On Vancouver’s silent vigil yesterday for Charlie Hebdo (and updated the day after)

Yesterday evening, I forewent a prior engagement to enjoy some Improvisational Comedy. Instead, I did this:

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Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 8.28.30 AMNow, in an ideal world, I would have expressed my views about what happened yesterday equally well by going to watch live comedy. But these were not any old views (of the “opinions are like arseholes, everbody has one but…” etc. common-or-garden variety) and this is is not an ideal world, as yesterday’s events show all too well.

Yesterday morning I woke up, staggered around performing ablutions, had a nice cup of spicy “North African Mint Tea,” and just before leaving home for work I did my regular check of email and the news. Like everyone else I know, those with whom I talked about this later that day, I then wept. I didn’t stick around to say more than a sentence to The Beloved, I left. (The Beloved is loved because he is lovely, but he is also English and a philosopher and therefore doubly rational; I am neither, and not.) Like other colleagues, I managed to get through the day’s work without (I hope) too much embarrassment for my students, keeping it together, being professional. I did talk about Charlie Hebdo to one class, briefly at the start, and integrated a statement from Le Monde into an introduction to something on relative pronouns.

Part of me regrets not forcing a minute’s silence on all my students in all my classes. Part of me says that it would have been inappropriate: hurt and mourning are individual matters, and should never be forced on people, nor their “correct approved” manner prescribed. Some of my students, bless them, might simply not have understood what was going on, why I was reacting the way I was (or at all), why this mattered. If any had reacted in Millennial or Pampered Princess ways, if I had faced a stony block of faces of exchange students from countries where free speech and satire are so far beyond mere repression and suppression as to be utterly alien: I do not know how I would have reacted (obviously) but I am pretty sure it would have meant behaving badly. Which would have been doubly inappropriate. So I Kept Calm and Carried On. I even managed to make a crap joke in my last class. If you can still make jokes, even crap ones, you’re on the winning side.

Throughout the day, like most of my friends, I’d been popping in and out of Facebook. Facebook gets a bad rap these days, and it is true that it sells our souls all the time to crude commercial low-lifes, without our ever having actually sold them. You know, in exchange for messes of potage, riches, power, knowledge, immortality, etc. Facebook is also, still, a community just as is has been since I first joined it as a graduate student; and it works just as well now as it did then, for keeping people in contact when they are far away from each other. It might work better with us scholarly types because our individual and interpersonal lives involve a lot of intellectual activity, and they and our resulting networks are less material, more abstract, lending themselves better to the virtual. We do also still like hanging out together in real life–we’re not freaks or anything weird, just nerds and geeks–but as our geographical dispersal makes this a rare occurrence, Facebook acts as a useful supplement, keeping us going between encounters. It, rather than texting or twittering, is the letter-writing of the post-modern age.

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These things would be true of many digitial social media; it happens that for those of us who were in academia on the American East Coast at the time it started, Facebook via Harvard was the obvious choice, the right medium in the right place at the right time. Many of our interactions are very République des Lettres, but in my experience Facebook has also been a comforting place in times of crisis: there is a very real feel of community with friends, and compassion with others.

It’s supportive, being with friends. Why go to a silent vigil: to be with other humans, as humans, with a shared feeling. Silent is good: no speeches, no rabble-rousing (I am allergic), but the non-silence of gestures. Simple signs. Raised pens.

I felt a little uncomfortable about the candles: the candles themselves and the lighting-gestures used, body language, were verging on the too-Catholic when they could have been more Amnesty International. But it’s a minor discomfort and there might be smidge of cultural hypersensitivity on my part. Candle-lighting is something that many people do, instinctively or through habit in other rituals. It’s something very normal that happens if you are in a group with others for a similar reason, being with others when sad, being sad together: you express the sort of sentiment, as here through a simple metaphorical gesture, that is at the core of being social, of culture, and through both of these, of religion. I’m queasy, and more so about pen-offerings, but I’m aware this is all part of the same set of “being human” values that wobble around the boundaries of cultural practice, the metaphorical-figurative urge, and religion.

