Modern censorship and the return of taboo

by josieappleton

In the Enlightenment the usual approach to something with which you did not agree was to republish quotes from the text along with your own devastating critique. Indeed, some works are remembered more by the critique than the original (1).

Now, there is a return to something more like the pre-modern approach to texts and images: disapproved of images should not be shown, texts should not be read. The effects of words and images are thought to unravel automatically, through the dynamics of attraction or repulsion, without the mediation of critical reflection or individual intent.

When the French journalist Caroline Fourest showed Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cover in a Sky News interview, the editors reacted as if they had received an electric shock. They terminated the interview and cut away without so much as a goodbye, apologising to viewers for any offence caused. In a similar way, the Al-Qaeda manual and other terrorist publications cannot be viewed. It is an offence to possess or download any terrorist document (for which two Nottingham University students were arrested: one downloaded the document, the other printed it out as a favour). This makes it difficult for students to complete the terrorism module of international relations courses: how can they critique publications they are not allowed to see?

The question of whether you approve or disapprove of images becomes one of whether they are displayed or hidden away. A disapproved of image is not shown with an accompanying critique: it is invested with a negative charge and cannot be shown. Instead of a conflict over interpretation or meaning – what does this text or image mean?; is it right or wrong? – there is a conflict over the display or seclusion of the item in question. This means a return to an immediate relation to words and images.

It is not just that texts now are held to have a given meaning – as they did for example in the Medieval period, where the meaning of texts was prescribed by a strict religious and political hierarchy.

Now, it is not so much that texts have a given meaning, but something more like a given charge – a positive or negative power – which has certain similarities with the traditional tribal taboo. With the tribal taboo, if a word leaves your mouth or your eyes fall upon a forbidden image, the offence is committed. Taboo objects unleash a contagion in the mind and in the world, like a force of nature. There is no mediation of a person’s critical faculties; no account given for their intent. Offences against taboo are often committed by accident: somebody happens to glance at the king, or says something he should not, and the contagion strikes.

Now too, offences can be committed by accident, and the saying of certain words contaminates the speaker. Hence the lists of words which should only be referred to euphemistically as ‘y-word’, ‘n-word’ or ‘f-word’. For the word to pass one’s lips is itself an offence, regardless of how one is using it. Young black men are told that they cannot say ‘yo nigger’ to their friends, while Jews and gays cannot call themselves ‘yid’ or ‘faggot’. Jeremy Clarkson got into contortions apologising for having appeared to say the ‘n-word’ in unused takes of Top Gear, without being able to say the word (for to say that he did not say it would be saying it). ‘In one of the mumbled versions if you listen very carefully with the sound turned right up it did appear that I’d actually used the word I was trying to obscure’.

In this context, words are not being used by one person to communicate meaning to another: nor are the words grounded in a given set of equal or unequal social relations. Instead, words become yes-words or no-words, approved or disapproved, to be repeated or never to pass one’s lips. It is because words are invested with such an inherent charge that offences can be committed by accident. Your lips are stained, regardless of the meaning intended – indeed, regardless of any meaning which would be clear to anyone else looking on.

What the new and old taboos have in common is an immediate and inarticulate relation to given objects. Of course, in other respects they are completely different. Taboo in tribal societies is a belief in an actual physical charge possessed by objects (‘mana’), which makes that object at once sacred and dangerous. ‘Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact’ (2). The power of taboo objects is the magical role they play in managing relations between members of the group – a king is taboo – as well as the group’s relationship with nature.

Today, by contrast, images and texts are not attributed with a single consistent meaning – everybody has their own list of taboo words – and this is clearly not a question of any magical role. The new taboos do not reflect a new social order, but rather an absence, a lack: the vanishing of the rational-critical individual as a recognised unit of public life. Individuals are imagined to be without governing critical faculties or independent purpose; therefore, words and images flow through them like automatic forces. The power attributed to images or objects is only a reflection of the supposed incapacity of viewers or listeners.

What has been lost is the mediating role of individual scrutiny which developed in the eighteenth century. With the development of the modern public sphere, texts and images were definitively stripped of any sacred or forbidden character. With the emergence of pamphlets, salons and coffee shops, works of writing or art became profane objects for examination and discussion. A book was no longer immediately good or evil: it was held at arm’s length, critically examined. Art lost its sacramental character and became an object for the examination and assessment of the public (3).

New taboos can only accentuate the problem of the waning of the public sphere. The hiding of images and texts serves to degrade the quality of public debate, and to restrict the use of critical faculties. Every banned word further estranges our relationship with language; every hidden image weakens the use of judgement. Ultimately, we need the end of taboos and the return of critique.


(1) Nobody would remember Sir Robert Filmer’s views on the innate rights of kings were it not for John Locke’s critique in his Treatises on Government.

(2) Wundt, quoted in Freud, Totem and Taboo, Routledge 2007, p22

(3) The sacred charge of art objects in the Middle Ages was the result of those objects’ role in forms of religious worship and displays of social status: they were the bearer of status relations. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT, 1999, p36