Please send correspondence to:
Im Sundern 7-9
Orwell, "Animal Farm"
introduction, quoted from: Robertson, 1993, p. xiii)
"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not
want to hear."
We are socialized by the different kinds of mass
media that influence our behavior. Socio-cultural experiences and associations do
condition our views and preferences. Moreover every medium is a mirror of society. How
tolerant or restrictive we treat this mirror reveals to us a significant part of our
current situation in general. But neither the official picture of the mainstream culture
nor the media effect research, that often criticizes the aspects of sex and violence in
the media to justify control and censorship, reveal the behavior of people who are
fascinated by banned (and often bizarre) contents. The
"normal" taste of ordinary people as well as the members of the so called
"advanced civilisation" are distinguished from the activities of those who
prefer unusual media precisely because of the restrictions. But even this behavior and the
banned materials themselves are part of the cultural landscape, although they get rarely
into the focus of academic interest. Yet, the ordinary, simple everyday things of life are
a valid source of knowledge. The main questions are how these deviant products of the
media are used by which kind of consumers in their everyday lives, and why these items are
"media-worthy" for them. And, what point of view do the censors have?
My research in the field of the sociology of popular culture conducted in Germany and even
this short paper deal with this "twilight zone", a gray area where a strange
struggle occurs behind the scenes. During the preparation of this paper I interviewed some
fans of the weird, read a lot of special fanzines/books and investigated web sites
firsthand. So, I concentrated my investigation on the orientations and behavior of the
German fans of censored material rather than on the activities of the censors.
1.) The current Situation of
"Censorship happens whenever some people
succeed in imposing their political or moral values on others by suppressing words,
images, or ideas that they find offensive" (Heins, 1993, p. 3). Censorship always has
a Janus-face. It creates an odd scenario of ambiguity. On the one side, the government and
many pressure groups try to suppress unacceptable media contents within the bounds of
human rights and constitutional law regarding freedom of speech, art and press. On the
other side forbidden things become rather attractive to many fans because of the specific
thrill of the interdiction. This two-faced phenomenon of social control versus
self-determination of mature users raises the questions of how the fans on the one side
put into practice their fascination with breaking the taboo and on the other side why and
how the censors ban the items they select.
2.) The Censors and their
According to Post (Ed., 1998) censorship can be
understand as a kind of cultural regulation. As any other reasonable measure, censorship
must try to balance the claims of the common good against the claims of individual
freedom. In general, censorship as a mandatory requirement depends on the application of
contemporary community standards and conventions; in particular, it is implemented
according to the taste and character of individual readers and viewers. But even the
censors act on their own subjective taste to prevent feared anti-social attitudes, when
they assess the intention and the possible effects of their examination of cultural
objects. Even a few objectionable sequences or pages - taken out of the context - could be
sufficient to ban the whole film or book. But there are at least two sides to everything.
One person's obscenity is another person's bedtime reading. Art or morbid filth? Finally,
it's a question of aesthetics, as to whether one accepts and permits or condemns and
banishes crass descriptions of the physical side of the body. Most intrusive censorship is
supported as taking place in the interests of protecting young people. These censors are
likely convinced that they are doing a positive service for society. They must believe
that no social system - even a pluralistic democracy - can allow their members a total and
absolute freedom of informational interchange or they could not do their work.
The degree of freedom, the difficult judgment
between prohibition or permissible tolerance are permanently in flux. Even today in the
liberated time of a postmodern "anything goes", the government puts the kibosh
on the free flow of the kinds of information decision makers feel are harmful to minors or
endanger social stability. A lot of laws against literature, films and other media, which
are thought to be depraved or corrupt, are currently deemed valid. Even if there does not exist a major institution of a
pre-censorship in Germany, a lot of authorities closely scrutinize the limits of liberty.
Only the FSK ("Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle der Filmwirtschaft"), the German
Board of Film Classification (a more or less voluntary self-regulating body of the motion
picture industry), performs a pre-censorship assessment because all movies are required to
be submitted before their first showing. Upon review, the FSK confers several ratings up
to warning notices such as "Not to be sold to anyone under 18".
