Self-Censorship Julia Moritz

If metacensorship is the liquidation of any evidence for censorship, self-censorship could be seen as a form of subcensorship. Operating below the level of the coercive restriction of expression, it works on the frontlines of the individual, at once everywhere and out of sight. The question of what is appropriate to utter and what shall be deemed unsaid forever has been transferred from the governing apparatus to the self. But what is this self? Obviously it is our prime suspect, a double agent, defined by its function rather than mere existence. We do not need to go back to old Freud to comprehend how it is constructed; the immense pressures from the lower instincts and higher powers form the dazzling diamond of our social being. And, as with every other precious possession, we are happy to expose it whenever possible. “Freedom of speech!” is liberalism’s celebratory declaration of individuality, the gem cornerstone of its democratic system. So why does this noble self suddenly censor its very articulation?

Welcome to the downside of the schema, the fine line separating civility from anarchism, the condition for governance’s possibilities. Among the many ways in which the self is constituted by a superego-superstructure is the principle of independence by individuation.1 This links the sovereignty of the subject inevitably to self-control. By governing its own authority through the persistent oversight of its own output, the individual integrates itself into a broader hierarchy of power—the citizen is born, and with him the demarcation of the private and the public, the two realms balancing individual and communal governance. Self‑censorship is the mediating middleman, a mental clerk rising through the ranks, because the neoforces of liberalism are eagerly reducing the scale of governmental responsibility. We witness a diffusion of the tactics of control into the sphere of the self. Liable for the risks of daily life, the awareness of our deeds and thoughts intensifies to the level of self-security. Our inner officer takes care of the surveillance of our selves.


Refusing self-censorship is a matter of not giving in. This is an incomplete list of the names of Russian journalists killed between 1992 and now.2

Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Ilyas Shurpayev, Gaji Abashilov, Magomed Yevloyev, Abdulla Alishayev, Konstantin Brovko, Ivan Safronov, Vadim Kuznetsov, Vaghif Kochetkov, Ilya Zimin, Vyacheslav Akatov, Anton Kretenchuk, Yevgeny Gerasimenko, Vlad Kidanov, Alexander Petrov, Vyacheslav Plotnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Anatoly Voronin, Pavel Makeyev, Magomedzaghid Varisov, Alexander Pitersky, Vladimir Pashutin, Tamirlan Kazikhanov, Kira Lezhneva, Yefim Sukhanov, Farit Urazbayev, Adlan Khassanov, Shangysh Mondush, Paul Klebnikov, Payl Peloyan, Zoya Ivanova, Vladimir Pritchin, Ian Travinsky, Aleksei Sidorov, Valery Ivanov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Dmitry Shvets, Natalia Skryl, Konstantin Pogodin, Valeri Batuev, Sergei Kalinovski, Vitali Sakhn-Val’da, Leonid Shevchenko, Sergei Zhabin, Nikolai Vasiliev, Leonid Kuznetsov, Paavo Voutilainen, Alexandr Plotnikov, Oleg Sedinko, Nikolai Razmolodin, Igor Salikov, Leonid Plotnikov, Eduard Markevich, Vladimir Yatsina, Aleksandr Yefremov, Igor Domnikov, Sergey Novikov, Iskandar Khatloni, Sergey Ivanov, Adam Tepsurgayev, Rory Peck, Ivan Scopan, Igor Belozerov, Sergey Krasilnikov, Vladimir Drobyshev, Alexander Sidelnikov, Alexander Smirnov, Elena Tkacheva, Marina Iskanderova, Dmitry Krikoryants, Sergey Bogdanovsky.

But this is not about heroes. Self-censorship is not a good-cop-bad-cop game. Not every consideration of others is self-censorship! If one thing is clear, it is that self‑censorship is undecidable. The definition of controversial content depends as much on specific circumstances as the decision not to communicate a particular idea might or might not thwart the social impact of that very thought. Sensitivity to the variety of different values of one’s audience might be as much of populist reason as of earnest respect. And to refrain from authorship of a certain assertion could be considered as spineless as it is subversive. Measuring one’s own thinking according to prevailing norms, however, does not necessarily equal the complete internalization of the censoring system’s delineation and the deliberate reduction of one’s means of expression.


Even though (or just because of) its grim Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics tag, People of the Sun—the alternative smash hit about the Zapatista revolution by the US indie band Rage Against the Machinewas an EP I did not have any difficulties getting hold of as a teen. Watching the accompanying video clip recently was, however, more startling. The video opens with a murdered young girl whose streams of blood form the words trickle down, and continues with a Latino laborer buried alive with dead kids stored in a morgue where projected statistics testify to the struggles of Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The version I chanced to see on MTV is heavily edited: no murdered Mexicans, no piled-up juveniles, just the band playing in a natty brick basement and some grainy military footage: How dare my indie idols ever agree to that in my absence as an adolescent fan!

