Peter Horn on Censorship, 1979

Peter Horn, 1979, “The right of the people to censor the arts”,  In National Union of South African Students (Ed.), Dead in One’s Lifetime, Cape Town: NUSAS (1979) pp.92-105

The state which does not censor the arts, does not take the arts seriously. The state which does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. Any discussion of censorship and the relation of the state to the arts, which does not deal with both horns of this dilemma, will not come to grips with the complexity of the subject, and will end up with the irreconcilable dichotomy between the liberal stance of laissez faire and the authoritarian imposition of censorship.

As a writer I am deeply disturbed that the euphemistically so-called Publications Board (which publishes nothing but lists of unpublishable books) has banned nearly every word I have said and published in South Africa in the last ten years, so much so that it has become forbidden even to criticize me. Nevertheless, it would be a fallacy to reject the right of the state to indulge in practical criticism of this kind, and to demand that „there shall be no censorship”, as the basic law of some democratic states does (while at the same time imposing a sneaky kind of indirect censorship which purports to protect minors against the ravages of pornography and brutal violence). It would be a fallacy, because it would mean one of two things: either that the words, images, and sounds which we call art have no effect whatsoever, and that it is therefore futile to pretend that they can do any harm to anybody, and should therefore be banned; or that the state as the representative of the people has no business to be alarmed about the potentially harmful effect of the art, that the state should allow the poison of harmful art to circulate in society and bring about its harmful effect unchecked.

From its own point of view the South African state is performing its duty as the guardian of the public weal, and at least it does not pay us, as some liberals do, the doubtful compliment of declaring the arts to be totally harmless. The Censor Board takes the arts seriously, deadly seriously one might say. It pays me the exaggerated compliment that my Plumstead Elegies or my Civil War Cantos could endanger the safety of the state. They are exaggerating, I’m sure; they are much too optimistic about the possible effects of art; perhaps because they assume the readers of today are still the same slow readers of the Bible of only a century ago, the intense readers, who weighed up every word they read and acted according to their judgment afterwards. Unfortunately for us, the artists, that is no longer true in a time, when each of our potential readers is bombarded with an untold wealth of information, and even the professional readers in our universities have largely lost the ability to read other than superficially. The censors still hold to the old fundamentalist respect for the Word and the old fundamentalist abhorrence of the Image (so much so that even after the reluctant introduction of T.V. we don’t see much that is worth seeing on that image box). But given the idea that art has an effect on people, it is entirely consistent to ban all those forms of art which can be assumed to subvert the basic pillars of the present South African society, i.e. that art which is blasphemous, pornographic, anti-capitalist and generally anti-South African.

The problem of tolerance is a tricky one. In the name of tolerance we expect the state to tolerate writings and art forms which the state sees as fundamentally threatening its existence, we expect churches to tolerate art which the churches must see as blasphemous or destructive, and the democratic progressive organizations to tolerate products which slander the democratic movement, written by people whose intolerance has helped to detain, incarcerate and even kill members of the democratic movement. But if we, members of progressive organizations, are intolerant towards the intolerant, according to which standard do we apply this intolerance; and if we are tolerant to the intolerant, heaven help us in our folly! We have warning signals enough to show us that the unlimited democracy is a marvelous breeding ground of fascist dictatorships, who use the tolerance of democratic states to hoist themselves to power, in complete legality or on the borderline between legality and a coup. The attempt does not prevent the enemies of democracy using the play ground we are creating for their own bullying tactics.

