“To Simply View Censorship as Repression is Not Adequate”: Author Robert Darnton

by    /  December 3, 2014  / 1 Comment

Photo by Brian Smith

Robert Darnton is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard University. A much-lauded scholar and esteemed historian, he specializes in French Literature of the 18th century. His awards include a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, election to the French Legion of Honor, the National Humanities Medal conferred by President Obama in February 2012, and the Del Duca World Prize in the Humanities awarded by the Institut de France in 2013.

His most recent book, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature examines the impact of statewide literary censorship in Bourbon France, British India, and communist East Germany. He recently spoke with editorial intern Micaela Corn, about his work.

This book is a comparative ethnography of censorship, spanning three different time periods in three different countries. What led you to choose these particular cases? Which other eras were considered?

Well, of course it would be possible to discuss many other systems of censorship. I don’t mean to imply that these three were the most important or the only ones worth studying – it’s just the opposite. I hope that lots of other scholars will study lots of other regimes. And of course, there is already a large literature on censorship. The reason I chose these three however, has to do basically with the richness of the archives. In my view, you can’t do serious ethnographic history unless you’ve got a great run of documents to immerse yourself in, in order to understand how the censors worked, how they themselves understood their work, and how it really fit into a general sociopolitical system. So, I chose three regimes where the documentation was unusually rich.

In saying that, it makes it sound as though I knew long ago where I was headed and what I would do. But like many historical works, this one evolved over a great many years. And so part of the choice had to do with my own luck as I came across source material.

I was familiar with eighteenth century France – that’s my main stomping ground, where I’ve spent most of my research time – and off and on I’d been running across censors and looking into censorship, I guess for at least forty years. I had built up quite a lot of material about it. So I published a short study of censorship, maybe twenty years ago, just in France. But I kept looking for more material in the French sources.

Then as good luck would have it, I had a fellowship in the Institute for Advanced Study in West Berlin, the year the wall fell. So I was there from August 1989 until September 1990. And there, I got to actually meet some real, live censors. It’s a long story, but basically I had friends in East Germany who were writers and publishers, and they offered to introduce me to some censors who were convinced that I wasn’t on a witch-hunt. They agreed to meet with me in their offices, and it was just an astonishing experience. Having studied censorship in France as it had existed two-to-three hundred years ago, I found myself talking to censors made of flesh and blood, who were willing to describe the way did their work. Well, that was the beginning of a long research project because after talking with them, I went to the archives in the Communist Party, and off and on for the next five years I found myself really getting deeply into the system for not just censoring books, but controlling literature as it existed in communist East Germany.

Having done that, I thought, “Well, I’ve got a vast amount of information about two very different systems. If I found one between the two, I could write a fairly ambitious comparative history.” So I looked around and I thought, “Well, something in the nineteenth century – why not British India?”

It turned out that the archives of the East India Service were enormously rich. And they are kept in the British Library. It was easy to go there, and so I spent two summers studying the East India Archives with help from the archivists, who showed me how to get material and where it was located and so on. And I found that to be endlessly interesting and very amusing in a lot of ways. So I tried to put it all together. The Indian part did involve a lot of study, of course, of Indian history and hitting up the background. But that was enormous fun and endlessly interesting.

The basic idea is, if a stool has three legs it will stand. It might stand better if it had four legs or five legs, but I thought that three in-depth studies would be enough to shift the general understanding of censorship to another plane – one that I call ethnographic or anthropological. So that’s a long answer to your question, but I hope it explains largely what the background to the book is.

I am interested in your research process for this book. It’s surprising that there would be extensive records of a government’s censorship process. What were some of the richest sources that you found?

Well in general, I think you can have authoritarian states that do a lot of censorship but don’t keep the records. They either destroy them, or don’t keep them, or treat censorship as something that they want to hide. In the case of eighteenth century France, the whole concept of censorship was absolutely different. There developed a very large bureaucracy for the process of handling and approving books, and giving them a royal privilege, which was essentially what censorship was intended to do. Those papers – especially for the mid-eighteenth century years – are easily available in Paris, and I’d run across them long, long ago when I was exploring different aspects of publishing in the book trade. So those works were easy to find.