I’d rather stick with the metaphorical, figurative, creative business being important here: the creativity that, over the course of a few hours, leads to a new gesture. A conceptual, linguistic, poetic neologism. A nice addition to the international body-language of performance, protest, public being. Behold the birth of a new speechless spech-act:

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Above all, mutual respect and tolerance mean that people are able to be together in their own ways, to express that togetherness and a togetherness with materially-absent people, in a way that has to be individual too. That’s being human. It’s also part of reaching out to others of a more religious persuasion, and of other religions, to include them. (Though this is not about Islam: it’s about dickheads.) A good image from yesterday:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 11.39.58 AMI was there with a friend who is French but lives and works (she’s an academic too) on the East Coast of the USA. She has met terrorism and other random acts of mindless (or mad) violence in the past, and has had to work with people who survived such calamities. She is here for the MLA, was upset, and wanted to be with people, especially but not necessarily exclusively French people. Mutual support à deux is a good thing to add to the common humanity of a crowd; I am wary of crowds as I’ve experienced them turning in the past.

I am very glad I went to the vigil. Like with what had happened on Facebook during the day, I felt a sense of community, commonality, and compassion. Even, here, with strangers. It was a happy atmosphere, where I was high up on the VAG steps: people smiled at each other, there were even (victory!) some jokes exchanged. A guy left and handed us his sign on the way past: we took it without even reading it, and it turned out by pure luck to be a particularly appropriate message for both of us:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 9.50.18 AMTowards the end, we were interviewed. Twice. This is all a bit tricky: even after spending all day with the Charlie Hebdo massacre on your mind, your mind is nowhere near clear and organised and fit for sound-bites, and of course anything you say is incoherent because you’re incoherent, your whole fabric is unknit. It’s also tricky because no matter what you say, if it’s edited it’s going to be heavily edited and if you’re lucky you’ll recognise some words you might have said, not necessarily in the same order or relation to each other. We both said quite a lot, to two different journalists from two stations. I’ve found some of my words again. Nothing too awful has happened to them:

“I guess I’m here as a French solidarity person and in favour of the idea that we might still have some kind of continued free world, and satire, free satire, free comment, is crucial to that.” O’Brien added, “It’s about stupid people doing stupid things, which is sadly universal.”

Here’s a longer version, expanding considerably on the original extra words in their original order (to that reporter and the other one).



I was there for a number of reasons. Some might be separate and distinct, most are knitted together. This post is an attempt to knit them back into some shape and form, and perhaps thereby knit myself back together a bit.

I. Let’s go way back.

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My geographical and genetic places of origin are cultures of dissent and hotbeds of critical comment, wit, and satire. World centres for dark humour (it goes with the climate and place). Have been for centuries. For millennia, via the bardic tradition. However complicated and messy my family’s relationships were (and are) with Ireland (and The North) and Scotland (and the UK) and parts and portions thereof, then and now: that environment is still part of us, them, me.

Satire is in the bone and blood.

My maternal grandfather left school in his teens and was self-educated to a high level (what in today’s world would be BA or MA level) in a number of fields, thanks to free public libraries with lots of books. That side of my family is from a place called SCOTLAND which then, and later, and earlier, values education and reading. To some extent, that goes back to the Scottish Reformation, and the idea that any good citizen/person had to be able to read the Bible for themselves, so as to understand it properly. Not mediated by any authority. It had to be their own reading and their own free choice of path. This is also the country of the Scottish Enlightenment, of David Hume.

You’ll all know all about the Irish: natural born poets all, flowing with chat, blather, blarney, gift of the gab, and craic; masters of the word-arts; grand masters of satire, amongst other forms of humour, as a way to survive and resist colonial oppression.

∴ Reason #1: what would Grandad, Hume, or any Scottish or Irish person do?

(Answer: in the case of one person at the vigil: play a classic lament on the bagpipes. Not silent, mais c’est le geste qui compte…)

II. Let’s go a little less far back.

As part of their undergraduate degrees, my mother and aunt each spent a year in Germany. This was in the 1950s. There was still rationing. Germany was poor and starving. This was the era of immediate post-war reconstruction, before the start of what would become the current European Union. That taught my mother and aunt (and they in turn taught us) about tolerance, peace, intercultural understanding, the importance of learning foreign languages and talking about things, and a very practical human compassionate foundation to interactions: sharing what little food you have and having a giggle about it.

