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  • Multiple Submissions and Little Scrolls of Parchment: Censorship, Knowledge, and the Academy
  • Simon Wortham (bio)

Some things I may tell you, which I think you will not be unwilling to hear.

Francis Bacon, New Atlantis

Literature and Censorship

Reflecting a change of emphasis that is often taken to characterize the difference between “progressive” academic professionals and institutions of the 1970s and 1980s and the 1990s, whereby radically optimistic oppositional politics have gradually been superseded by more subtly nuanced accounts of the various limitations and constraints placed upon the formation of literary and critical discourse, and how to work productively within them, a recent edition of PMLA was devoted to the special topic of Literature and Censorship. 1 In the introduction to this edition, Michael Holquist questions simple-minded notions of censorship as epitomizing a struggle between opposed forces locked in a contest of wills. 2 This vision of censorship, according to Holquist, rests on certain assumptions that have been problematized through and through from a multiplicity of theoretical perspectives. It necessitates a simplistic definition of the relationship between power and resistance as primarily one of absolute otherness and exclusion, when actually the “fundamental quality of censorship” consists in the fact that “its authority to prohibit can never be separated from its need to include” (CO 14), or to regulate by way of strategies of engagement and negotiation with dissident voices; strategies which range from the appropriation and arbitration of available meanings, to anticipation—in a Bakhtinian sense—of otherness (and, in the context of self-censorship, anticipation of control) within social discourse. From this perspective, censorship can be conceptualized not simply in terms of repression, but can be seen more complexly as a crucial factor in the production of social (and academic) discourse and knowledge. Moreover, recognition of these fluid and shifting relationships between power and [End Page 501] resistance, varying greatly within the “myriad specific conditions” (CO 16) of censorship, undermines the essentialist totalization of identities brought about by the simplistic disentanglement of “Who-whom?” (“Who” does what to “whom”?) that Holquist identifies as the “traditional way to pose questions about censorship.”

Holquist goes on to suggest that, in any case, to posit essential freedoms prior to censorial restriction leaves us carrying the baggage of romantic notions of selfhood, agency, imagination, and authentic voice, at the expense of contemporary understandings of language and identity as constituted in nonessentialist terms within “external” dialogic space. The logical extension of this argument (one which seems progressive enough) is, of course, that all forms of social discourse and practice exceed the authority of the individual or of conscious intention. Holquist is quick to point out that the identification of authorship and the attempt to undertake biographical readings constitute a kind of censorial limiting of language, understood somewhat paradoxically as both impersonal and wantonly free. Indeed, despite Holquist’s celebratory evocations of linguistic “uncertainty,” “ambiguity,” and “slipperiness,” causing loopholes and effects of “interlinearity” that suggest new ways to theorize resistance to censorship, one suspects that the romantic ethos of subjectivity and freedom he eschews is being reconceptualized (and universalized) within the impersonal and indefinable identity of language itself, which seems to be understood very much in a priori terms. More importantly, however, the fact that Holquist’s skepticism about essential freedoms within social discourse rests, at least in part, on a rebuttal of individual conscious intention as a prior and determining factor within the linguistic field enables him simultaneously to put the question of censorship in a way that seems rather to skirt around the issue of responsibility. “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” (CO 16).

Censorship is. This linguistic formulation not only asserts inevitability by claiming the preconditional existence of censorship, it also permits the attribution of an impersonal identity (like language, though in different ways, censorship is) which constitutes censorship as of unimpeachable character. The theoreticist claims of Holquist’s introduction are not without their more immediate context. The Editor’s Column of this edition of PMLA, “On Multiple Submissions,” 3 attempts to justify the decision taken by the...