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  Dr. Roland Seim M.A.
University of Münster (Germany)
Institute for Sociology
   

 

Article for the "Journal of Mundane Behavior"
California State University-Fullerton

"Fascinating Censorship:
Mundane Behavior in the Treatment of
Banned Material"


 

   
 

Please send correspondence to:
Roland Seim
Im Sundern 7-9
D-48157 Münster/Germany
Tel/Fax 01149-251-326160
E-mail:
Roland.Seim@t-online.de
www.geocities.com/zensur2000/


"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

George Orwell, "Animal Farm" (unpublished introduction, quoted from: Robertson, 1993, p. xiii) 

Preface:

We are socialized by the different kinds of mass media that influence our behavior. Socio-cultural experiences and associations do condition our views and preferences. Moreover every medium is a mirror of society. How tolerant or restrictive we treat this mirror reveals to us a significant part of our current situation in general. But neither the official picture of the mainstream culture nor the media effect research, that often criticizes the aspects of sex and violence in the media to justify control and censorship, reveal the behavior of people who are fascinated by banned (and often bizarre) contents. The "normal" taste of ordinary people as well as the members of the so called "advanced civilisation" are distinguished from the activities of those who prefer unusual media precisely because of the restrictions. But even this behavior and the banned materials themselves are part of the cultural landscape, although they get rarely into the focus of academic interest. Yet, the ordinary, simple everyday things of life are a valid source of knowledge. The main questions are how these deviant products of the media are used by which kind of consumers in their everyday lives, and why these items are "media-worthy" for them. And, what point of view do the censors have?
My research in the field of the sociology of popular culture conducted in Germany and even this short paper deal with this "twilight zone", a gray area where a strange struggle occurs behind the scenes. During the preparation of this paper I interviewed some fans of the weird, read a lot of special fanzines/books and investigated web sites firsthand. So, I concentrated my investigation on the orientations and behavior of the German fans of censored material rather than on the activities of the censors.

1.) The current Situation of Ambiguity:

"Censorship happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words, images, or ideas that they find offensive" (Heins, 1993, p. 3). Censorship always has a Janus-face. It creates an odd scenario of ambiguity. On the one side, the government and many pressure groups try to suppress unacceptable media contents within the bounds of human rights and constitutional law regarding freedom of speech, art and press. On the other side forbidden things become rather attractive to many fans because of the specific thrill of the interdiction. This two-faced phenomenon of social control versus self-determination of mature users raises the questions of how the fans on the one side put into practice their fascination with breaking the taboo and on the other side why and how the censors ban the items they select.

2.) The Censors and their objects:

According to Post (Ed., 1998) censorship can be understand as a kind of cultural regulation. As any other reasonable measure, censorship must try to balance the claims of the common good against the claims of individual freedom. In general, censorship as a mandatory requirement depends on the application of contemporary community standards and conventions; in particular, it is implemented according to the taste and character of individual readers and viewers. But even the censors act on their own subjective taste to prevent feared anti-social attitudes, when they assess the intention and the possible effects of their examination of cultural objects. Even a few objectionable sequences or pages - taken out of the context - could be sufficient to ban the whole film or book. But there are at least two sides to everything. One person's obscenity is another person's bedtime reading. Art or morbid filth? Finally, it's a question of aesthetics, as to whether one accepts and permits or condemns and banishes crass descriptions of the physical side of the body. Most intrusive censorship is supported as taking place in the interests of protecting young people. These censors are likely convinced that they are doing a positive service for society. They must believe that no social system - even a pluralistic democracy - can allow their members a total and absolute freedom of informational interchange or they could not do their work.
The degree of freedom, the difficult judgment between prohibition or permissible tolerance are permanently in flux. Even today in the liberated time of a postmodern "anything goes", the government puts the kibosh on the free flow of the kinds of information decision makers feel are harmful to minors or endanger social stability. A lot of laws against literature, films and other media, which are thought to be depraved or corrupt, are currently deemed valid. Even if there does not exist a major institution of a pre-censorship in Germany, a lot of authorities closely scrutinize the limits of liberty. Only the FSK ("Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft"), the German Board of Film Classification (a more or less voluntary self-regulating body of the motion picture industry), performs a pre-censorship assessment because all movies are required to be submitted before their first showing. Upon review, the FSK confers several ratings up to warning notices such as "Not to be sold to anyone under 18".

