consequences. It doesn’t seem that serious, day to day, when the curriculum is being dismantled or cultural non-attachment is being cultivated. Discussions occur in smart conference halls with coffee breaks. It doesn’t seem that serious when museum officials judge that dusty old objects are ‘irrelevant’. But now we can see what it means: it means Palmyra in ruins, machine guns in concert halls.

Who dies now defending civilisation? The archaeologist who died defending Palmyra, perhaps he is the only one. The different aspects of civilised life should be pursued again with the status of an obligation. We should replace the self-negation of Western culture with its self-affirmation – not as an anti-terrorist strategy but because this is what is of value and true.

(1) Le Un, No 88, 6 January

(2) Le Un, No 84, 25 November

French ‘state of emergency’: the irrationalities of arbitrary power

The thing that separates a gendarme with a tricolour on his shoulder from a militia member with a gun, is that the gendarme is supposed to represent the law.

The thing that separates a modern state like France from pre-modern or retrograde political authorities is that the French state is supposed to embody rational principles: it acts where necessary to preserve the state of liberty.

Now the French state is responding to a terrorist attack – the embodiement of irrational force – by extending the arbitrary powers of state authorities. As with America and Britain before it, the ‘security’ agenda in response to terrorism amounts to the extension of arbitrary powers as an end in itself.

There appears to be a notion that the more latitude given to police authorities – the more latitude to enact surveillance, to put electronic tags on people, to confine them to residences, to ban events – the safer everyone will be.

President Hollande’s declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ was a performance in reassurance, the gesture of asserting state authority. By extending powers he says: I am in charge, things are under control.

Yet all that has actually happened is that the administrative parts of the state have been unleashed to use their force as they please. For the next three months suspects can be confined to their homes by an administrative order, searches and raids can be carried out without legal authorisation, and local prefects have summary powers to restrict the movement of groups or particular individuals, banning local events or declaring curfews.

‘In another context, I would be the first to condemn such a proceedure’, said the socialist president of parliament’s legal commission. There were some murmurs of dissent but a general view that this was not the time for questioning or for argument. The vote on the enactment of the state of emergency was 551 votes for, 6 against, and one abstention. Such majorities achieved without debate indicate the rubber stamping of administrative edicts not the enacting of laws.

An article on the leftist magazine Rue.89 argued that this amounts to ‘legalisation of arbitrariness’, and noted that ‘state of emergency’ powers were used in the Algerian war to arrest thousands of supporters of Algerian independence and inter them in camps.

The Rue.89 article points out that Hollande’s law allows someone to be confined to their home on the basis of ‘serious reasons to think that their conduct constitutes a threat to security and public order’, a condition which is ‘much vaguer’ that the Algerian war version which targeted ‘activities’ rather than conduct. Which radical political protesters could not be targeted under these powers?

Indeed, a Le Monde investigation of some of the 118 people confined to their homes finds that one man’s fault lay mainly in the fact that he had twice driven a radical Islamic preacher to the airport. The man describes how 12 police officers arrived at his house and said: ‘We have something for you to sign.’ The documents seen by Le Monde included a mix of correct and incorrect facts about the person’s ‘connections’, but were mainly based on the simple assertion that the person represents a risk to national security and is intent on joining jihadist forces in Syria.

‘They are taking people randomly to make examples of them’, said one confined man. Another said ‘They didn’t have anything to write, they charged me for the sake of charging me, to be able to tell people, “look, we’re doing something”.’ The lawyers who accepted these unfavourable cases said that the reasons for confining people to residence were ‘often obscure, or indeed unfounded’, and that the ‘rush to punishment plunges us increasingly in a zone of non-droit where we risk conducting ourselves like our aggressors’.

Now there are parts of France where people live under curfew, or where demonstrations are banned (though some are going ahead in spite of the prohibition). Events that have been cancelled on mayoral order include Lyon’s Festival of Light and Nancy’s festivities of Saint Nicholas.

Yet the French state’s inability to prevent the Paris attacks appears to lie in the failed use of existing powers, rather than for want of new ones. Several newspapers have criticised intelligence agencies’ failure to pick up on movements of the key suspects – many of whom were known Islamic extremists, and not because they once drove an iman to the airport – and indeed authorities were tipped off by an Islamist in August that Abaaoud (the Paris ringleader) had asked him to ‘attack a concert hall’.

The pressures of today are not, in fact, those of the time of the Algerian war. There is no civil war or threat of a coup, and the powers of state are not threatened. Dealing with terrorist action falls within the normal domain of police function. Perhaps the police need different skills, or more resources, but their task remains one of normal police function and not dealing with a crisis of state. Therefore they can perform this task with the normal judicial equipment.

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens provides a ringing statement of the proper function of modern criminal law:

‘The law ought to prohibit only actions hurtful to society. What is not prohibited by the law, should not be hindered…No man should be accused, arrested, or held in confinement, except in cases determined by law… All who promote, solicit…or cause to be executed arbitrary orders, ought to be punished’.