Above all, the courts and the so called
"Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Schriften und Medieninhalte - BPjS"
(a unique federal office of examination that identifies the kind of media material that
are likely to corrupt the young) can take action against disapproved items by putting them
on its index to prevent minors from coming into contact with contents suspected of being
harmful. Special committees with three or 12 members decide if an item is to put on the
index. At least these restrictions are in force for the more than 80 millions citizens of
Germany. Any individual can institute legal proceedings against dubious media contenst at
any youth welfare department. About 14,000 videos, books, comics, records, on-line
contents and so on are restricted by being on this index and therefore they are forbidden
to minors because of explicit obscenity, sex, drugs, violence, occultism, encouragement of
suicide, or political extremism. It is not allowed to advertise these media objects or to
send them by mail. Most of them came from foreign countries, for example Bret Easton
Ellis' "American Psycho", William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch", Dan
Kavanagh's (Julian Barnes) "Duffy", Timothy Leary's "Politics of
Additionally more than 500 books, films,
records and so on are totally banned in Germany. Every judge can make his own decision
what is to be banned nationwide for "social harmfulness" (in German:
"sozialschädlich"). The reasons for prohibition are varied, such as: Hard core
pornography (about 175 objects banned), glorification of violence (about 170 objects
banned), libel or hate speech (about 100 objects banned, especially Nazi propaganda and
the so called "Auschwitz lie"). The main ground for book banning in
Germany is Nazi propaganda, and I think this exception to the right to freedom of speech
might be reasonable: About a hundred publications and records are forbidden for xenophobic
incitement, right-wing extremism, race hatred, revanchistic theories of a Jewish
conspiracy, or because they questioned the Holocaust or German war guilt.
But even manuals for self-defense like many books from the US publishers "Paladin
Press" and "Loompanics Unlimited" were seized by Canadian and German
authorities: "Get tough! How to win in hand-to-hand fighting" (by Cpt.
Fairbairn, Paladin Press, Boulder, Colorado) and "The poisoner's handbook" (by
Maxwell Hutchkinson, Loompanics, Port Townsend, Washington 1988), although they were
"sold for informational purposes only". In the USA they were freely available
because of the First Amendment; in Germany, they are banned since 1991 because of
instructions on how to commit criminal offenses.
But it's questionable to ban virtual
reality artworks or the artificial fantasy world of the movies, literature and comics.
Concerning motion pictures, graphic violence is the main reason for prohibition: For
example the following films are proscribed in Germany: "The Evil Dead" (Sam
Raimi, USA 1980: This film is banned in Germany since 1984. The censors passed this film
only in a cut version R-rated), "Halloween Part 2" (produced by John Carpenter),
"Phantasm" (Don Coscarelli) and "Braindead" (Peter Jackson). Some
confiscated records are: "Butchered at Birth" (Cannibal Corpse) because of
violence, and "Eating Lamb" (by the US-Punk-Band NOFX, 1996) because of the
shown sexual intercourse with an animal. The band issued two different versions of cover
art. The LP version "Eating Lamb" was banned in Germany in 1996 because of
"bestiality" ("sodomistic porn"), the similary illustrated CD
"Heavy Petting Zoo" not. Another example for different cover version is
"Bloodthirst" by "Cannibal Corpse" (Metal Blade Records, Germany
1999). To prevent further bans the label created two issues - one original artwork and one
softened for the German market to appease the morality guardians and, respectively, the
3.) The Fans:
The "aficionado's" right to get what they
want is wider than the maker's right to spread his ideas, because the laws (and the risks)
have always been aimed primarily at directors, authors, publishers or editors. In other
words - the law does not forbid consumers in the most cases to read banned books or to
watch banned films if you own one, but every sale and trade is prohibited so these items
could be confiscated and the producers or distributors punished. Violent media contents
and a latent sexualization seem to become quite normal. People are exposed to a casual
constant stream of more or less questionable items. Cable networks, videotapes, computer
games, and the Internet offer the possibility to gain everything you want. Anonymousity
("Pretty good Privacy") and encryption technology ("FreeNet") could
neutralize the ability to wiretap, to censor. In this confusing area an index is -
unintentional in the eyes of the government - a point of reference helping some fascinated
individuals to pick out the probably most exciting offers. Already the disreputable
circumstances and the feeling of doing something forbidden might be thrilling. The
motivation for getting banned stuff may vary, but like a "Pavlovian Reflex"
every authoritarian restriction on the publication and distribution of suspicious material
inflames the desire among the fandom to know what one shouldn't know.
