Sexually explicit images are among the oldest known representational artifacts, and yet none of these were ever understood as “pornography” until the word and concept began to emerge in Western European languages during the 19th century. At that time, it was used equally to refer to written texts and visual representations. The word has since entered into much more widespread usage, often referring to any and all sexually explicit material, more often to material that appears specifically designed “to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings” (Oxford English Dictionary). Since the popularization of internet pornography in the late 20th century, the term has even come to be applied to any image considered to emphasize the pleasure and seduction of the viewer over realistic representation (as in “food porn,” “real estate porn,” etc.). Many attempts have been made to define pornography more specifically, but little consensus has been achieved. Courts of law have generally avoided defining the word “pornography,” preferring to categorize sexually explicit or arousing representations in terms of “obscenity.” Feminist scholars have disagreed on the definition of pornography to the extent that the conflict became known as the “Porn Wars” of the last several decades of the 20th century. Sexually explicit or sexually stimulating representations can elicit powerful emotional responses that vary widely, and they are inextricable from questions of social power. Thus, the very act of defining pornography is implicated in political struggles over some of the most fundamental issues of human life: gender, sexuality, social equality, and the nature and power of representations. There remains no general or stable agreement concerning what it is, what effects it may have, or even whether it exists at all.
Insofar as literature is defined negatively, by what it is not, censorship has had a determining role in its historical constitution. Contemporary scholarship emphasizes the dynamic interplay between literary expression and forms of cultural regulation, recognizing its paradoxically productive capacity to generate as well as suppress meaning. At the same time, accounting for censorship’s role in the history of the world’s literature means coming to grips with the often brutal repression, prohibition, and persecution of writing, writers, performance, and cultural producers by sovereign power underwritten by violence. Tracing the genealogies of literary censorship, from its formulations in ancient Rome, through medieval religious persecution, sedition and heresy charges, theatre controls, early modern print and copyright licensing, to the seeming breakthroughs of the Enlightenment, details the interdependence of modernity and cultural regulation. At stake in this history are defining relations between culture and society, knowledge and power, not least in the manner in which literature traverses the boundary between public and private, and censorship polices that divide. The art-for-art’s-sake defense, which separates the literary from what is offensive—nominally from obscenity, pornography, libel, blasphemy, and sedition and effectively from politics, intimacy, and the real—stumbles and fails in the face of culture’s variant aims and readers’ differing pleasures. And the state’s use of the law to enforce its role as a custosmorum has placed not only art in opposition to the law, as Gustave Flaubert saw, but also culture in opposition to morality, when the state becomes the modern arbiter of culture’s social and political roles. The available frames for understanding censorship, from liberal, materialist, psychoanalytic, linguistic, and poststructuralist positions, face challenges from diversifying and yet synthesizing situations for literature in a global world.
While obscenity is notoriously difficult to define and the test for determining obscenity has shifted over time, typically the term has referred to the crime of publishing prohibited, sexually explicit material. Obscenity has always been a criminal offense in the United States. Citing English common law, judges in the early republic and antebellum periods maintained that obscenity threatened to degrade the nation’s character. Nevertheless, obscenity law was not strongly or consistently enforced throughout the United States until the Comstock Act in 1873. Anthony Comstock, founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, targeted Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass along with publications by advocates for feminism, free love, and birth control. American courts adopted the test put forth by Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn in Regina v. Hicklin (1868), which held that obscenity was defined by “the tendency . . . to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.” Obscenity became a battleground not only for debates about gender and sexual politics but also about the nature of the public sphere. During the 20th century, American literary presses and magazines became increasingly willing to challenge bans on sexually explicit speech, publishing controversial works including The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall and Ulysses by James Joyce. Modernist authors transgressed the legal bounds of propriety to explore the unconscious, fight for erotic pleasure free from heteronormative restraints, or claim aesthetic autonomy from moral and legal restrictions. United States v. One Book Called “Ulysses” (1933) struck a blow against the Hicklin test. Affirming Judge John M. Woolsey’s not guilty verdict, Judge Augustus Hand proposed a new test for obscenity that anticipated many of the themes that would emerge when the Supreme Court took up this question with Roth v. United States (1957), which defined obscenity as “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient [i.e., sexual] interest.” The Court liberalized obscenity law even as it maintained restrictions on pornographic literature, setting off a wave of censorship cases including trials on Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. After Roth, lawyers defending borderline obscene publishers pushed for courts to hold that a work could not be obscene if it possessed any redeeming literary or social value. Free speech libertarians succeeded with Memoirs v. Massachusetts (1966) and Redrup v. New York (1967). Although Miller v. California (1973) clawed back this ruling by stipulating that a work must possess “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” to be cleared of obscenity, in the 21st century obscenity convictions for publishing textual media have been limited to a handful of cases concerning pornographic depictions of child sexual abuse. Obscenity remains on the books but largely unenforced for literature.