The search went seven stories underground, to the basements of the NSW branch in western Sydney. There we found, stacked in quiet rows, boxes of books. I held my breath as box after box was retrieved. Thousands of different titles, neatly covered and catalogued.
So far, it had been a mere symbol, a metonym for the secret exercise of power over knowledge. He describes the quandary faced by late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Italian and English archaeologists who unearthed the cities buried beneath Vesuvius and discovered a late Roman culture in which erotic images and obscene objects were so numerous as to be unremarkable, even conventional.
What were they to do with the many statues of Priapus, the god of generation always identifiable by his erect phallus, which decorated the thresholds of Roman households? But how to display the Pompeii finds? The public was literate in the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece and excited about the wealth of new finds, but needed to be protected from objects and images strongly offensive to dominant Victorian morality.
Confronted with these priceless obscenities — marble contradictions that could explode any necessary link between absolute morality and aesthetics — cataloguers revived an old word. The finds were housed in a special room in the Museo Borbonica in Naples, to which only gentlemen with appropriate qualifications could be admitted; women, children, the poor and the uneducated were excluded. Even the room was kept as secret as possible.
Censorship is a taxonomic process, a system of classification that establishes special categories of distinction for more or less offensive meaning, and isolates and removes that meaning from everyday production, distribution or consumption. But this is not an Australian library. This is a purloined library, made of the confiscated trade of a small ex-colonial nation with a large reading appetite. The books are not a national collection but foreign contraband, either banned on the spot by Customs officers or banned later after being referred to expert literary boards.
It takes a new and closer look at the content of the banned items themselves. My approach, as a literary historian, is to take for granted neither the outrage of censorship nor its necessity, and to probe further into what made up the offence as it sat on the page. What factors made it offensive? Why were these books banned and how?
Professor Nicole Robyn Moore | UNSW Research
What was at stake in prohibitions? What mattered enough to be banned? What was it that we were kept from knowing? The discovery of the library makes it possible to answer these questions in a way that could not be done before. The book draws on the voluminous archived records of federal censorship left by the Customs department and other government agencies, much of which has not been examined or even catalogued before. With more than fifteen government departments and agencies involved in censorship, just the records held in the National Archives of Australia amount to more than 70 file series, and the shelf-space for some of these series measures metres or more.
Besides placing the scandals and notorieties of Australian book-banning in a full context, the records bring to light many unknown prohibitions, revealing diverse titles whose offence has been obscured. The records expose the motivations and mechanisms of censorship as well as its blunders. I have tried to reanimate the lively and argumentative assessments of the censors, the stormy in-house debates, personalities and pedantries, administrative triumphs and legal sleights-of-hand, political brutalities and social scandals that underpinned the extraordinarily expansive and rigorous system of bureaucratic control.
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It required a kind of civil service unknown to us now, and coordinated and systematic surveillance that can appear both alien and familiar. The book is underpinned by Banned in Australia , the first comprehensive bibliographic list of literary titles banned by federal censorship from until , which I produced with Marita Bullock in Even then, only literary titles were listed or those that were deemed to have some public interest. Popular, technical or scholarly, and pornographic publications were not listed. Bringing it into public view allows us to see not only that which we have been prevented from seeing or reading, but the frame through which censorship organised that view — the rationale and limits, specified in exact proscribed objects, of power itself.
The history of literary censorship is a narrative about narrative, one of the most exact examples of stories about the circulation of stories. Australian literary censorship is a story about the secret practice of rendering stories secret. Mechanisms used to protect Australian readers from offence included the common law, statutes, legal regulations, court rulings and decisions, policy and bureaucratic processes, expert and inexpert opinion and the influence of medical and psychological discourses, as well as the discourse of literary scholarship, employed as the learned practice of decoding meaning.
In censorship records, offensive meaning still pushes for expression, whether as the trace of banned realism, erotica and porn, or modernist experimentation; in the forms of dissent, ideological argument and politics proscribed; in the genre codes through which sensationalism and affect work in popular and underground culture.
This offensive meaning is at least negatively evident from the traces left of its treatment by the censoring state. I wish to bring this banned meaning out of its long secrecy, not merely as a negative trace, but positively present as exact, contingent, differentiated and meaningful. The unseen content of prohibited publications fills out the history of culture in illuminating ways, as national history and as a measure of internationally circulated offence. When we open it up for viewing, we discover what a nation was not allowed to know. I would ban. The other two members of the Board concurred, if reluctantly.
Gordon ironically shares a surname with the historical figure Anthony Compstock, founder of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice and initiator of the Compstock Act , which strictly defined obscenity in US publications from These ironies were lost on Garran. Such instances have given Australian censorship its reputation for severity. In , a few years before the Orwell bans, the Bulletin literary editor Cecil Mann vividly conjured an image of a censorious nation that has resonated through the century:.
All that is suggested is that if there must be a censorship it be a competent one. Until it has been secured, or at least until the existing farce is ended, Australia will remain what it is today — a provincial, simple-minded, sport-loving, tin-god worshipping country, culturally indifferent, henpecked by ignorant officials, a sight worth looking at. Despite such protests, Forde roundly declared the system would continue. Has Australia really been so much worse than elsewhere? Many commentators agree that Australia has a history of prohibiting material freely available in most of the rest of the world and have speculated on why this might be.
Australia has been declared one of the worst censors in the English-speaking world, or even the Western world, trumped in its severity only by Catholic Ireland and Apartheid South Africa. Like Mann, journalists, writers, lecturers, politicians, film-makers, theatre directors, publishers and booksellers have vociferously criticised censorship in Australia, skewering governments of different political persuasions and lambasting the country as narrow-minded and puritan, isolationist and philistine, ruthless and oppressive, even totalitarian.
Redheap was welcomed there but Lindsay was only ever a minor writer for Americans. Today, we understand that prohibition itself can create interest in banned material. Down and Out in Paris and London, as his first book, was also one of the first titles published by the adventurous British publisher Victor Gollancz. While an enthusiast for his new author, Gollancz required the glossing over of swearing and some small rewriting for fear of obscenity charges.
Angered, Orwell distanced himself from this early novel in later life. Australia had a national border easily policed through parcel post and ship and air traffic, and a book market dominated by British imports. It had powerful federal Customs laws for the seizure of property, and established vague and multiple definitions of censorable offence, arbitrated by a minister against whose opinion appeal in the courts was expensive and likely to fail.
These, combined with other complex, overlapping pieces of state and federal legislation, compounded the risk of offence rather than reduced it. Religious and civil organisations supported stricter censorship in different decades and were prepared to lobby politicians and defy opposition in the press. There grew an administrative regime whose systemisation, secrecy and rigour attempted a complete model of rational, postcolonial modernity — protecting the new Australian nation state — but which was also attended by apparently necessary arbitrariness and unpredictability.
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The Censor's Library
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Nicole Moore. The censors library. A sight worth looking. Shi in air and arcel ost 3 No business of god or.
Related The Censors Library: Uncovering the Lost History of Australias Banned Books
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