Deciphering Censorship From regulation to the production of invisibilities, from the archive to the Internet: an interdisciplinary approach
According to search trends on Google, the Portuguese/Spanish word “censura” and “censorship” portray the importance of their correlation with social media platforms, in English (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and famous young women in Latin languages (Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox, Emma Watson and Lindsay Lohan are on Top 20 correlated searches, between 2004-2022). These two major themes, the economy and moral norms, show how censorship remains a question to be dealt in the present.
Nevertheless, such phenomena are hardly new. These phenomena, both economic and moral in nature, have accompanied the public and private sphere institutional regulation process, ever since, following the invention of the press, intermittent persecution of heretics was replaced by systematic control of printed material. Indeed, historical perspective enables observing censorship methodologies’ reorganisation in step with media technological development: cinema drove the age rating system (Robertson 2005), telegrams and, subsequently, telephone calls entailed flexibility in the controls exercised by institutions and agents of censorship.
Despite censorship depicting a quintessential display of the exercising of power, which is historically wielded by influential subjects, managers of public space, economic processes, and political institutions (Martin 2016), consensus around the meaning of the word censorship has crumbled in recent decades (Müller 2004; Moore 2013; Darnton 2014). This collapse first came to the fore in the context of the ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s when American liberal academics, anchored in theoretical approaches stemming from the works of Michel Foucault (1978) and Pierre Bourdieu (1991), demonstrated the existence of censorial phenomena within democratic contexts (cf. Burt 1994; Post 1998).
The new approaches to censorship continue to accept that States may exercise direct control (repression) while also beginning to identify censorial dimensions of indirect control that may be deployed (through financing, education, public history, etc.) and, above all, starting to demand direct state intervention in the regulation of private powers exercising constraints on the freedom of expression (Post 1998). This includes the forms of “market censorship” that induce self-censorship (Jansen 1988) or policies of “don’t ask, don’t tell” imposed on gay members of the U.S. Army between 1994-2011, enveloping them in a type of annulment embedded into the structure of societies (Butler 1998). This embedded character of censorship in society has been labelled “constitutive” or “structural” censorship in opposition to that wielded by institutions such as the state or the church, i.e., regulatory censorship. Within this scope, the recent issues surrounding “cancel culture”, the “woke” approaches to culture, and the biases of algorithms demonstrate how this phenomenon is socially structural.
Hence the need to scrutinize such phenomena in order to scientifically distinguish between, on the one hand, censorial processes and, on the other hand, conservative discourses that – faced with the emergence of voices legitimately demanding new spaces for communication -, instrumentally deploy allegations of some claimed censorship to conserve privileges and monopolies. Therefore, we need to differentiate between boycotts and censorship, because they do not emerge from the same places in the power system.