The OF Blog: Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

Friday, November 07, 2014

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature

What is censorship?  Like pornography, it seems to be a field that is hard to define, yet people feel confident that they can identify examples of it without worrying overmuch about the precision of their definition of the term.  If anything, the term "censorship" has become so broad that it could (and has been) be applied to almost any and every form of supposed information suppression, whether or not the entity or entities doing this presumed suppression are affiliated with any official government body.  Yet this increasingly diffused use of the term does little to explain the mechanics of censorship and how states, past and present, have used it to further their goals.  Beyond this, however, lurks the question of how power relationships are created and utilized in order to shape and control the dissemination of information, particularly literary works.  Are censors cogs in a monolithic machine, dispassionately stamping out works that might be a challenge to the ruling government, regardless of actual content?  Or is censorship itself but another area of socio-political discourse, in which there are frequent negotiations, implicit and explicit each, between artists and government representatives?

In his latest book, Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature, American cultural historian Robert Darnton tackles this tricky topic.  As he notes in his introduction, frequently in Western history there are periods in which the bounds of the permissible and the forbidden have been blurred.  All of our imagined "Wild Wests," past and present, have been "tamed" to some extent, often with at least the partial blessing of those who were once participants in less-regulated domains such as today's cyberspace, which has seen an increase of governmental regulation over the past two decades.  The main question, Darnton seems to posit, is not one of whether or not the state should be involved in the regulation of the internet, but to what degree it should have sway over the content posted there.  Furthermore, Darnton notes that the latest round of discourse on the state's role in regulating communication is not new to the 21st century, but that by analyzing past attempts by states to control communication and the means by which this was achieved, we can gain greater perspective on what is transpiring today (p. 13).

The history of censorship, therefore, is not one of aloof, monolithic governmental bodies, but instead is, as Darnton puts it, an "inside history," one that is full of back room negotiations and secret missions, where the agents of the state were as much curators of the written word as they were suppressors of seditious speech (pp. 13-14).  By delving into the available archives (which due to the spottiness of human record keeping, often limits such explorations to the past few centuries of Western states and even more recent for most non-Western states), a light can finally be shined on the players in these complex negotiations.  Just who were these censors and how did they make their decisions?  Were there times in which an individual censor's decision might purposely run counter to the implicit, if not express, desire of the state?  What differences and similarities can be found in states separated by time, space, and cultural history?  These are just some of the questions that Darnton explores in Censors at Work.

Censors at Work is divided into three main sections, each the subject of separate lectures that Darnton presented as part of the Panizzi Lectures in January 2014 at the British Library.  The first, "Bourbon France:  Privilege and Repression," concretes on peculiarities of mid-eighteenth century Bourbon policies regarding the approval of printed works.  At first glance, the ancien régime would seem to be a perfect example of the more Manichean concept of censorship/freedom of speech that many people have when they consider the effects of censorship.  As Darnton notes:

France offers the most dramatic examples:  the burning of books, the imprisonment of authors, and the outlawing of the most important works of literature – particularly those of Voltaire and Rousseau and the Encyclopédie, whose publishing history epitomizes the struggle of knowledge to free itself from the fetters imposed by the state and the church. (p. 23)

But these actions, damning as they seem to be, are perhaps only the most sensationalist examples of Bourbon censorship.  Just who were its censors and how do their activities fit into the espirit du temps?  The answers to this are far murkier and yet somehow are more illuminating than a simplistic presumption that the censors were opposed to the leading writers of the French Enlightenment.

It must be made clear that in pre-Revolutionary France, it wasn't as much the authors of works (fictional and political tracts alike) who were responsible for the contents of printed materials as it was the responsibility of the printers who agreed to publish these works and to help disseminate them.  Since 1275, these booksellers/printers had been under the authority of the University of Paris and, by extension, under that of the king. (p. 24)  Each officially-sanctioned publication bore on its title page this line:  "Avec Approbation & Privilege du Roy" ("With the approbation and privilege of the king").  Here is an interesting example of censorship in a positive fashion:  the work published has been approved and found free of questionable material, therefore it can be sold in public.  In one sense, it is literally a "seal of approval" that lets readers know that the work in question is fully legit.  In another, this approbation, or rather approbations, as many pages bear the names of those who ultimately approved the work, served as a sort of book blurb, in which the censors, often with their names printed, gave their reasons for why the work in question was approved for publication.  Instead of these censors acting as deniers of the flow of information, here in Bourbon France they often acted as curators of the arts.  Occasionally, these approbations read more like works of literary criticism (not surprising, since many of the censors were fellow writers and university professors) than something that might be expected from a government functionary.

