The mocking of intellectuals (and of people in general) is nothing new. But the 21st century certainly has introduced a brand new medium to taunt people with. The meme. Philosopher, writer, intellectual and all round controversial figure, Alain Finkielkraut has been described as ‘l’homme qui ne sait pas comment ne pas réagir’ (monde.fr, 2014). It seems however, that the loudest reactionary force is that of the anonymous voice of internauts. Nowadays, it is difficult for a contentious character such as Finkielkraut to not be picked up, made fun of, and shared about via the internet. In 2013 whilst responding to the question of Doit-on se ressembler pour pouvoir vivre ensemble dans le même pays ? during a discussion on the TV show Ce soir (ou jamais !) Finkielkraut loses his cool at scriptwriter Abdel Raouf Dafri and orders him to “Taisez-vous !”. Naturally this was picked up by the internet and even he could not escape the humiliation of becoming an internet meme. Now with over 2.7 million views (the original interview has just shy of 1.5 million views), the remix video of this outburst on YouTube ridicules Finkielkraut, not through any form of coherent argument, but simply by autotuning his bellow to the tunes of songs ranging from Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, to Mozarts’ Ein Klein Nachtmusik. The mockery highlights the hysterical nature of Finkielkraut whose views are sometimes perhaps so absurd, that people don’t even want to engage with polemic but instead choose to make childish fun of him through remix videos.
But is meme culture any different to the newspaper caricatures that spread well before the invention of the internet? And are past intellectuals immune to this new way of disseminating critical views via the internet? This is most definitely not the first time that an intellectual has been mocked through the media. And most definitely not the first time that an unflattering image has been used to belittle someone.
It’s been done before…
When the press rotative and linotype were invented in 1845 and 1885 respectively, the mass printing of daily newspapers was made possible and production and labour costs vastly reduced and as a consequence, the diffusion of the press vastly increased. Newspapers were reaching considerably more people than ever and as a result, so were the messages or mockings of intellectuals. In 1898, Emile Zola’s “incendiary open letter to the President of the Republic that was the climax of his campaign on behalf of Captain Alfred Dreyfus” (Morgan, O. 2007) was published on the front page of L’Aurore. J’Accuse… ! was written in response to the Dreyfus Affair in defense of the Jewish officer that had been convicted in December 1894. Zola was of course met with criticism. A lot of which was in the form of newspaper caricatures and cartoons.
In the above image we can see the anti semitic propaganda that was diffused via the media. Zola is spreading his “caca international” over France. Although a different medium, message and context, the function and the purpose of this image of Zola is much the same as the viral videos and memes of Alain Finkielkraut. Diminishing someone down to a mere caricature in order to take the mickey of them. As a result of the Dreyfus Affair, the criticism and death threats that Zola faced were so intense that he was eventually left with no choice but to flee France. Finkielkraut also has faced this more serious backlash – and not just in the form of ‘harmless’ memes and negative comments online. In February of 2019, Finkielkraut was verbally attacked by a raging gilet jaune yelling anti semitic epithets (Alain Finkielkraut insulté à Paris par des “gilets jaunes”, 2019). “Espèce de sioniste”, “sale race”, “est est à nous, la France” are undoubtedly insults that Zola would have heard about himself. We can see here that links can be drawn between Zola and Finkielkraut, but how does the mockery of Finkielkraut differ with that of a female intellectual?
The disengaging intellectual, (anti)feminism, and Simone de Beauvoir
Perhaps Simone de Beauvoir and Finkielkraut would get on. In a similar way to Sartre and de Beauvoir’s placing of importance on the idea of the intellectuel engagé, Alain Finkielkraut has claimed: “je dégagerai peut-être un jour, quand je n’aurai plus rien à dire” (as cited in Baddou, 2019). This strong-mindedness is typical of an intellectual figure and it seems that in the same way mocking caricatures and striking criticisms did not unsettle the minds of de Beauvoir and Sartre, a pesky internet meme certainly will not stop Alain Finkielkraut from speaking his mind (regardless of the taunting online backlash). Parallels can also be drawn between de Beauvoir’s and Finkielkraut’s views on la vieillesse. In his radio interview with Ali Baddou, he states how in society the only type of racism that is now allowed is géreontophobie and that the held belief is that “dès qu’on est un peu vieux, il faut qu’on dégage”. A sentiment that de Beauvoir shared and offered a remedy for. Surprise surprise, the remedy being intellectualism, stating in a 1970 interview that “plus les intérêts intellectuels sont importants, plus les déficiences psychologiques sont lentes à s’établir” (as cited in Sam-network.org, 2019). However, despite their shared advocacy of engagement, she may not be too chuffed with Finkielkraut’s response when he was quizzed about the subject of women’s football and he replied with: “ce n’est pas comme ca que j’ai envie de voir des femmes” (as cited in Leclercq, 2019). And just as expected, Twitter and the rest of the internet rapidly rose up with riposte aplenty to criticise and put down the philosopher after this controversial opinion.
