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Self-censorship in the digital age : We won’t be able to recognize ourselves

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In 1897, Sigmund Freud compared the extinguished paragraphs in newspapers to the self-censorship of our dreams

While many journalistic electrons have been spilled over the prudence, legality, and politics of e-surveillance, I’d like to ask a different set of questions, leaving to others to declaim the horror that they find in knowing that apps and agencies have stolen the “right to privacy” that surrounds or should surround an eternal human self.   What if we stepped back from the current imbroglio and asked a longer-term question, as if we were beginning to sketch a history of the present seen from outside these turbulent days. What if we ask how the surveillance and harvesting of communications has and continues to reshape the self.

The scar of white blocks

What better place to begin our question of self and censorship than with Sigmund Freud?  By 1897, Freud began to talk about censorship in the mind (a dynamic he saw as one of his most important insights) as something to be understood in terms of all-too real print censorship he saw around him.   He was not the only one to notice that the border blockers took out religiously, sexually, or politically offensive references to the illegitimacy of czars with “caviar” (black ink) or a paper-mâché overlay of glued on paper.   Censors might re-write a text to obscure their intervention. But at a certain point, the “Russian censors,” out of haste or arrogance “no longer take the trouble to conceal [the censorship] operation,” Freud maintained.  At that point, the censored texts became incomprehensible, but only because of the gaps torn from them by deletion.

So it is with apparently delirious dreams. “This censorship,” he repeated in his 1900 Interpretation of Dreams, “acts exactly like the censorship of newspapers at the Russian frontier, which allows foreign journals to fall into the hands of the readers whom it is its business to protect only after a quantity of passages have been blacked out.”

If Freud began to articulate his idea of psychic censorship in terms of the “Russian” interventions, censorship hit closer in World War I.  In his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” of March-April 1915, Freud vented: “The State exacts the utmost degree of obedience and sacrifice from its citizens, but …  treats them like children by an excess of secrecy and a censorship upon news and expressions of opinion which leaves the spirits of those whose intellects it thus suppresses defenceless against every unfavorable turn of events and every sinister rumour.”   

Day after day, censors trashed Viennese newspapers, stripping away paragraphs, leaving only the scar of a white block where news had been. For its part, the postal service blackened offending lines in letters. Freud used the post to communicate, reason, and advance psychoanalytic thought, so the censor’s hand weighed on him, cutting him off from his profession while severing him from his sons at the front.

Mumble, mumble

In Freud’s psychic topography of 1915, the real, political, wartime notions of censorship figured as more-than-metaphor – we can see his own correspondence stamped twice by censors, once in Vienna and once at the border of (for example) a city in Germany.   Freud, 1915: The “psychical act” carried within the “system” of the unconscious approaches the frontier – the way a person carrying a dangerous text comes up to a frontier – with similar results:  the unconscious can be turned back on the frontier with the preconscious, and the preconscious can be blocked at the entry to the conscious.  

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