I continue to watch with interest the development of the #amazonfail story (as it has come to be called). Exactly what happened remains a little unclear. There have been plenty of theories; I was most convinced by the suggestion that it was trolls gaming the Amazon ranking system. Such an explanation had the advantage of explaining why gay and lesbian texts seemed target, though unevenly. In light of a recent story, however, it seems that an employee in France is to blame. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, The Guardian provides a good summary.) There are a number of things to find interesting here. For one, the quick organization enabled through twitter seems to provide a nice instance of both the benefits and hazards of self-organizing mass protest. In a recent blog post, Clay Shirky suggests that #amazonfail was largely overreaction. I am inclined to agree. The more extreme sorts of conspiracy theorizing (that Amazon itself was involved in a conscious, concerted effort to marginalize gay and lesbian texts) seem (and always seemed) unwarranted by the evidence. Shirky admits his own (passing) suggestion that the delisting of such books was a response to gay marriage bans being struck down in VT and IA was really baseless speculation, a product of the "intoxicating" "emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag." And indeed, watching the twitter streams it was easy to believe first that something truly egregious had happened, and that something equally remarkable was happening in response. In the end, as Shirky rightly notes, intention is key; and while Amazon may have done a number of things less than ideally, sheer homophobic hate-mongering doesn't seem to have been a goal. Without wishing to disagree with Shirky's treatment, I'd like to explain what piqued my own interest in the #amazonfail story, and what may account for some of speed with which people became angry at Amazon. For #amazonfail rehearses another, older story, and provides a contemporary instance (dressed up in metadata and twitteractivism) of a more basic lesson about judgements of obscenity. One of the works frequently mentioned in the earliest reports of #amazonfail was Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Less frequently mentioned, however, was the way that the accusation of Hall's novel purported "adult themes," exactly recapitulates the controversy surrounding the first publication of Hall's novel in 1928. Hall's novel is not sexually explicit, nor is it obscene by any conceivable standard. It is, however, unabashedly a novel of same sex desire. The novel was self-consciously cast in terms of early twentieth-century sexology. As readers of the novel know, the work of Krafft-Ebbing plays a crucial role in Stephen Gordon's discovery of herself as a "sexual invert" (yes, Stephen is the name of a woman in the novel--read it for complete explanation). And Havelock Ellis, famous sexologist and author of Studies in the Psychology of Sex (which includes a volume on "Sexual Inversion") himself wrote a brief commentary to introduce the novel. Ellis praised the novel for "its fine qualities as a novel by a writer of accomplished art," but primarily recommends it for its "notable psychological and sociological significance": "It is the first English novel which presents, in a completely faithful and uncompromising form, one particular aspect of sexual life as it exists among us today." (The introduction to Palatable Poison, see below, contains a very helpful summary of the the circumstances of Ellis's commentary). If we were inclined to wax Foucauldian, we might suggest that Hall's invocation of sexology may simply have more thoroughly enmeshed the category of "inversion" in the nets of power-knowledge, making the "invert" an object for the scientific gaze. Nevertheless, from Hall's perspective, sexology represents a valuable tool in the progressive politics of the novel, and an important source of recognition and self-understanding for her central character. And it is scientific/sexological implications of the novel, not "obscenity," that seemed to anger British moral crusader James Douglas when he reviewed the novel. He begins his review by summarizing Ellis's commentary on the novel. What Douglas finds intolerably offensive is that the novel seeks to bring to public attention the situation of the "sexual invert." He writes:
I am well aware that sexual inversion and perversion are horrors that exist among us today. They flaunt themselves in public places with increasing effrontery and more insolently provocative bravado. The decadent apostles of the most hideous and most loathsome vices no longer conceal their degeneracy and their degradation.
Douglas's hyperbolic rhetoric would be funny, if it had not proved so powerful (and were it not still around, if you care to turn your AM dial in the right direction). What Douglas finds so galling is the how the novel makes the discourse of sexology, and its sense of value accessible to audiences beyond scientists: "the novel is read by people of all ages, by young women and young men . . .many things that are discussed in scientific textbooks cannot decently be discussed in a work of fiction offered to the general reader." Douglas's review famously concludes with this remarkable suggestion:
I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but the moral poison kills the soul.
