August 14, 2017
Manifest(ation) between Literature as Censorship and the Censorship of Literature
With increasing frequency in recent times, the cultural world is taken by fear, often turning into public scandals, caused by what is believed to be the threat of so-called political correctness. Every time the left-wing (and not only) denounces lack of respect, racism, sexism, etc. in certain contexts of language use, the rightwing promptly reacts by accusing the leftwing of censorship, limiting the freedom of expression, positive discrimination.
This situation grows increasingly complicated when the consequences of political correctness, or not abiding by it, are related to art and literature especially. In this case, the fear of losing the freedom of expression reaches new peaks and, from left to right and vice versa, nearly the entire cultural world takes vehement actions against censorship. The most telling example was, if one recalls, the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo editorship.
Back then the issue of political correctness had become secondary and the freedom of expression gained support almost unanimously. Art should be free, the press should express itself at will, political correctness cannot be invoked as justification for crimes and limiting freedom – associated with totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Following this discourse political correctness ends up being a form of manifesting totalitarian ways of thinking. This type of attitude when faced with terror and the consequences of its manifestations is, in fact, rooted in a discourse that upholds the non-violent character of language and communication through language. Not once have we heard of saving through dialogue, the art of communication and consensus seen as an ivory tower in which we can retreat from in the face of the coarse violence of the world we live in. What remains outside the tower, in the world below? Creatures incapable of dialogue, all those who can’t or don’t know how to use language as an instrument of communication, those who don’t master the art of speaking, an undifferentiated mass left to face all sorts of forms of violence. In an older article, published in 1974 in Political and Social Essays, Paul Ricoeur highlights the redemptive function of speech:
“Speech, discussion, and rationality also draw their unity of meaning from the fact that they are an attempt to reduce violence. A violence that speaks is already a violence trying to be right: it is a violence that places itself in the orbit of reason and that already is beginning to negate itself as violence.”
He will attribute a major significance to the meaning of words that lack violence within the rational discourse. We are told that language is innocent, that it is a tool, a code, it does not speak but it is spoken and the coherent discourse is a way of combating the expression of violence via mastering language. The power / action of granting names is part of our characteristic to produce a discourse:
“Aren’t words lying quietly in our dictionaries? Certainly not. There are not yet (or there are no longer) words in our dictionaries; there are only available signs delimited by other signs within the same system by the common code. These signs become words charged with expression and meaning when they come to fruition in a sentence, when they are used and take on a use value. Of course they come from, and after usage fall back into, the lexicon; but they have real meaning only in that passing instance of discourse we call a sentence. It is then that they come onto the field of the confrontation between violence and discourse.” He who calls out crime as s crime is on the way to redemption.
Returning to the Charlie Hebdo case, violence remains on the side of the criminal gesture and just by calling it out and condemning it brings peace when faced with the terror of that moment. Yet what is often overlooked in these situations is precisely the capacity of language to generate violence, to produce and maintain a state of conflict, establishing power relations between the speakers, with added potentialities that can be actualized and the capacity to generate a personal reality. The goal of a dialogue is often not to settle conflicts, rather to impose hierarchic positions between the speakers. In the process of idealizing language, understood as a neutral instrument of communication, we often forget or deny its directly violent character, not via symbols or significations, but through the effects on our own bodies and/or the body of the other (outer-human). With actions. Language is always the outer-human we want to possess, to own. However, it always returns with violence to match that with which we keep under lockdown. If the language-communication utopia is built on excluding mistakes, on literal language and thought of as synchronous, there will always be a trace of the past, of dialectics, of the error that will disturb the normal progress of any kind of communication – the historic dimension of language, diachrony. Denying the existence of this side means attempting to accept an already established authority, preserving its power relations that helped set some rules, silencing the other, censoring its presence. Only then does the issue of political correctness arise.
Relating to language is done via an eco/nomic approach – naming or possessing words is a gesture that depends on a system based on an economic type of thinking (oikos + nomos / ruling the house): the house rules, to establish the function of language, its stable connections, to be the one that holds the law, the one that has the right to speak. Therefore, with the need to correctly communicate which is different from the need to be correct, the opposition between the right to and to be right to; a rupture between language and justice in complete accordance with the rupture between politics and justice, a concept that is impossible to apply due to the policy based on power relations – the one that holds the right is the one who holds the power. Justice cannot generate reality within this system, it remains an unpleasant term, increasingly hard to incorporate within rational judgement. The idea of political correctness would flip this organization, bringing justice in an area where its presence cannot be rationally justified, thus it becomes revolting and impossible to accept; it targets precisely the recognition of diachrony, the existence of the other (outer-human) as a language. On the other hand, the economy of language also aims at reducing action to a minimum, up to cancellation, in order to save energy and use language in the cheapest possible way, reducing its material force. By promoting the art of human specific dialogue in order to silence that which is outer-human in language ends up being a form of censorship and incorrectness. From this perspective, to be politically correct means to act upon language, thus acting justly within politics, replacing it with the position of power, breaking the established laws and links and revealing / disenchanting an entire system of thought by rediscovering the history of word, discourse, language, material force. This is what the eco/logical (oikos + logos / studying the house) approach ultimately strives to achieve – “a political thought can be politically correct («politiquement correcte») only if it is scientifically painstaking” (Foucault).
Coming back to literature, censorship cannot be sustained by applying political correctness, on the contrary, the result would be freeing literature and art from the burden of censorship, that type of censorship efficiently achieved through aesthetics. Literature would be granted the freedom to act. Moreover, criticizing political correctness has negative consequences especially on that certain type of literature that does not use language as a simple instrument for communication, but has managed to break from the aesthetic criteria within its mode of functioning.
It is about that literature which seeks and reuses or is used by the diachronic dimension of language, by acting freely within freedom and not by fighting for freedom, its own or that of a category or world that it proudly considers to adequately represent. It never represented history, it created it. In the end what matters is that such a literature no longer functions from within aesthetics, but with the scientific model of research and a fiction-type experiment, meaning without the claim of legitimizing itself via the power of accessing truth in a rational way. Therefore, any literary experiment that does not research, recycle or analyze the given of language is just an aesthetic experiment and cannot be politically correct because it censors the language as a material force and stops direct action, freedom in freedom. This is the ethical moment of writing but also of reading, acting upon history and bringing back justice, being fair with the other (outer-human) and not having rights over the other (outer-human).
At the other end of this art there is no Grand Literature, nor the revelation of the unknown, but delirium as the pathological language of the alienated (the outer-human, that which is left outside of humanity), that which science has isolated into sickness, abusively replacing it in literature and art with the image of the genius and its delirious language, sustaining communication precisely by generating an opposite based on the model of binary oppositions, the outer-human as other, the different being “tamed” via interpretation. The language of the alienated and eco/logy are related to other means of working the system. It is a form of manifest(ation) of communication as a perfectly understandable action which is denied, through a violent rupture that creates oppositions, access to the intelligible, to that which deserves to be understood / have meaning within communication.
But more on the ecology of politically correct literature or the politics of literature and alienation as positive appropriation in a later discussion.