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The Eye of the Censor: A Critical Genealogy of Censorship as Transparency (16th-18th Centuries)

L’Œil du censeur : une généalogie critique de la censure comme transparence (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles)
Magali Bessone

Résumés

L’article se propose de clarifier et de définir la notion complexe de censure grâce à une approche de généalogie critique. Il vise à explorer les conditions pragmatiques d’énonciation à partir desquelles des modèles variés de pouvoir et de gouvernementalité ont créé et utilisé la notion aux XVIe -XVIIIe siècles, la rendant indispensable tant dans une grammaire monarchique (autoritaire) que dans une grammaire républicaine (démocratique). Le premier moment s’attache à l’œuvre de Jean Bodin, qui a fondé son concept décisif de souveraineté à partir des mécanismes de la « censure » en jeu dans la Rome républicaine. Ce faisant, Bodin pose les caractéristiques principales de la notion moderne de censure : elle est à la fois ce qui signe l’entrée de la problématique économique dans le champ politique, et ce qui permet de contrôler et de réduire la corruption morale qui ronge le corps politique. Dans cette double fonction, elle requiert à la fois la plus grande visibilité et le plus grand secret. Le second moment montre comment la notion est ensuite utilisée par John Locke et Jean-Jacques Rousseau, qui l’infléchissent pour l’associer à la « loi de l’opinion », qui devient progressivement « loi de l’opinion publique ». La censure gagne en légitimité lorsqu’elle n’est plus théorisée comme l’apanage exclusif du pouvoir politique pensé comme autoritaire et surplombant, mais lorsqu’elle s’internalise comme le moyen le plus efficace d’assurer la vertu et la rationalité de citoyens capables de s’auto-discipliner. Loin d’être des concepts opposés, la censure et l’opinion publique sont ainsi des instruments théoriques et empiriques co-fonctionnels qui ont été créés et utilisés avec souplesse par des gouvernements désireux d’établir un consensus en faveur de leur action au nom de la « transparence ». C’est là en effet l’ambition de l’article : on se propose de démontrer que la censure n’est pas l’opposé de la publicité. Sa généalogie révèle en réalité qu’un autre principe, fondateur pour notre modernité politique, doit être envisagé en parallèle du principe célèbre de publicité : celui de transparence. La censure, à la fois comme pratique de gouvernement et comme concept théorique permettant de s’interroger sur les effets de visibilité du pouvoir, relève non pas du domaine de la publicité (par définition encadrée par la norme juridique), mais de celui de la transparence, potentiellement illimitée et internalisée en norme éthique. S’intéresser à la généalogie de la censure permet de saisir pourquoi la dialectique entre visibilité, raison et pouvoir au cœur du libéralisme politique contemporain ne peut être réduite au processus de « transformation de la sphère publique » théorisé par Jürgen Habermas (1989 [1962]).

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  • 1 The methodology used here draws its inspiration from the method described by the Cambridge School (...)

1The notion of censorship is historically and contextually charged. It has often found itself at the crossroads of different areas — particularly where pen meets sword — and in different political arenas where it has been used as a weapon by all involved. Political concepts are best understood in a critical, historicized and contextualized manner, and this is particularly true of the elusive concept of censorship. Hence, a genealogical approach seems the best way to clarify and define the notion of censorship, since it can provide insight into the pragmatic conditions of enunciation under which various models of power and governmentality created and made use of the notion of censorship.1 We will focus our attention on the various “languages” and grammar of sixteenth to eighteenth century political thought, assuming that these languages have not only normative and theoretical significance but also social and political importance. Through a linguistic turn approach, we will examine the system of concepts surrounding “censorship” as an inherent part of the historical and conceptual construction of both liberalism and modern republicanism. The aim of this paper is to show that censorship is at the core of a complex system of concepts defining political power in terms of vision and visibility, that this definition is decisively modern, and that it is common to republicanism and liberalism: the genealogy of censorship allows us to reach a conceptual foundation of modern democracy that goes beyond the traditional divide in political theory between an Anglo-Saxon liberal and a French republican sphere.

  • 2 Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962), The Structural Transformation of the Pub (...)

2 The first part of this paper will focus on the archaeology of the notion of censorship based on the work of Jean Bodin who founded his decisive notion of sovereignty on the mechanisms of censorship in republican Rome. We will argue that there is an inherent ambiguity present in Bodin’s analysis of censorship which paved the way for its subsequent use in European political thought. Then we will examine the shift that occurred during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, notably as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau connected the notion of censorship to what the former called the “law of opinion.” An effective tool for governing, censorship paradoxically came to be regarded as legitimate when it escaped the exclusive domain of political authorities and became internalized as a prevalent means of ensuring virtue and rationality among good, self-disciplined citizens. As such, censorship was not viewed as the opposite of publicity, since the two concepts belonged to different types of normativity. Looking at the genealogy of censorship can thus help reveal why the dialectics surrounding visibility, reason and politics at the centre of contemporary democracy cannot be reduced to Jürgen Habermas’ famous “transformation of the public sphere”2 process. His vision idealizes and pacifies the political and social arena, placing modernity under the irenic auspices of an enlightened public rational consensus: reinterpreting the public sphere as the locus of a complex interplay of censorship and transparency allows us to understand how modern democracy, both in its liberal and republican approaches, always has to be defended against the tempting belief that all should be visible.

