Who Has To Die? Charlie Hebdo’s Earthquake Caricature

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“– this is material for comedy. It is no laughing matter. Nevertheless, I should like to let you know en passant that something of the order of a vast comic dimension in all this has not wholly escaped me.” – Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI


On Monday 6 February 2023 at 7:05 PM, the same day as the tragic Turkey-Syria earthquake, Charlie Hebdo published a caricature that made people gasp from shock, as if the earthquake was not enough. While we often think that satirical content creation is inherently transgressive and left-leaning, this example shows how mistaken that assumption is.


Before I begin with an analysis of this piece, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between comedy and laughter. It seems that comedy and laughter have had something of a divorce. What is comic may no longer incite laughter (if it ever did). In other words, laughter has ceased to shape what counts as comedy. There is laughter as such: a response or act that does not chronologically follow the comic. There is an occurrence of something, and then there is laughter. This distinction between comedy and laughter is not a dichotomy. Comedy and laughter exist within each other, because of each other and despite each other. However, it does that seem more so than not in recent years that comedy is not for laughing, and laughing is not for comedy.


In this argument I borrow from Alfie Bown, in his book In the Event of Laughter, clearer definitions of the two phenomena: laughter points at an occurrence, a happening, while comedy elucidates conventions and ideas. I also want to clarify that my intention in writing a joke analysis regarding this caricature comes with a degree of estrangement from the general outrage that this piece has received. Although I have good spoken French, I had to Google translate the word “chars” – which means something destructive rather than tanks per se. The joke was very predictable, a key feature of visual satire. Written jokes, when infused with shock value, unlike spoken ones, require a spoiling element that resides in what is in front of the reader. The spoiler here plays an essential part in the comic value of the piece by establishing the premise and conclusion at the same time.


I found interest in this caricature because of its perceived offensive and inhumane nature. I became obsessed with it, even a month after the tragic earthquake. This joke, labelled “offensive”, “immoral” and even “shameful” triggers the discourse of outrage, one that is becoming rampant in our virtual interactions in digital spaces where outrage is the default affect emerging as a response to almost everything. With compounded crises and the apparent unbelievability of everything that has been going on (even some believe it and some have even predicted it), we may forget to gasp at a natural disaster, but we raise our eyebrows almost reflexively at satire that redirects the meaning of the earthquake and how it registers in our symbolic. A joke requires emotion and affect, to emerge and to float. This one emerged out of the imperative of outrage and shock, and to reinforce that imperative, rather than to question it.


To give credit where credit is due, the joke works by being a complete failure, which is another element of its comic value. However, something else more excessive happens. Juin’s caricature is a bad joke but the reason for its lamentability is not because it is insensitive or offensive. The author did not do his homework and shows an absence of knowledge, or existence of false knowledge, which reveals a dangerous aspect of the hegemonic ideology of the day.


To analyse the comic in detail, it shows a destroyed location with a vignette on the top right declaring “Séisme en Turquie” or “Earthquake in Turkey”. Below the text, there is a lot of rubble, a car upside down and three buildings that are still standing, with one looking like it got bit in the middle. Below the illustration, the caption reads “Même pas besoin d’envoyer des chars”, or “Don’t even need to send tanks”.


The place is obliterated. The need to send tanks to destroy and kill is obsolete. Buildings are on the ground and the people are under them. This seemingly is an important critique and I will allow myself to give (more) credit (than is due) to #Juin who is making a decent observation: tanks cause destruction. Foreign military intervention is violent in essence. They don’t promote or uphold peace, they don’t foster democracy or human rights. Tanks are death machines, and they share inevitable death and the confrontation of fragile life, in common with earthquakes, a natural non-negotiable occurrence.


Furthermore, the piece points to the imminence of heavy artillery in foreign intervention, a measure that the Middle East is well familiar with. It is almost as if the author is saying unconsciously that foreign intervention’s violence is as imminent and non-contingent as natural disasters, that it is to be seen as collateral unavoidable damage.