Interestingly, de Beauvoir has not escaped internet criticism either. Despite her death being before the invention of the World Wide Web, her mortality has not made her immune to the criticism of the online media. In the light of the #MeToo movement (and the French equivalent of #BalanceTonPorc), de Beauvoir’s feminist views and private life have been called into question on social media platforms. Particularly her various sexual relationships with students. There are those that accept the groundbreaking work of the feminist but focus more on her flaws, believing that we must judge de Beauvoir with our modern eyes, and that she is no longer a relevant part of modern feminism. However, there are those that work to protect the feminist and believe that de Beauvoir would be a great advocate of #MeToo. Chantal Maillé, professor at l’Institut Simone de Beauvoir de l’Université Concordia describes #MeToo as forcing us to “faire une réflexion sur les personnalités que nous voulons honorer” (as cited in Collard, 2019) and to consider those that don’t live up to today’s moral standards. She presents de Beauvoir as someone that was not perfect, but also someone that was intelligent with entirely valid and revolutionary views. She calls out the “agendas antiféministes cachés” that lurk in the comments section of the internet in an attempt to salvage the name of the beloved feminist intellectual.
Don’t read the comments
The intellectual is a figure that has always had to face criticism and mockery in some form or another. It comes with the territory of being a public figure that advocates views which may be more progressive than the general public are used to. Media caricatures and newspaper articles have been around for yonks and it is only normal that as humans we find new ways to put other people down. However, it does feel as though the intellectual has descended from the pedestal that they once stood atop of. It is difficult to imagine that the legacy of the réac Alain Finkielkraut will ever be as moving or powerful as those of other intellectuals, particularly in the modern day context. Whereas Zola and de Beauvoir worked on behalf of the oppressed, Finkielkraut seems more preoccupied with causing a scene and making Juliette Binoche cry.
His reactionary ways have made him an easy target. But the mockery of public figures always has, and almost certainly always will exist. It is clear that the internet meme is just another way to propagate and disperse opinions on a hugely wide-spread scale that reaches much farther than the mass media of the 19th and 20th centuries. If Finkielkraut were born 50 years earlier, perhaps he would have escaped being ridiculed via a YouTube remix. But for now, I would definitely advise him not to read the comments section.
Alain Finkielkraut à Abdel Raouf Dafri : “Taisez-vous!” – Ce soir (ou jamais !) (2013) YouTube video, added by Ce soir ou jamais [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDvfg63Auv4.
Alain Finkielkraut insulté à Paris par des “gilets jaunes” (2019) YouTube video, added by AFP [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oO2qkUoLfOs.
Alain Finkielkraut – SHUT UP (Compilation Remix) (2016) YouTube video, added by Khaled Freak [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nprDvsygLYY.
monde.fr (2014). “TAISEZ-VOUS !” – Alain Finkielkraut, “l’homme qui ne sait pas comment ne pas réagir”. [online] Le Monde.fr. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/big-browser/article/2014/04/10/taisez-vous-alain-finkielkraut-l-homme-qui-ne-sait-pas-comment-ne-pas-reagir_6000221_4832693.html.
Baddou, A. (2019). Alain Finkielkraut : “Je dégagerai peut-être un jour, quand je n’aurai plus rien à dire”. [online] France Inter. Available at: https://www.franceinter.fr/emissions/l-invite-de-8h20-le-grand-entretien/l-invite-de-8h20-le-grand-entretien-20-septembre-2019.
Beauvoir, S. (1970). La vieillesse. Gallimard.
Collard, N. (2019). Faut-il juger Simone de Beauvoir ?. [online] La Presse. Available at: https://www.lapresse.ca/societe/201905/20/01-5226811-faut-il-juger-simone-de-beauvoir.php [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
Florilège d alain finkielkraut jette toi dans l canal taisez vous Juliette Binoche (2016) YouTube video, added by kario ouri [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejf5zDPkrkE.
Leclercq, A. (2019). Finkielkraut ne veut pas voir de foot féminin ? Les internautes répliquent avec panache.. [online] POSITIVR. Available at: https://positivr.fr/finkielkraut-football-feminin-twitter/ [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
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Moi, T. (2008). Simone de Beauvoir. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.254-261.
Morgan, O. (2007). ‘J’accuse…!’: Zola and the Dreyfus Affair. The Cambridge Companion to Zola, pp.188-205.
Sam-network.org. (2019). Qu’est-ce que la vieillesse ?. [online] Available at: https://www.sam-network.org/video/qu-est-ce-que-la-vieillesse [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
Statius, T. (2019). Au procès du gilet jaune qui a injurié Finkielkraut : « Je voulais lui dire mes positions ». [online] L’Obs. Available at: https://www.nouvelobs.com/justice/20190522.OBS13313/au-proces-du-gilet-jaune-qui-a-injurie-finkielkraut-je-voulais-lui-dire-mes-positions.html#