Self-Aware Self-Censorship As Form

Self-Aware Self-Censorship As Form

David Thomas Henry Wright
A dedicated, elaborated thought stream from an author who, like McElroy, has read and thought about  the presence of censorship (as theme and experience) in novels by Ross Gibson, Shariar Mandinipour,J. .M. Coetzee, W. G. Sebald, Mark Z Danielewski, Italo Calvino, and Fernando Pessoa. Author David Thomas Henry Wright explores the (loss of) authority of the literary novel in a time of “networked glut” while at the same time seeking trans-national, trans-historical, photographic, multi-medial and inter-generational “alliances”  that might redress contemporary censorship and “deeply shape (or erode) contemporary literature.” 

McElroy’s 2017 talk, Forms of Censorship; Censorship As Form, delivered at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine, addresses contemporary forms of censorship and how they shape contemporary literature and discourse. He identifies three forms of censorship: (i) “official acts enforced by police prohibiting the printed word or publicly… heard voice,” (ii) the “muting effects” of censorship in autocratic societies, and (iii) the “glut” of “lying, multiplying, derivative” efforts, “spreading without overtly meaning to conceal or prohibit or blot out.” The first form of censorship can be regarded as a more ‘traditional’ and direct type of censorship, while the second and third forms can be regarded as types of self-censorship. The self-censorship associated with the ‘glut’ (or ‘glut’ censorship) most preoccupies McElroy as the greatest threat to contemporary Western writing.

Three recent texts, Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story (2009), J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), and Ross Gibson’s The Summer Exercises (2008), directly address the various forms of censorship McElroy raises. In examining these texts’ unique forms, as well as addressing their digital possibilities, I intend to show the direction contemporary writing may take in the face of various forms of censorship. I argue that, in the examples given, the veneer of censorship is built into the text’s form so as to address potential miscommunication, misinterpretation, exploitation and silence in an attempt to reclaim writer authority.

‘Direct’ censorship in Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Born in Shiraz, 1957, Mandanipour is a writer of Persian literature. His novel (hereafter CAILS) directly addresses McElroy’s first form of censorship, i.e. “official acts enforced by police prohibiting the printed word or publicly… heard voice.” Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has subjected him to censorship, including threats, harassment and intimidation (PEN America Center, in Ostby 75). He went to the United States in 2006 as an International Writers Project Fellow at Brown University, and wrote CAILS as a visiting scholar and writer-in-residence at various American institutions (Encyclopædia Iranica). Mandanipour wrote CAILS in Farsi (Nastaʿlīq script), his mother tongue. This initial text, however, has not yet been published. The English translation, by Sara Khalili, is the first publication of the text. CAILS, however, is not just a text written by an émigré/expatriate writer whose homeland refuses to publish. Mandanipour’s novel is aware of its anomalous position as a text-in-translation; it self-referentially addresses the various forms of censorship an Iranian writer must work within and against.

CAILS contains three types of text: the titular ‘Iranian love story’ of Sara and Dara, which is written in bold ; text that is censored pre-emptively before the ‘author’ submits the ‘Iranian love story’ to Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is written in bold with strikethrough ; and finally descriptions as to why the censoring occurred and other meta-fictional explanations of culturally specific elements by the narrator, as well as the narrative of ‘the author’ engaging with the censor ‘Petrovich’ (named after the head of the investigation in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment), which are written in roman. All three text types are displayed in the following extract:

As I said before, although Sara and Dara come face-to-face for the first time on the fringes of the students’ political demonstration, they had in fact started writing their love story a year earlier. And this is the story that I now want to tell you:

Sara is studying Iranian literature at Tehran University. However, in compliance with an unwritten law, teaching contemporary Iranian literature is forbidden in Iranian schools and universities. Like all other students, Sara has to memorize hundreds of verses of poetry and the biography of poets who died a thousand, seven hundred, four hundred … years ago. Even so, Sara likes contemporary Iranian literature because it stimulates her imagination.

This literature creates scenes and words in her mind that she has never dared imagine or utter, and of course, this literature too has not dared write those words and scenes openly and explicitly. In fact, when Sara reads a contemporary story, she reads the white between the lines, and wherever a sentence is left incomplete and ends with three dots like this ” …,” her mind grows very active and begins to imagine what the eliminated words may be. (7-8)

The predicament Mandanipour finds himself in (i.e. having to move to the United States and write for a non-Iranian reader, despite writing in Farsi) is a result of Iranian censorship. This censorship process is directly depicted in the novel. As another example:

She closed the door to her room , lay down on her bed, and began reading the book from the beginning. (17)

In this instance, the suggestion of the woman lying on her bed would be regarded as potentially suggestive, and has therefore been ‘censored.’ Mandanipour is unable to write this novel (or any love story) in Iran for Iranian readers. If he attempted to do so, his work would be censored, and he may be subjected to accusations of criminal wrongdoing or even violence.