Above all, the courts and the so called "Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Schriften und Medieninhalte - BPjS" (a unique federal office of examination that identifies the kind of media material that are likely to corrupt the young) can take action against disapproved items by putting them on its index to prevent minors from coming into contact with contents suspected of being harmful. Special committees with three or 12 members decide if an item is to put on the index. At least these restrictions are in force for the more than 80 millions citizens of Germany. Any individual can institute legal proceedings against dubious media contenst at any youth welfare department. About 14,000 videos, books, comics, records, on-line contents and so on are restricted by being on this index and therefore they are forbidden to minors because of explicit obscenity, sex, drugs, violence, occultism, encouragement of suicide, or political extremism. It is not allowed to advertise these media objects or to send them by mail. Most of them came from foreign countries, for example Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho", William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch", Dan Kavanagh's (Julian Barnes) "Duffy", Timothy Leary's "Politics of Ecstasy".
Additionally more than 500 books, films, records and so on are totally banned in Germany. Every judge can make his own decision what is to be banned nationwide for "social harmfulness" (in German: "sozialschädlich"). The reasons for prohibition are varied, such as: Hard core pornography (about 175 objects banned), glorification of violence (about 170 objects banned), libel or hate speech (about 100 objects banned, especially Nazi propaganda and the so called "Auschwitz lie").  The main ground for book banning in Germany is Nazi propaganda, and I think this exception to the right to freedom of speech might be reasonable: About a hundred publications and records are forbidden for xenophobic incitement, right-wing extremism, race hatred, revanchistic theories of a Jewish conspiracy, or because they questioned the Holocaust or German war guilt.
But even manuals for self-defense like many books from the US publishers "Paladin Press" and "Loompanics Unlimited" were seized by Canadian and German authorities: "Get tough! How to win in hand-to-hand fighting" (by Cpt. Fairbairn, Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado) and "The poisoner's handbook" (by Maxwell Hutchkinson, Loompanics, Port Townsend, Washington 1988), although they were "sold for informational purposes only". In the USA they were freely available because of the First Amendment; in Germany, they are banned since 1991 because of instructions on how to commit criminal offenses.
But it's questionable to ban virtual reality artworks or the artificial fantasy world of the movies, literature and comics. Concerning motion pictures, graphic violence is the main reason for prohibition: For example the following films are proscribed in Germany: "The Evil Dead" (Sam Raimi, USA 1980: This film is banned in Germany since 1984. The censors passed this film only in a cut version R-rated), "Halloween Part 2" (produced by John Carpenter), "Phantasm" (Don Coscarelli) and "Braindead" (Peter Jackson). Some confiscated records are: "Butchered at Birth" (Cannibal Corpse) because of violence, and "Eating Lamb" (by the US-Punk-Band NOFX, 1996) because of the shown sexual intercourse with an animal. The band issued two different versions of cover art. The LP version "Eating Lamb" was banned in Germany in 1996 because of "bestiality" ("sodomistic porn"), the similary illustrated CD "Heavy Petting Zoo" not. Another example for different cover version is "Bloodthirst" by "Cannibal Corpse" (Metal Blade Records, Germany 1999). To prevent further bans the label created two issues - one original artwork and one softened for the German market to appease the morality guardians and, respectively, the watchdogs.