Transparency versus Publicity: Two Distinct Principles of Liberalism

3 Censorship is a particularly remarkable concept since it sits at the confluence of republican and liberal language. Like other concepts at the turn of modernity, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, between the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, the notion of censorship was inherited from Roman republican language and displaced and reshaped in order to fit into the liberal paradigm taking root at the time. This reshaping was made possible because of the inherent polysemy of the notion, which made it easier to adapt to different political and conceptual moulds. Moreover, political actors saw in it an effective way to ensure control over their populations and legitimized this strategy by underscoring the Roman origins of the notion, thereby ensuring its (moral and political) legitimacy. This last characteristic explains why, far from disappearing with Medieval structures of organization, censorship gained new strength with the Enlightenment, at a time when the legitimacy of political sovereignty was challenged and needed to be revivified on new terms. The unified nature and direction of the sovereign gaze shifted when “the people” became the legitimate sovereign; and yet, internalized censorship remained an extremely efficient way of governing and disciplining populations and ensuring the stability of the political community.

4 Traditionally, censorship belonged to a decisive network of political concepts that bridged two cardinal dimensions: the realm of visibility and the notion of power. It was at the root of a fundamental question for political modernity: what is the scope and what are the limits of the “right to know”? How can this be combined with a “right to privacy”? How much can political authorities legitimately see of their subjects or (co-)citizens? What are the (social, legal, moral) limits of their gaze and what, in turn, should they reveal about themselves in order for the political community to be safe, stable and infused with social trust? Censorship was a powerful tool that provided authorities with the impression that they could control what should and should not to be publicly seen, and this had a direct influence on what was and was not socially and morally acceptable. Censorship was thus a defining instrument of social and moral norms. Moreover, its normativity was never legal; it did not belong to the field of rights but rather to the realm of facts.

  • 3 Tue Andersen Nexo, “Between Lies and Real Books: the Breakdown of Censorship and the Modes of Prin (...)

5 Within the framework of concepts concerned with visibility and power, the concept of censorship has historically been connected to the idea of “transparency” rather than to the principle of “publicity”. Focusing on censorship can thus highlight certain weaknesses in the Habermasian archaeology of “publicity” and the “public sphere”, and, conversely, make it necessary to clearly distinguish between the transparency principle and the well-known publicity principle. As Tue Nexo has argued3 — and contrary to widespread academic acceptance — the Habermasian model of the public sphere does not provide much information about the development of a sphere of opinion and debate in England in the 1640s. The world of polemical, rhetorically manipulative, printed discourse opened up by the liberation of public discourse, which was one consequence of the conflict between Charles I and his Parliament, did not create a discursive space governed by cool rationality and disinterest (two main conceptual characteristics of Habermas’ public sphere). Rather, authors resorted to all sorts of tricks (subterfuge, anonymity, forgery, misleading authorship and publishers) and even to downright lies to express their conflicting opinions; they did not see the decline of censorship as an opportunity to freely and openly confront critical ideas.

  • 4 See, for instance, Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Pre (...)

6 This is just one historical element among others and similar critiques have been made about the situation in the United States.4 Decisive conceptual critiques have also undermined the Habermasian framework and we adhere to the general movement calling for a re-evaluation of the hermeneutical potential of Habermas’ concept of the public sphere. Censorship should not be understood as the opposite of “public opinion”; public opinion belongs to the sphere of Öffentlichkeit and Enlightenment and resists the authoritarian ideology of arcana imperii embodied in the rules of censorship unilaterally established by a Monarch. Conversely, both censorship and public opinion are co-functional theoretical and empirical instruments that have been created and used with subtlety by governments trying to build consensus in favour of their actions and in the name of “transparency” as a regulatory norm. We posit that, far from belonging to an obsolete characterization of politics as the realm of domination, the notion of censorship has been part of a modern system of concepts used to control and discipline people in the name of virtue and rationality.

Censura, Census, Censorship

  • 5 Jean Bodin, trans. R. Knolles, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, Written by I. Bodin a famous Lawye (...)
  • 6 Dominique Reynié, « Le regard souverain, Statistique sociale et raison d’Etat du XVIe au XVIIIe siè (...)
  • 7 The English version quoted here is Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth, abridged and translat (...)
  • 8 J. Bodin, op.cit., VI, 1, 481.