Tied into this is the concept of "privilege," which is fundamentally different from today's conceptualization of matters of press and speech.  Darnton notes that privilege (which in turn is derived from a compound word for "private law") was the organizing principle of eighteenth century society (p. 29).  Laws did not apply equally to all; hierarchies determined the applicability of certain legal concepts.  Laws thus were not societal legal guidelines, but instead were special dispensations that proceeded from a monarch's inherent power and which were accorded to certain groups or individuals.  Printed literature, far from being a means of mass cultural dissemination of ideas, were instead understood to be artifacts of privilege, granted to an express few.  In one sense, the privileges of the book trade (who could produce it, print it, and sell it) epitomized the ancien régime's system of granting approval and withholding it from others.

Yet the official book trade had its own series of pitfalls.  Works sometimes appeared in official quarters that were critical of the king.  Sometimes the censors found themselves in trouble for this, while at other times, they took great pains in order to communicate to certain writers what had to be changed in order for the work to be published.  Other times, a submitted work could be fully orthodox and rejected on the grounds that its literary qualities were not on the level of those to be expected for the reception of the king's official approval. (p. 31)  Then there are cases in which patronage came into play, especially as the royal bureaucracy expanded in the eighteenth century.  Often the censors had to negotiate with the director of the book trade administration.  Darnton cites several examples from the 1750s and 1760s of the critical role that this director, C.G. de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, played in the negotiations between writers, censors, and their superiors in determining whether or not a work would receive royal approbation and be published by an officially licensed printer.  Sometimes these discussions were informal in nature, often conducted through a series of letters, some of which were of considerable length. (p. 40) 

Censors, themselves doing this mostly for future patronage and not for the nearly-non-existent pay, often acted more as editors than as agents of the government.  They accepted assignments from Malesherbes, most tailored to their specific academic specialties.  Occasionally, they would correspond with authors, usually via anonymous means, and even met with them, despite the pains many went to keep knowledge of their role as approbators secret from the writers with whom they were communicating. (p. 46).  These correspondences often influenced their perception of works, as sometimes works of questionable literary quality were approved due to the censors being aware of the writer's financial straits. (p. 46).  Sometimes these discussions with authors became contentious, but on the whole, Darnton argues that this form of censorship served to bring censors and authors closer together.  Far from being sworn enemies, in Bourbon France authors and censors could be seen as parts of a collaborative exercise, in which the censors served as a sort of quasi-editor whose commentaries served to improve the considered works.

But what about those works which were not sent to the censors for approbation?  In these cases of unlicensed works, the matter is more dire.  If otherwise non-offensive, works published outside France could be brought in, provided that another part of the state apparatus, the police, did not perceive them to be threats to state or national morality.  But for those works judged to be obscene, the punishments could be severe.  The case of Mlle. Bonafon and the scandalous Tanastès, concerned with the sex life of Louis XV, is emblematic of how the regime reacted when a work outside the official book privilege system was made available for sale.  Her imprisonment for over thirteen years indicates that the French system was not as cordial as might be expected after reading prior tales of chummy censors and writers.

Although Darnton devoted roughly a third of Censors at Work to Bourbon France, this review has spent a disproportionate amount of space on it due to the similarities found between it and the other two case studies.  While there is much of interest in the other two sections, much of the conclusions are similar to those found for Bourbon French censorship policies.  Yet there are some key differences.  For example, in the second section, "British India:  Liberalism and Imperialism," the focus is more on how the conflicts between the ruling British aristocracy and the native Indian constituencies are rooted in a complex understanding of British legal beliefs and Indian political reality.  Censorship did not exist as a standard system on the British Isles in the nineteenth century, but in the aftermath of the 1857-1858 Sepoy mutinies, the Raj had to develop a way of understanding their native subjects better.  Indian publications were scrutinized more, especially as there was an explosion of printed material available in the various Indian languages in the mid-nineteenth century.  Since there were very few British officials conversant in all of the subcontinent's languages, native speakers had to be recruited to play the role of censors. 

