Sunday, January 13, 2013

An Introduction

Googling “U.S. military burn pits” is a chilling way to start researching for a blog that is, in part, about censorship. Knowing I was ‘merely’ looking for a particular story I had heard of Qur’an burnings did nothing to lessen the feeling. Images of mass graves and horrible Holocaust-era crimes came to mind, but I’m honestly not sure I was at all relieved to find what I was looking for instead of what I imagined. I am not suggesting that the destruction of a book and the loss of a human life are equitable, but we often forget that books—especially books that deal in the depths of human faith—and human lives are bound up in a complex, affective relationship we sometimes only barely understand. For instance, when U.S. soldiers at an Afghan prison made the alleged mistake of adding up to 100 Qur’ans to the refuse in a ‘burn pit,’ the ensuing riots and attacks on U.S. troops killed more than thirty people.

It would perhaps surprise a great deal of people to know that book burnings still occur in the U.S. today, and no one even bothers to pretend they’re accidental. One of the more popular targets of these bonfires is the recent E. L. James novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has spawned criticism from anti-domestic abuse organizations as well as average readers who object to its glorification of sado-masochism. Cleveland rock radio DJs Chad Zumock and Alan Cox, for instance, held an impromptu burning outside a local restaurant, inviting people to toss their personal copies on the fire. (A controlled book burning overseen by the local fire department, which probably does not qualify as strictly revolutionary). Curiously, the DJs didn’t feel that they were engaging in a long and fraught tradition of suppression: “This isn’t censorship, it’s completely voluntary. … We weren’t criticizing it from any literary standpoint because that’s not why anyone’s reading it” (Source: NY Daily News). Of course, as one blogger noted, the DJs’ antics likely did more to boost book interest than anything else by making it more taboo. 

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, in the introduction to The Humanities and the Dream of America, said that “beyond the walls of academe, the humanities have been either promoted as a way of combating some danger…or accused of being that danger.” Even from within those walls, though, that makes an interesting comment on what we as a society expect from ‘capital-A’ art—that is, who we expect it to challenge, what we expect it to say, and what we expect that to accomplish in the world. For example, we do expect it to challenge us with a courtesan’s bold gaze (Manet’s Olympia), but we don’t expect it to take kinky sex as its main plot (Fify Shades). What makes those different? Why do we celebrate Manet’s contribution to artistic history while vilifying E. L. James for her unnecessary lewdness? I’m taking a graduate course right now called “What are the Humanities For?,” whose project is to talk in some meaningful way about the roots of these types of questions. In it, we are asked to think about the things we consider valuable as a society, the wielding of the terms ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ against literature and art and humanistic study, and what traditions we’re acquiescing to when we say “the humanities” at all. This blog is an attempt to address the intersection of in-the-world humanities projects that challenge or are challenged and what we can say about them that doesn’t limit their potential effect according to some notion of use-value. In order to ask what the humanities are for, this blog will first ask, “What can the Humanities do?” It will be about uncomfortable Art and censorship and the cross-section of public and private forms of humanistic expression, but most importantly it will be about why we believe the humanities can affect life, why we expect them to affect life, and what we’re really saying when we try to keep them from doing so.
Wicked, delicious depravity.

Take another look at the Cleveland DJs’ statement, for instance. There is at least one very dangerous assumption fueling his logic, especially since most censorship is less blatant than a book burning.  To suggest that literary quality is not the impetus for reading Fifty Shades is to place a value judgment on the readership, not the book. The implication of the statement is that the readers are gleaning their enjoyment from the book’s explicit sexuality, and, because the sex is not read from a “literary standpoint,” they are presumably getting their kicks from the baser pleasures of erotic fantasy. Similar to classing the book as “mommy porn,” burning it on the basis of its readership’s erotic interest is tantamount to making a moral claim about the wicked depravity of those readers. (You’ll notice that people were called to burn their personal copies—there is no better metaphor for the purging of one’s sin than a ‘refining’ fire). If we can associate the moral uprightness of our citizens with the moral uprightness of their reading material, where does that leave us?
I don’t have a clear answer, but I’m willing to bet that asking that kind of question is a start.

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