This May, ebr offers three posts that negotiate the relationship between utterance and silence: two riPOSTes to Joseph McElroy’s essay “Forms of Censorship; Censorship as Form” (originally published in ebr in February 2018), and a review of After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography.
Max Nestelieiev responds to McElroy by examining the impact of Soviet-era censorship on writers: the emergence of the “half-intellectual,” the figure of a self-censored writer whose work arguably became indecipherable and even invaluable for understanding the control of Soviet-era socialism.
David Thomas Henry Wright responds to McElroy by considering how the three forms of censorship the latter proposes—direct, glut, and self-censorship—can be identified in novels by Ross Gibson, Shariar Mandinipour, J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald, Mark Z. Danielewski, Italo Calvino, and Fernando Pessoa.
If McElroy’s essay and its two riPOSTes examine instances of censorship, this month’s review explores one woman who would not be silenced. Ralph Clare reviews After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (2017), a thoroughly researched examination by Chris Kraus on the life and times of the late (and still celebrated) posthumanist writer and artist Kathy Acker.
In relation to Joseph McElroy’s exploration of censorship under various political regimes, how an idea picks up steam is precisely its power as well as its liability to be under political control. McElroy’s essay considers how ranges of political microaggressions to full-on erasures have occurred through various historical as well in recent political examples (Ukraine; Thailand; Turkey; Russia, and so forth).
In his riPOSTe “Author and Auto-Censorship,” Max Nestelieiev narrows in on the history of Soviet-era censorship and the implications for Soviet-era writers. Describing the result of limit-based writing, he notes the self-censorship of Soviet writers who were supposed to be at once both intellectual and engineer in their efforts to wield words that could capture the experience of socialism, yet who, within the vice grip of political pressures and the threat of punishments, became “underengineer” and “half-intellectual.” The effect of self-censorship on Soviet writers, in other words, resulted in the “painful” transformation of thinking subjects into “half-intellectuals,” described by Yury Yanovsky as “a frail, prolific, unscrupulous, parasitic audience with a flexible backbone who neglect knowledge and culture, who harm the working class with a disregard for culture and live their lives, never seriously taking anything into account.”
Nestelieiev suggests that even upon revisiting some of the archived documents of many “half-intellectual” Soviet authors, their “internal restrictions” resulted in work that was considered invaluable artistically, leading him to deduce that “to be in captivity of their own reservations and prejudices is more terrible than among the artificial limitations.” One might note that the rigidity and limitation with which such authors wrote might make these documents valuable in comparison to their works in other eras, to show the changes in expression and articulation in modes of critique.
In “Self-Aware Self-Censorship as Form,” David Thomas Henry Wright responds to McElroy by comparing several novels to McElroy’s three-tiered notion of self-censorship—including Shariar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story(2009), J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), and W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992)—arguing that each addresses McElroy’s considerations of censorship. In so doing, Wright is able to demonstrate the use of literary form to speak what is forbidden, entangled, or silenced.
For instance, Wright notes that Mandanipour addresses “direct” sensorship, or what McElroy describes as “official acts enforced by police prohibiting the printed word or publicly… heard voice.” The novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story uses text formatting to represent the influence of the Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance on passages written deemed unfit to publish, but which are featured as striken-through text. The resulting “transformative literary form” is able to at once address and breach the ways Iranian censorship control how Mandanipour and other Iranian writers can tell stories—even love stories.
Also, Wright uses Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year as an example of “glut” censorship, or what McElroy calls glut in “spreading without overtly meaning to conceal or prohibit or blot out.” As Wright notes, he is not the first critic to inquire into Coetzee’s use of “sandwiching” political essays (with genre-specific typography and formatting) to frame issues in novelistic form. The answer seems to be for ironic and thus revelatory effect, which Wright demonstrates in the ways in which multiple perspectives, overlapping, loud, contrasting, are allowed to compete with each other and thus reveal inner truths.
On McElroy’s self-censorship, Wright looks at W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants as an example of authorial self-censorship that occurs in the wake of political terror. The narrator’s at-times lack of information about the experience of the Nazi era is therefore supplemented with photographs. One might note that this reflects the common experience of trauma from the Nazi regime: as stories have either been too horrific for survivors to tell or as they cannot be shared due to the forced silencing of victims, the storytelling and proof of the Holocaust has in many cases occurred through photographic documentation. The record still utters.
Finally this month, Ralph Clare reviews Chris Kraus’ text After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (2017), praising its care to accurately portray the life of Kathy Acker, a renowned postmodernist who “was one of the few writers—and only woman writer—to achieve a degree of fame as a countercultural figure in her time.”
And in its accurate portrayal, Kraus’s rigorous archival research results in a “literary biography” that spares no detail in the coming-of-age of Kathy Acker from a youth discovering her aesthetic values, to her explorations of relationships (performative, authoritative, and sexual) in young adulthood, and her influence in postmodern art and literary circles. The reference to many notebooks, letters, journals, and interviews provides a thorough “image of the rebellious Acker (which she actively promoted),” meanwhile, as Clare describes, using creative non-fiction to tell thrilling stories about a wild life on the go.
To perhaps tie this text with the riPOSTes previously discussed, I cannot help but take note of the use of form in Kraus’ text to reverse the pain of silence. As with writers who are silenced, whether by external or internal forces, the re-presentation of events through literary mediation offers the opportunity to delve into silence for bits and bobs. For Kraus, beginning the literary biography with Acker’s last days and death allows the text to acknowledge an anti-Kathy Acker—a weaker woman in pain—and then move on from that image that was not her, celebrating the processes and progresses that instead made her.
Associate Editor and Director of Communications, ebr