In the ‘veiling’ of words with strikethrough (i.e. the veneer of censorship), CAILS also shows the self-censorship an Iranian writer would go through. In her analysis of CAILS, Ostby argues that the motive of Mandanipour’s ‘censoring’ is to:

…cut off its own voice and cover its own tracks by not only excising anything un-Islamic or anti-state, but also cutting out any references to the censorship machine and occasionally removing explications that would aid Western readers. (91)

The latter, Ostby continues, would have little effect if the novel had remained in Farsi for an Iranian audience, since such cultural codes are “as old as the fraught but intimate relationship between the Iranian reading public and its cultural authorities.” (91) While CAILS appears to depict the processes of ‘traditional’ censorship (i.e. the censoring of an ‘ideal’ love story that can never be published in contemporary Iran) and the self-censorship of an Iranian author, its greatest censorship in fact comes from Iran’s ‘muting effects,’ i.e. the Iranian readership knows to avoid and/or has insufficient enthusiasm for such a work. All of these forms of censorship led Mandanipour to travel to the United States and construct his novel in its current form, for its current reader. Ostby concludes that Mandanipour (and indeed all authors in censored societies) must appeal to a “transnational, transhistorical alliance” in order to escape from the “hegemony of censored lives.” (93) This includes:

…characters’ lives censored by authors, authors’ lives censored by a government, or books’ lives censored by the demands of the literary marketplace. (93)

In appealing to a “transnational, transhistorical alliance,” there is an additional form of censorship: translation. This, Ostby contends, is Mandanipour’s “deepest vulnerability,” claiming that it renders “impossible the novel’s complete ownership or understanding by even the author himself.” (93) This appeal to Western readership should be regarded as a surrender of writerly authority. Even if an author were to adopt and master the English language, there would still be dislocation. For example, while V.S. Naipaul was a student at Oxford University, writing a paper on Paradise Lost for Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, he wrote the phrase: “Prayer, the incense for the incenséd God.” In 2002, Naipaul clarified:

“Now I knew exactly what I was doing. ‘Incenséd’ meaning angry, it’s the same word. And Tolkien said to me, ‘it’s good, did you intend it?’ And I was ashamed and I said no. And so I lost points in Tolkien’s mind, I suppose, and the witticism yet was my own.” (in Bewes 79)

In Naipaul’s anecdote, even in mastering the English language, he does not avoid “post-colonial shame,” which should be regarded as a form of self-censorship. The ‘obligation’ of English should therefore be regarded as another form of censorship.

This loss of authority resulting from translation could be minimized by utilizing digital possibilities. If we regard CAILS as a print novel that displays “the mark of the digital,” (Hayles 159) the text could be ‘opened up’ by adding digital functionality. A digital version could allow the reader to restructure the text by shifting between ’ original ,’ censored , actually censored, and ‘annotated’ text, as well as allowing the option of the original Farsi. Though the Farsi text would be ‘unreadable’ to the predominantly Western reader, the presence of this “unread unreadable virtual language” may – as Cayley (2015) claims of Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky – “impress upon the reader’s perception, disproportionately and entirely without regard to any of their (supposed) effects as actual language.” (77) As CAILS’ form utilizes deliberate and distinct annotations and digressions, these could also be expanded upon or diversified for even more diverse audiences. By utilizing a networkable and programmable form, more accommodations could be simultaneously presented (e.g. the text could make itself uniquely accessible to Japanese readers, South American readers, Australian readers, etc.), which could be extended and customized as required, allowing the author to traverse even more linguistic, social, cultural, and censorship boundaries.

Nevertheless, while such possibilities may assist or even strengthen the author’s appeal to a “transnational, transhistorical alliance,” the text would still be at the mercy of censorship. The obligation to adopt such transformative literary forms in response to the various forms of censorship is itself a form of censorship.Beyond Mandanipour’s unique predicament, however, what are the obligations of the contemporary writer? And do these obligations classify as ‘censorship’?

‘Glut’ censorship in J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee addresses McElroy’s third form of censorship, i.e. the ‘glut.’ Diary of a Bad Year (hereafter DOABY) is a novel in which each page is split into three: Señor C’s essays, Señor C’s point of view on the typing of the essays, and Anya’s (Señor C’s typist and romantic interest) point of view on the same events. The format enables the expression of both an individual moral position and the case against it; in some cases, this exists on the same page. For example, Anya’s partner Alan is a supporter of John Howard’s pro-Bush government and dismisses Señor C’s essay On Political Life in Australia, which criticizes and laments the use of torture.

McElroy writes:

Addition subtracts as well: … this glut adding to what besets us until we cannot see clearly: what then? the glut is not an everything … but an inchoate everything of conflicting claims and lies, an everything that becomes another subtraction.

DOABY attempts to present this ‘inchoate everything.’ In his analysis of DOABY, Patrick Hayes questions why Coetzee bothers to do so:

To put it simply, why doesn’t he just come out and say what he thinks, like other cultural critics past and present? (224)

In other words, why bother sandwiching essays into a novelistic frame? Why not just let the essays speak for themselves? Why not simply ignore the ‘inchoate everything’?

