Contemporary French Civilization

The politics of the cartoon in anthropological context: Charlie Hebdo as trans/cultural

Contemporary French Civilization (2016), 41, (2), 145–165.

Abstract

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo controversy, debate has focused largely on press freedoms and the (in)capacity of Muslims to comprehend political cartoons. To better understand the range of responses to the cartoons, this article draws on the anthropology of media to demonstrate the cross-cultural interpretive complexities of media texts in general, and political cartoon in particular. Outlining political cartoon’s history and colonial circulations, it argues, on the one hand, that political cartoon is a transparent genre with near-globally recognized conventions. On the other, referencing ethnographic case studies, it demonstrates the intracultural nuances of satire; liberal democratic assumptions about press freedom; and disparate beliefs about the nature of representation, which render considerations of social context paramount. In this way, the article argues that Charlie Hebdo’s political cartoons are “trans/cultural,” requiring that we move between transcultural transparency and sociocultural context to understand the range of reactions and emotions the publication has elicited.

Les débats qui ont suivis la controverse de Charlie Hebdo se sont focalisés en grande partie autour de la liberté de la presse et des (in)capacités qu’ont les Musulmans à décrypter la caricature politique. Afin de mieux comprendre la gamme de réactions à ces caricatures, cet article fait appel à l’anthropologie des médias afin de démontrer les complexités interprétatives des textes médiatiques en général et le la caricature politique en particulier. En traçant l’histoire et la circulation coloniale de la caricature politique, il affirme d’un côté, que la caricature politique est un mode d’expression transparent avec des conventions comprises quasi globalement. D’un autre côté, au travers d’exemples ethnographiques, il démontre que les nuances intra-culturelles de la satire; les présuppositions qu’ont les démocraties libérales au regard de la liberté de la presse; et les positions variées que les lecteurs peuvent avoir quant à la nature même de la représentation rendent primordiales les questions de contexte social. Ainsi, l’article affirme que les caricatures de Charlie Hebdo sont “trans/culturelles,” et de ce fait demande que l’on oscille notre grille de lecture entre la transparence transculturelle et le contexte socioculturel afin de mieux comprendre le spectre des réactions et des émotions que le journal a suscitées.

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Stankiewicz, Damien