My father grew up in Northern Ireland. He went to Oxford on a scholarship and, despite suffering bigotry there, acted in a gentlemanly fashion to promote peace and understanding through diplomatic dialogue, even as an undergraduate with stupid bullies. He was always a man of intelligent speech and courtesy.

He and my mother met while working for the British Civil Service in Northern Ireland; they both somehow maintained some idealism and faith in humanity while doing so. At a certain point (this was the time around Bloody Sunday, which may have been a tipping-point) they Went European. When the UK joined the EEC, they both applied for jobs at the European Commission in Brussels (via the open competition, before anyone starts asking snarky questions; not political plants and “experts” in cabinets…), as European civil servants; my father was successful, my mother had to drop out due to being too heavily pregnant to travel to her final interview. She eventually worked for one of the satellite organisations, Eurydice, the European education network. Both my parents idealistically looking to do good, in an Internationalist trans-/post-national way, escaping sectarianism and its tenuous association with religious crap via blind belief, which is an aspect of stupidity and/or ignorance. My father was sort of Catholic; yet I was not baptised. That probably tells you something.

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They, and we, were migrants like any others: my parents’ reasons for leaving Northern Ireland and moving to Belgium involved the economic (better work for better pay), the social (a better and more stable life), and that grey area that is political but not political enough for you to be a refugee: escaping small-place narrow-mindedness, sectarianism, sectarian violence, very real threats to individuals and their families; but mostly escaping a place where there was no liberal or socialist humanist option for a civil and civilised life. Education was sectarian; the other options were gated communities and/or sending your offspring to boarding schools elsewhere. That does not a proper, integrated, civil/ised life make.

So I grew up as an experimental European: anti-nationalist, anti-sectarian, idealistically internationalist; with compulsory history (including comparative religious history and political history) and literature all the way through school (indeed, like my contemporaries in Germany), and compulsory philosophy (including a lot of politics) for the second last two years of school.

∴ Reason #2: what would my mother, my late father, or a good model European citizen do?

III. Childhood, continued.

Born in 1973, I am child of the 1970s and 80s. My first demonstration was either for Amnesty International or for Charter 77; I was on my father’s shoulders (this may have been a slightly illicit excursion and deviation from a projected trip to see the dinosaurs or mummies in a museum; but I digress myself now). In those formative early years I grew up supporting Amnesty and Solidarność. We had Amnesty candles at home for years as part of our Christmas tradition. Like many of my generation, I went to marches for SOS Racisme and Touche Pas À Mon Pote. I had the great good fortune to be sixteen years old in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and we had that brief glimmer of hope for Glasnost.

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Standing up publicly for free speech and thought, and against all that oppresses it, is a part of my upbringing, of how my parents and environment shaped me, of what and who I am.

Free speech is international, global, above and beyond frontiers. A good person should go to any demonstration in support of free comment wherever they are, even if they have no connection themselves to the local specificity of the matter at hand: that is irrelevant. This is a human matter (and may be non-human too, in the case of the rights of other members and parts of our shared ecosystem). It is for all of us.

∴ Reason #3: Making a bodily stand for free speech and in human solidarity : liberté, égalité, fraternité

This is, to my mind, the most important reason for being at the vigil. This is what #jesuischarlie means; the same for hashtags of similar syntactic construction, for all sorts of popular activism movements. Everyone should be there–if only in spirit–because it is part of the definition of being a person that you would be there–in whatever way you can. The journalist who recorded my words might have missed a crucial point here; besides attributing the wrong professional rank to me (I am not a professor, LOL, and indeed said so), it risked placing me and my words in that place with a label that might be seen to confer a different status, one of some kind of authority. I’m not sure; the juxtaposition between the classification-statement and then the first (excerpted) words might just as easily emphasize the opposite.

