Mimesis as Infection: Charlie Hebdo seen from the Indian Archive

Christopher Pinney, UCL Anthropology
The recent events in Paris have focused attention on the complex relationship between different varieties of Islam and the image. Historians will rightly point to a French tradition of anti-clerical satire that reaches back to Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage of 1771, and which provides a frame through which Charlie Hebdo’s provocations make sense. I’ve taught Diderot’s brilliant critique of Christian missionary hypocrisy in an imaginary Tahiti over several years and remain fascinated how one needs to continually remind oneself that this is fiction, a mere “supplement”. Diderot’s central Tahitian character, Orou, is a powerful vindication of Diderot’s “foisting” technique in which he “takes over Bougainville’s Voyage shamelessly rewriting and falsifying it” inserting “speeches and arguments that for the ‘enlightened’ reader, seem to cry out so urgently to be spoken”.[1]
Anthropologists may see the Charlie Hebdo events as a perfect example of Latourian “iconoclash”, a struggle around images in which those that seek to destroy images inevitably unleash the forces that will create more of them (contrast the 60,000 Charlie Hebdo print run prior to the attack with the subsequent 5 million). It also serves as an obscene confirmation of theses advanced by scholars as diverse as Serge Gruzinski, Boris Groys and the Retort Collective who have all in various ways engaged the power of the “indelible image trail” (of both the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the Kouachi brothers’ criminal acts).

As an anthropologist of India, and one who has worked extensively in archives on the history of images I was struck with an echo with earlier events. Among these one could list the Islamic seminary Darul Uloom Deoband’s fatwa in September 2013 declaring photography and video-taping “unlawful and sinful”, the British colonial proscription in 1931 of an image of Mohammed in a book published in Calcutta titled Prachin Kahani[2] and discussions in 1917 concerning the photographing or non-photographing of Muslim women for passports.[3] I wish I could report more detail about these earlier controversies but my requests for those files, like much else in the National Archives in Delhi, drew a blank, the files being classified as “not available”. Much more is known about the Arya Samaj book Rangila Rasul published in Urdu in 1924 which loosely translates as “promiscuous prophet” and whose author was murdered by an offended Muslim man in 1929.[4]
The Hindustan Times, which reported the much more recent Darul Uloom story, noted that the fatwa was issued after an engineering graduate had declared his passion for photography and his intent to take a course of study in the subject, gleefully added that “even…Saudi Arabia allows photographers inside the holy city of Mecca and live telecast of ‘namaz’ is beamed on Islamic channels across the world” (Hindustan Times 12.09.2013). When confronted with this paradox Mufti Abdul Qasim Nomani, the Vice Chancellor of Darul Uloom, replied “Let them do it. We do not allow it. Not everything they do is correct” (emphasis added).
The televisual dissemination of Mecca has an early photographic precedent in the Delhi photographer H. A. Mirza’s 1907 album of 13[5] photographs album of pilgrimage sites in Mecca and Medina, which Asani and Gavin describe as “the earliest prototype of the pietistic use of Mecca and Medina photographs that are now so common in pilgrimage guidebooks published in the Urdu language in contemporary South Asia”.[6]
In a similar spirit, the study of the paradoxes of “iconoclash” also highlights not only the very long tradition of Muslim representation of Mohammed but also the fascinating appropriation by Iranian Shiites of a quintessentially Orientalist Lehnert and Landrock photograph as the prototype for chromolithographic depictions of the Prophet which remain popular to this day in Iran.[7] One will certainly not find images of Mohammed for sale in contemporary India but there is a remarkable profusion of figurative Islamic imagery ranging from depictions of idealised Koran-reading babies to numerous depictions of Sufi saints and their sites of pilgrimage, to images that depict “relics” associated with Mohammed alongside standard motifs of Mecca and Medina.[8] Many important sites in the Islamic world proudly show relics associated with the Prophet. The collection in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is well-known (it includes one of the Prophet’s footprints, several of his swords and a gold covering which formerly housed the black stone (Hacer-ul-Esved in Turkish, al-Hajar al-Aswad in Arabic) which is set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba and whose kissing by pilgrims during the tawaf circumambulation is the subject of much orthodox discontent. [9] The Topkapi Palace also occasionally displays a full beard taken from the Prophet by a favoured barber post-mortem. The northeast corner of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi contains a small museum amongst whose prized treasures (which I was shown in September of 2014) is a single henna-ed hair from the Prophet’s beard contained in a glass and silver phial. Muhammad’s relics have regularly been conscripted into political projects, perhaps most famously in 1996 when Mullah Omar cemented his position in the Taliban by appearing on the roof of the central mosque and putting his arms into the Muhammad’s cloak which he had raided from a local shrine.[10] More recently, in 2011, the former militia leader and Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov brought a bowl used by the Prophet by private jet to Grozny and then transported it in a Rolls Royce covered in black and gold rugs to the city’s grand mosque.[11] In January 2015 Kadyrov lead pressures on the Russian press not to reprint any Charlie Hebdo cartoons.[12]
However, what I wish to bring to the attention of blog readers here is the long history of the global traffic in imageology, by which I mean the codification of knowledge, the permissibility and impermissibility of certain forms of representation, and the manner in which words and discourse sometimes congeal around images in an attempt to stabilise them.[13] It has been well documented that the campaign against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses started in India, was energized by the then Prime-Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s desire to placate certain lobbyists and then snow-balled into a global phenomenon.