The slogan „Everything goes!” in the field of arts, which is nothing but the abdication of the serious critical faculty, which is prepared to face the consequences of its judgment, does not get us very far, anyway. Our shrugging indifference merely means that commercial concerns take over, and remint our indifference into multi-million profits: so we are for no censorship at all, and the owners of Playboy, Mayfair and Men Only exploit the naked bodies of women and their desire to become stars for even a month in whatever degrading a manner, and the unfulfilled sexual desires of frustrated men; our tolerance allows SABC TV to besmirch the honour of bishop Tutu with no possibility of redress; allows the owner of a newspaper, merely because (s)he has the capital to print and distribute her (his) views, to poison society with fascist and reactionary ideas; allows the producers of T.V. serials to portray brutal violence and reactionary authoritarian views as heroic and beam them into every home with a T.V. set. The argument that we are as free to buy or reject Playboy as the girls are to let themselves be photographed or not in the nude, does not hold water: the concept of an ideally rational human being who decides according to her (his) best and true interest, underlying the liberal fallacy, is constantly subverted in our society by subtle and crude economical and psychological pressures, which everybody who has ever been trapped by cunning advertising or by friendly precept into smoking and wants to give it up will know. The freedom to will good or evil is narrowly circumscribed by dependencies of our own and others’ making; and to postulate that (wo)man is free (in contradistinction to: (s)he ought to be free!) is either to delude oneself, or a willful confusion of the issue by those that profit from the helplessness of the „free” consumer.

In the same way in which the state asks itself whether it has got a responsibility towards its citizen (it does so very haphazardly: it bans pornography but not tobacco-smoking, although the latter is proven to be much more dangerous), so I as a teacher have to ask myself whether I do not have a responsibility towards my students, equally grave, to protect them from different dangers, perhaps, than those which the state protects them from. The questions which I cannot shirk are by example: Should I teach literature which furthers mythical, religious, political and social misconceptions? Should I tolerate religious art which only preaches acceptance of suffering, resignation and renunciation, which diverts us from a true fulfillment in this world, and is thus inimical towards the progress of humanity? Should I teach such openly heroic and militaristic texts as the Nibelungenlied, the Mahabharata or the Chanson de Roland, that is all those enormous slaughters in which heroism is often measured simply in the number of butchered opponents? Should I teach all the „courtly” art, which teaches fawning servility in the face of overwhelming power? Is the ideology of Beowulf so much more palatable than praise poems in honour of Hitler? Should I only approve of humanistic works like Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, Goethe’s Iphigenie, Schiller’s Don Carlos, Brecht’s Caucasian Chalkcircle, or Peter Weiss’ “Lusitanian Scarecrow”? Should I interpret only works which press toward a greater freedom of mankind and condemn all the works with an undesirable ideology to oblivion? And if I were appointed by a truly democratic state to supervise the arts, would not the consequence of this stance be that I ban like the South African state does now, only in reverse: in order to prevent the dire consequences, would I not have to ban anything which undermined the future of the democracy, which contained in it elements of fascism, capitalism and authoritarianism? Would any leniency towards such works not be an open invitation to the enemies of the democratic state?

If anybody does not take this responsibility seriously, then (s)he should ask herself what (s)he would do, if one of her (his) students told a court that (s)he blew up a hundred people with a home made bomb, because (s)he was made to read some anarchist text in her (his) course on 19th century politics, or if (s)he heard that one of her (his) students committed suicide because (s)he read Kafka while doing German III. Naturally you can always get out of this poser by declaiming that the young people were diseased before you inflicted that kind of book on them, that (s)he would have thrown that bomb anyway, that (s)he would have committed suicide anyway; but should mentally and historically unconditioned people be exposed at all to problems which they cannot master? Should they simply be thrown into the cold water so that they may learn to swim? What if they don’t learn to swim? What if their infantile egoism is only hardened by the required reading of Nietzsche? What if Zarathustra only strengthens them in an arrogant he-man-attitude? Questions like these need to be seriously entertained.