The surprise was East Germany. And there, of course they didn’t like the word, “Censorship,” and censorship was actually forbidden by the constitution, which guaranteed freedom of speech. But on the other hand, it was very elaborately organized and it existed at several different levels – not just at the level of the censors themselves who literally crossed out phrases and had to approve texts before they could be published; it was more complicated than that.

The problem, in a way, was finding this third case. But fortunately, some of the librarians and archivists in the British Library knew their way around the documents there, and they helped me to locate fascinating material, which, I think if I’d just wandered in, I wouldn’t have been able to find by myself.

Where were some of the biggest gaps in information?

Well, it took me a while, but I came around to the conviction that most censorship takes place in the heads of the writers. And of course I was dealing with books and literature – fiction and such – not with the censorship of newspapers, television, or other media. It’s very difficult to understand how self-censorship takes place. There usually is no record of it, and of course the authors who censor their own texts are often ashamed of it, or don’t want to talk about it, or often won’t even admit it to themselves. And therefore, this aspect of the subject, self-censorship, is one that I found very difficult to nail down.

I believe that history is an argument based on evidence. So I looked very hard to find evidence of self-censorship. I found some in writings of authors who described the process. There was one in East Germany called Erich Loest who said that, “An inner voice had been whispering to him all along, at every line he wrote ‘Careful, that can cause you trouble!’ He called it ‘that little green man inside the ear’” (184). So, it’s an amusing description of self-censorship, but there are enough descriptions of that kind for me to say a little bit about it. But not as much as I would’ve liked to.

I was surprised to learn that censors themselves often acted to help authors circumvent the system, and help certain books to “slip through.” Can you please describe some of the factors that motivated censors to do their work?

Well, it’s difficult to read motivation. That’s something that happens in hidden parts of the mind or the soul, so I’m very careful when the subject of motivation comes up. But in the case of East Germany, I talked a lot with the censors, and I came away with the feeling that they believed in the system. That they were true believers in the kind of censorship they practiced. When I asked them what their understanding of censorship was, their answer was “Planning:” that literature in a socialist system should be planned, like everything else. It was a matter of social engineering. So I think that they believed in their function to make literature happen according to a plan, and in that respect they were forthright and quite honest. They told me they regretted the fall of the wall because the wall prevented East Germany from being flooded with what they saw as the kind of schlock of literature that existed in the capitalist world – especially in West Berlin and the US. So I think that although I can’t read deeply into people’s minds or souls and find motives, I question them enough to sense whether or not they were sincere in their commitment to the socialist system.

But I then had the opportunity to kind of check what they had said to me against documents in the archives, and that was crucial. I don’t think I would have written the book if I had not had access to a huge, huge run of documents in the papers of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. There, I ran across the same censors whom I had interviewed, and I could watch them – read their memos that they wrote to one another and see them in action, as recorded in the documents of the Party. And indeed they did do some, I think, quite reprehensible things. They were opposed to allowing all kinds of literature to be published that I would associate with modernism, for example. No Kierkegaard, no Nietzsche, no Freud, no Kafka; all of that was outside the bounds of what was permissible, and yet for us these are very, very important writers. So I was able to check up on what they said by going to the archives, and that I think provided a crucial dimension to the research. Because if it doesn’t quite answer the question of motivation, at least it provided a check on their statements.

My understanding is that they were motivated to do a job as the job was defined within the system, and that’s true of censors in general, I think. If not a job description, it’s an established way of doing things. The point of my book is to show you how things were done at the everyday level. Not to just look at spectacular cases that caused scandals, but to see the way that censors operated day-in and day-out, and the way they understood what they were doing. So that’s why I call it anthropological: because it’s an attempt to understand the native’s understanding, if you see what I mean.