Coetzee’s reasons for not ignoring the ‘inchoate everything’ can be observed in a 2009 letter to American novelist Paul Auster:

See below.
What does one do?

“Dear Mr. Coetzee,

“I am disappointed and find it a shame that a writer enjoying such eminence as you do, should stoop to using anti-Semitic slurs, and these wholly gratuitously.

“I refer to your book ‘Slow Man’ Chapter 22 pages 167 and 168. …” (94)

Auster replies that Coetzee could ignore the “stupid letter,” or respond with a lesson on how to read a novel, perhaps posing the question “Do writers of murder stories endorse murder?” (95)Coetzee responds that Auster’s advice is sensible, yet remains troubled by the accusation:

…my question still stands: What is one to do about this? For – the world being as it is, and the twentieth century in particular being what it was – an accusation of anti-Semitism, like an accusation of racism, throws one on the defensive. “But I’m not one of them!” one wants to exclaim, displaying one’s hands, showing that one’s hands are clean. (96)

Coetzee is not referring to the particular woman’s rather weak accusation. Rather, he points to the growing chasm between reader and writer:

The real question arises out of the moment of being thrown onto the defensive, and out of the sinking feeling that comes next, the feeling that the goodwill between reader and writer has evaporated, the goodwill without which reading loses its joy and writing begins to feel like an unwanted, burdensome exercise. (96-7)

Various historic, cultural, and social reasons have contributed to this reader-writer chasm, which has been growing since the 19th century. As Saul Bellow claims in his Nobel Lecture (1976):

There were European writers in the 19th century who would not give up the connection of literature with the main human enterprise. The very suggestion would have shocked Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But in the West a separation between great artists and the general public took place.

This chasm between writer and reader is not necessarily a direct result of censorship, but it has certainly been encouraged and exploited by censorship efforts.As a result of this disconnect between writer and reader, the author has lost authority, i.e. their ability to authorize. Coetzee (as well as Señor C) addresses this directly in DOABY, in the essay On Authority in Fiction:

Announcements of the death of the author and of authorship made by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault a quarter of a century ago came down to the claim that the authority of the author has never amounted to more than a bagful of rhetorical tricks. (122)

He concludes with the question:

But what if authority can be attained only by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically? (122)

Within DOABY, Señor C’s essays (e.g. On English Usage, On Authority in Fiction, On The Afterlife, On Guidance Systems, On Ageing, On J.S. Bach, On Dostoevsky, etc.) can be understood as Foucault’s definition of parrhesia (πᾰρρησῐ́ᾱ), in which:

…the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy. (19-20)

This is the positive meaning of the word in most Greek texts from 5 B.C-5 A.D. DOABY can also be regarded as a ‘polyphonic’ novel, i.e. a text that displays a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses.” (Bakhtin 4) Bakhtin points out that the use of the musical term ‘polyphonic’ is:

…a figurative analogy, a simple metaphor… But for lack of a more appropriate designation we shall turn this metaphor into the term “polyphonic novel.” The metaphorical origin of the term should, in any case, not be forgotten. my italics

In DOABY, multiple perspectives are positioned side-by-side, running concurrently, allowing the reader to read them ‘in tandem.’ This representation appears to closer align with Bakhtin’s metaphor. The pages of DOABY even resemble sheet music.

DOABY simultaneously expresses Señor C’s ‘strong opinions’ while also dramatizing their (in)effectiveness. Julian Murphet argues that, despite its deformation of the page, in attempting to be both parrhesic (i.e. resembling late Tolstoy, e.g. The Kreutzer Sonata) and polyphonic (i.e. resembling Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels, e.g. The Brothers Karamazov) the novelfails to be either. Murphet writes:

[Coetzee] wants to have his cake and eat it, wants to enact his Tolstoyan will to parrhesia, and yet partially retract it via the Dostoevskian compositional devices available to his elected form: dialogical decenterment and ironization. These blocks of prose, that we are virtually forced to take at first pass for the opinions of J.M. Coetzee, are dissociated almost imperceptibly from themselves, in order to attain to a barely recognizable second-order evaluation within the novelistic prose. (74)

The inclusion of the concurrent narrative corrupts the reading of the ‘strong opinions.’ Murphet concludes that DOABY proposes a “post-novelistic horizon” and that the novel, “having fallen under the wheels of opinion to the point where its truth has all but bled its last into the digital matrix, is perhaps awaiting its rebirth in the new media.” (78)

In addressing and dramatizing the (in)effectiveness of parrhesia in DOABY, Coetzee is attempting to reclaim authority by acknowledging the disconnect between writer and reader(s). His ideal is explicitly stated as the simultaneous authority held by late Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, which he attempts to recreate in DOABY’s unique form. Bakhtin’s ‘polyphonic novel’ suggests that the surrendering of one’s authority to oppositional points of view simultaneously strengthens it. In DOABY, this is expressed in the essay On Dostoevsky. Señor C writes of reading the chapter in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan, the tormented atheist, hands back his ticket to God:

…instead of becoming inured to their force I find myself more and more vulnerable before them. Why? It is not as if I am in sympathy with Ivan’s rather vengeful views. … So why does Ivan make me cry in spite of myself? …

Are those tones of anguish real? Does Ivan ‘really’ feel as he claims to feel, and does the reader in consequence ‘really’ share Ivan’s feelings? The answer to the latter question is troubling. The answer is Yes. …even as one asks, shocked, how a Christian, Dostoevsky, a follower of Christ, could allow Ivan such powerful words…(175-7)

Murphet’s criticism, however, is that DOABY is not only ineffective as ‘parrhesia,’ but it is also far from a thorough polyphony. At least two thirds of the page are represented by Señor C’s voice (i.e. his scripted opinion essays and internal perspectives), making it less polyphonic and more hierarchical. While DOABY represents a slight surrender to the ‘glut,’ the borders of this surrender remain completely under Coetzee’s control. The ‘inchoate everything’ is not effectively represented. It accounts for the birth/indifference of ‘a’ reader, not the birth/indifference of multiple readers.

Utilizing electronic literary approaches, Murphet’s conclusion (that the novel has “all but bled its last into the digital matrix, and is perhaps awaiting rebirth in the new media”) could be followed. A digital text could expand the ‘inchoate everything,’ creating more voices and ceding more comparative space. Or Coetzee’s essays could simply be uploaded to the internet, posted on-line in relevant avenues, and their (in)effectiveness could perhaps be better understood. But a surrender of authority in this sense would likely be too great. Bakhtin’s theoretical approach is sufficient for the 19th century novel only. In the contemporary world, the surrender to all others’ opinions (i.e. the ‘inchoate everything’) in a literal sense would be too immense.

Inherent in Coetzee’s post-Nobel writing is a desire to let the words speak for themselves. In the framing of his essays into the mouthpieces of Señor C in DOABY,Elizabeth Costello in Elizabeth Costello (2003),or the researcher and interview subjects in the post-mortem voices of the ‘autobiographical’ Summertime (2009), Coetzee is preoccupied in removing his words from his self. This inclination towards anonymity (or removal of self from words) is both similar and different to the censoring of artists’ names mentioned by McElroy. McElroy writes of the censorship endured by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei:

…though if [Ai Weiwei’s] name, as he complains, is removed from major exhibitions in Beijing and Shanghai, still his work is shown. What has been censored? Something crude or delicate to define, since the work is there to be seen. His identity, he means, and says; yet for the public.

…Thus the viewer, not finding the artist’s name, might not link the installation with that burly, lucky genius Ai Weiwei we know of.

The censorship Weiwei laments appears to be close to Coetzee’s ideal, provided that the anonymity was elective rather than imposed. Coetzee, in being associated with his words, is more easily dismissed as having an agenda. And yet, if Coetzee so chose, the contemporary publishing world could easily grant him such anonymity. This of course would not be practical for financial reasons (selling anonymous writing is significantly more difficult than selling the writing of J.M. Coetzee, Nobel Prize winner). Yet anonymizing his work would not strengthen Coetzee’s words, for the words would undergo extreme ‘muting effects,’ due to ‘glut’ censorship. It is this disappearance into or dismissal by the ‘glut’ that in part led Coetzee to structure DOABY in its peculiar form in the first instance. Yet the problem with DOABY, as Murphet alludes, is that the 19th century narrative forms Coetzee draws from are inadequate in addressing the censorship conditions that plague the contemporary writer.

‘Direct’ and ‘Glut’: Differences and Similarities

The censorship depicted in CAILS is worlds apart from that depicted in DOABY. CAILS depicts censorship via erasure: the removal of words and voices, whereas DOABY depicts censorship via saturation or the ‘glut,’ i.e. an addition that subtracts. In both instances, however, the censoring results in a breakdown in communication between writer and reader. Words are veiled in CAILS or drowned out by ceding space in DOABY, compromising clarity. In CAILS, the imagined Iranian reader is aware of censorship, and finds its paralyzing effects on literature a chore to deal with, and so over time has become resigned to live without a fully honest literature (this is why Mandanipour has had to appeal to a “transnational, transhistorical alliance”). McElroy’s argument is that the same fate is befalling Western cultures, i.e. the public are becoming accustomed to the paralyzing effects on discourse resulting from ‘glut’ censorship. As such, both Mandanipour and Coetzee make attempts to reclaim authority. Like Mandanipour, Coetzee even suggests that he too is divorced from mother tongue and that his use of English results in self-censorship. In the essay On the Mother Tongue, Señor C writes:

For at times, as I listen to the words of English that emerge from my mouth, I have a disquieting sense that the one I hear is not the one I call myself. Rather, it is as though some other person (but who?) were being imitated, followed, even mimicked. Larvatus prodeo. (156)