7 Jean Bodin’s seminal work, The Six Books of Commonwealth, was published in French in 1576, in Latin in 1586 and translated into English in 1606.5 At the time, Latin was the universal lingua franca and Bodin’s work had an impact across Europe. According to D. Reynié, he probably gave the impetus for, or at least substantially contributed to, the rise of political statistics, which occurred across Europe at the turn of the seventeenth century.6 The Sixth Book of his work is entitled La Censure in French and Censura in the Latin edition; it was translated in the contemporary English version as “The Census and the Censorship.”7 This choice of language underscores the duality of meaning encompassed in the term: Bodin used a single term to refer to both census and censorship, based on the union of these two tasks under a single magistrate in ancient Rome. Indeed, in 443 BC, “censors” were created in Rome as high ranking magistrates responsible for the census of the Roman population; they were thereby in charge of supervising both taxation and public morality. This is the origin of the notion of censorship: “Rightly understood, the word census means simply an assessment of each individual’s belongings.”8 Bodin explicitly referred to this Roman institution and recommended the imitation of the republican model in order to ensure justice and stability in the modern commonwealth.

  • 9 François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, Œuvres complètes, dir. Gosselin et Caron, III, (22 vols.) (...)

8 Censorship was the keystone that connected sovereignty and economics. Indeed, to govern was to manage men and goods, people and property. In order to govern well, monarchs needed to know who and what was under their control. Lacking such information would reveal the weakness of their power. Kings needed to know the limits of their kingdoms; otherwise, they were only half-kings.9 The social sciences, the science of human nature and the art of governance all converged in the need to count the actual number of inhabitants, land and property under sovereign authority.

9 Bodin built on a general European movement of political quantification of what was considered to be the sovereign’s possessions. Here, the Greek notion of oiko-nomia meets the modern notion of government in the language used to describe the contents and limits of the territory over which a monarch’s authority was legitimately recognized. “La censure” was the new science of kings. Kings needed to manage their kingdoms like they managed their estates: through organized book keeping. A kingdom was simply an extension of royal (private) property and family, and for effective governance the same rules needed to be applied to the kingdom: trust, prudent behaviour, frugality, measure and propriety with regard to expenses, protection of wealth and assets, etc.. From this perspective, the census did not need to be publicized: indeed, kings penetrated into people’s private lives, but the relationship was not reciprocal. Records were for their own personal use and for more efficient management of their possessions. The governed were legitimate sources of knowledge and surveillance, but a king’s actions were kept secret (what is commonly called arcana imperii).

10 In contrast, the role of the censors presented by Bodin is implicitly based on a principle of visibility. His emphasis on counting did not refer solely to political arithmetic. According to Bodin, the power of sovereigns, mediated through the action of censors, should not be simply measured by the general prosperity or the economic activity of their subjects: the quantitative dimension of a sovereign’s power must also be immediately understood in qualitative terms and is meant to weigh on the moral conscience of his subjects, which means that the subjects need to be aware of the censors’ actions. Interestingly, the moral aspect is not the primary goal in the act of censoring: the normatively neutral action of counting and listing is supposed to indirectly influence collective morality. And yet this moral aspect is presented as unavoidable, obvious and commonsensical since the morality generated through the censors’ activities is based solely on the visibility of their activities. Honest people do not fear the censor if they have nothing to hide; those who fear the censor likely have something to hide or are dishonest.

  • 10 Thomas Berns, Gouverner sans gouverner, Une archéologie politique de la statistique, Paris : PUF, 2 (...)

11 The censors, as defined by Bodin, have several functions. To censure is to assess and, therefore, control: 1) the number of people; 2) their occupation; 3) all property; 4) the correct basis for taxation; and 5) governance of the subjects. The policing of moral conduct (censura morum) is a direct result of the census of people and property. The effects of censorship, as listed by Bodin, are also multiple. Two of them are particularly important: ensuring equality and justice in the mechanisms for taxation, and creating virtuous citizens. These two dimensions are inseparable: the moral aspect of censorship is implicit in its economic aspect; it is not independent from or even parallel to it. As Thomas Berns has underscored, 10 the censor’s activity is twofold and involves listing facts, what is: on the one hand, censorship aims to provide a comprehensive account of the whole political community and the common good, while on the other hand and inseparably, it strives to touch the most unique and intimate aspects of individual life. This twofold specificity in Bodin’s interpretation of censorship creates its own normativity: what ought to be. It is from this duality of concern (for the general and the particular) that a specific socio-moral norm arises. This is how some behaviour can come to be seen as reprehensible, even if no rule or value pre-existed in the inventory of harmful and reprehensible behaviour.

  • 11 J. Bodin, op. cit., VI, 1, 487.