What I hope to have made clear is that the liberal concept developed against an absolutist and authoritarian state, has its historic merits, in that it opposed an uncontrolled state machinery, but it has its drawbacks, in that it disregards that freedom of expression is largely bound up with the means to express oneself, and these depend in the last instance on the possession of capital: because, however free the publishing trade, the press, the trade in artistic products is from the interference of the state, it is in itself uncontrolled and can dictate its own terms both to the artist who needs these media to express himself and to the public; in fact, one can draw an analogy between the way the kings and princes of the absolutist age treated politics and the state as their private affair, their family business, and the way in which the media of art are now treated as the private affairs of the owners of the media. If we were to direct the cry „No censorship!” against the media themselves, they would reply indignantly, that: a) they did not apply any censorship, and that, b) anyone dissatisfied with their handling of the affair could easily establish her (his) own newspaper, journal, art gallery, (there we stop: because at least in South Africa we cannot establish our own radio, T.V., schools, Universities).

The editors of even a small circulation arts journal will testify how nearly impossible this is, in the absence of sufficient capital. What is important to remember, in my view, is that „absence of censorship”, „freedom of the arts”, „free enterprise” all entail the absolute say of the private owner and no control by society at large. This privatistic view of the „freedom of the arts” is therefore about as doubtful as a privatistic view of the „academic freedom” of the university, with no concept of the responsibility of someone who at least in praxis acts on a public platform: the artist and the academic teacher; both publish, i.e. address a public, try to disseminate their views and their ideas, and therefore must take the consequences of entering the public domain, responsibility for their acts, deeds and words in the context of society. Conversely the owners of the media have to account for their actions in the forum of a democratic state; their accountability being even more important than the artist’s, who after all without the help of the media can at most indulge her (his) harmful or beneficial urges in private.

A very troubling thought arises in connection with the concept of „privacy”: the Puritans of the Glorious Revolution, the Jacobins of the French Revolution and the Socialists of the Russian Revolution all understood only too well that the delimitation of a private sphere fostered every shade of anti-social thinking; even if the freedom of religion, art and philosophy is restricted to the private home, such a region excised from public debates creates the very breeding place of privatistic attitudes, which by necessity will eat like a cancer through society; thinking in terms of private spheres fosters that type of schizophrenic existence which splits man into a citizen of the state which is foreign to him, in which (s)he is only a passive, administered object, and a private person, who as far as her (his) actions in this sphere is concerned, owes nobody an explanation. The Greeks called a man who does not take part in the political life of the community an idiot: sensing both the egoism and the limitations of a man who cannot or does not want to bear the responsibility for the whole. Confronted with the opaqueness of the private life of their citizens, they made it a duty of everybody to „spy” on everybody else, in order that public values could penetrate into the private refuge of egotistical drives. Their ideal was the perfectly lucid society with no dark and hidden corners, inaccessible to public reason and morality. The puritans of all ages, Socrates, Calvin, Robespierre and Lenin, saw no distinction between public and private morality, and no distinction in the duty of the state and the society to enforce both. It is from this concept that the South African state fundamentally derives its mandate to interfere in the private life of the individual, and it must be admitted, that in its origin at least, if not in its present perverted form, it was revolutionary, in that it substituted brutal irrational force, applied by an absolutist state, with democratic supervision of the mores of society and brotherly advice. Revolutionary repression tries to replace state terrorism, which maintains order by instilling fear and taking human lives, by some sort of mutual control and self-restraint, making force unnecessary and at the same time blocking off avenues of private escape. Freud, in his Civilization and its Discontents, sees revolution as the sharing of instinctual deprivation in the name of justice, the willing acceptance of repression by new social groups: „Liberty has undergone restrictions through the evolution of civilization, and justice demands that these restrictions shall apply to all” .What is revolutionary about this ‘sacrifice’ is that it calls into question the very necessity of the government, that is, of the whip, the gallows and the bloody sword. It suggests that all these be replaced by self-government. Private man can be repressed from above; political man frees himself from that outer-directed repression, the inert state of subjection to a sovereign, by assuming responsibility for the whole in conjunction with her (his) sisters and brethren.

