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Books Have Always Been Censored so Why Not Censor the Internet? An Excerpt from 'Censors At Work'

Image: Books Have Always Been Censored so Why Not Censor the Internet? An Excerpt from 'Censors At Work'
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By    |   Monday, 27 Oct 2014 09:45 AM


Where is north in cyberspace? We have no compass to get our bearings in the uncharted ether beyond the Gutenberg galaxy, and the difficulty is not simply cartographical and technological. It is moral and political. In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace seemed to be free and open. Now it is being fought over, divided up, and closed off behind protective barriers. Free spirits might imagine that electronic communication could take place without running into obstacles, but that would be naïve. Who would want to give up password protection for their email or to refuse filtering that protects children from pornography or to leave their country defenseless in the face of cyberattacks? But the Great Firewall of China and the unrestricted surveillance by the National Security Agency illustrate a tendency for the state to assert its interests at the expense of ordinary individuals. Has modern technology produced a new kind of power, which has led to an imbalance between the role of the state and the rights of its citizens? Perhaps, but we should be wary about assuming that the balance of power in the present has no precedent in the past. In order to gain some perspective on the current situation, we can study the history of attempts by the state to control communication. This book is intended to show how those attempts took place, not always and everywhere but in specific times and places, where they can be investigated in detail. It is an inside history, because it pursues the investigation into back rooms and secret missions, where agents of the state kept watch over words, permitting or forbidding them to appear in print and suppressing them according to reasons of state when they began to circulate as books.

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The history of books and of the attempts to keep them under control will not yield conclusions that can be directly applied to policies governing digital communication. It is important for other reasons. By taking us inside the operations of censors, it shows how policy-makers thought, how the state took the measure of threats to its monopoly of power, and how it tried to cope with those threats. The power of print could be as threatening as cyberwarfare. How did agents of the state understand it, and how did their thoughts determine actions? No historian can get inside the heads of the dead — or, for that matter, the living, even if they can be interviewed for studies of contemporary history. But with sufficient documentation, we can detect patterns of thought and action. Only rarely are the archives adequate, because censoring took place in secret, and the secrets usually remained hidden or were destroyed. Given a rich enough run of evidence, however, one can tease out the underlying assumptions and the undercover activities of the officials charged with the policing of print. Then the archives open up leads. One can follow censors as they vetted texts, often line by line, and one can trail the police as they tracked down forbidden books, enforcing boundaries between the legal and the illegal. The boundaries themselves need to be mapped, because they were frequently uncertain and always changing. Where can one draw the line between an account of Krishna’s dallying with the milkmaids and unacceptable eroticism in Bengali literature, or between socialist realism and “late-bourgeois” narration in the literature of Communist East Germany? The conceptual maps are interesting in themselves and important because they shaped actual behavior. The repression of books — sanctions of all kinds that fall under the rubric of “post-publication censorship” — shows how the state confronted literature at street level, in incidents that carry the story into the lives of the daring or disreputable characters who operated beyond the fringe of the law.

At this point, the research gives way to the sheer joy of the chase, because the police—or their equivalent, depending on the nature of the government — kept running into strains of humanity that rarely make it into history books. Wandering minstrels, devious peddlers, seditious missionaries, merchant adventurers, authors of every stripe — both the famous and the unknown, including a fake swami and a scandal-mongering chambermaid — and even the police themselves, who sometimes joined ranks with their victims — these are the people who populate the following pages, along with censors of every shape and size. This aspect of the human comedy deserves to be recounted in its own right, I believe, but in telling the stories, as accurately as I can, without exaggeration or deviation from the evidence, I hope to accomplish something more: a history of censorship in a new key, one that is both comparative and ethnographic.

