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On Freedom, Pencils and Material Religion

Jean-Pierre Warnier, reporting from Paris, offers some reflections on Charlie Hebdo and the burgeoning Je Suis Charlie movement. David Morgan builds on Warnier’s comments by considering the humble pencil as means and motive of the events in Paris. What both bring to the forefront is the role that materiality, and, particularly, material religion, play in this confrontation with and affirmation of the democratic process. At issue are many serious issues: the rights and privileges of divergent groups, and their divergent commitments, in pluralistic societies, the proper balance of respect and transparency between those of different communities, and the proper response to attenuate the necessary frictions that will always exist whenever people of different backgrounds choose to live side-by-side in democratic states. Hopefully, in celebrating Charlie we can celebrate the freedom of speech, a bedrock institution for flourishing democracies, without celebrating the sparks that fly when critics choose to depict the prophet Muhammad, an indecorous act, at the very least, but not something to be responded to with violence and terror, not in this day and age, and certainly not in Paris.

MLA citation format:
Warnier, Jean-Pierre
“On Freedom, Pencils and Material Religion”
Web blog post. Material Religions. 14 January 2015. Web. [date of access]



Charlie Hebdo Website, January 12, 2015



Liberty leading the people, Plantu, Le Monde, January 10, 2015



Charlie Hebdo is a satirical journal. It is deliberately rogue and distasteful. It is always testing the limits. I say “is” and not “was”. It was dying a slow death, and very few people cared about that. It was nearly bankrupt when it became the target of a terrorist attack. Three months later, it would have been too late. The priest didn’t like it, the imam didn’t like it, the rabbi didn’t like it, neither did the military, the hunter, the magistrate, the government, the businessman, the academic, and the establishment. Why should they have liked it and cared? Charlie Hebdo is making fun and ridiculing them all, always beyond the limit. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression is its motto. It even makes fun of Moses, Christ and the Prophet. Blasphemy, said some.

Charlie Hebdo is resurrected by a massacre – a religious one, accomplished with guns, as a sacred act of salvation. Overnight it became world famous. All of a sudden, many people identified with Charlie. Not everyone by far. On the social networks, it is easy to see that some rejoice about what looked for a while like its demise. But now, the priest is Charlie, the Imam is Charlie, the Rabbi is Charlie, everyone is Charlie.

Material religion featured prominently in what happened in Paris last week: pencils, drawings, guns, rifles, cars, flags, kippas, prayers, candles, and of course, marching. You have seen it all on TV, especially posters that read: “I am a Jew, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a cop: I am Charlie.”



We are all Charlie, Plantu, Le Monde, January 11, 2015



We are scholars. We take religion and religious practice as our object of study. What can we contribute to help people live together and to understand what has happened? How can we say something useful to our fellow human beings, believers or not, from our academic viewpoint? We are not cartoonists. We are not journalists. We are scholars. But we share the same tools: a pencil and a sheet of paper (OK: a keyboard if you wish. But it is still a material contraption). As items of material culture, they feature prominently in the controversial cartoons both in the attack and in the march.

But we academics use our pencils in an entirely different way than the cartoonist. We want to sit back, watch and think. We take our time. We do not want to trespass. We want our ethnographies to draw a faithful, complete, respectful and nuanced image of what we study painstakingly. Our ethical code forbids any scorn or anything that is derogatory. Why should it be so important to do so? Why should it be as important as the satire made by the cartoonist? Because anger, emotion, street marching, mourning, yelling and rogue cartoons are most important in a state of freedom.

But also because enquiring, analysing, pondering, questioning, debating, criticizing, thinking are most important as well in a state of freedom. Day in and day out, we can see that our enquiries have been too quick, our analyses too short sighted, our publications, articles, books and posts lacking in eloquence and stamina. In a state of freedom, scholars as well as cartoonists and journalists are the armed guards of the freedom of the people – with their pencil as a weapon. When we need the help of the armed forces, it means that we have failed to enlighten and to convince. Let’s not be mistaken: there is so much to be done to analyse and explain religious fervour, devotion and religious practice to contribute to an understanding of our world.

In the attached cartoons by Plantu in the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’, one can see a pastiche of “Liberty leading the people” (1830) by Eugène Delacroix, in which the guns have been replaced by pencils (January 10). In the second one (January 11), three authority figures from religions of the Book claim that they too are Charlie.
And now, readers of the Material Religions blog, we do have a very effective tool of analysis. We can contribute effectively to the debate and make it clear that religion is not only a question of belief in a number of notions, but a practice immersed in bodily actions and in the use of material objects, to the extent that taking up arms against perceived enemies may be seen by some as an act of piety, as it was during the Christian crusades in the 13th century, or in the secular religions of the 20th century. Sit back, watch, take your time, open your eyes, observe the devotee, analyse, take your pencil and write.

~ Jean-Pierre Warnier

A new iconography of liberty: the pencil

In this age of rapid technological change, when new media rise and fall in the rhythm of the fashion season, an old medium has surprisingly emerged as the image of political values and social mobilization. Jean-Pierre Warnier fittingly calls our attention to the pencil. It seems an unlikely symbol at first blush. But watch the millions marching peacefully in Paris and it becomes abundantly clear that the nomination of an old medium, this humble emblem of the cartoonist’s art of yesteryear, is no mistake. And the appropriation of Delacroix’s painting only makes it plainer: in the face of the viciously violent attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, we turn to old media to convey the values on which modernity is grounded: the freedoms enshrined in constitutions, the social contracts that summoned the social and political arrangements of the modern world from the waning epoch that preceded it.

The French turn to the streets, which their political culture has always found the very arteries through which the hope for freedom flows. Marching in the streets performs a face-to-face democracy that acts as the ground zero of all forms of political and social mediation that follow. It is theatre, to be sure, but theatre that is powerful. Yesterday, people held pencils like crosses or flags, carried giant representations pieced together from cardboard and tape, bearing compelling mantras like “NOT AFRAID.” It was marvelous to see these images in social media and in news reports because they put faces—millions of faces—to a struggle that we have found easier to ignore: the “professionalized” military struggle against terrorism and the politics of fear that so many around the world have endured in the wake of September 11. With the Paris march, we have found ourselves in our own story. It is about us, all of us together who deplore the violence. The fight against fear and terror is about us. And that makes the humble pencil a superb emblem of the struggle because pencils are creative instruments that don’t make much of a military weapon. They are instead powerful devices for freedom. Delacroix’s painting of Liberty Leading the People was about an idea, and pencils are made for expressing and celebrating ideas. This is the people’s revolution, and one hopes that the power of the pencil will help keep it that way.

~ David Morgan



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