The pledge or covenant creates a kind of mutual terrorism, which frees man from the coercion of the state but subjects them to that of their fellows. The claim to control oneself is the claim of revolutionary right, the claim to be free. The free no longer need a law-giver: they themselves give themselves their own law; they no longer need a law-enforcer; they enforce the law on themselves. State terrorism depends upon the customary inertia or the coerced passivity of the masses of men and women, and upon the activity and power of a relatively small number, assisted by a more or less efficient organization of spies and informers, torturers and hangmen; it exploits the human fear of violent death and it offers to its subjects in exchange for their passivity and obedience security against all violence except its own; the great and only pleasure of its members, wrote Rousseau of modern society, „is the pleasure of not being dead”. State terrorism thus depends on the state’s ability to transform the public realm – and to the revolutionary everything is public – into two private areas: the isolated private area of each of the citizens of the state, and the private area of politics, excised from the res publica (the public affairs) to become the region of the affairs of the powerful.

By insisting on the privacy of the realm of arts, by rejecting every interference in it by the state, the artist creates the very state power which allows the state to interfere in her (his) „private” affairs. The dialectics of power of the state is such that one cannot oppose the censor, but must be prepared to expose one’s art to the scrutiny of all. One must recognize that art, like making love and making profit is a public activity, for which one must be able to give an account to everyone in the common wealth of men.

The fault of the South African system of censorship is not that it is public, that it is interference of the state in the private affairs of its citizens, as has often been argued, but precisely in that it is private, itself shielded from a public debate of the norms and values underlying its judgments. In fact, the South African system of censorship is private in a dual way: first it is private in that it is shielded from the public debate in court, even shielded from any debate in newspapers or any other public medium; second in that the laws which determine its making are the private laws of a ruling minority forced down the throats of an oppressed majority.

And that brings us to the second horn of our dilemma, namely that the state who does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. The idealist belief in the inherent rationality of men, their willingness to make rational choices once they have been freed from the compulsion of the absolutist state, which underlies bourgeois attacks against any form of restraint on „private enterprise”, the hidden assumption that if left to her (his) own private devices, man by furthering her (his) own private interests necessarily will further the interests of all, has been utterly discredited by the development of capitalism in the 19th century. The pessimism of a Hobbes seems to be more adequate to describe the state of human affairs than the optimism of either Rousseau or the Utilitarianists. The belief in the „essential” human goodness has disappeared with the belief in transcendental essences. And with it has disappeared the comforting thought that all human beings can and must escape the state of mental minority by the courageous use of their own rationality, which Kant and Schiller were advocating.

But that same pessimism confronts us with the choice of either cynically accepting as human nature the weaknesses, failings and irrationalities of all men, of preaching an understanding which is forgiving of all sins even those which brutally mutilate the face of man, or postulating that some men are more equal than others, and to appoint them (or allow them to appoint themselves) as the final arbiters over human affairs, reviving the dilemma, of who will supervise the philosopher-statesman, unless we want to subscribe to the reactionary belief that people are born into their trades, and that the shoemaker should thus not meddle in politics, nor the politician in shoemaking.

Or maybe the alternatives themselves are wrong, the either-or-logic, which is the last hidden trace of idealism subverting even the most courageous materialism, forcing it to impose the categories of the mind on the far more flexible dialectics of reality. It is a logic which forces us into a corner, where like Kafka’s mouse we see no other exit but through the cat’s mouth into death. If we employ a logic which instead of the everlasting status quo implied in the phrase „human nature”, assumes that human nature is not equal to itself, because it is not static, but a process, we may be able to create solutions which bypass certain shipwreck in either the whirlpool of an anarchic concept of privatism or on the rocks of an authoritarian superstate subordinating man to its machinery. Let us conceive of human nature as of a process of collective becoming which constantly alters its being through time by the collective endeavours of co-operative individuals in a collective network. We will then fall neither in the trap of a permissive indifference denying all the norms nor into the trap of an authoritarian assertion of one particular norm as the absolute norm of all times and places. Instead we will learn to conceive of norms as the crutches used by collective humanity to lean on in its limping march into the future; to deprive the cripple of crutches does not necessarily make him leap faster, but most often condemns him to the dust. Norms are necessary but changeable, and the creative adaptation of norms, the invention of new norms of seeing, speaking, singing, judging, and acting, is what being an artist means. So why should the artist, being an agent of historical change, be surprised, that (s)he is involved in a struggle, why should the artist demand that (s)he be spared what every other agent of change (political, scientific etc.) has to go through: the pain of changing? If (s)he opposes the norms of society, why should (s)he expect to remain unpunished where even school children are shot dead if they don’t like to be taught in the language of the oppressor?

