Moving beyond binary understandings on censorship

“The book takes readers on a journey that spans more than three centuries, starting from French Revolution, leading into contemporary China,” writes Shruti Sonal.

“Censorship and the Limits of the Literary” (2015, Bloomsbury Publishing) is a collection of essays that covers a vast expanse of historical periods and geographical regions to throw light on various aspects of its central theme: censorship. Censorship is a broad term used to refer to prohibition, ban or suppression of works of literature, theatre or film that are deemed politically offensive or insensitive. The book, edited by Nichole Moore, centers around the various ways in which censorship has been practiced or enforced in the realm of literature, often forming the only component linking vastly different historical contexts.

Divided into four sections arranged in a chronological order, the book, edited by Nicole Moore, takes readers on a journey that spans more than three centuries, beginning with the essay titled “French Censorship on the Eve of the Revolution” and ending with “China’s Elusive Truths: Censorship, Value, and Literature in the Internet Age”. One of the key arguments of the book is that censorship is shaped by the tension between the historical legal limits of the nation state and the new planetary reach of the communicative sphere. It covers both the similarity of patterns of state’s use of censorship and the new challenges that arise in different periods. The essays throw light on how censorship has remained at the center of both the state and society, be it in the ancien regime of 18th century France, socialist structures in East Germany at the height of Cold War, Iran’s conservatism post the 1979 Revolution or the communist rule in present-day China. At the same time, it successfully deals with the manner in which changing character of the state, the concept of liberty and modes of communication have challenged and produced various avenues of censorship.

The vast expanse of the essays is tied together by a central idea, underlined by Moore in the introduction itself, that “censorship and literature are not antithetical opposites but dialectical forms of culture, each actively defining the other in ongoing, agonistic engagement”. This engagement leads to various patterns of interaction between the two, giving rise to new tools of repression and innovative modes of response. These patterns can be seen, for example, in the conflict between the introduction of new forms of communication and repression in Dutch East India colonies, the rise of women’s personal memoirs to escape political scrutiny in Iran, and the “Facebook revolution” that bypassed Mubarak regime’s censorship networks and fuelled the Arab Spring. One of the ironical consequences of this engagement, i.e. its tendency to draw attention to the very texts that are being suppressed, is highlighted in Clara Tuite’s essay “Not Guilty: Negative Capability and the Trials of William Hone” which analyses the trials of the early nineteenth-century radical writer, William Hone, who was charged with blasphemy and sedition but used the process, instead, to publicly mock the government and turn himself into a celebrity. Another interesting question raised by the book is whether literary criticism itself is a form of censorship, which is explored in Peter McDonald’s essay on “The Critic as Censor in Apartheid South Africa”.

The book’s biggest strength, however, lies in the fact that it is successful in moving beyond binary understandings and exploring the dialectical relationship between censorship and the realm of the literary. It engages both in historicization of censorship and understanding the factors shaping its contemporary face. The therapeutic effect of literature that breaks out of molds of censorship is outlined by Eve Zibart, who in “Silenced Lives”, writes that ‘the word is the expression of the essential self and the manner in which we recreate our universe.’

The book is an important work of literary and sociological study, that is of immense relevance to the contemporary world. The right to freedom of opinion and expression, given under Article 19 of the UDHR, and protected by various national laws, still remains unfulfilled in many areas. It is often the first casualty in periods of uncertainty, and the expanse of the world wide web has led to a growing scope of surveillance. Censorship has been exercised in various degrees and in different ways by regimes both democratic and autocratic in nature. In India itself, several writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and more recently Perumal Murugan, have been the victims of the censor’s snip. Yet, censorship has been challenged by a fierce press since the colonial era itself. Archaic laws such as the Section 66A of the IT Act of the Indian Constitution have been challenged by a strong civil society and brought down. The relationship between censorship and literary world, that has been so well explored in the book, has been a defining feature of India’s democracy and of every country across the world.

(L) Nicole Moore; (R) Censorship And The Limits Of The Literary


Shruti Sonal lives in Bengaluru, and works as a freelance writer for The Hindu and The Wire.

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