The mainstream with its social control of good taste, taboos and the speech code becomes
predictable and boring to the connoisseurs of the really thrilling stuff of unfiltered
independent gore watching, so they set out on the search for the suppressed. Banned films,
books, comics, records and so on attract the buffs strongly to test the limits and to
explore the dark side. They seem to have high hopes of finding something very special.
Most of these fans may come from the middle-class, are young and male. Some statistics try
to verify that most of the fans who are fascinated by these films tend to have lower
education attainments. Serious researchers as Vogelgesang (1990, pp. 171f, 221f) does this
in his analysis of juvenile peer groups that stick together for horror film watching
sessions demonstrating nevertheless that the elaborated codes of knowledge in film
aesthetics and special effects reflect a sophisticated interchange and involved behavioral
style. He summarizes that taste and habitus are not class-specific but oriented to
specific scenes of like-minded individuals. As far as I know a study that examines the
ethnographic details of the fandom of banned media does not exist. Only a few data are
known. "Adults, particularly college educated males in their thirties or forties with
above average social-economic status, are the dominant users of sex oriented
materials" (Larsen, 1994, p. 93). Beside the superstructure of the official opinion of political correctness and
judicial bans, which mainly are approved by the "moral majority", there are a
lot of sub-cultural scenes where groups try to reverse the authorities and their blockage
strategies. It seems that successful circumvention of bans by gamesman-like ploys is
driven by a sense of a sporting challenge and produces within the fans a feeling of
gloating ("Schadenfreude"). As an "experimentum libertatis", a
standpoint opposed to omnipresent restrictive laws is frequently supported by members of
youth-cultures. Some minors, for example, ask their elder siblings or friends to get
adults-only films or other media. This subversive system of distribution, lending, copying
and swapping is delimited and works rather independently from the adult world. Only
insiders are admitted to this autonomous sub-area. Banned items become a kind of vehicle
of oppositional meaning. Especially, friends of splatter, gore and other
"violent" artworks are connected in a special kind of provocative fandom that
sustains their hobby. A lot of those consumers are used to collecting the results of their
observations and interchange new information about banning, cuts and so on in chat rooms,
fanzines, or e-mail newsletters. The Internet has especially become a particular
marketplace for strange ideas. In Germany many lovers of "deviant" profane media
are of the opinion that the State is making up their minds for them. Less the viewers of
pornography but more the "gore-hounds" are fond of interchanging the results of
According to Cynthia M. King the gore watchers
are attracted to graphic horror with blood, death, and physical torture. They think these
scenes with the "really ill shit", that the film classification board usually
deletes to grant an "imprimatur", are cool. To avoid this heteronomous lack of
information, for instance those sequences the censor cuts off, several US fan publications
(so called "fanzines") like "Fangoria", "Filmthreat" or
"Gorezone" and German zines like "Splatting Image", "Doom"
or "Gory News" and Websites like "www.schnittberichte.de" or
"www.indizierte-filme.de" satisfy one's curiosity by telling about the results
of video bashing and the current intrusions of censorship in motion pictures and TV. The
publishers obviously have a need to express their degree of freedom. They compare for
instance the unabridged original versions with the cut versions for the local market and
show some restricted stills. For similar reasons, other insider fan groups enjoy cracking
the check codings of toned down computergames to resurrect the original version.
