The New Age of Censorship: How Postmodernism Reframed Censorship as Productive

by Laura Walker-Beaven

Essay originally from Counterweight.

In the introduction to his anthology Censorship and Silencing (1998), Robert Post makes the case that attitudes towards censorship, both in academia and beyond, have become much more politically and ideologically controversial in the past few decades. Previously, censorship had been largely associated with the political right, whereas the political left generally advocated for quasi-libertarian attitudes towards free expression. More recently, however, members of groups that are ideologically different in almost every way have converged in pro-censorship views. Post gives the examples of feminist scholars, such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, supporting the censorship of pornography, which is generally associated with Christian fundamentalism, or Critical Race Theory scholars joining the Jesse Helms-led conservative movement to ban hate-speech. Post wrote over twenty years ago, and yet, his observations are just as relevant today.

So, what caused this shift in the attitudes of many left-leaning scholars and public figures towards a classically conservative attitude towards free speech? I argue that, in part, the change in the way that censorship was perceived in the social sciences was catalysed by

Foucault’s writings on power and censorship. Hitherto, censorship in academia had been seen as a generally repressive and coercive act, indeed as the antithesis of academic freedom. Viewed through a liberal lens, preventing censorship is a matter of protecting the individual’s negative freedom, i.e., their freedom from restriction. Thus, censorship was defined as the coercive blocking of certain topics and content by an individual, group or state that takes place after the act of expression (see Freshwater, 2003). Michel Foucault and other postmodernist thinkers, though, sought to redefine censorship, showering it with a postmodern dose of radical scepticism and preoccupation with power.

Foucault on power and censorship

For Foucault, censorship was not the coercive and repressive act that modern liberal thinkers described it as. Instead, he saw it as a productive act whose power could be harnessed. Foucault dedicates the first chapter of The History of Sexuality (1978) to discussing the censorship of content relating to sex during the classical period. Central to his hypothesis is that, during this era, loci of power utilised the censorship of sexual content to control the discourse relating to sex, rather than to quell it completely. By inhibiting casual discussions on the topic, powerful entities were able to regulate sexual knowledge production itself. Through censorial means, they dictated the terms and framework through which sex was discussed. Foucault argues that this sparked an “explosion” in the production of discourse regarding sex. He gives the example of schools during the classical period. Every aspect of the design and management, such as classroom arrangements, bedtime monitoring and dormitory layouts, he says, was influenced by this sexual taboo. He calls this “incitement to discourse”, as, according to his thesis, the censorship of sex-related content paradoxically produced an era that was obsessed with sexuality. Foucault began to redefine censorship, uncoupling it from repression and characterising it instead as a positive force.

Another significant contribution Foucault made towards the postmodern redefinition of censorship was the idea that sousveillance can be more effective a mechanism of censorship than surveillance can. During the period in question, the expurgation taking place was not nearly as powerful a censorship tool as were the changing cultural norms that labelled sexual discourse taboo. Foucault writes:

“The forbidding of certain words, the decency of expressions, all the censorings of vocabulary, might well have been only secondary devices compared to that great subjugation: ways of rendering it morally acceptable and technically useful.”

In other words, Foucault argues that social norms, and the self-censorship they encourage, can be more coercive than explicitly repressive devices at controlling speech. In a similar vein to this latter observation, in Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault uses the analogy of Bentham’s panopticon, a prison in which inmates never know when they are being watched. Foucault sees this as a useful metaphor for power relations in contemporary societies, where citizens self-sensor and modify their behaviour to fit in with social norms, where they are constantly sousveilled by those around them.

Foucault planted the seed of postmodern doubt in the minds of social scientists and thus emerged New Censorship Theory, a branch of postmodern thought that framed censorship as productive rather than repressive.

New Censorship Theory

Pierre Bourdieu was a particularly notable figure in the emergence of New Censorship Theory. Inspired by Foucault’s observations on panoptic societies, Bourdieu developed an idea of self-censorship as a process of pre-emption and anticipation of the way society will respond to certain discourses. The movement subsequently evolved from the contributions made by several key names in the social sciences, including Judith Butler and Michael Holquist. There are several key ways in which the New Censorship movement re-theorised censorship that are fundamental to how the contemporary social sciences perceive freedom of speech and censorship.

First, the movement re-framed censorship as an important and productive force. Much as Foucault saw power and censorship as productive, the academic proponents of New Censorship Theory saw the constructive potential of these concepts, too. In Excitable Speech (1997), Judith Butler explains exactly what is meant by censorship as a “productive” force. It is not to say that censorship is necessarily positive, rather it is “formative”, assisting in the production of discourse, instead of simply the denial of liberty. She describes how censorship could be conceived of as necessary to the realisation of certain social and political aims, giving the example of marginalised communities exercising censorship over others in order to regain control over their own representation. In other words, rather than being purely repressive, censorship can be harnessed as a productive and emancipatory tool. Important to note here is also Herbert Marcuse’s influence on this topic. In his widely cited chapter Repressive Tolerance, Marcuse proposes the concept of “liberating tolerance”, which would involve the censorship of speech that argues against “the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.” and other right-wing ideas. He makes the case that this “liberating tolerance” must be primarily enacted in the academic realm, where the freedom of right-wing academics must be limited in order to correct the power imbalances between minority and majority groups. Marcuse was a member of the Frankfurt school of critical theory, and though this chapter concerns itself primarily with postmodern thought, its influence in the shift in attitudes towards censorship in the academy must also be acknowledged.