Both CAILS and DOABY utilize experimental formatting and typography to address their respective (self-)censorship predicaments. While both textsregard self-censorship as problematic and restrictive, it should be noted that it is only in recent history that the act of ‘self-censorship’ has come to be regarded as ‘inauthentic.’ Referring to the OED, the definition of ‘self-censorship’ – control of one’s own speech, writing, or actions, so as to avoid what is considered undesirable or unsuitable – remains consistent, but the historical examples display a transforming societal attitude. The definitional examples provided in the late 19th and early 20th century suggest ‘self-censorship’ is associated with purity and respectability:

1845 N. P. Willis Dashes at Life with Free Pencil 163/1 One year of such united self-censorship would so purify the public habit of news-reading, that an offence against propriety would at least startle and alarm the public sense.

1932 Burlington Mag. May 265/2 So restrained is his manner, so constant his self-censorship…that a vital principle will be enshrined in one brief sentence.

In the 21st century, however, ‘self-censorship’ well and truly adopts a negative connotation, associated with restriction and inauthenticity:

2015 Toronto Star (Nexis) 20 May a12 A climate of fear that leads to self-censorship, adding to the veil of ignorance behind which the government operates.

The suggested result of the censorship forms and its ‘muting effects’ in both CAILS and DOABY is violence. Ostby argues that:

Having reached such extremes due to the manifold tyrannies of censorship, violence becomes the inevitable moment of narrative crisis that shatters the possibility of deconstructive or detached readings… (79)

Similarly, in DOABY, multiple essays (On Guantanamo Bay, On National Shame, On Terrorism, etc.) refer to both violence and the (lack of) shame towards this violence. The implication here is that violence ultimately results from censorship, which is why transforming the literary form in order to better address contemporary censorship is so urgent. The experimental transformations of the text in both CAILS and DOABY are not merely done for the sake of novelty.

While the mechanisms of censorship differ greatly between these various forms, McElroy’s argument (supported by Coetzee and Mandanipour’s novels) is that the end result is the same. McElroy concludes his essay by asking ‘What is not censorship?’ If the author is obliged to compromise the work by ceding space (as Coetzee does in DOABY) or transforming the text, and if all obligation is censorship, is the contemporary author even able to combat ‘glut’ censorship? Or has contemporary writing in fact been completely censored?

Silence in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

In his closing remarks, McElroy refers to the strength of W.G. Sebald’s fiction:

Knowing perfectly well the difference between state censorship and the artist’s instinctive and exacting omissions, though knowing this how well? A fullness in these Sebald lives, yet like another shadowy dimension repression shaping what has not been said. History with a gap we need to find it in ourselves to supply. As now, in 2018.

It is hard to determine whether or not Sebald’s work effectively navigates the problem of censorship, or is a result of censorship’s ‘muting effects,’ or a combination of the two. On the one hand, it can be regarded as avoidance. As McElroy writes:

Someone tells the Sebald narrator “only what he could bear to tell, in [an account] honeycombed with elisions. …”

The material is too intolerable for the narrator, and is therefore self-censored. But McElroy also asserts that Sebald writes “around yet hauntingly near” his subject, “the Nazi horror,” and that this subject is repressed in his characters’ lives. While McElroy acknowledges that Sebald’s work contains a “shadowy dimension repression,” the fact that this ‘unsaid,’ ‘repressed,’ or ‘censored’ material is sensed is itself significant. Like the veil of censorship in CAILS, censorship in Sebald’s work leaves a trace. It is not completely censored. This is due in large part to Sebald’s use of photographs.

Sebald’s The Emigrants (Die Ausgewanderten, 1992), as an example,contains seventy-eight photographs that accompany the four narrated biographies. Stefanie Harris (379) suggests three ways to interpret this inclusion of photographs: (i) they could function to “illustrate the narrative,” (ii) they could function in “introducing a mode of factuality into a narrative that might otherwise be read as fiction,” or (iii) the “temporal and spatial frame” of the photographic image might present a “particular relationship to death and to memory that exceeds the symbolic mode of the linguistic text in which the images are embedded.” Harris’ second and third way of suggest that Sebald’s use of the photographs transform the text’s persuasiveness. In contrast to the text, this “mode of factuality” suggests the ‘unsaid’ or ‘self-censored.’ Jonathan Long (2003) argues that the narratives in The Emigrants are “reducible neither to memory nor to history,” and are therefore an example of what Hirsch (in Long) calls “postmemory.” This phenomenon, Hirsch argues, is not to suggest a sense of being ‘beyond’ memory. Rather, it refers to a mode of remembering that traverses generations.

I propose that such modes of remembering, if better understood, could be utilized to address contemporary modes of censorship, specifically ‘glut’ censorship. If Sebald’s literary approach does in fact suggest an ideal for navigating contemporary censorship, then such an ideal should utilize multimedia, which in turn suggests that text alone is insufficient.

