The Changing Index of Censorship
As someone with an interest in the history of obscenity and censorship I have been impressed at how quickly groups like the EFF have described SOPA as a matter of censorship and free speech. Unlike the 1996 Communications Decency Act (I recall the blue ribbon GIFs it inspired well), the object of SOPA is not online obscenity. As these groups recognize, however, matters of “free speech” are increasingly questions of intellectual property and the technologies of copyright enforcement.
This development is entirely consistent with the narrative offered by one of my favorite early-twentieth century anti-censorship tracts, To the Pure: A Study of Obscenity and the Censor, co-authored by William Seagle and Morris Ernst (the lawyer who, a few years later, defended Ulysses in front of Judge John Woolsey). To The Pure outlines a political history of censorship which proceeds through three stages; in a section titled “The Changing Index of Censorship” Ernst and Seagle explain:
With the invention of printing in the middle of the fifteenth century, the first condition for the censorship of literature began to be fulfilled: literature was on its way to popular distribution. The three forms of censorship which we know today began to develop: (1) the religious (2) the political (3) the sexual, which is the modern culmination. The course of evolution may be stated to be from heresy to treason to obscenity. The purpose of authority remains always the same, but the index of censorship changes. Each age produces those formulae of suppression which coincide with its dominant interest. (140)
Each age produces those formulae of suppression which coincide with its dominant interest. The three chief categories of prohibited speech—blasphemy, sedition, obscenity—reflect a historical trajectory. Despite its obvious oversimplifications, Ernst and Seagle’s account of this progression surprises me with its insight whenever I return to it.
If one were to continue the history of censorship Ernst began nearly a century ago, it would pass through questions of intellectual property. Rather than obscenity, it is piracy which is the object of contemporary censorship just as obscenity and blasphemy were the objects of a previous age’s censorship regime.
We certainly shouldn’t ignore other, more traditional, types of censorship which continue to exist (particularly outside of the United States and western Europe); however, if blasphemy was the object of censorship in (what Ernst calls) the “Age of Faith,” sedition in the “Age of Divine Right,” and obscenity in the “Age of Democracy,” piracy is the crime that the censorship regimes of our own information age seek to control. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum and Customs lists of previous eras bear a striking resemblance to the index of prohibited foriegn domains that SOPA would create.
- Ernst, Morris and William Seagle. To The Pure: A Study of Obscenity and the Censor. New York: Viking Press, 1928. Print.