In the end it is not the state which can grant him that kind of ritualistic freedom which (s)he craves in order to create and re-form humanity in her (his) own image: not even the socialist state: if (s)he cannot convince the majority of all the citizens of the state that what (s)he does is valuable, (s)he must not complain that (s)he is persecuted; unless (s)he makes the masses her (his) ally, (s)he has no lasting freedom. In order to will her (his) freedom (s)he must will the freedom of the masses, their true freedom. Instead of presupposing the ability of all human beings to become master over themselves (s)he must make enlightenment her (his) praxis and her (his) project; because only an enlightened humanity, where everyone is capable of making her (his) own rational choices in consensus with everyone else, is the guarantor of artistic liberty.

The right of the people to censor ceases when the right of the artist to an unfettered freedom to create ceases to endanger the production and the reproduction of society. The repression of the traditional, absolutist, authoritarian state serves to safeguard the rule of a tiny minority of rulers; it creates a traditional social structure in which the great majority of men did not control themselves or one another, but were passive, faithful members of an authoritarian church, loyal participants in an hierarchical order; there was artistic freedom even in this society: the conformist could thrive and paint her (his) wild canvasses with the heroic deeds of a King Arthur, a Parcival, a Tristam and Isolde, or enter into the religious ecstasy of martyrdom and holiness. The liberal freedom of the bourgeois classes gave the artist a new framework in which to express her(him)self, but it contained mechanisms of censorship nevertheless, repression as dangerous if not more so than outward symbols of power, the whip, the gallows and the sword; more dangerous I would say, because they tend to be as invisible as the ubiquitous and uniform symbol of capitalism, money; when you are confronted by the flaming stake of inquisition, you at least know what you are fighting, and you will do it consciously, one hopes bravely, but when you die of hunger in the poet’s garret you may not even be aware of the mechanism of repression invoked against you.

And the artist who has been bought off by monetary success will even fall in love with her (his) golden prison, and believe it to be freedom. The puritan socialist model again creates its own freedoms and repressions, which only the superficial observer can equate with repression of other absolutist forms of state and other forms of state which call themselves dictatorships. Because they are dictatorships, if not yet of the people then at least for the people. People who never had the chance to speak, the mute masses, turn artists, encouraged, fostered, even bullied into articulateness by a state who must make good its claim of being a people’s republic. Others, those who equate the bourgeois state with freedom itself, are silenced. Not only the capitalists who made their profits from the cravings of the exploited masses, not only the dealers in spiritual opium and imaginary marijuana, but also the apparently harmless dealers in art for art’s sake, find their freedoms withdrawn, in the name of a people who themselves still feel the craving for these anti-socialist poisons and resent the censorship imposed on them, like children resent the restrictions which their parents impose on their sex life and cigarette smoking. In their zeal to protect the „helpless” masses from their enemies, the good philosophers of the puritan Republic may even censor those of their supporters, who mix their solidarity with the masses with healthy criticism. When socialists seize state power they must use it against their opponents, or their opponents will mercilessly slaughter them, as Franco did, as the Chilean and the Greek junta did; if they did not, they would betray the trust of those people who risked their lives to overthrow the old order. They must also use the state power against those passive, withdrawn or simply fearful people, whom the Puritans called „neuters”, to short-cut those long and difficult processes by which men are brought to pledge themselves to collective repression and to reinforce the new and generally underdeveloped mechanisms of mutual surveillance. Their dilemma is that in doing this they deny the possibilities of genuine self-government without force and re-establish the old patterns of public conformity and private vice. Revolutionaries in power justify their terrorism by statements which are undoubtedly true: the majority of people in their country have not yet committed themselves to self-control and mutual surveillance; for these people they argue, external control and the bloody sword continue to be necessary. The Revolution needs time to win the hearts of its people, but until hearts are won, bodies must be constrained. But: the effects of this terror always is a frozen revolution, a failure to win the heart.