[Aldous Huxley, in a brilliant bit of PR brio, tried to give Douglas an opportunity to prove the sincerity of his outrage: "I offered to provide Mr. Douglas with a child, a bottle of prussic acid, a copy of The Well of Loneliness, and (if he kept his word and chose to administer the acid) a handsome memorial in marble to be erected wherever he might appoint, after his execution. The offer, I regret to say, was not accepted."] Douglas, for all his hyperbolic rhetoric, never once, however, accuses the novel of being obscene or sexually explicit; his argument is that of a moral crusader through and through. Whatever else you may say about Douglas, he was honest and sincere. It is the ideas of the novel that truly bother him. The novel, he writes, "is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society... This terrible doctrine may commend itself to certain schools of pseudo-scientific thought, but it cannot be reconciled with the Christian religion or with the Christian doctrine of free-will. Therefore, it must be fought to the bitter end by the Christian Churches. This is the radical difference between paganism and Christianity." Douglas, in essence, accuses Hall's novel not of obscenity but of... paganism. An interesting accusation, but not one that is likely to carry the force of law, even in 1928. And yet it worked. Douglas's review prompted a wave of outrage leading to British Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks (or "Jix," as he is known to those of us who spend lots of time in this period) demanding that the work be removed from circulation. It was only at this point that the accusation of obscenity becomes important. (I'm oversimplifying a rather complicated situation here, see Palatable Poison for the details). The case of The Well of Loneliness, both in 1928 and in 2009, illustrates a very basic point--judgments of obscenity are always imbricated in larger structures. The deceptively simple question, "Is this text obscene?" or, to use the contemporary euphemism "Should it be classified as an 'Adult' text?" or, to use Amazonese, "Should this book be deranked?", in fact invokes a series of much more complicated questions which include the conditions of textual circulation, and larger field of ideological forces. The quickness with which people reacted to news that Amazon had categorized a whole swathe of gay and lesbian texts as "adult," therefore, stems in part from a long history of using "obscenity" as a means to suppress gay and lesbian texts on ideological grounds. All of which may amount to yet one more banal observation about the subjectivity of judgements of obscenity ("one person's pornography is another person's..." or Justice Potter Stewart's infamous, "I know it when I see it," and so on). But if the judgments are subjective, the effects of such judgments are not. If what is most interesting about #amazonfail turns out to be the importance of understanding how metadata classifications work, it is equally important to see such distinctions as occurring in many other ways. Linda Williams (whose book, Hard Core, remains the single smartest work on film pornography), makes a cognate point in an essay reflecting on her own work on obscenity and pornography, "Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and the Scapegoating of Deviance" (1993). Obscenity law, Williams suggests, has shifted. Where formerly judgements of obscenity were essentially judgements of sexual explicitness, increasingly they are judgements about what is normal, and what is deviant (judgements, we might suggest, of what should bubble to the top of search results, and what is part of the long tail). In her essay Williams traces "a major change taking place in American obscenity law and the prosecution of sex crimes as they have moved away from the notion of explicit sex and towards the targeting of scapegoatable 'deviants'" (47). Williams points to a bill proposed by Jesse Helms in 1989 bill for forbidding NEA funding to obscene works of art. The definition of obscenity in the bill prominently included "depictions of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts" (50). The point, needless to say, is not to defend "exploitation of children," but to show the way in which the concept of obscenity proves labile enough to include "homoeroticism" tout court, alongside child abuse. 1989, of course, feels like a different world; and 1928? There wasn't even an internet then! The history of Hall's novel, and of how obscenity gets turned to particular political effects, nevertheless remains instructive I think. The important role metadata plays in structuring our contemporary digital situation may very well be the most important thing to emerge from #amazonfail. The broader history of obscenity, however, is not without value either. References:

Palatable Poison: Critical Perspectives on The Well of Loneliness. ed. Laura Doan and Jay Prosser (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2002). This work contains Ellis's commentary, Douglas's review, and many other relevant documents, as well as a valuable introduction and essays on the reception of Hall's novel.

Linda Williams, "Second Thoughts on Hard Core," in Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography, and Power (London: BFI pub., 1993): 46 - 61

Aldous Huxley, "Document," in Music at Night (London: Chatto and Windus, 1949), 184 - 185.