Extractive Realism in Ross Gibson’s The Summer Exercises

To better examine Sebald’s approach to censorship, Ross Gibson’s The Summer Exercises (2008) (hereafter TSE) will be analyzed. Ross Gibson is Centenary Professor in Creative and Cultural Research at the University of Canberra. He has been Creative Director for the establishment of the Australian Center for the Moving Image at Federation Square in Melbourne. His writing and research makes use of films and multimedia environments. TSE is deeply influenced by Sebald’s work. In TSE,Gibson (2009) utilizes what he labels ‘extractive realism.’ This proposed mode of realism suggests yet another way to address ‘glut’ censorship. Like The Emigrants, TSEcombines photography and prose. It contains over two hundred black-and-white photographs, selected from thousands of glass-plate and acetate negatives taken by the New South Wales Police as a record of crime scene investigations and surveillance exercises in the years 1945-1960 (Watts, in Gibson 2008), which were made available by the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney, Australia. Gibson subsequently wrote a series of fictional entries by a chaplain that worked at the Central Street Police Station in Sydney in January 1946. Early in TSE, a “Publisher’s Note” explains:

Five times every day, the Chaplain opened a foolscap workbook marked ‘Summer Exercises – 1946’ where he recorded the whispered confessions and low urgings he was hearing while roving about. Brevity was his creed. To cinch each interlude of reflection, he would limit himself to five or six minutes writing. (29)

Several fictional ‘Publisher’s Notes’ exist throughout TSE that interpret the ‘found’ entries and photographs. For example, one points out that the chaplain’s ‘entries’ are in fact a ritual in imitation of Saint Ignatius’s “The Spiritual Exercises”:

Early in the workbook… there’s a clue the Chaplain dropped into the text: the word ‘Loyola.’ Assaying this spoor, we’ve discovered how the Chaplain’s ritual resembles an esoteric routine that’s been practiced worldwide by Jesuit priests ever since Saint Ignatius of Loyola first wrote a tract called ‘The Spiritual Exercises’ in 1524. This is how it works: accepting the rigors of ‘The Spiritual Exercises,’ a devotee sets a full month aside to ponder, week by week, the following allures: (i) sin (ii) the exemplary lives of Christ and the Saints (iii) the value of suffering (iv) the quest for transcendence. (74)

The entries themselves – ranging from short phrases to long confessions – are accompanied by the ‘real’ images from 1945-1960. Unlike Sebald’s text where the ‘authenticity’ of the photographs’ sources remain unclear (Sebald has hinted at and clouded this issue by stating in an interview with The Guardian (in Long 117) that he collects “stray photographs” because “there’s a lot of memory in them”), in TSE there is explicit articulation of the separation between the ‘documented’ or ‘historical’ reality and the fictional reality constructed by the author. The “List of Illustrations,” included at the end of the text, states that the photographs are “deployed respectfully to generate mood and a sense of place,” when “[i]n reality, the characters and events and settings described in the text bear no direct relationship to the photographs.” (262) Mid-way into the text, a fictional “Publisher’s Note” informs the reader of the (fictional) origin of the photographs:

Something else peculiar: inside the workbook, there was an envelope containing hundreds of photographic negatives. …

It’s not clear to us how the Chaplain came into possession of the photographs or indeed whether he snapped some of them himself. Nor can we be sure how directly related they are to his writing. Somewhat controversially, we have arrayed the images in a manner that, by dint of their patterning and proximity, bears strongly upon the interpretation of the texts. We do this not with the hope of illuminating any conclusive truths about whatever was convulsing the town during the month of the spiritual exercises. We don’t expect to put many mysteries to rest. Rather we want to extract just a little more force from the Chaplain’s snared enigmas, to see further into the profundity that he plumbed, to see into the love – veering something to lust – that he seemed to feel for the soiled world he was ministering. (137)

By making the fictional admission that the photograph’s context and reference is “not clear” and that they are arrayed “controversially,” the reader is prevented from directly associating the photographs with a set meaning or section of text. The reader, however, is want to do so, despite the fact that the reader can refer to a “List of Illustrations” provided at the end of the book that describes the ‘real’ context of the historic photographs. It should also be pointed out that this publisher’s note does not occur until page 137, well after the reader will already have begun to form relations between the photographs and text. By framing them in this manner, the text removes the meaning afforded them by the historical context, opening them up to new interpretations. For example, while many of the photographs included are labeled in the “List of Illustrations” as “Surveillance of Communist Party Headquarters,” this ‘real’ context is not encouraged by the fictional text. And yet, the purpose and overall impact of TSE is an attempt to recreate or extract, with as much imaginative precision as possible, the atmosphere of postwar Sydney.