3.) The Fans:

The "aficionado's" right to get what they want is wider than the maker's right to spread his ideas, because the laws (and the risks) have always been aimed primarily at directors, authors, publishers or editors. In other words - the law does not forbid consumers in the most cases to read banned books or to watch banned films if you own one, but every sale and trade is prohibited so these items could be confiscated and the producers or distributors punished. Violent media contents and a latent sexualization seem to become quite normal. People are exposed to a casual constant stream of more or less questionable items. Cable networks, videotapes, computer games, and the Internet offer the possibility to gain everything you want. Anonymousity ("Pretty good Privacy") and encryption technology ("FreeNet") could neutralize the ability to wiretap, to censor. In this confusing area an index is - unintentional in the eyes of the government - a point of reference helping some fascinated individuals to pick out the probably most exciting offers. Already the disreputable circumstances and the feeling of doing something forbidden might be thrilling. The motivation for getting banned stuff may vary, but like a "Pavlovian Reflex" every authoritarian restriction on the publication and distribution of suspicious material inflames the desire among the fandom to know what one shouldn't know.
The mainstream with its social control of good taste, taboos and the speech code becomes predictable and boring to the connoisseurs of the really thrilling stuff of unfiltered independent gore watching, so they set out on the search for the suppressed. Banned films, books, comics, records and so on attract the buffs strongly to test the limits and to explore the dark side. They seem to have high hopes of finding something very special. Most of these fans may come from the middle-class, are young and male. Some statistics try to verify that most of the fans who are fascinated by these films tend to have lower education attainments. Serious researchers as Vogelgesang (1990, pp. 171f, 221f) does this in his analysis of juvenile peer groups that stick together for horror film watching sessions demonstrating nevertheless that the elaborated codes of knowledge in film aesthetics and special effects reflect a sophisticated interchange and involved behavioral style. He summarizes that taste and habitus are not class-specific but oriented to specific scenes of like-minded individuals. As far as I know a study that examines the ethnographic details of the fandom of banned media does not exist. Only a few data are known. "Adults, particularly college educated males in their thirties or forties with above average social-economic status, are the dominant users of sex oriented materials" (Larsen, 1994, p. 93). Beside the superstructure of the official opinion of political correctness and judicial bans, which mainly are approved by the "moral majority", there are a lot of sub-cultural scenes where groups try to reverse the authorities and their blockage strategies. It seems that successful circumvention of bans by gamesman-like ploys is driven by a sense of a sporting challenge and produces within the fans a feeling of gloating ("Schadenfreude"). As an "experimentum libertatis", a standpoint opposed to omnipresent restrictive laws is frequently supported by members of youth-cultures. Some minors, for example, ask their elder siblings or friends to get adults-only films or other media. This subversive system of distribution, lending, copying and swapping is delimited and works rather independently from the adult world. Only insiders are admitted to this autonomous sub-area. Banned items become a kind of vehicle of oppositional meaning. Especially, friends of splatter, gore and other "violent" artworks are connected in a special kind of provocative fandom that sustains their hobby. A lot of those consumers are used to collecting the results of their observations and interchange new information about banning, cuts and so on in chat rooms, fanzines, or e-mail newsletters. The Internet has especially become a particular marketplace for strange ideas. In Germany many lovers of "deviant" profane media are of the opinion that the State is making up their minds for them. Less the viewers of pornography but more the "gore-hounds" are fond of interchanging the results of their observation. 
According to Cynthia M. King the gore watchers are attracted to graphic horror with blood, death, and physical torture. They think these scenes with the "really ill shit", that the film classification board usually deletes to grant an "imprimatur", are cool. To avoid this heteronomous lack of information, for instance those sequences the censor cuts off, several US fan publications (so called "fanzines") like "Fangoria", "Filmthreat" or "Gorezone" and German zines like "Splatting Image", "Doom" or "Gory News" and Websites like "www.schnittberichte.de" or "www.indizierte-filme.de" satisfy one's curiosity by telling about the results of video bashing and the current intrusions of censorship in motion pictures and TV. The publishers obviously have a need to express their degree of freedom. They compare for instance the unabridged original versions with the cut versions for the local market and show some restricted stills. For similar reasons, other insider fan groups enjoy cracking the check codings of toned down computergames to resurrect the original version.
Barred objects become rather fascinating to many collectors of the weird, who want to know what the State suppresses. For those inquisitive persons every ban is a cue (signal) and every index has bold as brass the function of an interesting shopping list with the special thrill of the taboo to taste the forbidden fruit. This different kind of adventure/sensation seeking of the fandom has its own conventions with a certain magic of exceptionality. It's astonishing that - except for some right-wing scenes of skinhead music - almost the only horror films that produced a vibrant fandom in which the members interchange their experiences are those with obliterated scenes, different versions and bans. As far I consider, you can't find similar interactions in other "forbidden zones" like pornography, perhaps because those films do not attach importance to originality. In comparison with observing horror films as a test of courage or as an initiation rite, porn watching might be more of a lonesome event that probably needs no embarrassing informational interchange on different versions or so.  It may increase one's own experience and the group status to find a special prohibited and therefore hard to get rarity with a high "market value". The manner of obtaining such material is "style forming". In negating the act of banning, alternative ways of procuring materials along with several strategies of circumventing the bans have emerged: for example, re-issues of seized media under false names, pirated edition and bootlegging on the black market, mail-order lists with cover named films, import of foreign versions, or publication of documentaries and fanzines with suppressed details. More open minded and liberal countries like the Netherlands, where nearly no media censorship exist, became very interesting for the fans. Shops like "Cult Video" (Amsterdam) sell most of the banned tapes in the original unabridged version. German shops such as "Videodrom" or "Incredibly Strange Video" (both in Berlin) import foreign versions with harmless titles. While bootlegging is illegal and benefits only the profit of the traders in these bad copies, the re-issue of forbidden films under false fantasy names can work for some time. The "Astro" label obtained the copyright for several "cult classics" because in Germany banned films such as "Maniac" or "Mother's Day" were re-issued in digitally remastered and completely uncut versions. This confused the government for a while and ruined the prices for the original cassettes, but brought the suppressed and formally out of print material back to availability, until the police in a concerted swoop in many shops seized and charged many titles with being illegal. In March 2000 a judge in Berlin blacklisted these "new" editions because they have the same condemned contents. But I would guess that it’s impossible to eradicate a film if some copies survive.
Prohibition demands obedience, not understanding. Censorship demonstrates the power of the rulers, and in the outlook of the fans deprives them of their free own will which has resulted in resistance.

