#amazonfail and #british-home-secretary-fail: Obscenity and Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness
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.