This process is what Gibson (2009) labels “extractive realism.” Before discussing ‘extractive realism,’ it is necessary to define what is meant by ‘realism.’ The Oxford Companion to English Literature states that, as a literary term, “realism” is so widely used it is more or less meaningless except “when used in contradistinction to some other movement.” Esty argues that such definitional problems have given rise to what he labels “realism wars,” which he argues have been ongoing since the late Victorian era:

Realism is always a diffuse and moving target, as difficult to define as it is properly to apply. Even taken in highly specific conditions—stipulated to this or that artefact, artist, medium, epoch, movement, or national tradition—realism perennially eludes strong and stable conceptualization. (316)

If realism is “a diffuse and moving target,” then this is a contributing factor to ‘glut’ censorship. Like the breakdown in authorial power, “realism wars” are not necessarily a direct result of censorship, but they are certainly encouraged and exploited by censorship efforts. Returning to Gibson’s term ‘extractive realism,’ his use of the term ‘realism’ is developed from Lukács’ comparisons of Zola’s naturalism and the realism of Tolstoy’s narration:

…naturalism is additive and diffuses focus as more and more details are supplied, which means that realism is bolder and more useful than naturalism because realism is extractive in the way it draws out the definitive, structuring elements of a scene. Whereas naturalist art casts gentle light on surfaces concealing a deeper reality, realist art helps us probe into the reasons and feel the shaping forces subtending reality.

Unlike Zola’s naturalism, ‘extractive realism’ is not verisimilitude or relentless observation, but a construct assembled from pieces removed from a much broader, unmanageable ‘reality.’ Gibson writes:

The details have the impress of the originating reality; and for all their fictional ‘panache,’ the artworks that get brewed from the details still display a staunch allegiance to something real.

Despite reappropriating and reimagining the historical ‘reality’ of the photographs, Gibson insists TSE is ‘realist.’

Further examining Gibson’s ‘extractive realism,’ it could be said to be minimalist in contrast to Zola’s naturalism, which “exemplifies an alienating style of naturalism because he is somewhat too adroit at petit-pointing details in a process whereby intricate scenes get ‘described from the standpoint of an observer.’” (Lukas, in Gibson 2009) If one were to address all the various types of realism by incorporating multiple forms (which DOABY attempts), the work would be crushed under its own weight. Yet neglecting such ‘weight’ could be regarded as silence. Gibson’s ‘extractive realism,’ however, does not neglect the broader, unmanageable reality. Therefore, rather than minimalism, ‘extractive realism’ exhibits what Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium labels ‘lightness.’ Calvino defines ‘lightness’ in opposition to ‘weight.’ (4) Utilizing myth, Calvino compares ‘weight’ to the stare of the Medusa, as it paralyzes language and narrative. On the other hand, Calvino argues that writers should be light like Perseus on his Pegasus. This, however, is not to suggest that a writer should ignore the weight of the world (in this analogy, the ‘glut’). Though binary opposites enable Calvino to define his values, this does not necessitate the negation of the binary opposite. Like Perseus, who decapitated the Medusa and carried its head, the writer should be ‘light’ without negating or neglecting weight. Gibson (2009) writes:

…the Lukácsian mode of realism, because it is extractive, artists are determined to shuck away extraneous detail [my italics] so they can learn how the relationships between essential elements all cohere contingently to make the overall, dynamic experience that is everyday existence.

Gibson (2009) concludes:

In a globalized, saturated world of networked glut [my italics], realism like this can be a beacon. In its brevity and speculative association, this extractive but active realism helps us find some way to maintain our allegiance to the world of everyday experience.

Shucking away extraneous detail from the “networked glut” shows how Gibson can exhibit ‘lightness,’ i.e. address and acknowledge ‘weight’ without actually depicting it.

Gibson’s approach to reality utilizes historical research, multimedia, reappropriation, imagination, and the declaration of potential ambiguity. It is this final facet that shows a unique approach to censorship: the declaration of the potentially false and unknowable. Rather than depicting the weight of the ‘glut’ censorship, ‘extractive realism’ declares potential saturation, misinterpretation, absence, and avoidance, i.e. the limitations of knowledge. By acknowledging the text’s limitations, the text’s potential realism and truth is strengthened.

Associative Possibilities

TSE suggests that depicting ‘ambiguity’ or ‘silence’ requires the use of media that is not prose, in this instance photographs. Despite declaring a self-awareness that the arrangement of the images has been performed by the ‘publisher,’ the text locks in key text-image associations. The declaration of the text’s construction midway into the novel does not fully acknowledge all of the associative possibilities of the text-image relationship. TSE, then, resembles an assembled codex, i.e. a manuscript that has been stitched together of various parts. Various editions (text and digital) of TSE could therefore transform the text to highlight these associations.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel poem Only Revolutions (2006) is an example of a print text that maximizes associative possibilities. The work is structured in such a way that two poetic interior monologues of two characters are laid out on opposite sides of the page (one can flip the text upside down to read the other monologue), beside a strip of years and fragments of historic events, spanning from the 1800s well into an imagined future beyond the book’s year of publication. Any one section of print (or ‘lexia’) can be proximately associated with three other sections, in addition to the lexia’s corresponding text on the subsequent page. Manuel Portela (2016) describes its format as a ‘Mobius strip’:

Interior monologues of the two characters are laid out on opposite sides of the strip, as if each of them was written on the surface of the other. Inside and outside become entirely relative coordinates. Once you get to the end, the journey begins again, restarting a new circular cycle. This endlessness is expressed through the lack of hierarchy in narrative focus: each perspective has an exact counterpoint on the opposite point of the circle. (236)

Only Revolutions pushes the limits of a print text’s associative possibilities. While the format utilized in Only Revolutions would not necessarily be appropriate for TSE, it hints at the text options that could be implemented if the author wished to maximize image-text association.