An intriguing omen of this global imageology occurred in 1906 and 1907 when the Colonial Office sent a request to the Governor General of India concerning the opinion of “High Muslim Authority” about the Muslim attitudes to images. This request originated in the Governor of Sierra Leone’s concern about hostile attitudes to images in his protectorate. The work of a school for the sons of the Chiefs at Bo was being “seriously interfered with” by the advice of “one local authority that it as not permissible to show the pictures of mosquitoes or bacteria” and that this was derailing the colonial pedagogy of “sanitation and hygiene”. A request went from Sierra Leone to the Colonial Office in London who then contacted Indian officials with the hope that the advice of India “High Muslim Authority” might encourage “leading Muslims [in West Africa to become] gradually more inclined to adopt the view that there is no objection to the pupils seeing such pictures, provided that the pictures are displayed only for the purposes of instruction and during school hours”. The response from India to the Colonial Office was signed by several officials including the anthropologist Denzil Ibbetson and suggested that many Indian Muslims, whom they labelled “rationalists” had “little or no objection to pictures” but reported that in the Punjab and North-West Frontier Provinces “orthodox Muhammadan parents formerly used to deface school books supplied to their children by cutting out pictures of living things. After a time, however, the children used to be told instead not to look at these pictures but to cover them up with a sheet of paper”.[14] This recalls Eric Michaels’ observation that in Yuendemu, Australia, his Aboriginal collaborators suspended prohibitions on looking at the faces of the deceased in old video recordings by reclassifying them as “background” figures.
This British colonial attempt to take the measure of a transnational Islam in 1907 provides an interesting way of framing the new Global Islam and its competition between different, seemingly increasingly violent, movements. But perhaps Imageology needs to embrace a less culturally-specific understanding of the offence that images can do. Something of the viscerality of Charlie Hebdo’s satire is provided by a critique by Henri Roussel, a former editor of the magazine in its earlier incarnation as Hara-Kiri. Writing in Nouvel Observateur, Roussel questioned Charb’s commitment to confrontation and wondered how “funny” Charlie Hebdo’s image of a “naked Muhammed praying, seen from behind, balls dangling and prick dipping […] with a yellow star on his anus”[15] really was. This might well be part of a tradition established by Diderot, but we also need, imageologically, to understand that this brings the ob-scene onto the stage so forcefully that none of us can ever usher it off again. Imageology indicates that while the response to the images by the Kouachi brothers was obscene, then so in a technical sense were the images, and this perhaps was their problem.
A parallel infection through representation is provided by the predicament of J. M. Coetzee’s eponymous heroine Elizabeth Costello. An aging Australian novelist, Costello finds herself in Amsterdam at a conference on “Silence, Complicity and Guilt” and set to give a paper on the writer’s dangerous power to conjure that which is “”terrible, terrible beyond words”.[16] Her problem is the “obscene” which she etymologically diagnoses as the “off-stage”. When should we drag something onto the stage, and what are the infectious consequences for her, and her audience? The particular text with which she is concerned is an account of the execution of the members of the Wehrmacht conspiracy to kill Hitler in a novel by Paul West, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, the very Paul West who (to her dismay) she discovers is speaking in her conference.