The problem becomes tractable only if we insist that the only one who has a right to restrict the freedom of the individual is the people as a whole, and that no freedom is secure except that which derives from the consensus of the masses. And a permanent consensus of the masses can not but arise out of the pursuit of the true interest of the masses. And the true interests of the masses is to become the speaking subject of history, in order to take care of its own affairs. What they need is not a state in which others are appointed guardians over their fortunes, but they themselves. That would mean, however, the assumption of adulthood, self-responsibility, discipline; something which the individualistic isolated man of liberal society shirks. There cannot be a relaxed, permissive, privatized society of self-governing citizens, who spend their evenings at home, or in the office, or in the shops. To take responsibility means to give of one’s time, evenings and evenings spent at meetings to help direct the course of the state as a whole; to refuse this „sacrifice” of the private life means to refuse freedom and to choose the bureaucrat, or worse, the hangman. It would also mean that the people would demand the right for everyone (because ideally then nobody can be excluded from the process of sifting good from bad) to have access to everything, every form of art, even the most consistently banned, the books from the dark cellar of the library, the morgue where the de Sades are locked away: in principle everyone becomes her (his) own judge; every screening device between me and what there is, becomes a diminution of my adulthood.

Such freedom cannot be based on the illusions of freedom which Western democracies peddle to wean us from the real thing. Such freedoms must rest on the destruction of the „natural” inequalities among men and all the repression necessary to uphold it, and on the institution of cultural equality of all men by means of a truly revolutionary praxis, which submits every facet of collective life to the most searching scrutiny. To live in the glass-house, as Walter Benjamin has stated, is the virtue par excellence; any, even the slightest remnant of secrecy, is the dark corner in which authority can lurk unseen. State censorship of the arts is the creation of such unseen, inaccessible areas, just as the private ownership of the productive instruments creates the locked offices of power, which the masses are not allowed to enter, let alone permitted to take over. To demand that there shall be no censorship is as futile as the demand that there shall be no economic exploitation or sexism. Instead of demanding rights one must fight to create the objective conditions, to create a society which will need no darkness, no unconscious, no sexism, no exploitation, no censorship.

