Seymour on the Paris attacks

This is a guest post by Contested Terrain

There is a strange pattern of intellectual retardation on the Left, when otherwise sophisticated individuals are encountered with the nexus of topics relating to anti-Muslim racism, antisemitism, political Islam, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, etc.

Richard Seymour’s new article in Jacobin on the Paris attack on the office and journalists of the Charlie Hebdo is the latest example of this.

Seymour’s article portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe, rather than being the specific strategic actions taken by specific actors. In his account, even pointing out the specific radical Islam linkages behind this, amounts to supporting state repression against Muslims in general.

While Seymour is absolutely right to warn against an anti-Muslim backlash -- already, multiple mosques have been attacked, and there is reason to fear an increase in an already hostile mood towards Muslims in Europe -- the article is so distorted, that it raises a mystery. This is because his approach here so drastically departs from his otherwise sophisticated analysis of actor groups and strategies.

Seymour’s strength is his deployment of a hegemony theory to understand the development, resilience, and remaking of power blocs. He treats these not as homogenous and undifferentiated objects, but as amalgams of different groups, group interests, and motivations, which sometimes purposefully, sometimes unintentionally join, or are joined together, by common projects.

But in his article on the Paris attacks, this sophisticated approach to social dynamics is entirely lost. It is replaced by mechanical movements between two homogenous forces, a racist French public and an anti-racist Muslim response. Of course, he does not say this so explicitly, but this is the general parameter of his argument that is so upsetting the magazine’s readership. At the root of these vocal objections to Seymour’s portrayal is his article’s silence on the radical Islamic motivations of the actors behind the killings.

In stark contrast to Seymour’s generalised and mechanical portrayal, Juan Cole presents an argument which one might expect of someone like Seymour, and what one can find in the latter’s writings, when dealing with the actor groups and the intentions of competing hegemonic forces. Cole argues that the perpetrators of yesterday’s shootings are linked to a specific group of actors with a specific political strategy.

He writes:
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.
Here we have a specific focus on actor groups taking strategic action within a specific social context. You can usually find this kind of analysis in Seymour’s other writings, but not when it comes to this topic.

The interesting point here is not simply the stark contrast between portrayals, but the contradiction between Seymour and himself; between his portrayals in his better writings, on actor group plurality and strategic action on the one hand, and his generic and mechanical portrayal in the Jacobin article.

And it is not an uncommon reversion for otherwise intelligent people.Think of Judith Butler’s repeated defense of Hamas and Hezbollah as “left and progressive forces”. In both of these individuals, you cannot convincingly trace these political utterances back to a stable set of theoretical ideas which they hold. It is a disjuncture.

But are these just idiosyncrasies, or is there is a pattern at work, which drives otherwise sophisticated people to trip up, to stumble, to lose intellectual sophistication, and to begin spewing dogmatic cliches?

That’s the real puzzle. Why do otherwise intelligent people revert to vulgar representations and dogmas, when the topic turns to these issues? Why do these complex of issues retard the intellect of intelligent people? That is a mystery.


Anonymous said…
Another critique of Seymour's article here, Leftist cowardice on Charlie Hebdo (surprise).
Richard Seymour said…
"Seymour’s article portrays the attacks in an extremely general way, as if they are somehow a natural (though too violent) response to anti-Muslim racism in France and Europe,"

This is a pretty good example of how it is not I who has lost perspective. My article makes *no such claim*. It is explicit in *not* attempting to provide an explanatory narrative for the attacks. The racism of CH is highlighted for other reasons given in the article, which anyone with average reading comprehension, not obstructed by knee-jerk assumptions, would have understood.
Ryler said…
Ha, seriously Seymour? "highlighted"? I believe you are referring to that masterful piece of polemics in your article: 'Read E. Said's Orientalism'. A more laughable argumentation I have never witnessed anywhere in left discourse.
bob said…
Yes, the "racism" of CH is asserted rather than highlighted. I have certainly seen a couple of CH cartoons that do look racist to me, but then I've seen Guardian and Private Eye cartoons that look racist to me, but I don't assert that the Guardian or Private Eye are racist.
bob said…
So Richard has semi-replied on his blog referring to Contested Terrain as "this charlie".