When she had read West’s account of the execution of the conspirators she had felt the “brush of [the devil’s hot] leathery wing, as sure as soap”, a phrase Coetzee repeats in various permutations, three times. In words that “scorched the page” she read of the last minutes of those who were to be executed: “caked with grime [having] pullovers full of moth-holes, no shoes, no belts, their false teeth and their glasses taken from them, exhausted, shivering, hands in their pockets to hold up their pants, whimpering with fear, swallowing their tears…”[17] West had emerged, as Costello/Coetzee puts it “ from the cave with reeking sword in one hand the head of the monster in the other”. The novelist, whose job after all she concedes is to “bring inert matter to life” had given her, the reader a “touch of evil” which passed through her “Like a shock. Like electricity”. This account had seared her, “it made an impress on [her] the way a branding iron does. Certain pages burned with the fires of hell”.[18]
Costello stresses the impossibility of returning to the off-stage what has been brought on-stage. We might think of this as the signature of the visible: its ratchet effect, the permanent effect of the positivity of mimesis that can never be deleted. Costello also locates a danger and positivity in our demand to see (those things as she puts it that “we want to see because we are human”). After all, despite her request to West “Let me not look”, she had looked: “Do not make me go through with it! But Paul West did not relent. He made her read, excited her to read.” Here Costello returns us to the complexity of iconoclash with its struggle between repression and desire, occlusion and visibility, destruction and creation.
[1] P. N. Furbank, Introduction to Denis Diderot This is Not a Story and Other Stories. Oxford University Press 1993, pp. 5-6.
[2] National Archives of India, Home Pol. 1931 F. 90/31
[3] National Archives of India, Home Pol. 1917 Jan.55-Part B. (“Decision that there should be no relaxation in the case of Mohamedan ladies of the role which requires all applicants for their passport to produce copies of their [photographs]”).
[4] Soli Sorabji, http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/insult-to-religion-/7214/
[5] Ansari and Gavin note that the British Library has a an album containing 13 prints, but that an album in the collection of Fouad C. Bebbas in Beirut (which contains 12 images) includes an additional image not in the BL. See Ali S. Asani and Carney E. S. Gavin “Through the Lens of Mirza of Delhi: The Debbas Album of Early-Twentieth-Century Photographs of Pilgrimage Sites in Mecca and Medina”, Muqarnas 15, 1998, p.178.
[6] Asani and Gavin p.181
[7]See Pierre Centlivres and Micheline Centlivres-Demont, “The Story of a Picture: Shiite Depictions of Muhammad” ISIM Review 17 (Spring 2006)pp. 18-19 https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/17064/ISIM_17_The_Story_of_a_Picture_Shiite_Depictions_of_Muhammad.pdf?sequence=1. See also Finbarr Barry Flood, “Inciting Moernity? Images, Alterities, and the Contexts of ‘Cartoon Wars’” in Patricia Spyer and Mary Steedly eds. Images that Move Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research 2013, pp. 41-72.
[8] See Yousuf Saeed, “This is What They Look Like: Stereotypes of Muslim Peity in Calendar Art and Hindi Cinema” http://www.tasveerghar.net/cmsdesk/essay/78
[9] See Ilhan Aksit, trans Stuart Kline, “Apartment of the Holy Mantle and Sacred Relics” in Topkapi Palace Aksityayincilik, Itsnbul, 2011
[11] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/22/muhammad-relic-presented-to-chechnya
[12] http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/there-s-no-line-kadyrov-can-t-cross-analysts-say/514252.html
[13] David MacDougall’s comments on the linguistic as means of removing the detonator from the “bomb” of the visual are relevant here. David MacDougall, 1999. “The Visual in Anthropology” in Marcus Banks and Howard Morphy eds. Rethinking Visual Anthropology, Yale University Press, p.290.
[14] National Archives of India, Home Department Education A. Jan. 1907, 80-81 p. 2
[15] This is presumably Tariq Ali’s own translation, cited in his “It Didn’t Need to Be Done”, London Review of Books 37(3) 5 February 2015, p. 12.
[16] J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, Secker and Warburg, 2003, p. 158
[17] Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, p. 158
[18]Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello, p. 171

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