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Article

Nicole Moore

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.