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Author: Gaurav Desai
Title: Commentary: Rethinking censorship
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Commentary: Rethinking censorship
Gaurav Desai

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 2, pp. 7, 1991
Author Biography: Gaurav Desai, a graduate of Northwestern, is a Ph.D. student in the English Department, Duke.

Commentary Rethinking Censorship


As I begin to write this piece, I find myself in a unique position. My task is to respond to a collection of essays that deal, in a variety of ways, with issues of shifting disciplines, shifting subjectivities, shifting texts and indeed shifting contexts. And yet, the status of at least one of the texts forwarded to me is at this moment still undecided. I do not know, as I write this response, whether or not that text will be published in this collection, and if it is, whether the context of its presentation will have shifted between the time this response is written and the time it is published.

I refer to the piece, "The Quest for Africa," written by David William Cohen. If you have read the piece, that is, if it has indeed appeared in this issue of Passages, then you will already have understood my dilemma. If you have not read the piece; if that is, between the time I write this response and the time the chronicle goes to press, the situation has so changed that it is unnecessary or unwise to publish the piece, then you may be a little confused about my remarks. 'What was this piece about?' you may wonder. And why all this fuss about its inclusion or exclusion? Well, that, of course, is the subject of my story and it is a story that is well told, albeit in different ways, by just about all the pieces in this collection.

David William Cohen's piece, "The Quest for Africa" was written to express annoyance and frustration with a museum that refused to allow the publication of an historical map of Africa in this issue of Passages. The map, "a composite rendering of maps of Africa that were drawn by European cartographers between the 15th and 19th centuries" [1] is, according to Cohen, of considerable interest to scholars of Africa. Yet, currently it is available only to those who have the opportunity to visit the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Hoping to help disseminate the map to a larger public, Cohen approached the Museum to request permission to reprint the map in this chronicle. In the months of August and September 1991, Cohen made several attempts to obtain such permission. The permission was not granted on the grounds that the map was not originally intended for publication and that, in some senses, publishing it in a chronicle such as this one would necessarily place the map out of context. Subsequently, Cohen made a further inquiry with the administration of the Museum and finally suggested that if permission were not granted, he would, rather than simply publishing the map and caption without further comment, reconstruct a narrative of the quest for the map that would, clearly, incorporate a critique of the arguments made by the Museum against publication. Such a narrative would be published in Passages in the map's stead.

As I write this response, the matter is as yet unresolved. Cohen called me this morning (October 11) to say that there remained a chance that the Museum might shift its decision and supply the map after all. But I am writing now for an audience who already knows the outcome of the struggle. Did the editors of Passages succeed in persuading the Museum? Or did the Museum maintain its position and refuse the permission? In other words, did you read Cohen's critique of the presuppositions of the Museum, or were you confronted instead by a map which challenges your notions of the "presentation and representation of the African past?" [2] Either way, there is a lesson to be learnt, or at least questions to be asked, when rethinking the history of this "quest for Africa." To what extent was the Museum concerned about the representation of Africa and to what extent was it concerned about its own representation? Why did it consider, even if momentarily, the possibility of allowing the map's publication when confronted with a public challenge of its efforts to control, instead of "promote equity, dignity and access for all persons who seek to learn, grow, preserve and endure?" [3] What was the status that the Museum accorded to a critique of its own policies in a chronicle which was meant to be circulated to over 3000 people? And, if it did not ultimately consider that to be a sufficient cause for anxiety (and, I repeat, I do not yet know what the outcome will be), what does that say about the power of a federally supported institution vis-a-vis the power of the opinions of an intellectual class?

'Censorship' is a word that can be productively used in this context. And yet care must be taken in the employment of this concept. It is indeed true regardless of the outcome of this struggle for the map of Africa, that, even if it were published, it will, much like the letter that Steadman received, be overdetermined by the conditions that have rendered its publication (im)possible. But I would like to suggest that the story of the map—much like Steadman's account of the letter which is stamped, "Department of Corrections has neither censored nor inspected this item," and like Philip Graham's story of the interviewer in Abidjan who was frustrated with the insistence on the politics of literature—is a story which in fact points to a certain necessity and inevitability of censorship in the formative moment of any institutionally sanctioned discourse. (And of course, "institutionally sanctioned" discourse really means all discourse, for all discourse draws upon some institution, however widely understood.)

What I am suggesting here is in some senses similar to what Jacques Derrida has said about writing in general. In his discussion of Freud and the Mystic Writing Pad, Derrida claims,

Writing is unthinkable without repression. The condition of writing is that there be neither a permanent contact nor an absolute break between the strata: the vigilance and failure of censorship. It is no accident that the metaphor of censorship should come from the area of politics concerned with the deletions, blanks and disguises of writing.... The apparent exteriority of political censorship refers to an essential censorship which binds the writer to his own writing. [4]

What Derrida is referring to here is the inevitability of censorship. But let us not misread him as saying that the kind of censorship that Steadman or Graham or, indeed, Kofi Anyidoho discuss is to be affirmed. What he is saying, I think, is that this kind of overt, (he calls it "exterior") censorship is, in fact, similar to the "self"-censorship that every author undergoes in the process of writing. And, in fact, as I later intend to show, by way of Willey's essay on Kenyatta, that self is very much a self in quotation marks—a citational self, which is marked by the larger society or community in which it functions.