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I was there primarily not as an academic, but as a person. As another body in the crowd. Crowds need more bodies: and when you feel so much that you can’t say anything, then just being with other people, shoulder to shoulder, silently, is the best thing you can do: for yourself and for them. Like cows in the rain.

I felt I had to go because I could not live with myself if I didn’t and then it turned out that very few people did go. I went because demonstrations need bodies of all sorts, especially women.

I went as a fellow human being like the others there. We all hurt and suffer and cry and rage, we all feel this physically as well as emotionally, we are all flesh and blood and all the other fun fluids and smaller stuff running around the place holding us together even while we fall apart.

#JeSuisCharlie because what happened to these individual persons [ED. and others later] could have happened to any of us; in the current fragile world, we are all open to such attack; and each of us is as vulnerable as any other: whatever our other difference might be, we have in common our flesh, blood, bone, nerve-endings; with the same potential for pain and hurt. We are all physical bodies with the same potential for physical suffering and destruction, the same openness to the whim of fortune.

This is all that theoretical stuff about embodiment and abjectness and annihilation, translated back to the literalness and materiality behind the metaphor.

This is égalité et fraternité.

This is a blessing and a curse, this reminder of what we share, common humanity; humanity as corporeality and vulnerability:

[…] I am a Jew!
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,
warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer
as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
do we not die?
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (Act III, scene 1)

Being together as a group is not only for us humans as humans, it’s a social-animal thing.

I was there as a sentient life-form, as a member of a sociable and emphathetic species.

I was there in sympathy for all those immediately concerned. For twelve individual persons and their loved ones:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 12.07.02 PMfor Charlie Hebdo and what they stand for:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 12.10.25 PMand for the French people and what “French-ness” stands for:

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Now, I am not French. I am to some extent culturally Belgian, which has some common traits with French-ness, besides sharing French as one of its languages.

I grew up in Belgium with bande dessinée as a core part of my cultural landscape. All sorts of it, including political satirical cartoons. My parents took Private Eye when I was a kid, as part of maintaining a connection to the better parts of their original home culture.

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We read newspapers together and discussed them: Belgian, French, British, and Irish ones, some others too. This included political cartoons and other word-image combinations. My father took The Economist and I still read it for the same reason I did then: the image-captions are outrageously brilliant. Some cartoonists we read (in Libération, Le Canard enchaîné, etc.) also drew and wrote for Charlie.

Before doing any grad seminars or going to fancypants comp lit / theoryhead talks on the subjet, due to the fine and noble Belgian policy of free entry to museums for children, I had already figured out that Bosch and Brueghel and the Surrealists were up to the same marvellous tricks about as soon as I was tall enough to see their paintings in the Art Ancien up close properly. For the ones that were lowest-slung at the time, up until I was about 100 cm tall I was being lifted up for shorter glimpses; then craning my neck to see (bear in mind short sight); once in primary school, I was blessedly tall enough for leisurely comfortable image-reading.

This Brueghel was a favourite that I grew up with and that grew with me: as I grew taller, I was able to study different areas moving upwards Yes, it’s probably completely inappropriate for anyone under 18 (and even more so for any Bosch, of which there’s some in that same museum). It’s horribly violent. But it is also beautiful, and serves as a beautiful example of the kind of liberty that is at stake, and the place of that liberty in civil society. A small child ought to be able to see this painting (sure, with parental consent…), and to see it many times over many years for free. The Fall of the Rebel Angels–a public art-work in a public collection–should be there for everyone, permanently.

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Whenever I am back in Brussels, one of the first things I do, as soon as possible, is to go and see that painting and a couple of others. Which one I go to first depends on whether the museum has rearranged them since my last visit. This painting is a friend, a childhood companion, and part of me. Arts and artists can do that.

It’s also one of the paintings I grew up with intellectually and imaginatively, and that I like to go back to so as to get myself back in order, back in gear, redress the balance of intellect and imagination. It is a perfect work, as a harmonious mixture of seriousness and fun, high and low, dark and light and colour, critical and creative; every time you look at it, you’ll see another layer of social and political and religious comment and another whimsical delight. I was thinking about it yesterday and realised that of course it’s got metaphorical messages for us in relation to the Charlie Hebdo murders.