One of the most important good consequences of numbering the people is that one can find out the standing and the calling of each individual, and how he earns his living. This makes it possible to get rid of those parasites which prey upon the commonwealth, to banish idlers and vagabonds, the robbers and ruffians of all sorts that live among good citizens like wolves among the sheep.11

12The act of censoring is presented as inherently opposed to idlers and parasites — those thought to “corrupt good citizens” and contrary to a certain “work ethic” which here found its pre-modern bearings. It is particularly important since idlers and parasites are not strictly speaking outlaws; they are not affected by regular law enforcement measures.

13 As such, the main characteristic of censorship in Bodin was that its norm supplemented the legal norm. In its ambition to be comprehensive, censorship aimed to sanction deeds that escaped legal notice and punishment because of their elusive nature.

  • 12 Ibidem, VI, 1, 490.

[T]he most detestable vices that poison the whole body politic cannot be punished in the courts. Perfidy, one of the most abominable of vices, is never punishable by law. But the censors, said Cicero, were more anxious to punish perjury than anything else. Again, drunkenness, gambling, fornication, and lust can be indulged in without check from the law. Who can remedy this state of things but the censor?12

14The norm expressed by a censor’s action was all the more powerful since it monitored the margins of legal regulation. While the legal norm has been defined since Aristotle by its generality and indeterminacy, the specificity of the censor’s norm is conversely its proximity to the individual. Moreover, it tends to be internalized: while the law sanctions externally and instantaneously, the censorship norm tends to be internalized and more permanently influence individual behaviour.

15 These contrasts do not imply that censorship deals with less important infractions: on the contrary, it aims to have an effect on “the most evil men” and “the most detestable vices”. The censorship norm should not be considered inferior to the legal norm: it is another type of norm which regulates the moral domain and is seen as both more demanding in terms of virtue and less intrusive in terms of the public extension of infractions. A jest whose ultimate effect is corruption is the concern of censors, not judges: while the legal system punishes criminals by sentencing them to prison or death, censorship punishes “an evil man” by inspiring fear or shame in him. Censorship is the primary mechanism used to restrict and counter corruption, the very scourge of politics. Political corruption is unique in that it is not a radical revolution or a violent overthrowing of the system: it slowly undermines, erodes and gnaws away at it. Since censorship is concerned with small, peculiar acts and the general good, it is an inherent part of the art of government which involves averting potential threats to the community rather than punishing actual crimes. Incidentally, this is why it was later applied primarily to the printing of clandestine books: learning, thinking and questioning have always been considered pre-eminent means of “corrupting youth” as Socrates’ famous indictment indicated.

Censorship: Secrecy or Openness?

16 The moral character of censorship explains why it never solely relied on secrecy or was never simply the instrument of some “police of morals” under state control to conceal information; it also constantly required self-display.

  • 13 Denis Diderot, « Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie », in Œuvres, III, Paris : Ed. Robert Laffo (...)

17 If, historically, the aim of censorship was to effectively combat corruption, it required the least visible regulatory mechanisms. This aspect has been continuously underscored by historians working on censorship in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even by some censored authors who have argued that censorship itself has an inverse publicizing effect, drawing attention to what it seeks to condemn. Publicly condemning a dangerous or reprehensible opinion may paradoxically promote it, i.e. present it to the public and raise interest.13 As such, many commentators have emphasized the highly ineffective and inconsistent nature of censorship’s regulative pre-publication or prohibitive post-publication mechanisms. The highly differentiated, sometimes even contradictory mechanisms of censorship which existed at the time (from excommunication, banishment or suspension to tacit permission and simple toleration) were rooted in competition between the tenants of monarchy and the defenders of a nascent public opinion. This specific political situation vividly illustrates the inner duality within the concept of censorship, a duality that was already present in Bodin’s analysis. Censors and state police did not necessarily share the same logic regarding visibility; the assumption that in order to be efficient censorship needed to be kept secret or hidden actually minimized the differences between intelligence agencies and police (as state apparatuses), and the censors.

  • 14 See Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir, Paris : Gallimard, 1975 and Histoire de la sexualité I, L (...)

18 Conversely, in order to reach its full normative effect, censorship actually relied to a certain degree on a principle of visibility: the census had to be published in order to play its educational role and to expose and have “wicked” citizens banished from the community. Governing authorities both created and presupposed a public spirit, in a sense that is both collective (the censors publicly exposed individual virtues and vices) and individual (members feared humiliation and felt compelled to discipline themselves). From the censors’ point of view, it was fundamental that their gaze be constantly seen; they had to display their power and be spectacular. From the subjects’ or citizens’ perspective, individuals became potential sentinels of others and of themselves; everyone was endowed with the power to blame or approve others and to be blamed or approved by others. This internalization of the censors’ gaze and the multiplication of watchful eyes, and its disciplinary dimension,14 was also, paradoxically, liberation from censorship’s previous authoritarian dimension, when it was the sole prerogative of sovereigns controlling their subjects. This ambiguous aspect is at the core of the concept’s historical evolution.

