Knight in his armour

April 3, 1998

UNDER the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV and his successors, two systems of censorship operated. The repressive method (used retrospectively) involved the seizure of works after publication for such reasons as political unorthodoxy or illegal importation.

The preventive method was one whereby the author submitted his manuscript to the authorities, who had it read by an expert in the field. On their report, the work was either published, forbidden or amended. So a legal text was read by a lawyer, a theological by a theologian, a play by a dramatist, and so on.

The point was that the judgement was that of an expert in the field and that the criteria used reflected expertise.

Nearly 300 years later, in a supposedly enlightened democracy, we are still operating a repressive system alone, whereby a judgement is made as to whether a work will tend to deprave and corrupt. The people whom words and images tend to deprave and corrupt are by definition the weakest and most suggestible in society. It is unreasonable to apply their standards to everyone, and the Mapplethorpe affair at the University of Central England reveals the system at its most absurd.

John Dunkley. Reader in French. University of Aberdeen

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