He makes some valid points about some the idea of "tolerance" and about right-wing responses to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and an interesting point about "the folk enlightenment" (Dan Hind's phrase). And he asks some interesting questions about the chain of causality behind the attacks.

He seems to miss that there might be a genuinely left critique of his sort of position, which does not share this folk Englightenment politics (Contested Terrain's post was obviously written from a Marxist or at least Marxish position), and he doesn't bother to address Bill Weinberg's similar critique linked to in the first comment above.

He is wrong to crudely generalise that all of Charlie Hebdo's defenders are "to a man, vigorous exponents of anti-PC laffs and the 'right to criticise'", as if that accurately describes Rosie Bell, say, or Comrade Coates.

He also once again is a good example of what Contested Terrain called her "retardation" when it comes to Jews: he mentions the kosher supermarket hostage thing ("what kind of strategic impasse would lead to them brutally lashing out at two, what I must imagine are utterly peripheral targets from their perspective: a satirical publication, albeit one with a line in crass racist humour about Muslims, and a kosher supermarket?") but manages to avoid mentioning Jews or antisemitism.

(Is it worth noting at least one of the slain cartoonists was Jewish, another married to a woman of Algerian (albeit Harki) descent, and that the police officer killed defending them was Muslim? Maybe not.)

Anyways. Gut shabes folks, and have a nice weekend.
Richard Seymour said…
"the "racism" of CH is asserted rather than highlighted."

I think I was explicit in this: I said I wasn't going to bother making an argument. The reference to Said was a deliberately semi-trolling suggestion that anyone obtuse enough not to notice the patently fucking obvious needs to sort themselves out, and it isn't my task to educate them.

Fortunately, lots of other people have made the argument about racism for me. But if you aren't convinced by now, you're probably not going to be.

"manages to avoid mentioning Jews or antisemitism. "

As in the previous post, I prefer to avoid stating too much of the obvious. I don't think a kosher supermarket was chosen by accident, but then who the fuck does?
Anonymous said…
What about this kind of response from the Right, from Bill Donahue of the Catholic League? Seems virtually identical to the argument Seymour and others were making. From the Washington Post:

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a U.S. organization that "defends the rights of Catholics," issued a statement titled "Muslims are right to be angry." In it, Donohue criticized the publication's history of offending the world's religiously devout, including non-Muslims. The murdered Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier "didn’t understand the role he played in his [own] tragic death," the statement reads.

"Had [Charbonnier] not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive," Donohue says, in what must be one of the more offensive and insensitive comments made on this tragic day.

"Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated," says Donohue. "But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction."

The statement says Charlie Hebdo has "a long and disgusting record of going way beyond the mere lampooning" of religious figures. "They have shown nuns masturbating and popes wearing condoms," Donohue says. "They have also shown Muhammad in pornographic poses."

Among the covers is a too-racy-for-WorldViews depiction of the Christian Holy Trinity locked in a three-way homosexual orgy (as part of a critique of French religious leaders' opposition to gay marriage) and a whole array of images mocking pedophilia by priests.
bob said…
It's obvious to me that some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are racist, although I think racism always depends to some extent on context and not just on form. But I haven't seen a single article/post that persuasively makes the case that Charlie Hebdo itself is racist. (See earlier Guardian analogy.) E.g. Jacob Canfield's post, which has been widely cited as showing the evidence for the alleged racism, fails to make a good case as far as I can see.

On the kosher supermarket thing, I feel that totally focusing on structural features of "Muslim" experience, without mentioning antisemitism as an element in the ideological mix, just seems obtuse. After all, some of the points you do labour over should be kinda obvious too.

And I guess this is not the place to quibble about the Iraqi death count, but attributing a million of the killings to the occupying force and its protegees seems wrong to me, but I don't have the time to check that.
Anonymous said…
The images in Charlie Hebdo are way less offensive than early Bolshevik antireligious cartoons. For example:
John R said…
I think that Richard Seymour's views on the Hebdo massacre are unsurprising as it fits in perfectly with the world-view of the those from the SWP tradition.

"On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combating racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”.