4.) Conclusion:

"Every taboo deals with an awakening to the dilemma of curiosity about something both attractive and dangerous", Roger Shattuck wrote in his book "Forbidden Knowledge" (1996, p. 30). Similarly, the everyday struggle of censors and fans is intriguing but little is known regarding this phenomenon.
We have found a complex situation among certain interest groups that some people may identify as an aberration from the normal use of the media, although the provocative topic of "eros and thanatos" is as old as culture itself. Some independent filmmakers try to create a special symbolic code by using exaggerated graphic violence to describe the horror in everyday situations where the extreme becomes quite normal. Disturbing nihilistic films like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (John McNaughton), "Nekromantik" (Jörg Buttgereit) or "Combat Shock" (Buddy Giovinazzo) show the ambivalent mundanity of ordinary madness and abnormity in a depressing way. B-pictures can be made cheaply with no-name stars as long as they can keep an audience's attention (Balun, 1989, p. 173) especially by exploiting taboos. Censors won't tolerate that. Media rating or banning of the so-called "video nasties" or "mindraping" comics are mundane for the involved censors. The main part of society is unaware that these media even exist. It's no big business to cut or prohibit those special interest and "no-budget" films, books and so on, if the majority agrees or do not care about them - in their opinion - disgusting sleazy items. The examiners of the diverse governmental offices feel that they are just doing their well-paid jobs in the name of public mental hygiene. They often demonstrate a lack of a sense of humor regarding matters of taste, decency and hallowed icons. Most censors do not recognize that their work depends on the variable phenomenon of "Zeitgeist", the shifting of boundaries, and the changing of values. On the other side are the inquisitive fans who feel compelled to avoid the restrictions. In their opinion censorship is an obsolete and undemocratic instrument of control. But censorship creates as well sub-cultural fandoms of people who try to negate the amazing strange fact that even adults were not allowed to get many X-certificated films, books and records, at least not uncut.
Of course, some regulating curbs are necessary, especially on media contents that might be "clear and present" dangerous. The right of free expression, however, can clash with human dignity. But these fans do not touch the borderline that threatens the freedom and well-being of others. They create their very own hobby and just claim tolerance. And for the most part they are only looking for X-rated artworks and do not commit crimes by copying the slashers. Even repulsive splatter or explicit porn movies can be interpreted as patterned evasions. And by the way - none of the "normal" viewers is forced to watch them.
I think, to enlarge the media competence/literacy and the power of discernment of both the fans and the censors, an emancipatory practice might be a better way to master the problems posed by deviant, disturbing or dangerous contents. "The threat of censorship is real. Laws can also be counterproductive. For some, they may only serve as labels to heighten curiosity" (Larsen, 1994, p. 95). If bans were removed, novelty would wear off, and satiation would sets in for the most part. But this would destroy the mentioned fandom of the bizarre.