This inadvertently begs the question, is the implication made by the author universal? Is foreign intervention imminent and inevitable for all? Absolutely not. In other words, who is going to send tanks to Turkey, a member of NATO? Realistically, that has actually been its job for the past decades, and even centuries as the ghost of empire still haunts its establishment. Is Juin conscious of this in drawing his cartoon? It is funny to reach a place in this analysis where I have to inquire about the political knowledge of a satirical cartoonist whose job is to know the facts, the indisputable ones at least. There is a possibility that the author sees Turkey as an Arab third world country or has assumed its global south status because it is a muslim country or because it is in the Middle East. This begs another question, does the author have any sense of Syria? Perhaps questions of knowledge and intention are irrelevant, but the truth remains: the caricature is an interesting comic failure in that it illustrates so clearly the ideological assumptions and falsities that satirical cartoonists seem to snort off like cocaine, in order to come up, on the spot, with pieces that generate online traction.


Finally, the piece conveys a dark message; they’re already dead under the rubble, no need to execute them. Those people’s death is impending, and the place’s demolition is definite. However, the joke fails miserably and comically by making Turkey the subject of the joke, to end up delivering a very reckless punchline, one that is only able to generate short-lived outrage and anger before the next scroll. The piece is lazy, it sprints to the punchline and completely murders an important idea, one that is powerful enough to be communicated maliciously: we live in a world where someone or something has to do the killing: it doesn’t matter who as long as buildings are on the ground and dead bodies are under them.


The idea that satirical content creation is inherently transgressive and left-leaning – taken for granted to root for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited against the elites that thrive at their expense – is mistaken. In conveying a righteous message, there is the inauguration of a causal relation that concludes on violence, necropolitics, hypocrisy, fascism, phobias and inequality. Satire, in its sacrifice of meaning through manipulating language, flirts with a territory of non-truth and positions itself within the realm of interpretation. Therefore, it allows for message and form to exist dialectically, and sometimes even in necessary direct contradiction. The embrace of contradiction, non-truth and nonsense are dictums of comedy – and this satirical cartoon, like many others, does none of these things. A joke does not end with the punchline. In many ways, this is where it begins. Otherwise, righteous left-leaning satire and comedy, with the objective of exposing the truth and changing the status quo has stripped itself of its political power and is left only with permitted, filtered out and diluted messages and umbrella terms legitimized by laughter.



Before I begin with an analysis of this piece, there’s a distinction that needs to be made between comedy and laughter. It seems that comedy and laughter have had something of a divorce. What is comic may no longer incite laughter (if it ever did). In other words, laughter has ceased to shape what counts as comedy. There is laughter as such: a response or act that does not chronologically follow the comic. There is an occurrence of something, and then there is laughter. This distinction between comedy and laughter is not a dichotomy. Comedy and laughter exist within each other, because of each other and despite each other. However, it does that seem more so than not in recent years that comedy is not for laughing, and laughing is not for comedy.


In this argument I borrow from Alfie Bown, in his book In the Event of Laughter, clearer definitions of the two phenomena: laughter points at an occurrence, a happening, while comedy elucidates conventions and ideas. I also want to clarify that my intention in writing a joke analysis regarding this caricature comes with a degree of estrangement from the general outrage that this piece has received. Although I have good spoken French, I had to Google translate the word “chars” – which means something destructive rather than tanks per se. The joke was very predictable, a key feature of visual satire. Written jokes, when infused with shock value, unlike spoken ones, require a spoiling element that resides in what is in front of the reader. The spoiler here plays an essential part in the comic value of the piece by establishing the premise and conclusion at the same time.


I found interest in this caricature because of its perceived offensive and inhumane nature. I became obsessed with it, even a month after the tragic earthquake. This joke, labelled “offensive”, “immoral” and even “shameful” triggers the discourse of outrage, one that is becoming rampant in our virtual interactions in digital spaces where outrage is the default affect emerging as a response to almost everything. With compounded crises and the apparent unbelievability of everything that has been going on (even some believe it and some have even predicted it), we may forget to gasp at a natural disaster, but we raise our eyebrows almost reflexively at satire thatredirects the meaning of the earthquake and how it registers in our symbolic. A joke requires emotion and affect, to emerge and to float. This one emerged out of the imperative of outrage and shock, and to reinforce that imperative, rather than to question it.


