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Obscene: The history of an indignation (1962) - Ludwig Marcuse [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK] more ...

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There are two views to obscenity. There is the relativist point of view which states that the notion of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. There is the contrasting universalist point of view which states -- in the words of Susan Sotag in her essay The Pornographic Imagination-- that ""the obscene" is a primal notion of human consciousness, something much more profound than the backwash of a sick society's aversion to the body.".

The history of obscenity is relatively recent. The conviction in 1727 of Edmund Curll for the publication of Venus in the Cloister or the Nun in her Smock under the common law offence of disturbing the peace appears to be the first conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom, and set a legal precedent for other convictions.


Obscenity has several connotations. Obscenity and its parent adjective obscene come from the Latin word obscenus, meaning "foul, repulsive, detestable", and possibly derived from ob caenum, literally "from filth". The term is most often used in a legal context to describe expression (words, images, actions) that offend the prevalent sexual morality of the time.

Despite its long formal and informal use with a sexual connotation, the word still retains the meanings of "inspiring disgust" and even "inauspicious; ill-omened", as in such uses as "obscene profits", "the obscenity of war", and the like. It can simply be used to mean profanity, or it can mean anything that is taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting.

The definition of obscenity differs from culture to culture, between communities within a single culture, and also between individuals within those communities. Many cultures have produced laws to define what is considered to be obscene, and censorship is often used to try to suppress or control materials that are obscene under these definitions, usually including, but not limited to pornographic material. Because the concept of obscenity is often ill-defined, it can be used as a political tool to try to restrict freedom of expression. Thus, the definition of obscenity can be a civil liberties issue. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscenity [Sept 2004]

Obscenity and the avant-garde

It is interesting to note that, of the four alternative presses which I identified above as being the primary publishers of the Beat writers, two of them (Grove and Olympia) had lists which focussed heavily on what many might call obscenity or pornography. It is my contention that this was not merely coincidental, but that there has long been a strong relationship between the avant-garde and obscenity: the Beat writers were simply the most recent (at the time) example of this link. --Unspeakable Visions: The Beat Generation and The Bohemian Dialectic. © August, 1991, Michael Hayward via http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/~hayward/UnspeakableVisions/Obscenity.html [Aug 2005]

As mentioned above, the books in Olympia Press's Traveller's Companion series were essentially just cheap pornography, "db's" (for "dirty books") as they came to be known, and were written "to order" by writers who needed money. Since the Bohemian lifestyle was one close to, if not beyond, the poverty line, a number of the Beats were in this category. Diane di Prima describes her dealings with Maurice Girodias as she worked on her Memoirs of a Beatnik for Olympia Press (di Prima 1988):

I had met Maurice Girodias in New York, and had written the sex scenes for a couple of dull and innocuous novels he had purchased as skeleton plots to which the prurient interest had to be added, like oregano to tomato sauce. Before I had left town he had asked me to write one myself, and when it became obvious that money was scarce, to put it mildly (everything you could possibly want in San Francisco of 1968 - four hundred pounds of free fish, $85 kilos of grass, great cheap wine, beach and sky - everything except cash. Wherever the "prosperity" was, it wasn't where we were) - when, as I was saying, it became obvious that money was scarce, and would continue to be so, I got to work, and quickly whipped out enough pages for an advance. It was the first and only time I'd written a "potboiler," and it was clearly the course to take [...] Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with "MORE SEX" scrawled across the top page in Maurice's inimitable hand.
--Unspeakable Visions: The Beat Generation and The Bohemian Dialectic. © August, 1991, Michael Hayward via http://www.harbour.sfu.ca/~hayward/UnspeakableVisions/Obscenity.html [Aug 2005]

see also: obscene - avant-garde

The Obscene Publications Acts

Since 1857, a series of obscenity laws known as the Obscene Publications Acts have governed what can be published. There have been several United Kingdom Acts of Parliament of this name:

Of these, only the 1959 and 1964 acts are still in force in the UK, as amended by more recent legislation. They define the legal bounds of obscenity in the UK, and are used to enforce the censorship of obscene material.

Note: Irish law diverged from UK law in 1929, replacing the OPA 1857 with a new Irish act: see Irish censorship law.

Important events in UK obscenity law:

--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscene_Publications_Act [Oct 2004]

The Roth case (1957) [...]

Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) was a landmark case before the United States Supreme Court which judged (5-4) that obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roth_v._United_States [Oct 2004]

Comstock law [...]