Can you explain, briefly, why you are reluctant to define censorship too rigidly?

Yes. I think that of course I’m totally in favor of conceptual clarity, but I’m a skeptic when it comes to definitions. Often, when students write papers they begin by going to the dictionary and coming up with the definition of something as a way of showing that they understand it. But I think it can have the opposite effect. Because what definitions do is they reify something. And my whole understanding of censorship is, it’s not a thing in itself; on the contrary, it’s an ingredient in a general power system. And so censorship in one time and place, under one authoritarian regime, will be completely different from censorship in another. That’s what I try to show by discussing these three cases in a lot of detail. At the end, therefore, instead of having a definition of censorship, I hope that the reader will have an understanding of it, and that this will advance the study of censorship in general.

In today’s digital world, it is easier than ever to “get published” and to access information. At the same time, surveillance is omnipresent and faceless. It can be easy to ignore. In your opinion, does technology leave us more or less vulnerable to censorship at the hands of authoritarian regimes?

Well, at the hands of authoritarian regimes, I think it leaves us more vulnerable. Because with modern technology, of course, regimes can trace us very effectively. Even in East Germany, where they didn’t have the Internet, they were enormously skillful in compiling information about absolutely everyone. Everyone had a file in the Stasi archives, and elsewhere. But with the Internet, the databases about people’s behavior can be enormous. And if you combine that with a monopoly of power and total authority in the hands of, let’s say a communist party, as in the case of China, I think that the danger is tremendous.

So, although my book is about censorship concerning literature and literary productions, it’s clear that censorship as exercised through the Internet concerns every form of expression, especially texting and email, not to mention journalism, blogs, and so on, of all kinds. So yes, I think that the danger of censorship is greater now than it ever was, and I do take seriously Michel Foucault’s equation of surveillance and punishment. It seems to me that the surveillance state is one that exists in the West as well as in the East, and represents a real danger.

When one thinks of censorship, one thinks immediately of severe repression. And yet, the processes of censorship that you describe in your book are often less heavy-handed and more nuanced. They involve negotiation and even collaboration between authors and censors. It seems a little like today’s editorial process. Is censorship more widespread today than we realize?

Could be, I don’t really know. But you’re right in saying that my emphasis is on negotiation. That compromise and even complicity between the censors and authors is just absolutely demonstrable. If you go back and read the documents you can see it happening everywhere, all the time. So to simply view censorship as repression is not adequate.

Now, does that mean that the function of an editor in a publishing house in New York, let’s say – or Toronto or Paris – that that function can be equated with censorship? In the conclusion of my book, I take up a position, which you might not agree with. I say it is not that. Of course we live in a real world where there are constraints of every kind, and these constraints especially affect expression and public expression through the creation of books. But I think it’s a fundamental mistake to trivialize censorship by equating it with constraints of all kinds.

So of course an editor in the publishing house could decide not to take my book, but I think there is a qualitative difference between that kind of constraint, which exists all over the place, and the sort of constraint which involves the monopoly of power by the State.

So although I have a lot of sympathies with a lot of so-called post-modernist theory, I reject the post-modernist notion that censorship can’t be distinguished from constraints of all kinds. And so, you know, this is maybe one point where my book could be debated. Because a lot of literary critics in particular might say, “Well, it is for us a significant difference between rejecting a manuscript in a publishing house in the West and rejecting it in a publishing house in the East.” True, the East – in the communist systems, the editors were members of the Communist Party. And if they accepted a manuscript, they would have to get clearance within the publishing house, but then with the bureau of censorship in the Ministry of Culture. And the censors would have to get clearance from the specialists in the parallel structure of the Communist Party.

So I see the power of the State pervading the communist system of censorship, and I think it’s qualitatively miles away from the decisions taken by editors today in the West.

Do you see this kind of nuanced censorship at work in any countries today?