 

References (you may find a huge list of relevant books in the bibliography of my thesis):

- Balun, Chas. (Ed.): The Deep Red Horror Handbook, Fantaco Enterprises, Inc., New York 1989.

- Dubin, Steven C.: Arresting Images - Impolitic art and uncivil actions, Routledge, London and New York 1994.

- Heins, Marjorie: Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy. A Guide to America's Censorship Wars, The New Press, New York 1993.

- Larsen, Otto N.: Voicing Social Concern: The Mass Media - Violence - Pornography - Censorship - Organization - Social Science - The Ultramultiversity, University Press of America, Lanham 1994.

- Post, Robert C. (Ed.): Censorship and Silencing. Practices of Cultural Regulation, The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles 1998.

- Robertson QC, Geoffrey: Freedom, the Individual and the Law, Penguin Books, London 1993, 7th Edition.

- Seim, Roland: Zwischen Medienfreiheit und Zensureingriffen. Eine medien- und rechtssoziologische Untersuchung zensorischer Eingriffe in bundesdeutsche Populärkultur, Diss. phil. (thesis), Univ. of Münster, Telos Verlag, Münster/Germany 1997.

- Shattuck, Roger: Forbidden Knowledge. From Prometheus to Pornography, St. Martin's Press, New York 1996.

- Vogelgesang, Waldemar: Jugendliche Video-Cliquen. Action- und Horrorvideos als Kristallisationspunkte einer neuen Fankultur, Diss. phil. (thesis), Univ. of Trier, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen/Germany 1990.


About the author:

Roland Seim, * in 1965, received his M.A. degree in art history, and his Ph.D. in sociology with a thesis on censorship in German popular culture at the University of Münster/Germany. There he is a lecturer in sociology and a publisher and author.
Further readings - some of the author's books (in German language with a lot of international examples and huge bibliographies):

Roland Seim, Josef Spiegel (Ed.): "Ab 18" - zensiert, diskutiert, unterschlagen. Beispiele aus der Kulturgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland' (Vol. 1), Münster 1995 (third edition), 321 pp., more than 150 illustrations and facsimiles, ISBN 3-933060-01-X, DM 29,80 (= $ 16.00 incl. postage)

Roland Seim, Josef Spiegel (Ed.): 'Der kommentierte Bildband zu "Ab 18" - zensiert, diskutiert, unterschlagen - Zensur in der deutschen Kulturgeschichte' ["Ab 18" -Vol. 2], 301 pp., more than 400 ill. and facsimiles, ISBN 3-933060-02-8, DM 49,80 (= $ 26.00 incl. postage).