It is need in the end which creates the necessity for censorship: insufficient resources, which create competition, scarcity, which brings about the egotism of the private sphere, shielded against the envious look of the poorer neighbour by laws and customs, the libertinage of the rich and powerful, which does not want to be exposed to the eyes of the frustrated. It is want which creates the rituals and repressive taboos, in order to guarantee the privileges of the chosen few. In order to maintain the invisibility of the true mechanism of privilege society has invented its own symbolism as cellars, prisons, mad houses and the darkened bedroom of marital sexuality, which allow it, at least in Western democratic society to create the illusion of freedoms: but this „freedom” is the sterilized wound of being cut off from one’s own other, of having lost and forgotten one’s true rationality, which is now outcast as irrationality, crime, slime and dirt. The (wo)man in the prison cell is the virtual image of the bourgeoisie. (S)he is what the bourgeoisie has censored out of its own existence. But without this censored image it could not be what it is: privileged. It will therefore fight with all means at its disposal to uphold that censorship which obliterates the right of the criminal to its material possessions. And, because there is no other language available to (her) him – if there were, (s)he would be a revolutionary – the criminal ironically agrees with the bourgeoisie. Equally, the man in the madhouse: the nightmare of bourgeois society, inventor of new languages and silences, the ultimate self-destructive refusal of the bourgeois order; with cunning (s)he turns the rituals of society against society and against him(her)self, demonstrating in her (his) own destruction the destructive effect of repression, frightening the wits out of cultured man, that (s)he, too, is destined to go to the same lonely road, making him (her) aware that (s)he is separated from madness only by the flimsy bubble of logic and ideology. The twisted reason of the madman is in himself: the urge to feel her (his) own body and her (his) own power, breaking out in futile and clumsy rituals in the darkened bedroom, the crushed gestures of love, the Satan in her (his) unconscious, negating an incomprehensible world. And (s)he draws the curtains and extinguishes the light so that society cannot confront him (her) with what (s)he is. Because what (s)he is, (s)he is only through the medium of public speech. What (s)he is in the cell, the madhouse, the bedroom, (s)he is unconscious of, and (s)he resents to be told by the artist, by the psychologist, by the Marxist philosopher. That is the meaning of censorship. To end censorship without ending jails, madhouses, and the privacy of sexuality means to unleash the fury of both the privileged and the unprivileged, which is fascism in its various forms. Fascism is the need to censor that kind of reason, which is unreasonable enough to demand the end of privilege: as such it is the inability to change the order of the status quo, the underlying cause of it, need and want, and the anxiety of the haves to become have-nots, to lose their ecstasies, their quality of standing out from the mass, their privilege. Fascism is not the opposite to bourgeois liberty, it is bourgeois liberty itself showing its true face, when confronted by a revolutionary force. The cellar, never aired, is full of combustible gases, which explode in the face of whoever dares to carry a light into it.

The process of eliminating censorship is a dangerous one, and we must not be fooled by the smug self-confidence of those who demand it, without knowing the consequences of it: they are whistling in the dark. To fully grasp what it means, one should read Freud’s tortured doubts about the ability of humanity to handle an uncensored existence, Marx’s analysis of the capitalist society, and, most frightening of all, the most severely repressed work of the Marquis de Sade, who postulated that in reference to pleasure, all human beings are equal, that there should be no privileged classes of happiness, and demanded that nobody should recognize any chains except those of our own drives, no other morality except nature: insult the existing morality, as it does not bind the rulers; oppose a rationality which produces privileges for a minority; do not let yourself be persuaded by the wrong insights; abolish the despotic laws and gruesome punishments and you will see, that the wildness of man is without danger. See to an education which tears youth from the egotism of the family, the daughters from their fathers and husbands, who adapt them to their own lifelong egocentric desires. Show the grown-up girl its ability to be free, which is destroyed by the patriarchal-authoritarian constitution of the family. Nothing is as despicable and against reason, as the image of a girl, tormented by lust, which she must repress. Beauty is the image of erotic freedom. But de Sade also knows that this image of freedom can be realized only in its criminalized and perverted form – as a prostitute – in a society in which sexuality is not exposed to the blinding light of reason, in which sexuality does not become fully public. And he also knows that under the conditions of repression the uncensored expression of the sexual urges become violent and destructive. In the obscene final scene of Philosophie dans le boudoir the young girl rapes and assaults her own mother in the most gruesome manner, her mother, a hypocritical bigot, pretending to abstinence and godliness, responsible for her repressive education. The terror of enlightenment freeing itself from its own shackles could not be portrayed more convincingly. Let us not be fooled by the liberal rhetoric of liberty, which portrays freedom as if it were the wish-fulfillment of an eternal kindergarten: freedom is the negative catalogue of bourgeois morality: lust, orgy, free death, pain from lust and lust from pain, want of moderation, exaggeration, extravagance, exorbitance, vehemence, mania, addiction, shameless fouling and dirtying, the caricature, the obscene. Whoever wants freedom from censorship must understand that these are the most valuable norms and tendencies of culture.

