Banned Books Week: Foucault, Of Course

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?

1229998_520567548018042_1535859656_nTo 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!


2 thoughts on “Banned Books Week: Foucault, Of Course

  1. Yes! The second and third kinds of excluded language–blasphemy and forbidden meaning–are exactly what made me think about banned books when I read this. (The first kind, language faults, is kind of basically grammar and syntax mistakes, and the fourth is . . . a head-scratcher.)

    But what I think is especially interesting is that Foucault’s purpose in discussing these forms of excluded language is to think (semi)metaphorically about how madness has been treated. One of the arguments that he makes in the book and in this article is that the way that Western cultures (and especially France) have dealt with madness since the end of the Middle Ages was less about dealing with madness than it was about defining what was not mad. So, madness becomes a kind of background (fond in French) in and against which we measure and recognize ourselves (Foucault says that we are in the distance of madness rather than madness being distant from us). In other words, madness doesn’t exist as a thing in itself but only in relation to reason, and for as much as we try to identify what madness is, what we really do is identify what reason is and is not. And our consistent exclusion of the mad from our social structures is part of that process of self-definition.

    Similarly, I think that the practice of banning books isn’t so much about what the books say or what words they use as it is about defining who we are against that backdrop of offense. It’s not that there is anything inherently offensive in the books (if there was, everyone everywhere would be offended); rather, that which is offensive comes from us. We are in the distance of offense, defining our own sense of goodness, purity, or righteousness by creating a generalized, amorphous concept of the offensive. It’s not the offending content that we’re worried about, but our own identities.

    And the trouble with The Decider determining which books are suitable for “us” to read is that it assumes an identity for “us” and then rigidly, relentlessly enforces that identity by setting up offense as the limit beyond which “we” cannot pass. So if I transgress that limit by reading a banned book, it taints me and I become offensive. I am no longer one of “us.” Worse, if the offensive matter in the text in some way mirrors me (sexual preferences, expressions of dissent or religious difference, or what have you), then I also become wrapped up in that limit of the offensive. It’s not just that we ban books with censorship–we ban people, make them irretrievably Other, unrecognizable to us within our self-reflexive field of rightness and purity.

    As you point out, sometimes offensive and censored material are part of a larger system of oppression that language has been made to serve. But oppression can’t be eliminated by a different system of oppression. Banning Huck Finn (for example) doesn’t end the systematic oppression of black people of which the use of the n-word is a part. It just creates a silence–which is not an absence–and hides rather than solves the problem.

    I’ll stop now. Apparently I should have just written my own blog post about this.

    1. Oh that’s fascinating. Thanks for contextualizing this paragraph for me. Your remarks put me in mind of that verse in the Bible, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” So forbidden language isn’t inherently evil, but our understanding of it, what we add to language, is what makes it awful.

      And I love how you bring up the alternative of silence, and how that is equally problematic. Thanks so much, Shanna!

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