(Chris Harman

The prophet and the proletariat)
(Autumn 1994)

This view became more apparent during the Iraq war -

“Supporting the insurgents doesn’t mean backing the political views of al-Sadr or any other Iraqi leader. It means recognising that it is the resistance that is fighting for the Iraqi people’s basic democratic right to self determination.
More than that, if the insurgents win – if they force US and British forces out of Iraq – it will become much harder for the US to use its military power to bully and occupy weaker countries.
A victory for the Iraqi resistance would also be a victory for all those fighting capitalism and imperialism around the world.”

(Alex Callinicos (Socialist Worker Sat 21 Aug 2004)

And at Marxism 2004 -

We support the [Iraqi] resistance, whatever its political form, whatever its banner,” he [Callinicos] said.

So, what does Iraq have to do with the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

This -

Cherif Kouachi, 32, had been imprisoned for 18 months for his role in a network sending volunteers to fight alongside al-Qaida militants in Iraq between 2003 and 2005

In a nutshell, Kouachi and al-Qaida could receive "critical support" from the SWP (and Seymour was a member at the time) so long as their actions were directed at the US occupation (and allies) in Iraq.

However, the Hebdo massacre is more problematic and must be condemned (with qualifications) but as Harmen indicates no support will "ever" be forthcoming to the state even against Islamic terror.
Morbid Symptoms said…
Jews get murdered in a racist attack and the first reaction of large body of wannabe radicals is to flood social media with conspiracy theories, analyses of why we should understand the murderers better (cf loads of crap in Guardian), reminders that other people (including distant states nothing to do with the victims) kill people too (cf Chomsky), belittling comparisons that show that not as many people have been killed by these racists as some other kinds of terrorists (cf Counterfire) Whatever happened to anti-racism and solidarity?
Anbdrew Coates said…
Seymour is a morbid eruption on the face of the left: he has not the slightest knowledge of the French Left, Charlie Hebdo, and French republican values.

Here is a serious reply to this kind of drivel:

On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends

11 janvier 2015 | Par Olivier Tonneau
Jim Denham said…
The wretched scab and creep Seymour is so revolting I don't even want to dignify his filth with a reply, but in the intersts of educating the serious left, here goes:

In the final analysis, what difference does it make whether we agree with all the cartoons or not? The killings did not take place, I'm sure, because the people who carried them out thought that the cartoons were making a poor job of expressing valid satire and criticism. They carried out the killings, I assume, simply because the paper was satirical and critical, not because of any deficiencies in that satire and criticism.

If all the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo had been ideologically PC, does that mean that the killings would not have taken place? Since the answer to that question is 'No', that's why the Great Debate triggered by Seymour et al about the quality of Charlie Hebdo's satire isn't particularly useful.
Vevster said…
Richard Seymour can label as "racist" a publication he obviously has never read.I wonder how he can accomplish this feat.
He's unable to translate the cartoons (as shown on his google+ page)- so let's not mention the articles within CH- even less understand them within a french context.
Tasteless cartoons? If you want to call them son, why not. Racist? You should do better than this. Throwing "racism" everywhere devaluates the term, and the fight. Please, Seymour, do not comment about things that are beyond your understanding.
Unknown said…
"And I guess this is not the place to quibble about the Iraqi death count, but attributing a million of the killings to the occupying force and its protegees seems wrong to me, but I don't have the time to check that."

It is wrong, but how is the war dead in Iraq relevant to the CH massacre?

Besides how far back should we go with these "war dead?"

I have read comments suggesting that France's colonialist past was relevant.

But why stop there, why not go on with casualties from WW2 or even before then.

What is important to notice is that is most often "anti-colonialist" westerners who manufacture these excuses.

The killers themselves spoke of "the affront to Muhammad." Why not just leave it there?
Vevster said…
Again, I have no doubt that Seymour has not the ability to read Charlie Hebdo, which should disqualify him to comment, but some people cannot help beating some bushes.
Anyway, with the hope he has some honour left (I doubt it, but I'd be glad to be proven wrong), I encourage him to read and comment the following articles:

Seymour looks to me like Nolan Peterson, same kind of fact-checking.

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