Barred objects become rather fascinating to
many collectors of the weird, who want to know what the State suppresses. For those
inquisitive persons every ban is a cue (signal) and every index has bold as brass the
function of an interesting shopping list with the special thrill of the taboo to taste the
forbidden fruit. This different kind of adventure/sensation seeking of the fandom has its
own conventions with a certain magic of exceptionality. It's astonishing that - except for
some right-wing scenes of skinhead music - almost the only horror films that produced a
vibrant fandom in which the members interchange their experiences are those with
obliterated scenes, different versions and bans. As far I consider, you can't find similar
interactions in other "forbidden zones" like pornography, perhaps because those
films do not attach importance to originality. In comparison with observing horror films
as a test of courage or as an initiation rite, porn watching might be more of a lonesome
event that probably needs no embarrassing informational interchange on different versions
or so. It may increase one's own experience and the group status to find a special
prohibited and therefore hard to get rarity with a high "market value". The
manner of obtaining such material is "style forming". In negating the act of
banning, alternative ways of procuring materials along with several strategies of
circumventing the bans have emerged: for example, re-issues of seized media under false
names, pirated edition and bootlegging on the black market, mail-order lists with cover
named films, import of foreign versions, or publication of documentaries and fanzines with
suppressed details. More open minded and liberal countries like the Netherlands, where
nearly no media censorship exist, became very interesting for the fans. Shops like
"Cult Video" (Amsterdam) sell most of the banned tapes in the original
unabridged version. German shops such as "Videodrom" or "Incredibly Strange
Video" (both in Berlin) import foreign versions with harmless titles. While
bootlegging is illegal and benefits only the profit of the traders in these bad copies,
the re-issue of forbidden films under false fantasy names can work for some time. The
"Astro" label obtained the copyright for several "cult classics"
because in Germany banned films such as "Maniac" or "Mother's Day"
were re-issued in digitally remastered and completely uncut versions. This confused the
government for a while and ruined the prices for the original cassettes, but brought the
suppressed and formally out of print material back to availability, until the police in a
concerted swoop in many shops seized and charged many titles with being illegal. In March
2000 a judge in Berlin blacklisted these "new" editions because they have the
same condemned contents. But I would guess that its impossible to eradicate a film
if some copies survive.
Prohibition demands obedience, not
understanding. Censorship demonstrates the power of the rulers, and in the outlook of the
fans deprives them of their free own will which has resulted in resistance.
"Every taboo deals with an awakening to the
dilemma of curiosity about something both attractive and dangerous", Roger Shattuck
wrote in his book "Forbidden Knowledge" (1996, p. 30). Similarly, the everyday
struggle of censors and fans is intriguing but little is known regarding this phenomenon.
We have found a complex situation among certain interest groups that some people may
identify as an aberration from the normal use of the media, although the provocative topic
of "eros and thanatos" is as old as culture itself. Some independent filmmakers
try to create a special symbolic code by using exaggerated graphic violence to describe
the horror in everyday situations where the extreme becomes quite normal. Disturbing
nihilistic films like "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (John McNaughton),
"Nekromantik" (Jörg Buttgereit) or "Combat Shock" (Buddy Giovinazzo)
show the ambivalent mundanity of ordinary madness and abnormity in a depressing way.
B-pictures can be made cheaply with no-name stars as long as they can keep an audience's
attention (Balun, 1989, p. 173) especially by exploiting taboos. Censors won't tolerate that. Media rating or
banning of the so-called "video nasties" or "mindraping" comics are
mundane for the involved censors. The main part of society is unaware that these media
even exist. It's no big business to cut or prohibit those special interest and
"no-budget" films, books and so on, if the majority agrees or do not care about
them - in their opinion - disgusting sleazy items. The examiners of the diverse
governmental offices feel that they are just doing their well-paid jobs in the name of
public mental hygiene. They often demonstrate a lack of a sense of humor regarding matters
of taste, decency and hallowed icons. Most censors do not recognize that their work
depends on the variable phenomenon of "Zeitgeist", the shifting of boundaries,
and the changing of values. On the other side are the inquisitive fans who feel compelled
to avoid the restrictions. In their opinion censorship is an obsolete and undemocratic
instrument of control. But censorship creates as well sub-cultural fandoms of people who
try to negate the amazing strange fact that even adults were not allowed to get many
X-certificated films, books and records, at least not uncut.
Of course, some regulating curbs are
necessary, especially on media contents that might be "clear and present"
dangerous. The right of free expression, however, can clash with human dignity. But these
fans do not touch the borderline that threatens the freedom and well-being of others. They
create their very own hobby and just claim tolerance. And for the most part they are only
looking for X-rated artworks and do not commit crimes by copying the slashers. Even
repulsive splatter or explicit porn movies can be interpreted as patterned evasions. And
by the way - none of the "normal" viewers is forced to watch them.
I think, to enlarge the media
competence/literacy and the power of discernment of both the fans and the censors, an
emancipatory practice might be a better way to master the problems posed by deviant,
disturbing or dangerous contents. "The threat of censorship is real. Laws can also be
counterproductive. For some, they may only serve as labels to heighten curiosity"
(Larsen, 1994, p. 95). If bans were removed, novelty would wear off, and satiation would
sets in for the most part. But this would destroy the mentioned fandom of the bizarre.