Bien dit!

It is worth remembering that these controls upon state power do not only protect public liberty, but also guide state action towards effective ends. That is, legal protections exist not only to protect the public from arbitrary sanctions, but also to guide law enforcement down rational and effective lines. This applies for the pursuit of terrorists as much as for other areas of public service.

When 12 police officers are employed to deliver unsubstantiated accusations to an innocent person – who then has to report to the police station four times a day, taking their own and officers’ time – this represents the use of state force for a gesture, for the sake of it, which in fact distracts from the apprehension of terrorists or the routing of future attacks.

After Paris: the ultimate value of the free life

There is a single response to the Paris attacks which alone is positive and worthy of defence: the affirmation of the value of the free life.

The day after the attacks, people instinctively started to gather in Paris and in towns and cities across France. When asked why, they said ‘to do something, to be with other people’ but most of all, ‘to show them that we’re not afraid’. These demonstrations formed in spite of the prohibition on demonstrations: police asked people to disperse but many refused to go. In Toulouse, thousands of people gathered in the main square in open violation of this order.

People responded to the attack on a city crowd by forming as a city crowd. They responded to the terrorists’ attack on the ‘abominations and perversions’ of modern life, on music, drinking and football, by affirming and seeking out these pursuits.

These ordinary aspects of the free modern life took on a kind of glow and heroism. Parisians posted pictures of themselves drinking outside in cafes and bars under the hashtag ‘JeSuisEnTerrasse’. They sought out the bars of attacked areas as a matter of principle, ignoring the government’s request to only go out ‘if absolutely necessary’. People posted their memories of the Bataclan (MonPlusBeauSouvenirDuBataclan), affirming the glory of music and lights and crowds, while a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist did a series celebrating the Paris of ‘music! kisses! life! champagne and joy!.

Before the England-France football match, the French manager said that after the attacks it might seem that football is an inconsequential thing, unimportant, but that actually it has become vital. The Radio France commentator said that football is the pursuit of a passion, the development of a skill, and the public enjoyment of this: ‘We will continue to go out – to live – to play football’.

This assertion of the value of these things in defiance of the terrorists was also a rediscovering of their value, in a culture that is so often cynical about ‘freedom, modernity, etcetera’. Forms of free culture and association are so often seen as shallow, consumerist, anti-social, polluting: every well-formed political ideology of our age appears to be set against those people drinking in bars or dancing to music. The extreme attacks of the terrorists, their absolute distain, develops out of a thread of culture within the West itself.

The public response shows that the elements of a free life have a universal value which people are willing to fight for. They will go out to bars, concerts and football matches, even if this means to put themselves at risk. They state the value of these things and defend them. Charlie Hebdo will continue to critique and satirise, mocking Islamic extremists (‘fuck them, we have champagne’) along with everyone else, though they are under daily threat.

Most incredibly, such affirmation was found even among some of those directly affected by the attacks, as with the Radio France journalist whose wife was killed in the Bataclan. He wrote a much-shared Facebook post addressed to the terrorists: ‘You would like me to be scared, for me to look at my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, for me to sacrifice my liberty for my security. Perdu’, he wrote, saying of his 17-month old son ‘all his life this little boy will – in affront to you – be happy and free’. He told Radio France that his wife had had ‘enormous eyes’ and their son was born ‘with both eyes wide open’: the value was in pursuing ‘the difficult path of reflection, of reason’, of living with one’s eyes open, choosing and thinking for oneself.

There is a scene in The Narrow Road to the Deep North where an Australian camp prisoner faces up to ‘the grim strength, the righteous obedience to codes of honour that showed no doubt’ of the camp guard, and ‘could find in himself no equivalent life force that might challenge it’.

People are finding an equivalent life force in free life. However, this public response was notably different in tenor to that of the French government. The French state – as well as being preoccupied with those highly necessary tasks of investigating the attacks, pursuing fugitives, arresting suspects – has also struck another line: the assertion of executive power almost as a point of principle. The immediate response to events was a series of restrictions, which included not only bans on demonstrations, orders to not go out, but also declaring a state of emergency which gives prefects (local representatives of the executive) powers to declare curfews and to ban any event. All school trips have been cancelled as an order of the ministry of education.

At a local level, mayors and prefectures have been imposing restrictions upon daily life. At my son’s school in South-West France there is now a large orange sign on the door, announcing that parents are no longer allowed to enter the school and children must be deposited at the external door. Many of these assertions of executive authority appear pointless, a gesture: a terrorist could push his way past the middle-aged classroom assistant, or indeed merely attack the class of 3-year olds lined up by the external door because their parents have not been allowed to take them to their classroom. In practice, the restrictions imposed ‘against the terrorists’ are being imposed against people trying to gather in the streets or parents trying to enter a school. They are blocking everyday associations and free ways of relating to one another.

Therefore, after Paris we should be for freedom and for the free life – staked against the terrorists, the anti-modern cynics, and pointless assertions of executive power.