Freedom from censorship for the artist means not to have anything to hide, to live in Benjamin’s glass-house, and to demand that society as a whole does so, too. Or more exactly, to create the conditions in which (s)he can persuade society that all secrecy, which decrees that some pictures are not to be exhibited, and some words not to be spoken, must cease because it is no longer necessary. (S)he must understand that privacy in a late capitalist society is the general praxis of those who alienate the collective product of work and who want to draw a veil over the privileges which they acquire in this process. In short, the artist must institute the praxis of total exhibitionism, must destroy the right to the last secrets, because these secrets destroy life, until such time that the ecstasy of exhibitionism becomes swallowed up in the greater ecstasy of a society without taboos.

Authentic art has no objection to the asocial, because the asocial is the socially repressed, which needs to be expressed, but it is opposed to the unsocial, which withdraws behind the shield of the individuality. The secret of the private person which the enlightened bourgeoisie has instituted as a right but which has been lost in the process of collective administration of industrial society anyway, cannot be blown up into an invariant and eternal law; to do this would mean to overlook that shame, discretion, virginity, screening and darkening of so-called private affairs plays into the hands of those socio-economic powers, who have a burning interest in the opaqueness of private life. Art desires nakedness, but the most which society allows it is nudity, which is nothing but another form of covering up, this time behind the sun-bronzed skin and posture of shamelessness, which is not equal to the lack of shame. In destroying the pair of signs – nude/dressed – art creates „nakedness” as an utopian symbol of freedom.

So what about the practical possibility of such a naked society? Freud remains skeptical: „It seems,” he maintains:

that every culture must be built on force and the renunciation of the drives; it is not even certain that if force ceases the majority of human beings will be prepared to undertake the amount of work necessary to produce new goods. One has to take into account that all human beings harbour destructive, i.e. antisocial and anti-cultural tendencies… Just as force is needed to bring about cultural labour, so is the rule over the mass by a minority, because the mass is lazy and without insight; they do not like the renunciation of their drives, they cannot be persuaded by arguments of its necessity and its individuals strengthen each other in their unruliness. By the example of outstanding individuals, whom they recognize as their leaders, alone can they be moved to the work and renunciation which is necessary for the continuation of culture. Everything is fine as long as these leaders are persons of exceptional insight into the necessities of life, who have uplifted themselves to ruling over their own drives and wishes. But there is the danger that they, in order not to lose their power, give in more to the masses than it to them, and therefore it seems necessary that they be independent from the masses by means of force.

So far no society has been able to reproduce itself completely without such means. Freud’s threat, the human natural forces, are a very real threat: the question is whether cultural repression is the only way to deal with the frightening naturalness. What he doesn’t see is that most of that fright arises from the distortion imposed on nature by the repressive violence of society. That the unconscious is a specifically and historically deformed unconscious. What is needed is a controlled historical praxis to change that violent and authoritarian unconscious, to reconcile it with the free ego.

Whoever believes that this historical praxis will be an easy process, whoever believes that man can be left to her (his) own devices, that to remove barriers is sufficient to make man free, must not be surprised, if (s)he one day finds that (s)he is unable to confront the uncensored society, which may be gentle, but relentless in its gentleness, which may be free, but terrifying in its freedom, which will demand that we throw away our crutches and walk. And one more thing: the artist may find that in the uncensored society there will be no more need for art, because life itself must be creative, innovative, and unafraid.
„There shall be no censorship!” Is there no fear in you? Do you understand what you demand? There are no words in our language for it, except negatives: the expropriation of the private bodily and moral ego, the universal prostitution, the dispossession of all properties, the destruction of all imposed norms, the alienation of all privacy, the confrontation with all madness and criminality, the knowledge of sickness and death, the jubilation of perversity, the unlimited void of unchartered freedom.

Nevertheless, „There shall be no censorship!” – not because of what (wo)man is, but because of what (wo)man is in the process of becoming, and which (s)he cannot become unless the tutelage of others over him (her) cease, and unless (s)he learns to cope with freedom.

(Thank you to Peter Horn for permission to publish this at Groundwork.)


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