- Words and Deeds: Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose and the Hermeneutics of Censorship
Il ne s’agit pas d’un plaidoyer sur le sort des domestiques. Je suppose qu’il existe un syndicat des gens de maison—cela ne nous regarde pas.Jean Genet, Comment jouer “Les Bonnes”
([This play] is not concerned with making a plea for the condition of domestic servants. I assume there already exists a union for household help—that is not our affair.)
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.
One of the most striking features of the cultural landscape in America over the past decade has been the phenomenon of the so-called “culture wars,” which have issued in a sequence of condemnations of various works of art or literature deemed either obscene or objectionable for political or moral reasons. Lest we simply believe that such attacks are primarily motivated by social and religious conservatives, Wendy Steiner’s recent analysis of several of the most infamous cases has pointed out that the tendency to read verbal and visual fictions as a simple component of the world to which they refer, or as indistinguishable from their referents, unites proponents of the ideological left and right in a “collapsing [of] the doubleness of aesthetic reference.” 1 Divergent though these critiques may be, they share a profound literalizing tendency, the inability (or refusal) to understand what Steiner calls the “paradox of art,” referring to the position art occupies simultaneously within reality (as a referential construct) and outside of reality (perhaps one of the most basic definitions of what art “is”). It is, in other words, not so much a matter of political stances as of aesthetic response: in this regard, the liberal humanist of the sort represented by Steiner finds herself caught in the middle in opposition to the literalizing readings that have made strange bedfellows of political conservatives and certain left-leaning intellectuals of the feminist or Marxist camp. [End Page 345]
One of Steiner’s prime examples surfaces in the work of Catherine MacKinnon, who has devoted her career to proposing legislation that would restrict the production and dissemination of visual and verbal pornography, and also to developing a theoretical framework that would underwrite such legislation. 2 MacKinnon’s task in Only Words is to show how pornography can be classified as an act, either of discrimination or of physical violence, both of which would make its manufacture and dissemination illegal according to current interpretations of the Constitution. As MacKinnon’s argument goes, pornography is not essentially the expression of an idea (which would place it under constitutional protection) but rather itself embodies and therefore perpetuates discrimination and inequality. Intriguingly, she uses a constructionist argument (that is, gender identity and sex roles as being not inherently determined by biology, but rather “constructed” by cultural forces) not in order to call into question the essentializing categories we find in life and literature alike, but rather to ground her depiction of the tyrannical force of pornography in effecting the subjugation of women, thereby in effect reinforcing an essentialist agenda.
Steiner’s purpose is principally to defend the aesthetic as a domain of experience that is irreducible to the “real” world, and therefore to demonstrate that the force wielded by aesthetic objects is not the same thing as physical or psychological coercion: “whatever effect art has, it never has literal control” (SP 76). Others such as Ronald Dworkin have pointed out that the urgency of MacKinnon’s argument, taken on its own terms, is not infrequently tempered by a fuzziness of analytical thinking. 3 Thus, MacKinnon’s examples of objectionable pornographic material extend from the visual (principally, but not exclusively, in the form of motion pictures) to the verbal with little or no acknowledgement of the enormous differences between the two modes of experience. This slippage leads to certain inconsistencies, for while her legal argument is primarily based upon questions of expression that are at least figuratively related to the realm of the verbal, her principle examples—the ones meant to induce her readers to agree by recoiling in disgust—are the visual ones. Or...