19 In discourse justifying democratization, censorship as self-censorship is presented as necessary for the body politic to collectively embody and enact the virtue and rationality of “the people”. A careful reading of Locke and Rousseau shows that they both saw in censorship a means to regulate the moral sphere in a political community. They both took the internalization of censorship’s normative power and its effect on collective morality very seriously. But they also both expressed doubt about the legitimate limits of this norm when it becomes part of the political community’s institutional and legal organization: they insisted that censorship and law are the expression of two very different norms which should remain separate. While the first is justified in terms of “transparency”, the second is justified in terms of “publicity”; this difference reflects the (perhaps irreducible) difference between social-ethical and legal-political spheres. Contrary to the Habermasian interpretation, it is difficult to use censorship in the process of rationalization of the public sphere that strives for a linear, coherent approach to democratic open general regulation, as opposed to the hidden and particular instances of arcana imperii. Locke’s and Rousseau’s analyses are ultimately aporetic: they point up the resistance of a sphere outside the reach of law which should remain so but which is therefore subject to other normative constraints. Their bind should remind us that democracy involves the (sometimes contradictory) competition of norms and that reductionism is a dangerous political and moral tendency.

20 Reading Locke and Rousseau in parallel on the matter of censorship also serves one important purpose: it shows that despite the well-known divide in political theory between liberalism and republicanism, of which Locke and Rousseau are supposed to be the respective historical fathers, there is a great proximity of questioning (how to create a self-sustaining political body?) and of method (contractualism on one hand, and internalization of the social law through censorship on the other) between both perspectives. Both authors saw in censorship a powerful instrument to resist the corruption of the body politic: it influenced both the individual virtues of the citizens and the general force of the social link. They situated its impact at both an individualist and a holist level. They both proved that they were perfectly aware of the need for a reflection upon the effects of time and history on democratic institutions: civil society was in constant danger of disappearance and no normative founding though a civil or social contract could prevent it by itself. Reading Locke and Rousseau together on this point gives us an unprecedented view over the presence of a non-ideal reflection in contract theories at the birth of contemporary democracy.

  • 15 Locke’s influence is well-known and cannot be overestimated. In a vast literature, see notably Mort (...)
  • 16 Famously Edmund Burke, in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (May 1791), created a com (...)

21 Moreover, emphasizing the conceptual and genealogical proximity between both authors on this decisive matter of realpolitik, allows us to understand why they are both considered as great influences on the American Founding Fathers, who found in them not only the expression of ideal political principles, but also practical answers to sustain their concrete effort against the corruption of their nascent Republic.15 It shows that despite some British counter-revolutionary readings of Rousseau,16 there was indeed a conceptual European “Republic of Letters”: a community of political thinkers concerned with the creation of a legitimate power of normativity which could also preserve liberty.

22Locke was the first to establish an explicit relationship between censorship (or censure) and opinion. He listed three types of law that frame our relationship with morality.

§7 The laws that men generally refer their actions to, to judge or their rectitude, or obliquity, seem to me to be these three. 1. The divine law. 2. The civil law. 3. The law of opinion or reputation, if I may so call it. […]

  • 17 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, 28, 1689.

§13 These three then, the law of God, the law of politic societies, the law of fashion, or private censure, are those to which men variously compare their actions: and it is by their conformity to one of these laws, that they take their measures, when they would judge of their moral rectitude, and denominate their actions good or bad.17

23The law “of opinion” or “of private censure” was thus given the same dignity and normative weight as the other two: the first provided the basis for discriminating between sins and duties, the second between crime and innocence and the third between virtue and vice. Virtue and vice were measured by the degree of approval or disapproval that one’s actions inspired in others; “public esteem” was the definitive criteria for virtue. The law of opinion was also called “philosophical law”; the normative dimension behind a law supposed that customs and fashion, which here guided moral judgment, were not only the substance of naïve and spontaneous collective behaviour, but were also reflected upon, internalized and consciously used. In this sense, opinion was not in opposition to science or knowledge.

24This law of opinion is extremely powerful and governs behaviour.

§12 If anyone should imagine, that I have forgotten my own notion of a law, when I make the law, whereby men judge of virtue and vice, to be nothing else, but the content of private men, who have not authority enough to make a law; especially wanting that, which is so necessary and essential to a law, a power to enforce it: I think, I may say, that he who imagines commendation and disgrace not to be strong motives on men, to accommodate themselves to the opinions and rules of those with whom they converse, seems little skilled in the history of nature or history of mankind.