Modern censorship and the return of taboo

In the Enlightenment the usual approach to something with which you did not agree was to republish quotes from the text along with your own devastating critique. Indeed, some works are remembered more by the critique than the original (1).

Now, there is a return to something more like the pre-modern approach to texts and images: disapproved of images should not be shown, texts should not be read. The effects of words and images are thought to unravel automatically, through the dynamics of attraction or repulsion, without the mediation of critical reflection or individual intent.

When the French journalist Caroline Fourest showed Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cover in a Sky News interview, the editors reacted as if they had received an electric shock. They terminated the interview and cut away without so much as a goodbye, apologising to viewers for any offence caused. In a similar way, the Al-Qaeda manual and other terrorist publications cannot be viewed. It is an offence to possess or download any terrorist document (for which two Nottingham University students were arrested: one downloaded the document, the other printed it out as a favour). This makes it difficult for students to complete the terrorism module of international relations courses: how can they critique publications they are not allowed to see?

The question of whether you approve or disapprove of images becomes one of whether they are displayed or hidden away. A disapproved of image is not shown with an accompanying critique: it is invested with a negative charge and cannot be shown. Instead of a conflict over interpretation or meaning – what does this text or image mean?; is it right or wrong? – there is a conflict over the display or seclusion of the item in question. This means a return to an immediate relation to words and images.

It is not just that texts now are held to have a given meaning – as they did for example in the Medieval period, where the meaning of texts was prescribed by a strict religious and political hierarchy.

Now, it is not so much that texts have a given meaning, but something more like a given charge – a positive or negative power – which has certain similarities with the traditional tribal taboo. With the tribal taboo, if a word leaves your mouth or your eyes fall upon a forbidden image, the offence is committed. Taboo objects unleash a contagion in the mind and in the world, like a force of nature. There is no mediation of a person’s critical faculties; no account given for their intent. Offences against taboo are often committed by accident: somebody happens to glance at the king, or says something he should not, and the contagion strikes.

Now too, offences can be committed by accident, and the saying of certain words contaminates the speaker. Hence the lists of words which should only be referred to euphemistically as ‘y-word’, ‘n-word’ or ‘f-word’. For the word to pass one’s lips is itself an offence, regardless of how one is using it. Young black men are told that they cannot say ‘yo nigger’ to their friends, while Jews and gays cannot call themselves ‘yid’ or ‘faggot’. Jeremy Clarkson got into contortions apologising for having appeared to say the ‘n-word’ in unused takes of Top Gear, without being able to say the word (for to say that he did not say it would be saying it). ‘In one of the mumbled versions if you listen very carefully with the sound turned right up it did appear that I’d actually used the word I was trying to obscure’.

In this context, words are not being used by one person to communicate meaning to another: nor are the words grounded in a given set of equal or unequal social relations. Instead, words become yes-words or no-words, approved or disapproved, to be repeated or never to pass one’s lips. It is because words are invested with such an inherent charge that offences can be committed by accident. Your lips are stained, regardless of the meaning intended – indeed, regardless of any meaning which would be clear to anyone else looking on.

What the new and old taboos have in common is an immediate and inarticulate relation to given objects. Of course, in other respects they are completely different. Taboo in tribal societies is a belief in an actual physical charge possessed by objects (‘mana’), which makes that object at once sacred and dangerous. ‘Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact’ (2). The power of taboo objects is the magical role they play in managing relations between members of the group – a king is taboo – as well as the group’s relationship with nature.

Today, by contrast, images and texts are not attributed with a single consistent meaning – everybody has their own list of taboo words – and this is clearly not a question of any magical role. The new taboos do not reflect a new social order, but rather an absence, a lack: the vanishing of the rational-critical individual as a recognised unit of public life. Individuals are imagined to be without governing critical faculties or independent purpose; therefore, words and images flow through them like automatic forces. The power attributed to images or objects is only a reflection of the supposed incapacity of viewers or listeners.

What has been lost is the mediating role of individual scrutiny which developed in the eighteenth century. With the development of the modern public sphere, texts and images were definitively stripped of any sacred or forbidden character. With the emergence of pamphlets, salons and coffee shops, works of writing or art became profane objects for examination and discussion. A book was no longer immediately good or evil: it was held at arm’s length, critically examined. Art lost its sacramental character and became an object for the examination and assessment of the public (3).

New taboos can only accentuate the problem of the waning of the public sphere. The hiding of images and texts serves to degrade the quality of public debate, and to restrict the use of critical faculties. Every banned word further estranges our relationship with language; every hidden image weakens the use of judgement. Ultimately, we need the end of taboos and the return of critique.


(1) Nobody would remember Sir Robert Filmer’s views on the innate rights of kings were it not for John Locke’s critique in his Treatises on Government.

(2) Wundt, quoted in Freud, Totem and Taboo, Routledge 2007, p22

(3) The sacred charge of art objects in the Middle Ages was the result of those objects’ role in forms of religious worship and displays of social status: they were the bearer of status relations. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT, 1999, p36


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