The Comstock Law was a 19th century United States law that made it illegal to send any "obscene, lewd, or lascivious books through the mail. It was passed on March 3, 1873 and is regarded by many as censorship. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comstock_Law [Jun 2004]

Regina v. Hicklin

The Hicklin test is a legal concept, from the 1868 English case - "Regina v. Hicklin".

The test asks: "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences." If yes, then such was declared to be obscene. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hicklin_test [Jan 2006]

1868 – Benjamin Hicklin, a British magistrate, prosecutes a militant Protestant who published an anti-Catholic pamphlet that denounced the "depravity" of the confessional booth (Regina v. Hicklin, L.R.3 Q.B. 360). --http://www.eroticabibliophile.com/censorship_history.html [Jan 2006]

The Miller case [...]

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973) was an important United States Supreme Court case involving the freedom of speech. The case was argued on January 18-19, 1972 and reargued November 7, 1972 and the 5-4 decision was issued on June 21, 1973. The decision reiterated that obscenity was not protected by the First Amendment and established the Miller test for determining what constituted obscene material. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_v._California [Oct 2004]

Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc.

Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560 (1991) nude dancing is not protected by the 1st Amendment. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-related_court_cases_in_the_United_States [Oct 2004]

Sex-related court cases in the United_States

There have been a number of cases decided by the United States Supreme Court or by the courts of the various states regarding pornography, sexual activity and what consenting adults are allowed to do in the privacy of their homes (or sometimes, in other places). Note that under most laws, the term "sodomy" not only includes anal sex but oral sex and possibly certain actions with sex toys. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex-related_court_cases_in_the_United_States [Oct 2004]

United States Commission on Obscenity and Pornography [...]

United States Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (1970, p. 53) (or rather twelve of the seventeen participating members) arrived at a similar conclusion, stating that 'empirical research designed to clarify the question has found no evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behaviour among youth or adults' --Berl Kutchinsky, http://www.aic.gov.au/publications/proceedings/14/kutchinsky.pdf [Aug 2004]

A primal notion of human consciousness

'... the French tradition represented by Sade, Lautreamont, Bataille, and the authors of Story of O and The Image... suggests that "the obscene" is a primal notion of human consciousness, something much more profound than the backwash of a sick society's aversion to the body. Human sexuality is, quite apart from Christian repressions, a highly questionable phenomenon, and belongs, at least potentially, among the extreme rather than the ordinary experiences of humanity. Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness - pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself." -- Susan Sontag, 1967

Porn, Erotica, Obscenity?

[...] The first, and easiest definitional issue is that between obscenity and pornography. The term obscenity, whose Latin root, obscensus, means "filthy" or "repulsive", was originally used by 18th century English judges to describe and censor sexually suggestive poems and stories. In the U.S. the term has taken on a very specific legal meaning, such that any content deemed obscene by the Miller test (Miller v. California, 1973) is considered illegal. This is in contrast to pornography -- whose Greek root pornographos, which means "writing about harlots" -- which is given full protection under the U.S. Constitution (Tedford, 1993). Thus, despite pornography's pejorative connotation, it is entirely legal and separate from the legalistic "obscenity." --Christopher Hunter http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/chunter/porn_effects.html [Aug 2004]

Obscene: The history of an indignation (1962) - Ludwig Marcuse

Excellent! [Jan 2006]

Obscene: The history of an indignation (1962) - Ludwig Marcuse [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Marcuse, Ludwig. Obscene; The History of an Indignation. London, MacGibbon & Key, 1965. 327p.

This study of obscenity by a German professor (first published in 1962 by Paul List Verlag) centers around leading obscenity trials: Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde (Jena, 1799), Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (Paris, 1857), Arthur Schnitzler's Round Dance (Berlin, 1920), D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley (London, 1960), and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (Los Angeles, 1962). A chapter is also devoted to the crusade of Anthony Comstock and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Marcuse describes Comstock as "a cross between Barnum and McCarthy." A final chapter en titled Seven Theses to Disarm Indignation gives the gist of the author's views on obscenity. --http://www.lib.siu.edu/cni/letter-m1.html [Feb 2005]

see also: http://www.aphrodite.de/outside/00/01/00191_Obsz_n_Marcuse_Ludwig.php4 from which the book cover is taken.

Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (2000) - Allison Pease

I like the theme, not sure if its point of view will become me. [Jan 2006]

Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (2000) - Allison Pease [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Book Description
How did explicit sexual representation become acceptable in the twentieth century as art rather than pornography? Allison Pease answers this question by tracing the relationship between aesthetics and obscenity from the 1700s onward, focusing especially on the way in which early twentieth-century writers incorporated a sexually explicit discourse into their work. The book considers the work of Swinburne, Joyce and Lawrence and artist Aubrey Beardsley within the framework of a wide-ranging account of aesthetic theory beginning with Kant and concluding with F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards and T. S. Eliot.

See also: explicit - Modernism - mass society - aesthetics - obscenity

The End of Obscenity (1968) - Charles Rembar

Anecdotal [Jan 2006]

Charles Rembar celebrated his victory in a book strikingly titled, The End of Obscenity. Published in 1968, it gave us the aphorism that pornography is "in the groin of the beholder.". --Charles Rembar, The End of Obscenity

The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill - Charles Rembar [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Twenty-five years ago, it was a crime to sell Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy in Massachusetts, or Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County in New York, or Lady Chatterley's Lover anywhere. Henry Miller's works could come into his native land only in the hands of smugglers.

The End of Obscenity describes the exciting trials of Lady Chatterly, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill, leading all the way to the Supreme Court, which cleared the way for their publication in this country. Charles Rembar's analysis of the legal background and strategy of each case is insightful and lucid. And the excerpts from the trial transcripts are often gripping, especially the excerpts from the expert witnesses who were called by the defense: Malcolm Cowley (who, in speaking of Lady Chatterley's Lover, said to a not particularly literary-minded examiner, "Sir, I will have to explain that the whole book is directed toward what doesn't happen in the book") and his fellow critics Eric Bentley, Alfred Kazin, and many others, joined by such political figures as Senator Edward Brooke, judges, postmasters and the writers themselves.

Rembar's book deals not with the why of obscenity laws but with the how, and as a result often has a freshness that little recent writing on this subject can match. -- Judy Smith via Amazon.com

American lawyer (b. March 12, 1915, Oceanport, N.J.—d. Oct. 24, 2000, Bronx, N.Y.), successfully defended the publishers of such celebrated books as Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), Tropic of Cancer (France, 1934; U.S., 1961) and Fanny Hill (1748–49) in some of the foremost censorship battles waged in the U.S. After winning the Fanny Hill case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the book was protected under the First Amendment, …- via Enc. Britannica [Aug 2004]

The Reinvention of Obscenity : Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002) - Joan DeJean

The Reinvention of Obscenity : Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002) - Joan DeJean [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

First sentence: "The trial of the poet Theophile de Viau in 1623 is a milestone both in the reinvention of obscenity and in the history of censorship..."

SIPs: transgressive literature, modern obscenity, modern obscene, secular censorship, primary obscenities (more)

Book Description
The concept of obscenity is an ancient one. But as Joan DeJean suggests, its modern form, the same version that today's politicians decry and savvy artists exploit, was invented in seventeenth-century France.

The Reinvention of Obscenity casts a fresh light on the mythical link between sexual impropriety and things French. Exploring the complicity between censorship, print culture, and obscenity, DeJean argues that mass market printing and the first modern censorial machinery came into being at the very moment that obscenity was being reinvented--that is, transformed from a minor literary phenomenon into a threat to society. DeJean's principal case in this study is the career of Moliére, who cannily exploited the new link between indecency and female genitalia to found his career as a print author; the enormous scandal which followed his play L'école des femmes made him the first modern writer to have his sex life dissected in the press.

Keenly alert to parallels with the currency of obscenity in contemporary America, The Reinvention of Obscenity will concern not only scholars of French history, but anyone interested in the intertwined histories of sex, publishing, and censorship. --via Amazon.com

From the Inside Flap
How and when did obscene words come to be considered obscene? How did the modern definition of "four-letter" words become accepted? These are some of the questions explored in The Reinvention of Obscenity. Joan DeJean shows how radically the modern conception of obscenity differs from that operative in antiquity, when obscene literature was produced exclusively for an elite male audience. Obscenity, DeJean argues, was reinvented when writers began to focus on two subjects previously unimagined: female genitalia and compulsory heterosexuality. The story of obscenity's reinvention is also that of the birth of modern censorship, mass-market print culture, and even tabloid journalism. DeJean's principal example is the career of the first truly modern writer, Molière, who cannily exploited the obscene to revolutionize the conditions of authorship.

See also: obscenity - transgression

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