Censorship was also re-characterised by postmodern scholars as ubiquitous. The aforementioned liberal idea of censorship understands un-censored expression to be “free”. The pioneers of the New Censorship movement subverted this definition and argued that no expression is ever truly free, as orators, writers and artists constantly self-censor as they create. According to Bourdieu, market conditions (i.e. what others will find valuable) affect speech prior to the act of speaking has even begun. The speaker, artist and writer self-censors according to what society will accept and appreciate. Likewise, Bourdieu argues that, in academia, when scholars wish to generate discourse in their given field, they must self-censor in order to adhere to the correct etiquette that is expected from academic literature. An oft-quoted passage from Holquist affirms this idea of censorship as a ubiquitous force, stating:

“To be for or against censorship as such is to assume a freedom no one has. Censorship is. One can only discriminate among its more and less repressive effects.”

As well as censoring to conform to linguistic and stylistic expectations, the New Censorship scholars argued that social and cultural norms constitute another form of ubiquitous censorship. These norms produce what Bourdieu calls structural censorship, where one pre-emptively alters the content of one’s expression in order to fit what is deemed to be socially acceptable. Previously, censorship had been considered to be always an explicit and repressive act. The new theory labelled some forms of censorship as implicit. For Bourdieu, structural censorship forces the individual to self-censor in order to conform to meet the demands of the market (the listener). Accordingly, Bourdieu presents censorship as necessary, and argues that it is most effective when it is implicit and shrouded in cultural norms and customs:

“Censorship is never quite as perfect or as invisible as when each agent has nothing to say apart from what he is objectively authorised to say […] he is […] censored once and for all, through the forms of perception and expression that he has internalised and which impose their form on all his expressions.”

Butler echoes this sentiment six years later, claiming that implicit forms of censorship can be more effective in limiting “speakability”. Part of the reason being that, when censors explicitly ban certain content, it conspicuously draws attention to that which has been censored. The effect is that censors self-sabotage their own work through the very act of explicit censorship. Social norms, on the other hand, censor by rendering certain utterances impossible. “Impossible speech”, for Butler is that which is socially unacceptable to say, that which renders the speaker “asocial” or “psychotic” in the eyes of society.

I find it important to note that these proponents of New Censorship Theory are particularly influential in their fields, and, in fact, their writings on the topic are generally contained within some of their most celebrated works. In 2007, Foucault, Bourdieu and Butler ranked as numbers 1, 2 and 9 respectively as the most cited authors in the humanities. For this reason, the implications of this redefinition of censorship are certainly not to be downplayed.

Implications for academia

That censorship is omnipresent is the inevitable terminus of the ideas raised in this strand of scholarship. As Post asserts, “If censorship is a technique by which discursive practices are maintained, and life largely consists of such practices, it follows that censorship is the norm rather than the exception”. Post acknowledges that once one sees censorship as ubiquitous, one must differentiate between different forms of censorship in order to accept or reject them. However, taken to its extremes, the general thesis of the New Censorship literature has the potential to render the term “censorship” meaningless. As mentioned, these theorists make the point that self-censorship is fundamental to the process of writing and content production, as a writer selects their words through a process of inclusion and exclusion. Although this may be the case, the process of self-censoring due to fear of reprisal or judgement is hardly the same as self-censorship as an artistic choice. Within the New Censorship framework, though, these are presented essentially as one and the same, since societal norms and values are both seen as effective and potentially productive tools of censorship. A gender-critical feminist scholar, for example, may self-censor in order to avoid being ostracised by colleagues. This is far from being an artistic choice and rather a type of censorship based on academic social norms. By redefining censorship as a ubiquitous and inevitable element of discourse, one takes the negative connotations away from the term “censorship”. In addition to this, Butler’s (and Marcuse’s) suggestion that censorship can be used as a tool for social justice could conceivably be used to justify censorships according to the political and ideological whims of censures (or violent student demonstrators at universities, for example).

My concern is that, once censorship is normalised as a concept, the moral outrage previously invoked by incidents of censorship may be eroded. I believe that classifying social norms as a form of censorship leads us down a slippery slope that ends with advocating for the use of explicit censorship as a tool for enforcing the popular dogma or theory of the day. Unfortunately, I suspect we’re already well on our way down said slippery slope, as 40% of millennials in the US believe that the censorship by government of potentially offensive content is justified.

There is now a growing disconnect between those who believe that self-censorship is a form of repression and those who see it is a positive tool for achieving progress. I believe that addressing this divide will be impossible without an understanding of the theories and literature that have led a generous portion of the population down this path.

After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She recently completed a masters in Human Rights, during which she became increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.

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