As in Bourbon France, these censors often struck up relationships with the writers they were examining.  However, there were some interesting differences, particularly in the way that texts were analyzed.  In Great Britain, copyright laws had replaced the system of royal privilege long before the conquest of India.  In addition, the censors were more concerned with matters of libel, especially as comments critical of the Raj, even obliquely, could threaten the fragile post-mutiny peace.  Frequently, the Raj utilized the legal system to prosecute questionable writers for libel for things as picayune as talking about particular planters or the suffering that many Indians experienced in their everyday lives.  While the literary censors were not as complicit here, it is worth noting that in the Raj, the courts served as the silencers of those who wrote texts that could be construed as attacks on the government.  It is here where the more traditional views of censorship come closest to actual reality.  Yet there is a curious contradiction, in that in bringing these often-ruinous libel cases to court, the Raj went to great pains to appear to be preserving British ideals of free press while in reality denying full freedom to its Indian subjects. (p. 142)  And yet even within this elaborate charade, there were negotiations between the government and writers, with more give-and-take taking place on both sides than what otherwise might be expected from a foreign-dominated government.

The third section, "Communist East Germany:  Planning and Persecution," is perhaps the most illuminating of the three cases because it is the closest to our modern conceptions of state and literature.  Darnton bases much of his essay here on interviews he did with two East German censors during that period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the re-unification of the two Germanies in October 1990.  He discusses how integrated the East German censors were within the governmental structure and how certainly literary "plans" were developed for the publication of literary works for a given year.  For the East German government, literature grounded in socialist reality was esteemed and the role of the censors was to cultivate relationships with writers, to use a carrot-and-stick approach to get them to conform to governmental expectations.  While there were certainly times that the government arrested dissident writers, on the whole, the censors' task was to persuade writers to conform their works to government expectations.  As in the case of Bourbon France, this led to cozy relationships between the censors and writers, with certain writers receiving partial protection from other elements of the East German government.

This is not to say that conditions were ideal for East German writers.  Frequently they had to negotiate with their censors just to get certain elements included.  Christa Wolf managed to negotiate for ellipses to be left in the text of her most famous work, Kassandra, to denote the excised parts the censors had removed (these sections were later filled in with samizdat typewritten fragments to be inserted within the book).  Others would beg and sometimes even cajole the censors for passages to be preserved.  Sometimes the censors faced criticism from within the government (East German leader Erich Honecker played a personal role in many cases) for allowing certain works critical of the government to be published.  Darnton does an excellent job in outlining not just the negotiations that took place, but also their implications for the East German government.

In his conclusion, Darnton justifies the ethnographical approach toward censorship that he took.  By using archival evidence and allowing the principal actors to "speak" through their recorded thoughts and writings, he argues that a larger, more composite image of censorship emerges.  In particular, authors, far from being helpless victims, could sometimes play a strong role in determining the discourse being established between writer and state (p. 233).  They could negotiate with the government's censors in order for certain passages to be preserved, but they could also appeal to powerful political patrons.  In all three cases, the works in question could be published abroad, although there were specific consequences that could have a negative impact on the writers.  It is in these interplays between complicity, collaboration, and negotiation that the literatures of these three places, France, India, and East Germany, were shaped.

Darnton does an outstanding job in developing his approach toward the topic and exploring the comparisons and contrasts between his three chosen locales.  Through extensive citing of archival evidence, he builds a strong case for censorship being not an uniformly negative, oppressive entity, but instead a complex, nuanced field in which the concerns of the government and the artistic desires of writers converged and which produced a broad discourse through which negotiations took place.  Although there were times that it felt as though too much emphasis was placed on the literary responsibilities of these censors and not enough to the various roles, implicit and explicit alike, that other governmental bodies played in controlling written communication, on the whole Censors at Work is one of the best cultural studies of government-literary interactions that I have read since I finished grad school in 1997.  Highly recommended.

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