25It is, however, a law of “private censure”, not of “public opinion”, and although Habermas quotes these texts and uses them in his own argument about the “public sphere”, he underlines that the term “public” is lacking. The opinion that praised or condemned private action, i.e., action emanating from an individual accomplished in a public context, is a private opinion, repeated and extended to the entire community through the internalization of a moral fashion or convention. According to Habermas, the “law of private censure” was, strictly speaking, not yet the “law of public opinion”. First, it did not result from public discussion or discourse: praise and blame were expressed according to the “secret and tacit consent” of citizens (§ 10). Secondly, it did not have any direct political effect since individuals did not have any legislative authority. And thirdly, the law of opinion was not enlightened, rational or “tied to preconditions of education”; while it was more than a simple effect of irregular spontaneity, it remained a product of “fashion”. Its expression was a mere utterance of private prejudice or preconceptions which had not passed the test of public rationalization.

  • 18 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, Paris : Gallimard, 6 vols., 1959-1995. The authoritative E (...)

26 So, on the one hand, Locke’s use of the relationship between censorship and opinion can help us understand how censorship came to be, not as an external mechanism for regulating public discourse, emanating from an authority placed above the public, but rather as an inner instrument of definition and implementation of private discourse, acting horizontally, so to speak. On the other hand, the concept of public sphere had yet to be established. Locke was not concerned about a coherent social and cultural group freely confronting their ideas and thereby constituting a rational public opinion able to criticize the modalities of power. Besides noting what prevents the “law of private censure” from fitting into Habermas’ linear archaeology of the public sphere, it is worth insisting on another aspect of this law which could help sketch a further archaeology: by maintaining a strong distinction between civil law and the law of private censure, Locke extended the complex nature of the censorship norm already present in Bodin’s analysis. He definitely moralized and internalized it, while, at the same time, his radical separation of the political and socio-moral spheres prevented him from conceptualizing a unification of private morality and citizenship in the single figure of a virtuous or disciplined, citizen. Rousseau18, however, provided the missing link, although he kept the norm of censure outside of the realm of law per se.

  • 19 For an interesting formulation of this thesis, see Bruno Bernardi, « Rationalité et démocratie : un (...)

27 Contrary to some analyses, we maintain that Rousseau’s perspective on censorship was remarkably coherent, both in his historical and contextual pamphlets and texts and in the normative approach to political rights taken in the Social Contract. Nevertheless, his texts on censorship are extremely puzzling: Rousseau presented censorship, censura morum, as constitutive of a legitimate and virtuous “public opinion”. His characterization of censorship aimed to place importance on the concept of public opinion, which, it is widely accepted, he was the first to define.19 His reasoning was part of a threefold process.

28 First, the great law of morals, which allows us to discriminate between good and evil, virtue and vice, is engraved “in the hearts of the citizens” rather than on the marble or brass of institutionalized civil law.

  • 20 J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, II, 12. (« À ces trois sortes de lois, il s'en joint une quatriè (...)

To these three kinds of laws is added a fourth, the most important of all, which is graven neither on marble nor on brass, but in the hearts of the citizens; a law which creates the real constitution of the State, which acquires new strength daily, which, when other laws grow obsolete or pass away, revives them or supplies their place, preserves a people in the spirit of their institutions, and imperceptibly substitutes the force of habit for that of authority. I speak of manners, customs, and above all of opinion […].20

29Customs and opinions are seen as one aspect of morals, and morals determine the grey zone between morality and politics. Moral judgment is concerned with particular actions; it is expressed by public demonstrations of approval and blame, mostly through public esteem. It reflects public sentiment. From this perspective, morals are close to morality, which is also a matter of feelings, but the dictates of morality come from inner feelings which emanate from individual consciences. In moral judgment, these feelings are those of others and they have a social dimension — which explains why in certain texts, Rousseau advocated liberation from the dictates of public opinion: too much regard for public opinion impedes people from becoming truly free and autonomous moral beings. Moral judgment is thus similar but not identical to judgments of morality. Conversely, public opinion expresses what ought to be, but this judgment, according to Rousseau’s definition of “judgment”, involves applying a general rule to individuals and deeds: its normative power is not as generalized as civil law — as the expression of the general will — needs to be. Such judgment is the expression of magistrates, not of the sovereign:

  • 21 J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat social, IV, 7. (« De même que la déclaration de la volonté générale se f (...)

Just as the declaration of the general will is made by the law, the declaration of public opinion is made by the censorship. Public opinion is a kind of law of which the censor is minister, and which he only applies to particular cases in the manner of the Prince.21

30Strictly speaking, it is a decree rather than a law; it obliges but does not constrain citizens. It speaks to the heart and conscience, not to common rational will. If the law expresses the general will, censorship expresses public judgment, i.e., the specific “law” of public opinion as a general sentiment shared implicitly and silently by individuals within the body politic.

31 Hence, secondly, the two main censure bodies, the Tribunal of Marshals of France, or Court of Honour, and the censorial tribunal or tribunal of Roman censors, are not really tribunals. They are not, or should not be, invested with any power to punish; they are not concerned with coercion, armed force or violence. Honour and shaming are their only effects. They are simply an application of public opinion, which, through these bodies, expresses its approval or disapproval, praise or blame; but they should not have any power to implement the law or punish for its disrespect. Further, this expressed public judgment is not built up through public deliberation; it does not involve any determination of the will or recognition of a common good. It does not recognize the necessity of consensus, nor is it based on the rational force of the best argument. Here, once again, it needs to be clearly distinguished from Habermas’ rational and idealized public sphere.

