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.
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.
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.
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.
©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
‘We stand in the midst of a serious spiritual national disease, a black plague of degeneration and hysteria.’
The cultural avant-guarde has always managed to strike fear into the self-proclaimed guardians of high culture. The prose of poetry and pigments of painting for some hide the devil himself. Apparently, the safety of society is forever under threat from dangerous, delinquent, depraved artists. The vision of the gentile, melancholic, delicate figure of creation merely disguises a malicious and destructive creature, hell bent on undoing the progress that humanity has built over its entire existence. Driven by irrationality and desire these degenerates are out to get you.
Or so said, Max Nordau, cultural critic and philosopher of scarce humour. Nordau was born in 1849, and during his career he witnessed the flowering of new and rebellious artistic forms now famed as the first works of modernism. The subversion and experimentation that characterized this new art filled Nordau with an anxiety so great that he set out to expose it for the aberration he thought it really was. In his book ‘Degeneration’, 1892, Nordau aimed to map the degenerate and his species.
The key purpose of what now seems a overtly obsessive and hysterical critique was to defend the Enlightenment project. From the 17th Century intellectuals, philosophers and scientists had rapidly began to abandon the reliance on the dogma and superstition that ruled society at the time, instead favouring the Scientific method. The position of Church and Monarchy were being challenged all over Europe, and with that the unquestioned nature of their thought. Nordau held faith with the instigators of this change, believing that the advancement of thought and knowledge through reason was a noble goal for humankind.
Nordau may be easily type-cast as a grumpy old man,shocked by the new, and resenting the changing times, but his concerns were more than generational grumbles. The reason for his polemics is that he believed that the rationalism that supports the morals and ethics of society could be destroyed by the egotistical acts of artists. There was evidence to him that the humanity was becoming exhausted in its quest for progress and consequently was threatened by disintegration. Nordau identified what he believed to be the vulnerability of modern society, being that it is susceptible to internal mutiny. Artists that propagated indulgence and hedonism of emotionalism were therefore a threat to the stability of society itself, and the Enlightenment project.
In this way Nordau falls into a tradition of ‘art vs.society’ philosophy initially realised by Plato – where the passion of art can threaten the rationality of civilized life. This is why Nordau deemed himself messianic saviour of society and identified the enemies of his mission as ‘degenerates’.
‘That which really all degenerates lack is the sense of morality, and right of wrong. For them there is no law, no decency, no modesty.’
Nordau obsessed about the ‘degeneracy’ spreading over the late 19th Century that he was theorizing, and he offers one of the first explorations of the term. Degeneracy is not just a form of disintegration, a process of falling into disrepair, but is an active undoing. The instance of backwards evolution, unpicking complexity, and reducing humankind to a simpler state. Society was not in his opinion falling apart, but being pulled backwards by the tendencies of degenerates and those seduced by their works.
So, his book was a moralist tirade against subversive acts that he genuinely believed could cause the regression of human achievement, and he saves his most passionate denouncements for artists.
‘Ought art to be at present the last asylum to which criminals may fly to escape punishment?’
Nordau described many artists and writers as ‘degenerates’ among them were Wilde, Ibsen, Zola, Wagner and Nietzsche. Nordau doesn’t see the work of these artists as an alternative perspective on life, or experimentation with their mediums, but states the propagators of this new art are physically and mentally disabled. They are also extremely emotional, which feeds into their irrationality. He pictures degenerate artists, as people who have become unconstrained, essentially mentally unhinged.
‘He laughs until he sheds tears, or weeps copiously without adequate occasion; a commonplace line of poetry or of prose sends a shudder down his back; he falls into raptures before indifferent pictures or statues, and music especially, even the most insipid and least amendable arouses in him the most vehement emotions.’
Their works are at least conscious criminal acts committed by immoral agitators and at worst manifestations of deformities that cripple their perception and cognitive abilities. Nordau described the paintings of the Impressionists as manifestations of optical disease. According to Nordau quivering optic nerves created a alternative vision of the world to the Impressionists that they stupidly imparted on others.
Simply, agitating artists should be classified as, in some way, deformed. As progress depends on rationality, unchecked art is threatening because it propagates the irrational: passion, spontaneity, ego, desire and the unconscious. Without a firm grasp on rationality these artists have lost sight of the moral. Consequently they may inspire the immoral in others and ultimately destruction. They are a profound threat to the sanity of mankind in that their work is visible to the masses and attracts like-minded degenerates to it. In this way schools of degeneracy could arise and cause regression.
‘They corrupt and delude; they do, alas!’
Nordau was ridiculed for his conservative tirade against art and artists by critics like Bernard Shaw, but his descriptions of alternative vision and expression had a darker impact. Despite being an ardent Zionist, Nordau’s detailed explorations of the the possible physical and mental disabilities of artists found sway with the Nazi’s. Nordau’s description of the destructive possibilities of rebel aestheticism echoed with the Nazi’s as they wanted a prescribed, perfect Aryan state. The degenerate artists undermined this by: 1. existing and creating as disabled, biologically inferior beings and 2. exposing the public to a delinquency that may inspire delinquency in themselves. As Facism seeks to control all sections of society, quashing such forms of art were essential to its success. Therefore, in June 1937, the Nazi’s put an exhibition of degenerate art. The show hung the work of Expressionist artists, Picasso, Ensor, Van Gogh, Matisse and many more. Among the works were various descriptions of the inferiorities of the artists and the insults they cause the Third Reich. It was a accessible mocking piece of Nationalist propaganda that sought to alienate the avant garde and gain public support for the Nazi project.
