Internet Censorship as "Cybriety": Freud, McLuhan, and Media Pleasures

Article excerpt

In November 1995, the sleepy Canadian town of Sackville, New Brunswick, was witness to what Freud and Foucault might have called an age-old autoerotic drama, one characterized by a predictable latency - a discrepancy between action and reaction, performance and reception. The event to which I am referring took place at Mount Allison University's Owens Art Gallery, where performance art and theater are regularly staged. Student Chris Yorke and a female actor, clad only in smashed eggs and silver tree tinsel, performed simulated oral sex on one another in front of an audience of almost fifty people. Although no one in the audience complained, and no one walked out, the viewers' acceptance, even appreciation, of the performance did little to sanction it. Very little. When the performance was subsequently reviewed in the local newspaper, the public's moral outrage was silently and decisively marshaled. A few days later, Chris Yorke was charged with public indecency. In finding Yorke guilty of indecency in the performance of his art, New Brunswick Judge Irwin Lampert declared that "community standards are the best measure of what is obscene and what is not." Yorke's only comment was as historically encoded as the judge's: "Human sexuality has been the subject of art for centuries; I feel violated by this decision" (Telegraph Journal E5). Indeed, Yorke had been subject to the same social forces that violated the turn-of-the-century performance artists of Serpentine Dance (1895) and Pull Down the Curtains, Suzie (1904), two early peepshows made for Edison's Kinetscope. If the Mount Allison situation teaches us anything, it is how fundamentally sexuality is inscribed with cultural sanction, and how that sanction recurs as regular historical performance.

With increasing frequency over the last few years, the Internet has become a flash point for the debate between free speech and censorship. Various Netscape sites have been removed from the Web, and others have been blackened by Internet Providers to protest social sanction. Two years ago in the United States, Congress hurriedly passed the Communication Decency Act, only to see it ruled unconstitutional a short time later. In Canada, a January 1999 British Columbia judgment challenged the legality of restricting access to child pornography on the Web. Since that ruling, public opinion has been galvanized for censure: the call for Internet censorship - what I am terming "cybriety" (cyber-sobriety) - has been mobilized. The Internet, that vast mystical panacea that holds, we are told, so much of our hope for the future, is under threat. What are we to make of this, we non-cybrarians, occasional-surfers of the virtual world? In the early days of this debate, we can be certain of only one thing: left to the pundits, censorship becomes obscured. As Sallie Tisdale writes, "Censorship...makes it impossible not only to talk about the censored object, but about censorship" (13). "Pornography," concurs Walter Kendrick, "names an argument, not a thing" (31). And so censorship debates, regardless of what is being censored, are ideologically laden. These debates therefore require some historio-cultural archaeology to make sense of them.

The novel, photography/film, and now the Internet are good sites with which to ground an exploration of the social psychology of censorship, as these are not only our most popular media, but those which perhaps best illustrate the action of all new media in the self-satisfying ("autoerotic") and unregulated ("offensive") stage of infancy. I do not mean to suggest any kind of structural evolution across these media, but to point simply to a historical recurrence that is observable in each medium's infancy, the time when each thrives in the unreflexive rapture of its own autoeroticism, independent of the sanction of the censor. Hybridizing McLuhan and Freud, I will argue that because all media are extensions of the body - speech extends the ear, print extends the eye - any new medium is inherently pleasurable; and, being pleasurable, any new medium invites the infantile game of daring, a pushing of the limits of what is "socially" acceptable in order to fulfill desire. …