Shanna suggested this bit of mindsmack from Foucault might be relevant to our discussion. It comes from his essay, “Madness, the Absence of an Oeuvre” (trans. Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa). Foucault is a pretty major theorist for language geeks like me, but I maintain that very few us know what he’s actually trying to say. Given that this is structuralism/poststructuralism/postmodernism we’re dealing with, Foucault might even applaud our admission that his meaning and our understanding of language don’t quite match up. Anyway, let’s give this a go:
“One day it will be necessary to study the field of prohibitions in language in all its autonomy. Perhaps it is still too soon to know exactly how such an analysis might be done. Could the divisions that are currently permitted in language be used? First of all, at the border between taboo and impossibility, we should identify the laws that govern the linguistic code (the things that are called, so clearly, language faults); and then, within the code, and among the words, or existing expressions, those whose articulation is forbidden (the religious, sexual, magic series of blasphemous words); then the statements that are authorised by the code,licit in the act of speech, but whose meaning is intolerable for the culture in question at a given moment: here a metaphorical detour is no longer possible, for it is the meaning itself that is the object of censorship. Finally, there is a fourth form of excluded language: this consists of submitting speech that apparently conforms to the recognised code to a different code, whose key is contained within that speech itself, so that the speech is doubled inside itself; it says what it says but it adds a mute surplus that silently states what it says and the code according to which it is said. This is not a question of coded language, but of a language that is structurally esoteric. Which is to say that it does not communicate, while hiding it, a forbidden meaning; it sets itself up from the very first instant in an essential fold of speech. A fold that mines it from the inside, perhaps to infinity. What is said in such a language is of little importance, as are the meanings that are delivered there. It is this obscure and central liberation of speech at the heart of itself, its uncontrollable flight to a region that is always dark, which no culture can accept immediately. Such speech is trangressive, not in its meaning, not in its verbal matter, but in its play.
Whew. So there’s a lot going on in here, but I’ll just point out a couple of things I noticed that are especially relevant to our discussion this week. First, some kinds of speech acts are ok, and some are not. Some are technically ok, but are not culturally appropriate (like being white and using the n-word). Foucault claims that actual words are not the problem, but what they point to. So white people shouldn’t use the n-word because it points to slavery, prejudice, and oppression, which are terrible terrible things so no one should ever use a word that makes it seem like we’re ok with that. Interestingly, the controversy this past year about whether or not using the word “vagina” in Congress was acceptable indicates that, perhaps, the people who find this word unacceptable, and yet are still comfortable using the word “penis,” are uncomfortable not with the word “vagina,” but with what it means– femaleness, presumably. Hence the controversy. He also points out that some words actually mean other words, so there is a code within the code-that-is-language. A lot of music from the 60s that talks about sex is an example of this. So the meaning is communicated regardless, even though the words are banned. So what’s the point of that? Foucault goes on to speculate about the inherently transgressive nature of language, grammar, etc., but I’m not interested in that right now. (Though feel free to comment on that below.) I am interested in some of the questions raised by his questions, though. Who gets to decide what words/ideas/books are acceptable, and to what degree? And how did they get the power to do so? 2. What does the decider have to gain from censorship? What prejudices does this censorship reify?
To me, censorship is an exertion of power. It says, “I know better than you do what is good for you.” This is maybe acceptable to do in a parent:child relationship, but why on earth should one adult do it to another? It smacks of paternalism, arrogance, and greed. (Also fear and insecurity, as I argued before.) Foucault seems to imply that any censorship ultimately fails, because meaning will be communicated anyway, except when it isn’t, and that maybe happens on purpose as a knowingly rebellious act (see: hip hop). So is it worse to use a swear word (like the n-word), or is it worse to be a part of systemic oppression that continues to denigrate people based on race? Both are pretty terrible. But rather than have some council somewhere say, “Not in our town! Such filth!” I’d prefer to have to chance to decide whether or not to read Huckleberry Finn or Black Boy myself.
Happy Banned Books Week. Pop back Monday to see who won!