If we follow Derrida then, we begin to sense a dis-ease with some of the prevalent modes of discussing censorship. Anyidoho's piece is only one instance of the way in which censorship is discussed in a top-down manner, something that, put in the most vulgar terms, bad people do to good people, oppressive regimes to innocent writers, senior professors to junior professors, people with louder voices to those with softer ones, and so on and so forth. Now, as a description of the status quo, this is not a very bad or inaccurate picture. So that, in fact, I would even go so far as to say that all the instances Anyidoho cites as examples of censorship are in fact precisely that. But I would argue that to foreground these and not to relate them to the kind of censorship that occurs "internally" leaves us with an inadequate account of the process of censorship. To those who would prefer my argument in a Foucauldian cast, I can put it even more succinctly. If Foucault argues that power is everywhere, I want to argue here that censorship is everywhere.

Why argue that censorship is everywhere? What are the political stakes in such an argument? And does the shift in focus not encourage an apolitical treatment of censorship? I will hastily assert that the answer to this last question is "No," but it is clear that to do full justice to this set of questions would take a whole book; briefly, though, the logic of my position is the same as the logic of Foucault's. As soon as we recognize the potentialities of "censorship from below" we may be in a better position to deal with certain forms of censorship, such as the ones that Anyidoho points to, more actively. Discovering the prevalence, and the potential power, of censorship to act within sites that have traditionally been considered authoritative or dominant may help empower those who wish to challenge the hegemony of those sites.

Or, to put it in another way, if we can threaten an institution with a critique of its policies, and if we can present ourselves forcefully, we may be able to encourage an auto-censorship on the part of that institution even if only to effect a similar auto-censorship on our part. (E.g. If you insist on censuring the publication of this map, I will go ahead and write a critique of your policies. If you let us publish it, I will hold back on the critique and publish the map.)

Now, this strategy may not always succeed, as it will depend on all sorts of contingencies of expected actions, interpretations and other relevant conditions on the part of both parties, and indeed of other related parties. But it is an examination of such practices (which would, to be sure, include an examination of relative power and societal control), that I believe ought to be the central concern of those interested in censorship. It is such an examination that will do away with a view that insists on portraying negatively that which is a condition of the possibility of any discourse.

It will by this point surprise no one if I isolate what I consider a brilliant insight in Beth Willey's paper, "Jomo Kenyatta: The Untenable Subject." And that is the moment in the paper where Willey points to the absence in Kenyatta's text of any significant discussion of male circumcision. [5] Reading Kenyatta's necessarily undecidable position as the subject as well as the object of study, his necessarily ambiguous role as the "native informant" as well as the Western educated anthropologist, Willey challenges us to think about conditions of the possibilities of a variety of transgressions: spatial transgressions, disciplinary transgressions, transgressions of the notion of a self as defined by Western metaphysics, ethnic and linguistic transgressions which lead to a polyglossic text and, indeed, in the particular instance that I am referring to, a transgression of gender identification. Indeed all these transgressions can be read in the absence to which Willey points. The absence of any discussion of the mutilation of his own body is, according to Willey,

the site of the paradox of Jomo Kenyatta. In trying to walk the line between European and Gikuyu, Kenyatta must try to hide this mutilation that marks him so indelibly as Gikuyu. He is however caught in the trap of his own making as far as his anthropological project is concerned because it is this mutilation that he tries to hide that grants him the authority of a full-fledged Gikuyu.

Willey's observation is a concrete illustration of what I have been urging—a close look at auto-censorship; a look at that which a writer necessarily has to censure, or as Derrida—in the psychoanalytic mode—would suggest, a look at that which a writer must "forget" as a condition for the possibility of producing a coherent discourse.

The only qualification that I would make here, and I think it does little damage to Willey's overall analysis, is that we should be suspect of any account that focuses purely on an individual level. Or, in other words, I would suggest that Kenyatta is not caught "in a trap of his own making" but rather in a trap that we can examine as a disciplinary one—in this case a trap that a certain set of conventions of the discipline of anthropology sets for a "native" who also wants to be the ethnographer.

And this brings me to a second observation. What Kenyatta's text seems to show more than anything else is the predicament of the colonized subject entering a discipline and attempting to transform it. It is simultaneously a story of the transformation of the genre of "autobiography" ... Kenyatta's text may indeed be considered as a primer for the kind of challenges that Anthony Appiah urges Africanists to face. The fight against fragmentation, the fight against uncritical acceptance of disciplinary boundaries established in the West, and the urge to redraw these demarcations may indeed be heard as the subtext of Facing Mount Kenya.

So it is the valence which Willey accords Kenyatta's moves that is a little troublesome for me. There seems to be more talk of "failure" than necessary. Indeed, Kenyatta's text fails as an autobiography and ethnography as these genres have hitherto been conceived, but that failure is precisely its success. I think that Willey would grant me this point since at several moments in her text, she comes quite close to articulating it herself. Thus, for instance, she assures us in her introductory paragraph that Kenyatta's failure "is not a lack," and again later that his

willful blindness to pre-established categories allows Kenyatta to reclaim the ability to define the self, a prerogative that has always been denied the colonial subject.

