Sexy Pages and Sensitive Souls

 

The history of literature is as much a history of censorship as it is creation. Books have often burnt, sometimes with their authors. The motives behind banning or burning books alter through the years, but the dominating reasoning behind instances of 20th Century Western censorship of fiction has been sex. Literary explorations of sex and sexuality have been a profound source of anxiety for publishers and law enforcers. Sex is a potent creative subject; it contains connotations of power, control, expression and danger. Erotic literature reaches into something incredibly personal, plays on desire and questions limits, which has often induced a fearful and paranoid response.

The primary motive for censoring sexual literature is the belief that such works corrupt. Censorship seeks to stem this potential corruption by removing that which might inspire or encourage it, but in the process has to forsake democratic liberties. Some works are thought to have the power to influence the reader behaviour against their better judgement. It may seem humorous now that written sex has been deemed such a potent threat to society, but the notion that unchecked desire leads to subversive acts has been propagated since Plato. It is visible in the Greek opposition of Apollo and Dionysus, where Apollo represents goodness, rationality and reason, and Dionysus, spontaneity, chaos and the irrational. This opposition manifests in several forms: civilization vs anarchy, reason vs passion, man vs nature, and high vs low culture. Censorship aims to uphold the positive side of these oppositions in the face of the deviancy and destruction that unchecked desire can result in. Social cohesion requires that desire, from sex to violence, be harnessed and restrained for the benefit of civil order. A productive society and workforce is achieved by obedience, therefore the transgressive is detrimental to those in control. In this way censorship is not merely the act of hiding the disgusting or offensive from view. It is rather, an attempt to uphold the fundamental binary opposition of the rational, human, creators of high art, against the animalistic, daemonic corruptors of perverted art.

Sexuality was, in the early 20th Century, deemed a potent force of personal rebellion. Sex is transgressive in that it can undermine traditional gender roles and the family unit which were/are essential modes of structuring the population, law and work. The early 20th Century was saw a great number of books banned on charges of obscenity, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawerence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Rainbow, and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The threat of sexual deviancy was a potent one in these early years of the century. Previously, novel censoring had focused on heretical and subversive writings, ones that addressed and questioned ruling powers. However, with the increase in public literacy during the 19th Century, the Novel became increasingly popular and more widely distributed. It became an art form for the masses. The height of censorship of sexual literature parallels the increasing availability of literature to the masses, and the increasingly trangressive traits of the modernist avant-garde. In this instance, censorship was attempting to uphold standards of normality in the midst of two devastating world wars. The prevalence of novel censorship at this time was due to the profound changes taking place in society. Censorship following after transgression rather than preceding it.

The attempt to sustain sexual order begins by dividing it into categories of acceptability. That which is deemed unusual is relegated to the realm of the disgusting, and disgust is a prime motor of censorship. Disgust, morality and shame are typically defensive strategies against unbridled instinct. That which slips outside these categories of acceptability were deemed obscene and so too the literature which explores, describes and/or endorses it. Radcliff Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness found itself a victim of such censorship. Hall’s novel fell outside the realms of acceptability because of its lesbian narrative. As an early 20th Century novel, the charges of obscenity it faced originally based in Christian prudishness. Hall’s lesbian love story, though not explicit in its imagery, was deemed a great enough threat to merit having the novel destroyed. The issue for the court was that the relationship depicted is at no point condemned, and was therefore considered an endorsement of homosexuality. The book had the potential to corrupt women and children, so was believed to be a very real and physical threat to society:

The book advocates the toleration and social recognition of a form of vice known as lesbianism…it leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and sometimes suicide…the book should be regarded as obscene…the book must be regarded as a danger to society and the well-being of the nation.

It is the threat of corruption rather than offence that drove this particular instance of censorship. The book threatened authority by condoning homosexuality and depicting sexual liberated women in a time when the role of women was an issue of contention. In the UK, 1928 was a seminal year for women as it was they gained the same electoral rights as men, therefore traditional positions were being questioned. The insecurities over gender roles drove concerns over the seditious power of literature to feed female rebellion.

It was mostly depictions of homosexuality that persisted to be issues of contention. The homosexual themes of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch meant the book found itself banned on similar charges to The Well of Loneliness. Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was also put in the dock. These works, however, managed to successfully fight their charges. What followed from the clearing of these works was a radical reassessment of censorship in literature. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H.Lawerence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were subsequently cleared in light of the new laws on obscenity. If a novel could be proved to be of artistic and social importance whatever its content it could not be censored. The fifties marked a major turning point for novel censorship as definitions of obscenity changed to recognise that works could be both artistic and obscene. It is a sentiment recognised and explored by Susan Sontag in her essay, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’. The threat of prurient interest however could not persist. By the 50’s the modernist project had reached its peak, art and literature had fought with taboo for decades and the shock of written sex had widely worn off.