It is of course the will of the market that limits all freedom but its own. The power of profit paves the way to ubiquitous self-prosecution; corporate corruption in the guise of self-domestication. It is not difficult to link this to the domain of visual arts. When Rage Against the Machine’s lead singer and songwriter, Zac de la Rocha, returned from a visit to the Chiapas region in southern Mexico with some explicit lyrics, he must have been familiar with the documentary scenes of workers in Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva México! from the 1930s that it became so obviously a template for his black-and-white video. Latin American social movements fascinated Mary and Upton Sinclair as much as they have Zac, Sergei, and so many other leftist intellectuals (certainly me) every now and then. They founded the Mexican Film Trust and decided to produce the promising Russian director’s portrait of Mexican culture and politics. But Eisenstein abandoned the project despite his lasting passion for the country.3 ¡Que viva México! went to the wall when Eisenstein had the unfortunate experience that his time-consuming avant-garde cinematography did not meet the expectations of his patron. The Sinclairs became increasingly impatient and ultimately rejected demands for further funding. Eisenstein gave up and returned to Russia.4 As de la Rocha did some 70 years later, he succumbed to the law of self-censorship when his cultural practice seemed incoherent to the social system and institutional framework doling out rewards.

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

is the title of Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde. It anticipates the work’s intricate relationship with institutional sensibilities and self-censoring pragmatics. Spectacularly grouped by its former owner, the public relations professional Charles Saatchi, with a portrait of the serial killer Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey and Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary framed in elephant dung in the infamous Sensation exhibition, the piece led unprecedented crowds to picket the Royal Academy in London, trembled the pillars of municipal funding politics in New York’s Brooklyn Museum, and proved so popular for Berliners at Hamburger Bahnhof that the show needed to be extended, though it was finally canceled entirely by the National Gallery of Australia. Andrea Fraser insightfully chronicles the Sensations debate as follows:

“If the boundaries between art, political influence, economic interests, and popular culture make up the terrain of the Sensation controversy, the principles according to which these borders are defended have defined its dynamics. These principles [ … ] include the artistic autonomy elaborated in aesthetic philosophy and institutionalized in public and nonprofit art museums as disinterestedness and distancing from specific functions—whether simple utility, communicative effect, emotional or sensual satisfaction, or the production of profit; the social autonomy of art as a specialized, professional field; and the political autonomy represented by constitutional guarantees of free expression.”5

Fraser elucidates that the relationship between art and censorship is a far more complicated affair than that between institutional repressor and betrayed artist. Ignorance of only one of the three vital dimensions listed by her as traditionally constituting the art world is the beginning of every self-censorship. Whoever camouflages these doctrines in a self-suppressing act of internalization falls prey to the tranquilizing lure of civil obedience; avoidance of ambiguous matter is inevitably to follow. But the conscious critical reflection of institutional parameters is the foundation of every act of speech that claims itself to be free in the sense of engaged self-governance rather than disinterested autonomy. Not silencing the inevitable inner struggles with the manifold issues at stake in the dissemination of EXPLICIT CONTENT implies a refusal of the very secrecy that obliterates oppositional speech. The razor-sharp cultural-political analyses of Fraser’s writing and the witty mockery of normative art-professional habitus that make up a large part of her artistic interventions are inspiring examples of the agility of controversial self-expression exceeding the comfort zones of the bourgeois individual and entering the conflictual spaces of cultural practice—the actual possibility of life in the mind of someone living. Critical thinking cannot not have an impact; it has its own countercultural prerogative. The decision to materialize and distribute might not always balance the multiple risks, but once its seeds have fallen onto the fertile grounds of a mind in doubt, a field for resistance opens.


1 / Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, Peter Miller (eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1991, p. 87–104.

2 / This example seems a bit too tough for a dictionary entry. I need to contextualize it a little more. I want to enter, the homepage of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a Russian NGO for the protection of the right of free speech. Google denies access: “Warning! To browse this website can damage your computer! Suggestion: Return to the previous website and choose another link. Start a new search or continue with this link at your own risk.” I am troubled. I continue at my own risk. The English version of the site does not work. I decide to continue without context, but to leave the list anyhow, as a minimemorial of what might be at stake when it comes to the refusal of self-censorship.

3 / The film commonly distributed as ¡Que viva México! is a reconstruction made by Eisenstein’s collaborator Grigory Alexandrov in 1979.

4 / Inga Karetnikova, Mexico According to Eisenstein, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1991; Sergei Eisenstein, Upton Sinclair, The Making & Unmaking of Que Viva México, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1970.

5 / Andrea Fraser, “A Sensation Chronicle,” Alexander Alberro (ed.), Museum Highlights. The Writings of Andrea Fraser, The MIT Press, Cambridge 2005, p. 179–211.