We also went to exhibitions and festivals of bande dessinée and of political cartoons, such as Knokke; often with connections to Amnesty International. Other close-contact artwork that might not be considered in exactly the same category, but related, would include the gentle poetic works of Folon.

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I can’t actually remember when I first met Charlie Hebdo: it feels like it’s always been a part of our lives, via the domestic landscape of kitchen-tables and coffee-tables and radiators covered in books, newspapers, cuttings from other papers. I don’t want to romanticise things and imagine it was one of the things I literally grew up with (like I did with Brueghel’s Fall), from playing with it when I was in my cot and crawling (true story: I played with bookish things from infancy and never went through a ripping-them-up stage), onwards and upwards. Like many in France and Belgium, I first met Cabu through the Club Dorothée on kids’ TV, which I watched with my little sister. I’m not sure about before, but it would certainly have been in secondary school that I read him “properly” in the very adult Charlie, along with Tignous, Wolinski, probably Honoré (Charb later). Charlie was cool with les intellos of our lot when we were at the lower end of secondary; as with so many other cool things, of course we didn’t get most of it but, like talking abot other grown-up stuff only just beyond you (like actual sex) that’s kind of the point of Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 10.53.59 AMand why I am charmed by theoryheads and priviledged North American postcolonialist types who, like us, continue to rediscover cool hip things of the 68ard generation, every generation (the anti-classics that are true classics!); and who are still at the developmental stage of a 12-13 year old; whilst (this is I am afraid where I am also amused, and may tease) lacking sarcasm, not being sardonic, and not retaining adolescence’s last vestiges of wide-eyed innocence, marvelling at the universe. This is an important stage to go through in intellectual development; we see all too often the sad result of students who failed to go through it, but also the joy of someone who gets to catch up on what they missed and start over from that misspent youth.

I like to think that some of us (especially of us scholarly and academic types) retain that jeunesse d’esprit as a vital part of ouverture d’esprit, l’esprit critique; at once critical and creative. Yes, others mock us for being puerile, or infantile, or silly and pointless. It’s the bum side of nerdiness. It’s also how to be a good intellectual, a successor in the non-biological intellectual alternative family of Rabelais and Montaigne.

∴ Reason #4: for cartoonists, cartoons, and cartoon-culture

I know, deep down, and have known for years, that satirical cartoons are great and wonderful and amazing. Anyone should be able to create them, if they and their talents are so inclined. Anyone should be able to see and enjoy them. They make life, in turn, great and wonderful.

UPDATE 2015-01-09:

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Two brilliant answers from The Onion to the much-discussed question of the limits of satire:

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Reason #5: in sorrow for my own loss

This is a bad reason because it is a selfish one: that assault on political satire is an assault on my childhood. Charlie Hebdo was an old friend. Cabu was a lifelong friend.

IV. Adulthood:

In secondary school and at university, I learned more about political thought, and political history. I was active in unions and saw how theory related to praxis. I also learned about how things can go too far: bear in mind which generation I am, and where I grew up. A place haunted by twentieth-century totalitarianism. Obsessed with a need for people to know and understand, to know history, to try to be as well-infomed as possible to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Our teachers were of the generation of my parents and that before them, people who had lived through World War II. Survivors, resistants, idealists, sceptics. Obsessed with a need for their students, their intellectual offspring, to know and to think and to question, refuse, reject, and resist all threat of returning disaster; bref, to be good Popperians. I then added some feminism to the mix.

Before accusing Charlie Hebdo of being provocative and therefore “asking for it,” before forwarding and posting and sharing anything that blames victims, think: these are the same pseudo-arguments and excuses for reasons used all the time to blame women (and other people) when they are sexually harassed, assaulted, raped, abused, murdered. This is a feminist issue.

It’s from this stage that we get the next reasons to be at the vigil:

∴ Reason #6: what would Socrates, Swift, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Woolf, Popper, Isaiah Berlin, Raymond Aron, and Camus do?

