See Ben Anderson's most recent contributions to Society & Space here: Becoming and Being Hopeful: Towards a Theory of Affect, Affect and Security: Exercising Emergency in ‘UK Civil Contingencies’, and Hope and micropolitics

How do happenings become events? And how do events disappear?

The eventfulness of the now named event ‘Charlie Hebdo’ was inseperable from the circulation of an affectively charged scene of two gunmen in a Parisian street. The visible street scene was haunted by a second invisible but imagined scene of death and injury in the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. Both scenes interrupted a mediated scene that has become integral to contemporary liberal-democratic state power as other sources of power have waned or frayed: timely, often militarised, response by legitimate authorities to some kind of unforeclosed situation that threatens harm or damage. Scenes of emergency response have become occasions for the appearance and reiteration of the fantasy of state sovereignty and the glorification of legitimate state power. In a world of events, the always on the verge of being disappointed hope is that events can be stopped as they are happening and before they become disasters or catastrophes. For disenfranchised or marginalised peoples, state responses might be lived and felt as threats not promises. Nevertheless, hopes continue to be invested in the capacity to bring scenes of emergency to an end, to exit the emergency. Perhaps this is why attempts are made by activists to make latent disastrous conditions (the financial crisis, the ecological crisis) into a series of actionable scenes. Think of how the Occupy movement made home foreclosures in the US into a scene of the financial crisis, for example. Scenes of emergency are occasions of intensified vulnerability for the state, or other governing authorities, when the fantasy of sovereignty is placed in question.

The event of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ is more than a set of affectively charged scenes in which state response appeared to be absent. What was striking was how quickly the event found its genre, to borrow Lauren Berlant’s (2011) phrasing, as it became an ‘event of terror’ and an ‘attack on free speech’. Perhaps we can say ‘Charlie Hebdo’ becomes an event at the intersection of two series that, taken together, also provide the mediating conditions for its disappearance and replacement by other events. The event becomes part of and reanimates the series of events attached to the ‘war on terror’. It folds into and becomes part of a series of events that are known and recognised by a name and classified under the sign of terror. In their surprise, in their disruption of life, the events exceed the unity and apparent stability provided by a name. Perhaps something of their excess is reactivated by the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ event. Past scenes of planes hitting buildings or mangled buses return. Only some scenes return, though. Indeed, we might speculate that later events serve as one mechanism for the intensification of past events of terror. Until events happen, the past series exists virtually, only lightly touching everyday life, before returning with renewed affective charge. Each new ‘event of terror’ introduces a difference into that series, though, whilst giving it renewed momentum and making past events available for potential reinterpretation. Whilst there is much more to be said about it, the spontaneous enactment of ordinary solidarities that happened in response to ‘Charlie Hebdo’ could be understood as disrupting the militarised bellicosity that was such a part of the response to the event of ‘9/11’, for example. If not already (for most of us) soon the event of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ will become background; its horror only potentially reactivated in the next event of terror.

In this way, ‘Charlie Hebdo’ happens as part of a maelstrom of potential events in the evental time of 24 hour and social media. Very different events replace one another in quick succession. Almost anything can be an event to be mediated, provided it has or can be given the qualities of surprise and disturbance and it affects or might affect some kind of valued life. Once an event is drained of its eventfulness, once it has been foreclosed, the 24 hour media move on to the next event, or the next actual or potential happening that might become an event in the future. New scenes emerge or are created that, for a while, render an event present. ‘Charlie Hebdo’, like all mediated events, does not quite disappear but is submerged, replaced by the next event… 


Thanks to Angharad Closs Stephens for her invitation to contribute to the forum where this response was first presented, and to Ruth Raynor for discussion on scenes. 


Berlant L (2011) Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.