32 That is why, thirdly, censure is useful in regulating public morals, rather than in institutionalizing social hierarchies. Laws do not regulate morals and morals are not the source of laws; yet, morals influence laws and laws give morals their power. That is why Rousseau advocated caution in the establishment of such censorship bodies. Censorship could be legitimate only if the people were virtuous and in order to sustain a feeling of shared community. It has a conservative effect, but no foundational or restorative power.

  • 22 See Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens, a Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ (...)

33 From Rousseau’s perspective, censorship norms are indeed perfectly adapted for shaping public opinion precisely because of their ambiguous nature: they fully belong to the realm of morals, between civil and moral norms. Their origin is not an enlightened rationality or a virtuous conscience, but a particular social sentiment, with its partiality and the risk of tyranny it embodies if it is taken to replace the general will. The voice of the censors needs to be distinguished from the voice of inner conscience as well as from the voices composing the moral and collective body politic (Social Contract I, 6). But its function is to express public opinion, like the field of social sentiments which fills the void between politics and morality. In this respect, it is extremely important in explaining how people can live together on a shared basis. The censors act as mediators; censorship is rooted in conscience and sends signals to the law: in this respect, it relies on self-transparency on the one hand and on the principle of publicity on the other. But censorship’s specific visibility regime is the same as that seen in celebrations and clubs. Rousseau was aware that he was standing between two Utopias22 — the Golden Age and the Spartan Republic; in different respects, both built on transparency as virtue and rationality. In a way, censorship and public opinion defined the field of sociology that lay between politics and morality: the grey zone where, for better or for worse, human beings share and express collective passions and feelings and which resists a vision of politics as the field of rational interactions between purely reasonable and moral beings.

34 Finally, a genealogy of censorship is fundamental for our understanding of the current conditions surrounding the justification of liberal democracy: the norm of “transparency”, which has come to occupy an immense part of justification discourse, needs to be distinguished from the principle of publicity, whose success has come to occult the former and its specific scope. Censorship was introduced as an instrument for governing and theorized as a concept in the name of a visibility whose terms were not those, legal and limited, of publicity, but of an internalized and potentially unlimited transparency. Focusing on this genealogical heritage helps to understand some of the current aspects of the dialectics between vision and power under auspices other than the rational Habermasian public sphere.

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Notes

1 The methodology used here draws its inspiration from the method described by the Cambridge School authors J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time, New York: Athaneum, 1971 and The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975, and Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

2 Jürgen Habermas, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. T. Burger and F. Lawrence, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 1989.

3 Tue Andersen Nexo, “Between Lies and Real Books: the Breakdown of Censorship and the Modes of Printed Discourse during the English Civil War,” in Mogens Laerke (ed.), The Use of Censorship in the Enlightenment, Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2009, 77-93. See also historian Joad Raymond, “The Newspaper, Public Opinion and the Public Sphere in the Seventeenth Century,” Prose Studies 21/2, 1998: 109-140.

4 See, for instance, Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere, Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press, 1993.

5 Jean Bodin, trans. R. Knolles, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale, Written by I. Bodin a famous Lawyer, and a man of great Experience in matter of State, based on French and Latin editions, London: Impensis G. Bishop, 1606. 

6 Dominique Reynié, « Le regard souverain, Statistique sociale et raison d’Etat du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle », in Christian Lazzeri et Dominique Reynié (dir.), La Raison d’Etat, politique et rationalité, Paris : PUF, 1992, 43-82.

7 The English version quoted here is Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth, abridged and translated by M. J. Tooley, Oxford: Blackwell, 1955, (available online <http://www.constitution.org/bodin/bodin_.htm>, accessed 15 February 2011). We will also indicate for each quotation a reference to the French version, Jean Bodin, Les Six livres de la République, Un abrégé du texte de l’édition de Paris de 1583, dir. G. Mairet, Paris : Librairie Générale Française, 1993. The current unabridged French edition is Les Six Livres de la République, rev. par C. Frémont et al., 6 vol., in Corpus des œuvres de philosophie en langue française, Paris : Fayard, 1986, which uses the 1576 edition.

8 J. Bodin, op.cit., VI, 1, 481.

9 François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, Œuvres complètes, dir. Gosselin et Caron, III, (22 vols.): Paris, 1821-1824, 610, “Examen de conscience sur les devoirs de la royauté” : “He will think that he has seen everything, but will only see half. A king who ignores all of these things is only a half-king: his ignorance prevents him from straightening what is askew.” (My translation of « Il croira tout voir, et ne verra rien qu’à demi. Un roi ignorant sur toutes ces choses n’est qu’un demi-roi : son ignorance le met hors d’état de redresser ce qui est de travers »).