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Add in the pernicious influence of my other political indoctrination, over many years:

∴ Reason #7: what would Ursula K. Le Guin do?

(I’m just using and abusing her as an exemplary figure, you should add a very long list of many others, too many splendid speculative fictioneers to list here. This is not a post about lists, it should be as far as possible from all macho hierarchical aggressive proprietorial posturing BS. That’s what got us here in the first place.)

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V. Current professional life.

This is really the easiest and simplest part. It is subdivided in three parts:

  1. I work in a department where many of my colleagues are French. French citizens, some who still live part of the year there, some who are to varying extents and in diverse manners culturally French or Francophone, including certain values being part of the fabric of their being. Hence

∴ Reason #8: sympathy and solidarity with colleagues,

whom I would also consider to be friends. Some of them are even Facebook friends. Now, people react to stress and trauma in many ways; they deal with it variously, in many ways, over time. People are often too overwhelmed to be able to go even to a safe silent vigil immediately. Some people have a gut horror of crowded spaces or of crowds. I understand that. So, without being there in any sort of representative capacity, I felt that as someone who was capable of being there, I should go and be a body that in some way might stand in, as a physical placeholder, for colleagues who could not be there in the flesh but were there in the spirit. (Obviously I wasn’t going to say anything for anyone else, but hopefully some of my thoughts might have shared common sentiments. This is, of course, why and how those of a religious persuasion pray, and why that can be a good thing.)

  1. I am a Medievalist. Like other Medievalists, I work on and with religion from time to time–it’s part of the cultural landscape, part of the medieval environment–and do so without being myself religious. This is tolerance in action. It’s perfectly feasible. You find plenty of examples of ideas-people in the Medieval period doing this too. Including Muslims. Yes indeed; and don’t get a Medievalist started on multi-faith places of worship. They existed a thousand years ago, in (Muslim) Al-Andalus. It’s a period of comment and criticism, of lively creative work with ideas, of scathing satire and withering wit lampooning hypocrisy, a highly discursive but above all dialogic world. This is sadly misrepresented and simply unknown. So, to quote one of the other printed signs:

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I also get really pissed off when people say stupid things about religion and about the Middle Ages. Hence for example this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 12.45.08 PMHe should know better.

Firstly, the statement “religion [is] a mediaeval form of unreason” is false. Factually false. See Aquinas for further details.

Secondly, taking cheap pot-shots at religion is weak. It will not win you an argument: rather, it puts you on the same level as fundamentalist prats. Being anti-religious is not cool, it’s just vapidly fashionable: weak, again, this time in following the unthinking igorant herd. It’s intellectually weak, shallow superficial pseudo-intellectualism. It gives decent atheists and good atheism–that is, atheism that tries to be morally, ethically, politically, socially good–gives them a bad name. Good humanist atheists, boys and girls, are FUCKING HUMAN AND TOLERANT. And feminist.Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 12.50.51 PM

As “free-thinkers,” they are able to imagine themselves into the point of view of others, and sympathise. (Many religious people who are also good and imaginative people can do this too. It’s not an exclusively atheistic characteristic; just as goodness and imagination are neither necessarily atheistic nor religious attributes; but the set of free-thinking imaginative empathetic humans intersects significantly with the set of atheists.)

Tolerance is the point. Removing the blinkers of one religion so as to see how the world looks without them. Moving away so as to see a bigger picture, in three dimensions, with critical distance and perspective. Moving in to see how things look from someone else’s point of view. Cabu (2006):

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∴ Reason #9: as a Medievalist: defending criticism, commentary, and humour. What would both Jean de Meun and Christine de Pisan do?

As such, I was there then and am here now and intend to keep being somewhere… anyway… in comic solidarity as a supporter of commentary, criticism, creative fun, puns, the Bakhtinian Carnivalesque, crazy mixtures of high and low humour, bawdy jokes, all that is below the belt and tut-tutted at for being In Poor Taste, silliness, absurdity, more puns especially those labelled “bad” or even “terrible,” irreverence, and the freedom to continue centuries’ fine tradition (and not just in Western Europe) of making fart-jokes about absolutely anybody, anytime, anyplace, anyhow.

