There is no such thing as “uncensored”

This week, my class will deal with (among various other things) censorship in German literature by the middle of the 19th century. I have been working with the concept of censorship for a long time now It turns out to be an enriching (and refreshing) experience to put it in a more historical perspective in the way that I have to for my class, after having implemented a more textual concept of censorship in the context of the project “Berlin intellectuals” in the five last years.

Censorship can take various forms and is quite ubiquitous when it comes to text. At some point earlier in term, I introduced censorship by saying that you have said close to nothing when you have said that a text is “censored”. Because if you take it literally, any text is, by definition, censored, be it only because a published text offers a different image than a handwritten (or a typewritten) one does. This may arguably be different in the context of today’s practice of sending a press-ready text to the publisher (I like the French expression for that text format,  “prêt à tirer”: it means ready to print, but ready to shoot just as well). But you can easily circumvent that objection and take the argument one step uphill: any formulation of text, be it oral or written, is a censored version of the blurry version you articulate in your head. (Even if some manuscripts seem close to mental images, like this one by Dostojewsky:

http://www.dostojewski.eu/PAGEgalerie/Zeichnung/General02/index.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dostoyevsky_The_Demons_Manuscript.jpg#/media/File:Dostoyevsky_The_Demons_Manuscript.jpg

“Dostoyevsky The Demons Manuscript” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – via WikiCommons

So, really, there is no such thing as uncensored text, every text reaching a reader is a censored one.

What can you say about a text and its being censored, then? You can in part tell the form and the extent of the censorship applied to it. Since it will always be in part only, you have to be able to tell which part that is and why it is relevant. Depending on the period in literary history, on the type of text, on the overall material you can work with, you will be able to come to conclusions with a variable grade of accuracy. In other words, censorship markers are, in general, not really self-sustainable, they are part of a wider research question.

Analyzing censorship phenomena should not solely be a jump seat to be occasionally folded up while rushing on the freeway of literature history. It is a major, and more importantly, a consistent aspect in literary history, one that would need to be treated systematically. It is one point on which close reading and history of ideas could join forces instead of letting isolated textual case studies cohabit, and almost not interact, with general historical overviews describing the work of political or religious censors. I believe that this is something digital methods could contribute to in a decisive way. For the time being, I have rough ideas, but nothing final on that – nothing, for the time being, that would pass the censorship of being published on this blog. But it will certainly reach maturity this summer!


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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