10 Thomas Berns, Gouverner sans gouverner, Une archéologie politique de la statistique, Paris : PUF, 2009, chap. 8, « Normes collectives non juridiques ». This entire paragraph owes a lot to T. Berns’ insightful analysis. See also Michel Senellart, « Census et censura chez Bodin et Obrecht », Il Pensiero politico 2, 1997: 250-266.

11 J. Bodin, op. cit., VI, 1, 487.

12 Ibidem, VI, 1, 490.

13 Denis Diderot, « Lettre sur le commerce de la librairie », in Œuvres, III, Paris : Ed. Robert Laffont, 1995, 108. See also Colas Duflo, “Diderot and the Publicizing of Censorship,” in M. Laerke (ed.), op. cit., 121-135; P. Zagorin, Ways of Lying: Dissimulation, Persecution and Conformity in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge (MA): Harvard UP, 1990; and B. Negroni, Lectures interdites, Le travail des censeurs au 18e siècle, 1723-1744, Paris : Bibliothèque Albin Michel, 1995.

14 See Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir, Paris : Gallimard, 1975 and Histoire de la sexualité I, La Volonté de savoir, Paris : Gallimard, 1976.

15 Locke’s influence is well-known and cannot be overestimated. In a vast literature, see notably Morton White, The Philosophy of the American Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978; Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 1992 and Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. On Rousseau’s reception, see John Diggins, The Lost Soul of American Politics: Virtue, Self-Interest and the Foundation of Liberalism, Chicago & London: Chicago University Press, 1984; Andrzej Rapaczynski, Nature and Politics: Liberalism in the Philosophy of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

16 Famously Edmund Burke, in his Letter to a Member of the National Assembly (May 1791), created a commonplace in the counter-Revolutionary agenda: Rousseau the moralist (not the political thinker) is the father of the French Revolution; his writings (mostly La Nouvelle Héloïse and Les Confessions) are philosophically abstract; he founds society on pure reason and is himself licencious and proud. The French nation is — hence — characterized by vice and abstract rationalism, both evils complementing each other. See Edward Duffy, Rousseau in England, The Context for Shelley’s Critique of the Enlightenment, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. (I am grateful to Céline Spector for suggesting the reference; see also C. Spector (ed.), Lumières n° 15, “Modernités de Rousseau,” Fall 2010).

17 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, II, 28, 1689.

18 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, Paris : Gallimard, 6 vols., 1959-1995. The authoritative English version of Rousseau’s work is The Collected Writings of Rousseau, Hanover (NH): University Press of New England, 1990-, 7 vols. to date, under the direction of Roger D. Masters and Christopher Kelly. The quotations here will be given in French as well as English because of some issues with the English translation of Rousseau’s use of « mœurs » versus « morale ». In Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, the short entry for “Mœurs”, written by Saint Lambert, reads: “Mœurs (morale)” and defines “mœurs” as “Free actions of men, natural or acquired, good or bad, susceptible to rule and direction”; the “Morale” article, written by De Jaucourt, defines it as the “Science des mœurs”. So there was at the time an undeniable proximity between “mœurs” and “morale”, which we have chosen to translate respectively as morals and morality — but there is also a nascent conceptual difference that is not completely covered in the manners/morality distinction in English. See J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Manners and History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

19 For an interesting formulation of this thesis, see Bruno Bernardi, « Rationalité et démocratie : une autre généalogie du concept d’opinion publique » (unpublished), and La Fabrique des concepts, Paris : Honoré Champion, 2006.

20 J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, II, 12. (« À ces trois sortes de lois, il s'en joint une quatrième, la plus importante de toutes ; qui ne se grave ni sur le marbre ni sur l'airain, mais dans les cœurs des citoyens ; qui fait la véritable constitution de l'État ; qui prend tous les jours de nouvelles forces ; qui, lorsque les autres lois vieillissent ou s'éteignent, les ranime ou les supplée, conserve un peuple dans l'esprit de son institution, et substitue insensiblement la force de l'habitude à celle de l'autorité. Je parle des mœurs, des coutumes, et surtout de l'opinion ».)

21 J.-J. Rousseau, Du Contrat social, IV, 7. (« De même que la déclaration de la volonté générale se fait par la loi, la déclaration du jugement public se fait par la censure ; l'opinion publique est l'espèce de loi dont le Censeur est le Ministre, et qu'il ne fait qu'appliquer aux cas particuliers, à l'exemple du Prince ».)

22 See Judith Shklar, Men and Citizens, a Study of Rousseau’s Social Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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Magali Bessone, « The Eye of the Censor: A Critical Genealogy of Censorship as Transparency (16th-18th Centuries) », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 1 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2013, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/5154 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5154

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Magali Bessone

Université Rennes 1, France

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