These things make humans human, make life alive and worth living, give inner light even in darkest times, and we are nothing without them.


Act as a Medievalist: don’t cower, don’t fear persecution–it was more real then and they wrote way worse: ex. Jean de Meun–stand up, think, write, draw, speak. Words count, they can count as œuvres pardurables (ex. Amor’s exhortation to the troops in Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose; remembering carefully of course that this is satire and to be read on several different levels, and in several different directions, simultaneously; meaning as a multi-dimensional network with nary a straight line). They can get you to Heaven; any heaven, for any individual or group definition thereof, including the Republic of Letters.

180px-Fuchs.margin_(MMW10F50_f6r)_detailBefore slagging off Charlie for being sexist, misogynist, homophobic, and the rest: remember, they are being equal-opportunity misanthropists because they are human, humane, humanist philanthropes. This is a humanist, humanities issue, and medievalist, and moral: speaking up and standing up against hubris and hypocrisy.

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  1. I am a pre-modernist, to some extent a Renaissanceuse, and a generalist; most of my teaching is beginners’ French, and many of my students are first-years.

I’m not an anti-Renaissance territorial Medievalist. There’s a lot of continuum and continuity, it’s all the same old anthropocene anyway. If more people spent more time reading works (in which I include visual ones) of this difficult and intellectually, politically, ethically busy period, one where we see some of the most rapid, intensive, and sophisticated developments of ideas of “intellectual property,” of “rights” and “liberties” and “toleration” (even with “censorship” and “the modern nation-state” as down-sides): if we kept reading more Renaissance, the world would be a better place.

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Any “intellectual”–as in, a person who works with their intellect (cue jokes in 3, 2, 1, … over to you, gentle reader, while I take a guffawing break)–worth their salt should put their money where their mouth is. We need to translate abstractions and complications and subtleties into accessibility. Not dumbing down, but introducing people to really amazing stuff that will make them and their lives better and that, maybe, put into practice and further translated (large sense) to how things work in our world, maybe might change it.

This means talking about the ideas of writers like Montaigne. If everyone read Montaigne, and reread him regularly (I am due my next rereading this year, 2015), and thought about what he said, and discussed it with other people: that might go some way to helping. Via a Montaigne-scholar friend posting on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.46.27 PMWe talk semi-publicly to and with (hopefully more “with” than “to” and the awful “at”) students all the time. Talks at conferences and so on are semi-public too, to a lesser degree. We need to talk more publicly, whenever the opportunity arises. The more so if, like me, you are employed by a public university, partly at tax-payer expense. You are not only one of the people like everyone else, you also owe your fellow-citizens.

Education and the life of the mind don’t stop at the university gates: you have an obligation to ” perform outreach.” Not just the institution’s idea of outreach, that is, to reach out to potential students, their wallets, their parents’; to the fairy grail dream vision of benefactors, especially corporate sponsors and patrons; and to fellow-citizens only as people who might vote in different political representatives with policies friendlier to education and its funding, freedoms, and just basic functionality. Nope. I mean the outreach of encouraging lifelong learning for all: including us scholarly sorts, leading an intellectual life 24/7.

Outreach, professional responsibility, and civic duty mean agreeing to talk with random reporters, and anyone else, if that is what fate throws your way; even if you’re not sure you can hold things together or talk sense. I have more of an obligation to do so (or at least–because it would be unseemly to seek out journalists and attention–not to refuse) than a non-public-sector person.

I was there, finally, fundamentally, because the most important thing I do in my job is to teach.