'The annotated coffee-table book for "from 18 years up" - censored, discussed, suppressed - Censorship in German cultural history' ["Ab 18" - Band 2]

This illustrated documentaries examines the reasons for censorship and the structure that such intrusions on the free speech can take. The annotated books show mainly examples from the media which are forbidden in the Federal Republic of Germany. Edited by the art-historian (M.A.) and sociologist (Ph.D.) Roland Seim and the sociologist (Ph.D.) Josef Spiegel the books present each about 400 pictures and facsimiles of doubtful, discussed or banned products of the media in Germany. The reason for prohibition are varied: Pornography, harmfulness to minors, glorification of violence, offence under the Official Secrets Act and illegal political opinions are some of the main reasons to ban media in Germany.
These documentaries point out a lot of significant examples from diverse genres as literature, film, music, art, comic, satire and new media. The aim to restrict the publication and distribution of material on the internet especially demonstrates the desire of government to control its contends. The state tries to gain influence against unwanted expressions. A lot of different forms of censorship (mainly in Germany) will be explored. These works contain additional disgressions into matters of political censorship and the fascination of banned material. Questions of how to undermine such interest into prohibited areas are raised and the author establishes the immense difficulties of governing bodies in judging between what can be tolerated and what is to be banned. He also demonstrates how the boundaries of the permissible are in a constant state of change and aims to demonstrate the different (and often subtle) forms of govern-mental, religious and social censorship. The right of free expression, however, can clash with human dignity. The examples of (child) pornography and fascistic propaganda should indicate the problematic demand for the total abolition of censorship.
The book contains an annotated bibliography and a list of important internet addresses for further research. The comparison demonstrates, that the loss of a sense of humour on matters of taste, decency and hallowed icons is a variable phenomenon of "Zeitgeist" and the changing of values.



"Between Freedom of the Media and Intrusions of Censorship".
An examination of media and law sociological research on the influence of censorship on the popular culture of the Federal Republic of Germany.

This study, which focuses mainly on examples from the media in the Federal Republic of Germany, examines the reasons for censorship and the structure that such intrusions on the free speech can take. The thesis of the art-historian (M.A.) and sociologist (Ph.D.) Roland Seim consists of two main parts: The first lays down the historical-theoretical framework and examines the conditions of censorship on the basis of their legal foundations. This preoccupation of his research includes a summary of the history of censorship which will lead up to the position of post-war West Germany and a description of the role and function of the main institutions which executes censorship. The second part consists of a descriptive-empirical analysis and highlights such intrusions into free speech by pointing to significant examples from diverse genres as literature, film, music, art, comic, satire and new media. The aim to restrict the publication and distribution of material on the internet especially demonstrates the desire of government to control its contends. The state tries to gain influence against unwanted expressions. A lot of different forms of censorship (mainly in Germany) will be explored.
This work contains additional disgressions into matters of political censorship and the fascination of banned material. Questions of how to undermine such interest into prohibited areas are raised and the author establishes the immense difficulties of governing bodies in judging between what can be tolerated and what is to be banned. He also demonstrates how the boundaries of the permissible are in a constant state of change and aims to demonstrate the different (and often subtle) forms of govern-mental, religious and social censorship. The right of free expression, however, can clash with human dignity. The examples of child pornography and fascistic propaganda should indicate the problematic demand for the total abolition of censorship.
The thesis concludes with a comparative examination of some censorship laws in various European Countries and the United States. This international comparison demonstrates, that the loss of a sense of humour on matters of taste, decency and hallowed icons is not only a German phenomenon.

Roland Seim: Zwischen Medienfreiheit und Zensureingriffen (= Between Freedom of the Media and Censorship [...]), Münster/Germany 1998: Telos Verlag, PhD thesis ("magna cum laude") at the University of Münster 1997, germ. lang., 557 pp., english dissertation abstract, 70 ill., ISBN 3-933060-00-1, DM 59,80 (= $ 35.00 incl. postage).

 

All these books are available at:

Telos Verlag Dr. Roland Seim M.A.

- Verlag für Kulturwissenschaft -

Im Sundern 7-9, D-48157 Münster/Germany

Tel./Fax (+49)-251-326160 E-Mail: Roland.Seim@t-online.de

Internet: http://www.geocities.com/zensur2000/

 

 

   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
   
 
 
 

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