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With the exception of masters like Marc Bloch, historians preach in favor of comparative history more often than they practice it. It is a demanding genre, not merely because of the need to command different fields of study in different languages but also owing to the problems inherent in making comparisons. It may be easy to avoid confusing apples with oranges, but how can one study institutions that look similar or have the same names yet function differently? A person called a censor may behave according to the rules of a game that are incompatible with those followed by someone considered to be a censor in another system. The games themselves are different. The very notion of literature carries weight in some societies that can hardly be imagined in others. In Soviet Russia, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, literature was so powerful that it “accelerated history.” To most Americans, it matters less than professional sports. Yet Americans’ attitudes have varied greatly over time. Literature weighed heavily on them three hundred years ago, when the Bible (especially the Genevan editions derived in large part from the vigorous translations of William Tyndale) contributed mightily to a way of life. In fact, it may be anachronistic to speak of “literature” among the Puritans, since the term did not come into common use until the eighteenth century. “Religion” or “divinity” might be more suitable, and the same is true of many ancient cultures such as that of India, where literary history cannot be distinguished clearly from religious mythology. Rather than concentrating on terminology, I hope to capture idiom — that is, to understand the underlying tone of a cultural system, its unspoken attitudes and implicit values as they inflected action. Comparisons work best, I believe, at the systemic level. Therefore, I have tried to reconstruct censorship as it operated throughout three authoritarian systems: the Bourbon monarchy in eighteenth-century France, the British Raj in nineteenth-century India, and the Communist dictatorship in twentieth-century East Germany. Each is worthy of study in itself. When taken together and compared, they make it possible to rethink the history of censorship in general.

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It might seem best to begin with a question: What is censorship? When I ask my students to give examples, the responses have included the following (aside from obvious cases of oppression under Hitler and Stalin):

Giving grades
Calling a professor “Professor”
Political correctness
Peer review
Reviews of any kind
Editing and publishing
Outlawing assault weapons
Pledging or refusing to pledge allegiance to the flag
Applying for or issuing a driver’s license
Surveillance by the National Security Agency
The Motion Picture Association of America’s film-rating system
The Children’s Internet Protection Act
Speed monitoring by cameras
Obeying the speed limit
Classifying documents to protect national security
Classifying anything
Algorithmic relevance ranking
The use of “she” instead of “he” as a standard pronoun
Wearing or not wearing a necktie

The list could be extended indefinitely, covering legal and nonlegal sanctions, psychological and technological filtering, and all sorts of behavior, whether by state authorities, private institutions, peer groups, or individuals sorting through the inner secrets of the soul. Whatever the validity of the examples, they suggest that a broad definition of censorship could cover almost anything. Censorship may be deemed to exist everywhere — but if everywhere, nowhere; for an all-extensive definition would erase all distinctions and therefore would be meaningless. To identify censorship with constraints of all kinds is to trivialize it.

Rather than starting with a definition and then looking for examples that conform to it, I have proceeded by interrogating censors themselves. They cannot be interviewed (the East German censors discussed in part 3 are a rare exception), but one can recover their voices from the archives and question them by testing and reformulating interpretations while working from one document to another. A few, isolated manuscripts won’t suffice. Hundreds are needed, and the run must be rich enough to show how censors handled their ordinary, everyday tasks. The pertinent questions then become: how did they work, and how did they understand their work? If the evidence is adequate, it should be possible to piece together patterns of behavior among the censors and in their surrounding environment— from the sifting of manuscripts by editors to the confiscation of books by the police. The parts played will vary according to the institutions involved, and the institutional configuration will depend on the nature of the sociopolitical order. It would be wrong, therefore, to expect all publications to follow the same path and, when they offended the authorities, to be repressed in the same manner. There is no general model.
But there are general tendencies in the way censorship has been studied over the last hundred years. At the risk of oversimplification, I would cite two: on the one hand, a story of the struggle between freedom of expression and the attempts to repress it by political and religious authorities; on the other, an account of constraints of every kind that inhibit communication. Opposed as they are, I think there is a great deal to be said for each view.
The first has a Manichaean quality. It pits the children of light against the children of darkness, and it speaks to all defenders of democracy who take certain truths to be self-evident. Whatever their logical or epistemological value, those truths function as first principles, not merely in the abstract but in political practice. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a starting point for laws and court decisions that have determined the meaning and set the limits of “freedom of speech, or of the press,” as the amendment puts it in one, breathtaking sentence. Sophisticates may deride “First Amendment absolutism,” but the freedom invoked in the Bill of Rights belongs to a political culture, one that can even be considered a civil religion, which has evolved over more than two centuries and commands the loyalty of millions of citizens. By adhering to the First Amendment, U.S. citizens keep a grip on a certain kind of reality. They trim their behavior to the rule of law, and when they come into conflict, they take their cases to the courts, which decide what the law is in actual practice.

