- Between God and the President: Literature and Censorship in North Africa
Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.—George Bernard Shaw
Those who fight with the pen will perish by the sword.—Slogan of the Algerian Muslim fundamentalists
If you speak up, you die. If you don’t speak up, you die. So, speak up and die!—Tahar Djaout, the first writer assassinated in the context of the current Algerian political crisis
In the West, censorship has been understood for the most part as the state’s control over cultural production. Many critics in the postwar period, however, have argued that other forms of censorship, such as market censorship, are comparable to the actions of the state. The Christian right’s attacks on art in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s together with Congressional moves to disempower and dismantle the NEA have generated a new set of debates about censorship in this country. It was understood that the extreme right sought to repress cultural productions carrying a message of ethnic and sexual difference, targeting the works by rappers, the photographer Mapplethorpe, Madonna’s music videos, and so on. The right provided rhetoric to support the privatization of public space, the control of language and public images, and the promotion of “safe” art.
While many critics refer to this as the “new censorship,” structurally it is exactly the same as the “old” censorship, that is, state control intervening in the liberal subject’s absolute right to free expression. It appears that the dichotomy between the left’s claim for the absolute freedom of the artist and the right’s attempt to repress it is most often conceived in moral terms and is paradigmatic of the Western liberal oppositional categories used to describe censorship.
This position views the relationship between art and censorship as either a bourgeois romantic opposition to political order or a corrupt collaboration by opportunistic apparatchiks. It leaves no room for what Michael Holquist, for example, calls “negotiation.” Moreover, it does not take into account the fact that—in Third World or socialist contexts, for example—the way certain intellectuals view their role vis-à-vis the state, society, and/or the people determines their degree of cooperation with censorship mechanisms.
The problem with this Manichean vision is that it implies a notion of censorship that is ahistorical: it posits that there is an essential distinction between the censor and the [End Page 59] creator or free mind. On the one hand, as Miklos Haraszti accurately outlines, at least until very recently in the Eastern European context:
Censorship is no longer a matter of simple state intervention. A new aesthetic culture has emerged in which censors and artists alike are entangled in a mutual embrace. Nor is it as distasteful as traditional critics of censorship imagine. The state is able to domesticate the artist because the artist has already made the state his home.
On the other hand, as Richard Burt rightly suggests:
What counts as censorship is not always clear. Indeed, it is hard to see how one could call many contemporary cases censorship without either seriously distorting the traditional understanding of the term or redefining it to include so many practices—ranging from institutional regulation of free expression, market censorship, cutbacks in government funding for controversial art, boycotts, lawsuits, and marginalization and exclusion of artists based on their gender or race to “political correctness” in the university and the media—that the term is overwhelmed, even trivialized, its usefulness as a tool of cultural criticism called into question.[xiii]
Recent events, not only in the United States but also in other parts of the world such as Algeria, the case on which I will concentrate, show that one cannot seriously conceive the question of censorship along the lines of closed, distinct, conceptual categories expressing absolute oppositions. In other words, it is necessary to take the concept of censorship out of the realm of morality and locate it in the world of history, to displace it from the framework of philosophy and move it to the context of culture.
In this essay, I will analyze the exercise of censorship in Algeria in...