To give credit where credit is due, the joke works by being a complete failure, which is another element of its comic value. However, something else more excessive happens. Juin’s caricature is a bad joke but the reason for its lamentability is not because it is insensitive or offensive. The author did not do his homework and shows an absence of knowledge, or existence of false knowledge, which reveals a dangerous aspect of the hegemonic ideology of the day.


To analyse the comic in detail, it shows a destroyed location with a vignette on the top right declaring “Séisme en Turquie” or “Earthquake in Turkey”. Below the text, there is a lot of rubble, a car upside down and three buildings that are still standing, with one looking like it got bit in the middle. Below the illustration, the caption reads “Même pas besoin d’envoyer des chars”, or “Don’t even need to send tanks”.


The place is obliterated. The need to send tanks to destroy and kill is obsolete. Buildings are on the ground and the people are under them. This seemingly is an important critique and I will allow myself to give (more) credit (than is due) to #Juin who is making a decent observation: tanks cause destruction. Foreign military intervention is violent in essence. They don’t promote or uphold peace, they don’t foster democracy or human rights. Tanks are death machines, and they share inevitable death and the confrontation of fragile life, in common with earthquakes, a natural non-negotiable occurrence.


Furthermore, the piece points to the imminence of heavy artillery in foreign intervention, a measure that the Middle East is well familiar with. It is almost as if the author is saying unconsciously that foreign intervention’s violence is as imminent and non-contingent as natural disasters, that it is to be seen as collateral unavoidable damage.


This inadvertently begs the question, is the implication made by the author universal? Is foreign intervention imminent and inevitable for all? Absolutely not. In other words, who is going to send tanks to Turkey, a member of NATO? Realistically, that has actually been its job for the past decades, and even centuries as the ghost of empire still haunts its establishment. Is Juin conscious of this in drawing his cartoon? It is funny to reach a place in this analysis where I have to inquire about the political knowledge of a satirical cartoonist whose job is to know the facts, the indisputable ones at least. There is a possibility that the author sees Turkey as an Arab third world country or has assumed its global south status because it is a muslim country or because it is in the Middle East. This begs another question, does the author have any sense of Syria? Perhaps questions of knowledge and intention are irrelevant, but the truth remains: the caricature is an interesting comic failure in that it illustrates so clearly the ideological assumptions and falsities that satirical cartoonists seem to snort off like cocaine, in order to come up, on the spot, with pieces that generate online traction.


Finally, the piece conveys a dark message; they’re already dead under the rubble, no need to execute them. Those people’s death is impending, and the place’s demolition is definite. However, the joke fails miserably and comically by making Turkey the subject of the joke, to end up delivering a very reckless punchline, one that is only able to generate short-lived outrage and anger before the next scroll. The piece is lazy, it sprints to the punchline and completely murders an important idea, one that is powerful enough to be communicated maliciously: we live in a world where someone or something has to do the killing: it doesn’t matter who as long as buildings are on the ground and dead bodies are under them.


The idea that satirical content creation is inherently transgressive and left-leaning – taken for granted to root for the oppressed, marginalized and exploited against the elites that thrive at their expense – is mistaken. In conveying a righteous message, there is the inauguration of a causal relation that concludes on violence, necropolitics, hypocrisy, fascism, phobias and inequality. Satire, in its sacrifice of meaning through manipulating language, flirts with a territory of non-truth and positions itself within the realm of interpretation. Therefore, it allows for message and form to exist dialectically, and sometimes even in necessary direct contradiction. The embrace of contradiction, non-truth and nonsense are dictums of comedy – and this satirical cartoon, like many others, does none of these things. A joke does not end with the punchline. In many ways, this is where it begins. Otherwise, righteous left-leaning satire and comedy, with the objective of exposing the truth and changing the status quo has stripped itself of its political power and is left only with permitted, filtered out and diluted messages and umbrella terms legitimized by laughter.