Review: “Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control” by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis

This is a chronological historical view on censorship, what it is, how it has changed over centuries, and where it currently is, in quite some civilisations. The book spans not only “Western society”, which is naturally good. Over all geographies and times, the recurring themes are moral panic, xenophobia, and the need to keep the population in check.

From the introduction:

There are many instances of injustice and the abuse of power in this book, as well as cases that are more difficult to call. Hit Man, for instance, presents itself as a handbook for would-be assassins. When its instructions were used to commit a murder, an appeals court found that the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech, did not protect Hit Man’s publisher from a civil lawsuit. Given that the publisher admitted that he intended the book to be used to commit crimes, was this a reasonable limitation of his liberties or a slippery slope leading to the censorship of crime novels and films? We invite you to consider the perspectives we present, and to think about where you would draw your own lines.

From the dawn of Milton’s “Aeropagitica” which was published in 1644 in an attempt to persuade Parliament to reject censorship, to Amazon (accidentally, over trademark issues) deleting George Orwell books from their online shop, the book picks up on different ways that governments, individuals, religious groups, kings, artists, and even creators themselves have tried to restrict access to material in a variety of ways, and problematises this throughout in very interesting ways, mainly morally and philosophically.

The problematic ways that one can see censorship are highlighted:

The effects of censorship, however, are not always easy to see. In 1988, following a moral panic about Susanne Bösche’s children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, the UK government passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Section 28 declared that local authorities, such as town and city councils, could not ‘promote homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. This patently homophobic law was vague and remained unenforced, but it successfully hampered discussions of same-sex relationships in schools, because teachers avoided the topic out of fear of violating a law that was difficult to understand.

As Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Queen Mab” opened a Pandora’s Box of potential issues for book vendors and publishers, the success of that book led to over twenty-six pirated editions of his poetry being flogged. This is known as the Streisand effect:

Censorship can even backfire, calling further attention to the object being censored. This phenomenon is known as the ‘Streisand effect’, after Barbra Streisand, who popularized photographs of her California home by attempting to suppress them. Sometimes communication is less like a chain and more like a river: block the flow here, and it bursts its banks over there.

This is not entirely uncommon, as this book shows; over centuries, many different kinds of censored literature has not only been pirated and smuggled, but also rewritten to make the new versions legally sound, at least for a moment. This is not unlike how drugs are today changed on the molecular level to make them legal.

There are many instances, from Émile Zola to Oscar Wilde, where authors even evaded their home country, but also when their publishers were attacked; in Wilde’s case, the popular franchise W.H. Smith stopped selling his writings entirely, and theaters vacated his plays.

This book is great at explaining how censorship has snaked its way to what it is today, in different places. Different tests of morality have been devised, on different media: the written word has been treated differently than comics, but the effects are always similar.

When the Australian magazine “OZ” was prosecuted for obscenity in the 1960s and 1970s, the effects were at times inadvertedly and simultaneously hilarious and frightening:

When John Peel, who had once had a sexually transmitted infection, suggested that it was a common affliction and that many people in the courtroom might have had one, Argyle took umbrage at the ‘very great accusation’ and later had Peel’s water glass destroyed.

Prisons censor what prisoners are allowed to read, Christian western countries censor Muslim literature (while Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” led to ayatollah Khomeini of Iran request the death of Rushdie, moral-panic persons such as Mary Whitehouse made homosexuality out to be The Devil in the UK during the 1980s… It’s all very well written.

The book also contains a small part on how corporations censor:

The internet also makes especially clear the role that large technology corporations now play in channelling speech. Google and Facebook’s algorithms, in addition to censoring content, select what users see in web searches or on their Facebook feeds. While bookshops have always been able to exercise or defy censorship, online retailers can do so on a vast scale. Electronic books, or e-books, are especially vulnerable to censorship. In 2009 Amazon deleted George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from users’ e-book readers without warning. Though the reason for this intervention had to do with a copyright error, it was an apt illustration of how, in a totalitarian state like the ones Orwell describes, governments or corporations can deprive the public of access to digital information.

All in all, this is a highly recommendable book, which opened my eyes to censorship, what it has actually been and how it appears today.

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