This change of tact does not signal a loosening of the power of censors, but just a shift of concern. There was a renewed interest in the heretical during the 50s in America due to Red Fear – the trial of Naked Lunch in Boston spent considerable time discussing the political satire present in the book. The Sexual Revolution of the 60’s and Third Wave Feminism of the 70’s meant the traditional cause of protecting women from the erotic was rendered obsolete. Sexual transgressiveness is not the force it once was. Books are still regularly banned for their pornographic or homosexual content, but regionally. The US sees hundreds of books pulled from shelves every year, but from local libraries and schools rather than countrywide. The influence of religious prudism is still a dominant force, throughout the West, but now State wide bans are rare. Fifty Shades of Gray would doubtless have been banned in the early 20th Century, as its imagery far surpasses the scenes in The Well of Loneliness. It embodies many of the features of the obscene; it explores violent and alternative sexual practices and is widely available to the masses, even the young. The book could inspire violent sexual experimentation, but also it may merely inspire one to by the Fifty Shades board game. The Novel is now rarely seen as a place of sexual transgression. The Shades trilogy caused little more than titillation and intrigue in the UK; the fear of sexual deviancy has migrated to others forms.

The demise of concern with sexual literature has also mirrored the rise of new media. The increasing availability of television and VHS gave a new dimension to sex. The rise of the image changed censorship concerns. Now the fear was that the Image is could corrupt, the ‘vunerable’ can engage with imagery much quicker than with literature. The rise of the printed, and then filmed porn industry meant that novels apparently no longer carried the subversive sexual threat they once did. In the midst of the proliferating image the debate of whether to censor has largely forgotten the written text. The internet now inspires the same hysterics that the text once did. The instant availability of hard-core pornography and challenging films are seen as a source of corruption.

The validity of censorship is ultimately undermined by its inability to fulfill its primary task: it does not stem sexual experimentation, promiscuity or homosexuality, it never has. Censorship responds to transgression rather than prevents it, so is already failing. Much like Hannah Arendt’s ‘violence’ it operates at a loss of control rather than the administration of it. Censorship is always one step behind. The more we try to contain and control sex and sexuality the more likely it will resist this restraint. The novels described here resist the shackles placed on literature forever extending the borders of acceptable erotic writing and artistic freedom.

Jessica Gregory 2012


This article was originally published with Inky Needles which has since ceased to exist. Though, in essence, with re-reading it I wasn’t too embarrassed by its contents, I am looking to expand and clarify on the themes and postulations it explores in the future.  

Form Follows Fear

The environment around us informs our being, but equally the nature of our being can inform our environment. We can forget in among our insistence on individuality, of personal freedoms and beliefs, that we are profoundly psychologically affected by the environment around us. Just as our moods can rise and fall with the weather, we are effected by what is built around us.

Variations in the physical characteristics of our surroundings influence our psychologies. In older cities, there is a confluence of designs and movements in their built spaces, these often inherently contradict each other – the sociological and aesthetic aims of architects vary from era to era and street to street, and therefore, there are wide variations in the  physicalities and atmospheres induced by  our urban environments.

London Razor - high tech skyscraper with built in turbines

Photo: Urban75 Blog

The streets dominated by close, tall buildings can inspire intimidation, the human being is rendered small and inadequate in their shadows. In heavily built inner-city spaces, where large populations work, overcrowding causes tension. Personal space is limited in the financial and commercial centres of cities. There is often little space for greenery, and therefore shelter and shade. Rain collects quickly in these tarmaced and paved spaces,  and is splashed back at pedestrians by heavy traffic.  Often the volume of people using these spaces means there is little room for seating, so it is a space for moving through. Stress and anxiety are indicative of such area, just as a dark open space can inspire fear. With the variation of some variables, the same open spaces can inspire relaxation, and populations gather towards them in their leisure time. Parks offer a holiday from the stress inducing spaces of the inner city; they offer places to go to at the weekend or somewhere to take a lunch break in. The light, colour, space, materials, geometry etc, of space influence us constantly, and transform our behaviours, moods and aspirations.

However, sometimes our pre-existing anxieties make or transform a space beyond the typically natural evolution of the urban.  The abstract nature of individual and collective fear can become solid, physical, realised in matter –  a fear that builds walls, fences and forts. The built environment in late-capitalism comes to reflect the psychology of the population. Especially as the idea of living collectively and communally has diminished through the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.