Well, I think that certainly in places like Communist China there are censors at work. Eight of my books have been translated into Chinese and – well I don’t read Chinese, so I don’t know if they’ve got the correct text or not – I don’t mean to present China as a totally closed society, and I don’t think it is anything remotely like North Korea. But it’s clear that the regime wants to control the information that reaches its subjects. And that’s especially evident if you look at the way the Chinese government tries to control communication through the Internet.

Now, the production of books is not the same thing and so I can’t tell you much about book production. But in South Africa under Apartheid there was a very elaborate and effective censorship, and I think you could find it in lots and lots of places in the present world. It’s not just something that’s safely consigned to the past.

Chinese novelist Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, said in an interview with Granta Magazine, “Many approaches to literature have political bearings, for example in our real life there might be some sharp or sensitive issues that they do not wish to touch upon. At such a juncture a writer can inject their own imagination to isolate them from the real world or maybe they can exaggerate the situation – making sure it is bold, vivid and has the signature of our real world. So, actually I believe these limitations or censorship is great for literature creation.” How would you respond to this?

Well my first response would be respect for someone who has tried to make literature under a repressive system. And my second one would be to think of that remark in relation to similar remarks made by people like Heinrich Heine who, in the 1820’s in Germany, said that if you have to duel with censors, that sharpens your prose. And so the challenge to literature is to make the most of a difficult situation by evocative, powerful, sharp writing. And I think that’s what the case is that you quoted to me.

Now, I would not go so far as to say, “It’s great to have censorship so that literature will flourish.” I’ve seen that kind of remark made. Leo Strauss, who was an authority on censorship a few decades ago, said that this was true of Plato and lots of writers, and in fact reading between the lines, and writing in such a way that between-the-lines-reading is possible, is part of great literature. So it’s a common view.

You write in your introduction that, “The history of books and of the attempts to keep them under control will not yield conclusions that can be directly applied to policies governing digital communication.” What would you like your readers to take from this book, besides a heightened awareness of the history of censorship?

That’s a good question. I mean, I think heightening awareness – or another way to put it, understanding a phenomenon that is of a historical nature – is what we historians try to do. So if my book actually helps people understand the phenomenon of censorship, that’s what I hope would happen. That would be the first thing I hope they would take away from the book. In general, I write in a way that I hope will enlarge the understanding of readers. That sounds awfully pious, but that really is what I hope to do. But I also would like to amuse them. I mean, I hope that in reading this book they will be interested in various episodes and characters and so on, that I found interesting. And so, “What will the readers take away from the book?” well I hope that they will enjoy it and find it pleasurable, while at the same time deepening their understanding of something important – namely, censorship.

Some of our readers themselves are writers, who are operating in countries where the forms of censorship that you outline in your book exist in practice. Based on your intimate knowledge of the history of censorship, what advice might you give to these authors and writers, who are currently living and working under these conditions?

You know, I hesitate to give advice because it can make you sound pharisaical. It would cast me in the position of having some kind of superior judgment, or it could sound condescending. I don’t pretend to tell other people how they ought to cope with their difficulties. What I would hope is that if they could read my book, they might reflect on the conditions of their own work, and heighten their consciousness of the way they can operate.

Now, that consciousness might be pretty sharp without reading my book. I don’t pretend that some kind of revelation will occur to them, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. But I think they might find it useful to see how censorship actually operated under different sorts of regimes. And then if they are in one, where power is monopolized by the State and literature cannot just be produced freely, they might reflect on the sorts of compromises and negotiations that are possible for them. Perhaps they’d even feel a little bit consoled by the fact that very fine writers like Christa Wolf, for example, in East Germany, had to cope with difficult circumstances as well.

One Comment on "“To Simply View Censorship as Repression is Not Adequate”: Author Robert Darnton"

  1. chlodnie.myhost.zone December 27, 2015 at 8:14 am ·

    First off I would like to say fantastic blog!
    I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing.
    I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out there.

    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying
    to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or hints?
    Appreciate it!

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