A few considerations on the issue of censorship

by David Friggieri, Malta Today

Anyone who is remotely interested in how the censorship issue is evolving can’t have missed that clip from Net TV (available on YouTube) which shows Owen Bonnici, Labour’s fresh-faced shadow spokesman delivering his calm and composed anti-censorship speech in front of the law courts.
The plot thickens somewhat when the Net TV envoy requests the Honourable Member to read parts of the infamous story written by Alex Vella Gera. And there you have it – Bonnici is caught out (“jitfixkel” as the guys who uploaded the clip put it) by a neatly devised Catch-22 situation in which damaging, out-of-context election clips of Mr Labour Uomo di Famiglia mouthing obscenities must have flashed past Bonnici’s political mind. All Bonnici could say was that the piece was replete with foul language, that he would not read it to his daughter and that he doesn’t consider it quality material. Nothing about the content of the story, nothing about the existence of sexually explicit literature in other languages. Just a convenient – and oft-repeated – distancing of himself entirely from the text in question.
The conclusion, I’m afraid, is that Labour is keen on gaining brownie points for its progressive stance on the latest hot topic to catch the nation’s fancy but that when faced with the actual content of the art in question it remains as guarded and conservative as ever. “I won’t touch this filth with a bargepole” the guarded Bonnici is telling his largely conservative audience while simultaneously attempting to reach out to the pockets of liberal voters that Labour is so eager to attract to its fold.
The end result of this journalistic ambush and political over-prudence was, in effect, a legitimation of the suppression of the piece: a Labour spokesman shying away entirely from engaging with the cause he was supposed to be defending followed by the “beeps” used to cover up the first lines of the story read out by the Net TV hack.
Small wonder, then, that persons linked to the artistic field have been expressing their dismay, frustration and – shall I say it? disgust – at the first salvos fired by the political parties and their audio-visual media over the Realtà case. Several people are asking whether the superficiality and immaturity are here to stay. Indeed, the mouthing of hackneyed platitudes (“Malta is part of the EU”, “we are a democratic society”, “we’re a medieval country”, “who are they to decide for me?”) lead to an unfortunate trivialisation of the issues surrounding censorship.

A few points for your consideration.

1) The French contemporary philosopher Alain Finkielkraut on censorship (quoted in Pascal Mbongo’s “La Banalisation du Concept de Censure” in Issue 130 of French journal Pouvoir, my translation): “I am not hostile to the concept of censorship. Every society operates on the basis of a number of prohibitions. Censorship occasionally threatens freedom but the fight to remove censorship completely, leads to nihilism and nihilism – everything is possible, everything is permitted, it’s all the same – threatens civilization.”

2) “When it comes to censorship, artists and journalists often claim for themselves a privileged socio-legal role within society which is not enjoyed by the public at large” (Pascal Mbongo is the article quoted above).

3) “Can pornography be considered art? While we often associate eroticism with literature, can a pornographic text be considered literature?” (Joseph Vebert in his guide ‘100 Romans érotiques incontournables’ (Librio) commenting on Le pornographe et ses modèles, a novel by popular French author Esparbec).

4) “Without omitting the slightest detail, without linguistic floweriness or carefully chosen words…what gives this novel all its force is that it is not the result of a writer’s fertile imagination, but of a voyage into the writer’s own memory…” (Joseph Vebert commenting on La vie sexuelle de Catherine M by Catherine Millet).

5) “Given a choice between ethics and literature, an author must always choose one AGAINST the other. There can be no compromise or ‘healthy half-way’ between, on the one hand, the verbal ability to solely evoke and praise what ought to be while refuting and condemning what is, and on the other hand, the poetic genius which exposes, or even over-exposes, what exists while remaining indifferent to what ought to be.” (Frédéric Schiffter in Le bluff éthique [Flammarion]).


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