What I have called a "disciplinary trap" is not so much a trap as the condition of the possibility for the existence of any discourse that defines itself as a method of study and which engages in the constitution of its own object. [6] And this, in fact, is a condition, not only of what we call disciplines, but of any analytic. The question arises as to how one recognizes the discursive rules that go into the formation of a discipline or indeed the formation of any analytic. One way is to juxtapose different analytics; another is to see what happens when the same analytic shifts grounds. The first is investigated by Drue Fergison in her essay on the Mbira. The second is the insight gained by Ian Steadman in his staging of Sizwe Bansi is Dead in two different cultural contexts.

Fergison's essay is primarily concerned with the ways in which the Mbira becomes an economic and cultural commodity in at least two contexts: Kenyan and American. I say "at least two" because Fergison is careful to acknowledge heterogeneity in both the cultures and is also aware of her intervention in a postmodern condition in which, as James Clifford puts it, "the pure products have gone crazy" and the world has opened up. "Purity" of the product is indeed a central issue in the paper. How do consumers in the "West" respond to an Mbira decorated with a soda bottle cap and how does their response differ from that of the Kenyans? What are the relative mediations between Kenyan and American consumers of the Mbira and their respective notions of the "musical"? To what extent are the uses of a musical instrument as decoration relatively different in Kenya and in the United States? How is an analytics of functionality distinguished from aesthetic value in the two cultures? And how is it that two cultures which approach the Mbira in relatively different ways both end up affirming embellishment as a functional norm?

Fergison is not concerned to undertake here a comprehensive analysis of the similarities and differences in the approaches of these cultures, but the questions that she raises are indeed interesting to consider. The acknowledgements in her paper to a scholar of music, to a cultural critic, and to an mbira performer point to the multi- if not inter-disciplinary nature of her investigations. I suggested earlier that Fergison's paper demonstrates the comparative project of studying the analytics of different cultures. But it is clear, even in her own treatment of these analytics, that the demarcations between the cultures are indeed quite fluid. An elaboration of this project, which I hope we will see in the near future, may want to account for precisely such a convergence of analytics.

If investigating the similarities and differences between two analytics is one way of gaining insight into the formation of the analytics and their presuppositions, another way is to trace an analytic in its sojourn from one terrain to another. This is the plot of Ian Steadman's narrative. The staging of a "resistance" play from South Africa in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women foregrounds for the theater practitioners some of the problematic assumptions of their own practices. Thus, Steadman writes,

Not only did [the critique offered by the women inmates] provide a challenge to the way we conceived of Africa and Africans; it also made us interrogate the ways in which anti-apartheid 'resistance' theater, in challenging discrimination, enjoys a complicit relationship with other forms and institutions and structures of oppression.

Once again, then, what we have here is the return of the repressed. That moment of repression and forgetting that Derrida warned us about as the condition of writing reveals itself as soon as the firm ground on which our discourse was hitherto established has been taken away from under it. We are now face to face, even if only momentarily, with an epiphanic recognition of our own repression—of our self-censorship.. But once again, as was the case with Kenyatta, we cannot really talk about self-censorship. For where is that autonomous self which can exist and function outside of a limiting and censuring analytic or institution?

Derrida intervenes:

The 'subject' of writing does not exist if we mean by that some sovereign solitude of the author. The subject of writing is a system of relations between the strata: the Mystic Pad, the psyche, the society, the world. Within that scene, on that stage, the punctual simplicity of the classical subject is not to be found. In order to describe the structure, it is not enough to recall that one is always writing for someone; and the oppositions sender-receiver, code-message, etc., remain extremely coarse instruments. We would search the 'public' in vain for the first reader: i.e. the first author of the work. And the 'sociology of literature' is blind to the war and ruses perpetrated by the author who reads and by the first reader who dictates, for at stake here is the origin of the work itself. The sociality of writing as drama requires an entirely different discipline. [7]

... To which we must ask: "And how does one go about inventing such a discipline?"

... Let us embark on a re-reading of Kenyatta's text....

1. See the text of the caption associated with the Map.

2. Cohen, "Quest for Africa."

3. This is one of the "Missions" of the proposed Museum of African-American Culture, like the National Museum of African Art also a Smithsonian project. See the press release reproduced in this issue of Passages.

4. Jacques Derrida, "Freud and the Scene of Writing," in Alan Bass, ed., Writing and Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 226.

5. It should be noted that Kenyatta does indeed talk about male circumcision in the text. It is just that the relative scope of that discussion compared to the detailed account of female circumcision is limited. And of course, as Willey points out, there is no specifically autobiographical account of his own circumcision.

6. Also see Michael Foucault's essay, "Discourse on Language" and Archaeology of Knowledge for further elaboration on some of these formulations.

7. Derrida, "Freud ... ," in Bass, ed., Writing and Difference, 227.

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