∴ Reason #10: as a teacher at a public university, here to offer up one medium-sized body whose quiet occupation of empty space tries hard if clumsily to represent (in a material embodiment way) what we teach fledgling citizens: free and open criticism, commentary, and questioning everything

I act as a sort of literary liaison, to introduce students to amazing word-arts (with and without images), to wonderful ideas expressed beautifully, to a world that combines creativity and critical comment. I act as a catalyst to bring students to knowledge, to help them in the great adventure that is learning, the life-long learning for which university is a key stage; a life of merrily geeking out that will give them inner light, comfort, and security no matter how dark it gets outside. I “teach teach” too, and have to be careful not to get too ranty and OTT serious. Students are always warned in their first class that they MUST interrupt me if I go over time or do anything else embarrassing and silly; usually I’ve got decent instincts on looking in on performing-self from a critical distance and doing this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 1.30.18 PMbefore runaway trains become train-wrecks. (This critical self-distance is of course also on le programme for students too; learning by example of obrienaternal pratfalls hopefully adding comic light relief.) The part of teaching where over-earnestness is a danger is that part of university teaching that I consider the most important. It was important in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and in precursors to “universities” back to Socrates (and others, and parallels elsewhere; I’m picking on him, poor chap, as the obvious and most familiar example); had a bit of lapse with the evolutionary blind-alley of The Modern; returned with 1968 and all that (though alas, throwing many babies out with their bath-water).

The most important part of teaching is teaching people to think, to question, and to comment and criticise. Critical thinking, l’esprit critique, l’esprit ouvert, and questioning, questioning, questioning. Vital to good responsible engaged citizenship, to the fabric of society, to civil life, to continuing human culture, to life itself.

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That is what we do. That is what I do, in all classes: French language and culture and literature, Medieval literature and culture, reading, writing, understanding, discussion, thinking, questioning, criticism, commentary: lively engagement with the world of ideas, the life of the mind, and the world around us; and bringing them all together through that engagement that makes (and keeps) them and us alive.

Satire, l’esprit critique et créatif et comique, is life. We live and breathe it every day (or ought to), it is a key part of our work, and we ought to show students a good example by standing up for it. Not so much putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, or putting up or shutting up: putting your body and whole self there.


  1. This NOT about religion and must not be allowed to be, and to be hijacked by right-wing and anti-Muslim nutters. That is, in my mind, the greatest danger in France right now. With thanks to a friend for the image, here is what I think about the religion-angle:

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  1. Charlie Hebdo continues, assisted by Libération. (2015-01-09); see also here, from which this welcome on the team’s arrival in their new refuge/home:

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  1. To quote that awful woman: “education, education, education.” To quote that awful man (plagiarising less-awful predecessors): “knowledge is power.” Crap like this is why I teach. I hope it keep me teaching, and more and better, and encourages people to learn, and encourages schools as well as universities to help make better citizens for a sustainable civil society.

History and languages, damn it, should be compulsory throughout, well-taught, certainly better taught than they are (on average, there are of course exceptions at the top end of the scale) are present. Cuban-style popular houses of culture should be attached to public libraries, for all to have access to literary, artistic, and other creative activities. With time set aside for them, smartphones to be handed in at the door on the way in.

Money needs to be put into public libraries, cultural centres, and education; and especially into the humanities and the arts. Freely accessible and open to all. That is how to remedy stupidity and cure ignorance. Arts and humanities save lives.

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  1. I hope that what happened encourages people to take up their pens, pencils, fingers, and other devices and write, draw, paint, spray-paint.

Anyone can do this who has an ounce of esprit: “wit” and “wits,” intellect and imagination, criticism and creativity. Insofar as this is a war, it is not a “war on terror” (which is fatally flawed grammar propping up poor propaganda disguised as a stupid idea anyway, as shown well elsewhere).

Nor is it one between religion and reason. It’s “spiritual” in that it’s about l’esprit, the mind: it’s a conflict between intelligence and stupidity. So I stand by my last quoted statement:

“It’s about stupid people doing stupid things, which is sadly universal.”

Mad Magazine (2007) got the tone right in their comment on The War On Terror Stupid:

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#JeSuisAhmed (2015):

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Our best defence, and weapon, and attack: lots and lots and lots of satire, whilst remembering that the point isn’t to make a point, or to “win” an argument or a fight or anything, or to defeat someone or something. It’s to make the world a better place, to keep it a good and habitable place, for all. The world is fragile enough as it is, and has been wrecked plenty by humans, without adding on further unnecessary stupidities.

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from which a favourite homage-response:

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and the now-famous pseudo-Banksy:Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 2.33.05 PM

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