The Politics of Obscenity in the Early Modern and Postmodern Mediaspheres
International research project (2018-2020) selected by the Thomas Jefferson Fund (France – USA)
If the obscene seems excessive, its manifestations are notoriously underdetermined: they resist every attempt of definition, be it legal, moral or aesthetic. “I recognize it when I see it,” is still often the operating principle when it comes to controlling the proliferation of texts and images deemed dangerous. At the same time, the obscene appears overdetermined: it conflates often contradictory norms and perceptions, bringing into play overlapping political, social, artistic and even existential claims. Moreover, the obscene opens a questioning not only of the content, but of the forms of its representations. Obscenity is indeed always both about the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Nothing is obscene in itself, obscenity is performed: it stems from the ways a gesture is staged. In that sense, obscene representations can be understood as confrontations with the “political” as it has been problematized by Jacques Rancière who reconceptualized political (inter)actions as interventions deploying a dramatic stage on which not only the stakes of the performance, but also the roles of its different players, even the play itself are constantly renegotiated: Who speaks? To whom? About what? And how?
Recent controversies show that the question of the obscene is again of particular interest today. The current situation is to be understood in relationship to the concomitant transformations not only of the ways, but also the means, of social dialogue, even of the creation of meaning in modern societies. At stake the ‘digital revolution’ and its ongoing reconfiguration of the public sphere where the production and the reception of meaning, of that which is ‘sayable’ (or ‘showable’, even ‘doable’), is still being reimagined.
Early modern Europe knew a comparable ‘revolution’. The invention of the printing press indeed already profoundly recomposed the stage of modern social communication by forcing its agents to reinvent their means of expression in the sense not only of who can make himself/herself heard, but also more fundamentally of what can be said (and how).
If the problems of the past cannot answer the questions of the present, they can help formulate the stakes of the issues we are facing today. In the case of the obscene, the early modern era allows us to identify the critical impact and the implications of representations that, in their time and ours, raise the question of obscenity. Through the obscene images the Renaissance created of the ‘Middle Ages’, fantasized as an age of moral and sexual perversion, we can for instance reconstruct the affirmation of a conflicted modernity in the 16th-century. At the same time, the obscene words that mark the religious polemics of early modern France – in particular the disfigurements of the body and that for which it stands – help restage the conflicts at the heart of a society that had to reimagine its identities at a time when the Western world was at war both with its other and with itself. The key original contribution of the present research project will be to reconstruct this critical figure of the obscene in the ‘longue durée’. First, we will bring together researchers specialized in the history, literature and the arts of the “Autumn of the Middle Ages” (14th and 15th centuries) and early modernists with a focus on the Renaissance of the 16th century in order to frame, in the detail of its material and symbolic negotiations, the problematization of the obscene in the context of the Gutenberg revolution. Second, we will turn to late 20th and early 21th-century texts and images to formulate, based on the dynamics of the early modern obscene, a critical discourse on the production and reception of obscenity in the context of our postmodern digital age. Just as stage 1 of the project tests the ongoing productivity of the ‘medieval’ legacy at work in the early modern era, the goal of this second phase of the project is to get a better understanding of the complex mechanisms at play in the social construction of meaning especially regarding its ‘media’.