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In arguing for fundamental rights, philosophers use abstractions, but they generally understand that ideas take root in systems of power and communication. John Locke, the philosopher most identified with theories of natural rights, did not invoke freedom of speech when pre-publication censorship ceased to be a rule of law in England. Instead, he welcomed Parliament’s refusal to renew the Licensing Act, which provided for censorship, as a victory over the booksellers in the Stationers’ Company, whom he despised for their monopolistic practices and shoddy products. Milton also railed against the Stationers’ Company in Areopagitica, the greatest manifesto in English for freedom of the press—great, but limited (no “popery” or “open superstition” to be permitted). These examples, and others one could cite (Diderot, for instance) do not prove that philosophers failed to advocate the freedom of the press as a matter of principle but rather that they understood it as an ideal to be defended in a real world of economic interests and political lobbies. For them, liberty was not an unworldly norm but a vital principle of political discourse, which they worked into the social reconstruction of reality that took place in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe. Many of us live in the world that they created, a world of civil rights and shared values. The Internet did not condemn that moral order to obsolescence. Nothing would be more self-defeating than to argue against censorship while dismissing the tradition that leads from the ancients through Milton and Locke to the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This argument may sound suspiciously high-minded. It has more than a whiff of Whiggishness, and it may smell like rank liberalism. I must confess to liberal sympathies myself and to finding Areopagitica one of the most moving polemical works that I have ever read. But I also should admit that I sympathize with a second approach to the subject, which undercuts the first. Whether spoken or written, words exert power. In fact, the power of speech operates in ways that are not fundamentally different from ordinary actions in the everyday world. Speech acts, as understood by linguistic philosophers, are intended to produce effects in the surrounding environment; and when they take written form, there is no reason to associate them exclusively with literature. Some literary theorists go so far as to argue that it is meaningless to separate out a category, hallowed and hedged by constitutional restrictions, called freedom of speech. As Stanley Fish proclaimed in a provocative essay, “There is no such thing as freedom of speech—and it’s a good thing, too.”

It would be possible to cite other tendencies in what is sometimes known as postmodernism to support the same point: in contrast to those who see censorship as a violation of a right, many theorists construe it as an all-pervasive ingredient of social reality. In their view, it operates in individual psyches and collective mentalities, everywhere and at all times. It is so omnipresent that, as in the examples given by my students, it can hardly be distinguished from constraints of any kind. A history of censorship must therefore confront a problem. It may be valid to resist limiting the subject by a restrictive definition, but it could be possible to extend it beyond all limits. We face two conflicting views, one normative, one relative. For my part, I believe they can be reconciled by embracing both and elevating them to another level of analysis, one that I would call anthropological. To make that argument, I will present a “thick description” of how censorship actually operated in three very different political systems.

This kind of history requires immersion in the archives — the historian’s equivalent of fieldwork by the anthropologist. My own experience began, many decades ago, in the papers of the Bastille and the great Anisson-Duperron and Chambre syndicale collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. By a series of fortunate circumstances, I spent the year 1989–1990 at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin; and soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I got to know some East German censors. In 1993–94, I was able to follow up the information they had provided during another year as a fellow in the Wissenschaftskolleg, and I continued to pursue the subject in several subsequent stints of research in the papers of the East German Communist (SED) Party. Having studied censors at work under two very different systems in the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, I decided to look for nineteenth-century material from a non-Western part of the world. Thanks to help from Graham Shaw, then in charge of the India Office Library and Records at the British Library, I was able to spend two summers studying the extraordinarily rich archives of the Indian Civil Service.

Finally, after so many expeditions into such fertile sources, I faced the problem of how to work this diverse material into a book. Perhaps in order to communicate the information in all of its richness, I should have written three books. But I wanted to condense the results of the research into a single volume so that readers could make comparisons and study general questions in different contexts. To sort out conceptual and contextual issues as they appear in three countries across three centuries may seem daunting, yet I hope that this book, condensed as it is, will appeal to general readers and will provoke reflection on the problem posed by the convergence of two kinds of power — that of the state, ever-expanding in scope, and that of communication, constantly increasing with changes in technology. The systems of censorship studied in this book show that state intervention in the literary realm went far beyond the blue-penciling of texts. It extended to the shaping of literature itself as a force at work throughout the social order. If states wielded such power in the age of print, what will restrain them from abusing it in the age of the Internet?

Excerpted from CENSORS AT WORK: HOW STATES SHAPED LITERATURE by Robert Darnton. Copyright (C) 2014 by Robert Darnton. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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In the early days of the Internet, cyberspace seemed to be free and open. Now it is being fought over, divided up, and closed off behind protective barriers.
robert darnton, censors at work, literature
Monday, 27 Oct 2014 09:45 AM
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