Post-war architecture had aimed at re-establishing communities; the philosophy of re-building after the war held at equality its centre, but it widely failed. Much postwar architecture attempted to invent utilitarian landscapes and communities, but found such buildings inept and people unwilling . Though the collapse of New Brutalist ideals is a complex issue, at an emotional level a prevalence of grey and brown can be debilitating, the heaviness and bluntness can cause unease, and the foreboding that results from visible decay can promptly destroy any community pride. Heygate estate in south London

Photo: Martin Godwin 

The failings of the project reflects the wider issue of the increasingly economically disparate populations. With the late 20th Century emphasis on privatisiation and liberal markets the communal social housing project was undermined as dated and undesirable, consequently the desire to fund and sustain these projects waned. The idea of the democratic city fell apart with the increased emphasis on egoism.

With the failings of the modernist project the singular community dwelling is a thing of the past. The form our private and public spaces take now revolves around the singular rather than the collective. This is where we witness the rise of gated communities and segregated urban spaces. Where in advanced capitalism the pressure for success is paramount, emphasis is on the individual. We want privacy over community, and build it that way. The public walkways of mass-estates and shared green space are deeply mistrusted now, and instead there is an emphasis on ‘defensible space’. Many have sought to escape the dangerous and spontaneous side of urban life by removing themselves from it.

Gated communities are fear manifest, traditionally the domain of the retired, they are fast becoming the primary architectural model for masses of people. Many monitor everyone who goes in and out, wall themselves in, and camera the exteriors. They are conditioned and sterile, removed from the spontaneity and danger. Many attempt self-sufficiency, including their own private roads, shops, leisure amenities, and even energy supply and schools. The architecture here is built out of emotion rather than aiming to create it.

The complexes popping up all over the world reflect the desire to escape the stress and uncertainly of a working urban life, but equally to provide an environment where one can pursue one’s desires without shame or guilt. A major feature of many gated communities is the emphasis on the leisure, from availability of green space, to golf complexes, tennis courts, running tracks and swimming pools.

homes

©2013 – Country Wood at St James

The architecture that follows fear lacks progressive design as it is not seeking to inspire beyond the nostalgic. Such architecture inspires simplicity and familiarity, whereas the modernist constructions of the past have left a legacy of unsurity. Fear stems the flow of creative design, so many of the newest gated communities offer nothing architecturally exceptional.

Urban populations are more and more economically polarized – neo-liberal economies have moved affluence and poverty to extremes. The prevalence of cameras, wire, and walls in cities world-wide is not just symptomatic of a certain class to privatise their social life and leisure pursuits into a certain area, it is endemic of a profound disparity groups of people. The ever-increasing economic differences make the technicalities of living and existing together more and more difficult. Where economic difference extends beyond a traditional lower, middle and upper class mentality, to one of abject poverty and profound affluence, living side by side becomes incredibly difficult. It is unfair to assume that all gated communities are the result of unbridled golf egos, as crime in the most economically divided cities of the world is pandemic and violent. The social problems created by income cause robbery, muggings and assaults as the social contract collapses with the desire to recoup some of the difference.

There is a fundamental desire to hide from the ever-more increasing differences in urban populations, especially where these differences can come back to haunt the more fortunate. Everyday architecture is increasingly undemocratic, from large-scale measures of gated communities to the everyday anti-sitting devices on any flat services, and the innumerable CCTV cameras on every street. The ideals of urban community end when certain populations opt out of the city and others resort to crime to sustain themselves. The result is an architecture of division and fear, and these forms are certainly the shape of the future.

© Jessica Gregory 2013

Political Folly

Kijong-dong in North Korea is a shadow of a city, a façade. It sits on the border of the North and South as an apparent, living breathing example of North Korean urban contentment. However, it is empty. The homes sitting on the horizon are just a false conscious construction of habitation. There are no inhabitants, no glass in the windows, and no rooms behind the house fronts. Though the streets are empty, large speakers bounce patriotic slogans off the concrete.

Cities often slip into disintegration and abandonment because of political idealism, but rarely are they built as a ghost town. The paradox of Kijong-dong is its intangible intentions. It has been built to be spied on from across the border; it pretends to live innocently, knowing full well it serves as a folly for the South.

See:

http://dailypropaganda.com/2011/05/06/kijong-dong-north-korea/

http://www.toposmagazine.com/blog/kijong-dong-potemkin-landscape.html