If the author wished to take the associative possibilities even further, the print medium would need to be abandoned and the work reimagined in a digital format. To better explore how TSE could be represented, it is worth examining similar projects that can be regarded as a codex. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet (Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa) is one such work. Portela (2017) describes The Book of Disquiet as “an authorial project” and “editorial construct”:

As an authorial project, it may be described as an unfinished and unorganized work written between 1913 and 1935, whose set of witnesses contains typescripts, manuscripts, and printed texts. As an editorial construct, it is the set of printed editions based on that authorial project. Editions vary in the interpretation of Pessoa’s intentions as inferred from textual witnesses. They vary in terms of selection, transcription, as well as division and organization of textual units.

A major modernist work, the text is a posthumously assembled work of fragments left by Pessoa, composed of writing from two distinct periods: 1913-1920 and 1929-1934 (Portela 2017). Subsequent editions have assembled the text differently. For example, in the 1991 edition, where sections have been grouped according to thematic selection, each section is titled using a corresponding sequential number (starting at 1 and ending at 259) as well as an additional number in parentheses that refers to the numbering of the original 1982 edition published by Ática (e.g. the first section is labelled ‘1 [90],’ the second 2 [124], etc.). The Book of Disquiet Digital Archive (LdoD Archive), is a “computational artefact” (Portela 2017) that allows readers to digitally compare, contrast, and explore various editions of the text. This allows examination of the Book of Disquiet as both an authorial project (what Portela refers to as the “genetic dimension”) and an editorial construct (what Portela refers to as the “social dimension”). Portela argues that this digital archive facilitates “the construction of multiple reading paths that explore the modularity of the Book of Disquiet.”

TSE could be similarly regarded as an authorial project. The original ‘authors’ (i.e. crime scene photographers) of the images could also be regarded as authors, making TSE also an editorial construct (Gibson being both an author and editor). As a media artist, Gibson has also created collaborative art installations that utilize the crime photographs. Whether or not Gibson returns to the project again in the future is yet to be seen, but the text itself is constructed in such a way that various editions could be possible. A digital text could reimagine or randomize the ordering of the photographs in association with the summer exercises, thus transforming the text and better representing the ‘foundness’ of the photographs and maximizing their associative possibilities.

Emphasizing associative possibilities, however, could potentially paralyze the work by literally creating a ‘networked glut.’ Applying such formatting or digital possibilities to TSE would therefore compromise its ‘extractive realism.’ This suggests that, despite the multimedia possibilities explored by Gibson and proposed here, the ‘admission’ of the controversial arrangement (i.e. the publisher’s note on page 137 of TSE) functions as a potential or hypothetical fiction rather than an ideal. In other words, this is how Gibson has found a way for the text to contain ‘weight’ while exhibiting ‘lightness.’ TSE functions as a ‘prism’ from which all associative possibilities can be hinted at, but which also extracts them into a containable form. In addition, it suggests that in a visually saturated age of infinite associations (i.e. an age of ‘glut’ censorship), Gibson’s ideal ‘realism’ relies on reducing and refracting associations, rather than maximizing them.


The works explored here are by no means a definitive approach to the censorship challenges facing contemporary literature proposed by McElroy. What is clear from these examples, however, is that self-censorship efforts deeply shape (or erode) contemporary literature. Indeed, self-censorship appears to permeate the contemporary writer’s condition. If the literary form is to survive (or at least, strive for the level of cultural importance it once held) in the face of censorship, it must address these issues by transforming. As the obligation to transform is itself a form of censorship, self-aware self-censorship appears a requisite approach in combatting these threats. My analysis of DOABY suggests that historical literary forms and theories are insufficient in addressing contemporary censorship challenges. This analysis and the other examples provided imply that future literature will require innovative digital, multimedia, typographic and formatting experimentation. While the possibilities afforded by these can enable greater associative and communicative options, these also have the potential to generate a ‘networked glut,’ i.e. contribute to the censorship problems being addressed. This is not to suggest that such possibilities should be completely neglected or abandoned. The aesthetics adopted in such transformations, however, will need to be carefully considered. My analysis of TSE suggests that Calvino’s literary value of ‘lightness’ and Gibson’s mode of ‘extractive realism’ will be vital to these considerations.

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