Presenting the ICC Course of the Week!
ENGL19412 Banned Books and Censorship Trials: Obscenity in the 20th Century
Themes: Inquiry, Imagination, and Innovation
Censorship as a cultural practice in the west is in fact older than the printing press. Books of history, fictional narrative, religion, and science have all at one time or another been targeted by various forms of authority in an effort to draw a border around different cultural discourses. In the twentieth century, in the United Kingdom and the United States, the focus of official efforts toward the censorship of literature began to coalesce around a now famously slippery descriptive category known as “the obscene.” James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Vladimir Nabokov among others all saw novels they had written challenged or banned outright based on the claim that their subject matter was obscene, and the notion of obscenity continues to exert a powerful influence on public discourse even today.
The main work of the course involves close textual analysis, and in thinking about perspectives on the question of obscenity within twentieth-century literature, students will begin to think carefully about the centrality of language both to self-representation and to the ways in which authors and readers characterize the world around them. The “obscenity” debate surrounding Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, hinged largely on a reading of the final chapter, an extremely dense section of prose that contains almost no punctuation and narrates a character’s thoughts as she begins falling asleep. Does the atmosphere created by the stream-of-consciousness style and the ways in which graphic depictions of sex jar up against reflections on more mundane aspects of daily life insulate the text effectively from charges of obscenity? For this writer, as for the others on the syllabus, the specific use of language that each employs is central to the creation of a particular field of aesthetic (and perhaps ethical) effects that enable a continued dialogue between the category of the “obscene” and that of the privileged and licit exploration of different aspects of human sexuality.