Today the artists that were victims of Nordau’s and Nazi scorn are thought of as masters of modernism, but there is still a tendency to identify radical art with degeneracy. Some countries more explicitly censor or quash material that they deem offensive, blasphemous and unpatriotic; they identify its makers as inferior human beings. However many democratic societies still seem to demean in the face of challenging work. There is – especially among the popular media – routine discussions on the character of the artist in relation to controversial works. From accusations of stupidity, childishness and delusion that often accompany the Turner Prize, to the derision of makers of explicitly sexual works as overemotional, licentious and sadistic, some creative material material when new, challenging or contentious can still seem to inspire a defensive reaction; one that involves the act of demeaning and relegating for the sake of preserving what is considered normal.
Quotes – Nordau, M. Degenerate, (University of Nebraska Press: London and New York, 1968)
Jessica Gregory, 14/06/13
The unrelenting curse of Hulme, inner city district of Manchester, is that it is forever being pulled down. Constantly returning to rubble and growing up out of the ashes again and again with new ideologies.
It is a temporal district, where the architecture moves with the coming of age of its residents. As the children grow up and flee the nest, the nest disappears. Where one expects to be outlived by the permanence of stone, brick and morter, those in Hulme seem to survive their homes. The deceased buildings haunt the streets, rather than the dead.
Hulme originally served the mill and factory workers of industrial Manchester. In the 19th Century it was rows and rows of terraced houses. Hundreds of thousands of workers powering the first industrial revolution. Hulme was a stable for the first mass-manufacturing class, placing workers within walking distance of their factories. The thousands of identical homes reflected much of the city; as thousands of people started the 19th Century phenomenon of emigrating from countryside to city the streets filled to capacity and beyond. The red brick terraces became synonymous with the British working class, of hardship and reality. It was a area of Engel’s Condition of the Working Class, where cholera, whooping cough and other diseases took hold, choking its residents. In 1934 the area was declared unfit for human habitation and began its first journey into the dust.
Hulme was slowly un-built through the mid 20th Century, and brutalist concrete came to replace the bricks. High rises sprung out of the ground, and the biggest public housing project in Europe was born. The project sought to house 13,000 people and was completed in the early 1970’s.
The Crescents were designed by Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley, taking inspiration from Georgian crescents in Bath. Around the time of the Crescents construction shops on the Stretford Road high street began to disappear, and the factories of Dunlop, Gaythorn gas and Rolls Royce had long been forgotten. Hulme was to serve as a mass residential enclave on the outskirts of the city centre. A functional housing area and little else, the Crescents would reflect a new architectural style and provide a vibrant communal and aesthetic experience for the new residents. The glory of the idea faded within a couple of years of their construction. The new Mancunian Way motorway cut off Hulme from the city creating isolation in and via concrete. The quick and cheap construction of the Crescents meant they soon fell into disrepair, the new heating systems failed, and families were soon moved out due the dangerously ill-designed balconies. In fact, the project was abandoned altogether by Manchester City Council and the estate left for dead.
The Crescents became isles of their own, framed by motorways, unwanted by the council, they were essentially abandoned buildings. So in came the artists, creatives, punks, homeless, the wondering, criminals and various sub-sectors of society. Graffiti climbing up the walls, there were huge parties and happenings among the crime and degregation. The Crescents even had their own illegal nightclub. The degenerating buildings soon established an identity of their own where abandonment ruled and its citizens made the area their own. They continued to exist in this precarious state, unguarded by the council, slowly falling, open to the inspiration and desolation of their residents, awaiting their inevitable destruction.
This destruction arrived in the 90’s. The government supplied Manchester with the money to regenerate the area and slowly to the delight and dismay of many they were knocked down.
Manchester in the 90’s was in flux, transforming into a shiny, new, cosmopolitan city. With manufacturing dead it embraced the services revolution and soon found itself caked in glass. The newbuild mentality inevitably found its way into the architectural and identity void that was now Hulme. Manchester City Council found itself daunted by the task of rebuilding a physically and morally derelict area and responded in a typically detached fashion. Emphasis shifted from mass social housing to private enterprise. Planners wanted to create a village-y feel, but created a Ballardesque new town.
The post-crescent Hulme project hoped to establish a village like community with vitality and character, but ironically it achieved none of these. The new bricks; the carefully orchestrated spontaneity of housing; the specific spacing of greenery; and the private rents full of students and professional couples sitting behind the primary coloured railings of their tiny balconies inspired a vacuum of identity. The streets were constantly quiet and Hulme in its new form was grayer than ever.
Hulme is constantly in flux, and so are its citizens. To be a resident of Hulme in the 20’s had entirely different connotations to being a resident in the 70’s. The architecture can frame its residents, unifying the masses in their unified housing, or likewise, cast one as an outsider in a failed project. Social status has been overturned again and again as perception of the area changes with its buildings. The many outcasts from Hulme’s relentless destruction can find themselves relaying very different streets, different characters, different atmospheres to each other. The impermanence of the area makes its character and occupants unknowable.
There is no singular progressive direction for Hulme, it slips and slides backwards and forwards on the tides of higher plans. It is never given the space to grow organically. Today there are more plans for Hulme. A huge student campus is planned for Hulme and once again authorities beyond its borders will force the area into a new unknowable era and leave yet more ghosts in its wake.