References (you may find a huge list of relevant books in the bibliography
of my thesis):
- Balun, Chas. (Ed.): The Deep Red
Horror Handbook, Fantaco Enterprises, Inc., New York 1989.
- Dubin, Steven C.: Arresting
Images - Impolitic art and uncivil actions, Routledge, London and New York 1994.
- Heins, Marjorie: Sex, Sin, and
Blasphemy. A Guide to America's Censorship Wars, The New Press, New York 1993.
- Larsen, Otto N.: Voicing Social
Concern: The Mass Media - Violence - Pornography - Censorship - Organization - Social
Science - The Ultramultiversity, University Press of America, Lanham 1994.
- Post, Robert C. (Ed.): Censorship
and Silencing. Practices of Cultural Regulation, The Getty Research Institute for the
History of Art and the Humanities, Los Angeles 1998.
- Robertson QC, Geoffrey: Freedom,
the Individual and the Law, Penguin Books, London 1993, 7th Edition.
- Seim, Roland: Zwischen
Medienfreiheit und Zensureingriffen. Eine medien- und rechtssoziologische Untersuchung
zensorischer Eingriffe in bundesdeutsche Populärkultur, Diss. phil. (thesis), Univ. of
Münster, Telos Verlag, Münster/Germany 1997.
- Shattuck, Roger: Forbidden
Knowledge. From Prometheus to Pornography, St. Martin's Press, New York 1996.
- Vogelgesang, Waldemar:
Jugendliche Video-Cliquen. Action- und Horrorvideos als Kristallisationspunkte einer neuen
Fankultur, Diss. phil. (thesis), Univ. of Trier, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen/Germany
About the author:
Roland Seim, * in 1965, received his M.A. degree in art
history, and his Ph.D. in sociology with a thesis on censorship in German popular culture
at the University of Münster/Germany. There he is a lecturer in sociology and a publisher
Further readings - some of the author's books (in German language with a
lot of international examples and huge bibliographies):
Roland Seim, Josef
Spiegel (Ed.): "Ab 18" - zensiert, diskutiert, unterschlagen. Beispiele
aus der Kulturgeschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland' (Vol. 1), Münster 1995 (third
edition), 321 pp., more than 150 illustrations and facsimiles, ISBN 3-933060-01-X, DM
29,80 (= $ 16.00 incl. postage)
Roland Seim, Josef Spiegel
(Ed.): 'Der kommentierte Bildband zu "Ab 18" - zensiert, diskutiert,
unterschlagen - Zensur in der deutschen Kulturgeschichte' ["Ab 18" -Vol. 2], 301
pp., more than 400 ill. and facsimiles, ISBN 3-933060-02-8, DM 49,80 (= $ 26.00 incl. postage).
'The annotated coffee-table
book for "from 18 years up" - censored, discussed, suppressed -
Censorship in German cultural history' ["Ab 18" - Band 2]
This illustrated documentaries examines
the reasons for censorship and the structure that such intrusions on the free speech can
take. The annotated books show mainly examples from the media which are forbidden in the
Federal Republic of Germany. Edited by
the art-historian (M.A.) and sociologist (Ph.D.) Roland Seim and the sociologist (Ph.D.)
Josef Spiegel the books present each about 400 pictures and facsimiles of doubtful,
discussed or banned products of the media in Germany. The reason for prohibition are
varied: Pornography, harmfulness to minors, glorification of violence, offence under the
Official Secrets Act and illegal political opinions are some of the main reasons to ban
media in Germany.
These documentaries point out a lot of
significant examples from diverse genres as literature, film, music, art, comic, satire
and new media. The aim to restrict the publication and distribution of material on the
internet especially demonstrates the desire of government to control its contends. The
state tries to gain influence against unwanted expressions. A lot of different forms of
censorship (mainly in Germany) will be explored. These works contain additional
disgressions into matters of political censorship and the fascination of banned material.
Questions of how to undermine such interest into prohibited areas are raised and the
author establishes the immense difficulties of governing bodies in judging between what
can be tolerated and what is to be banned. He also demonstrates how the boundaries of the
permissible are in a constant state of change and aims to demonstrate the different (and
often subtle) forms of govern-mental, religious and social censorship. The right of free
expression, however, can clash with human dignity. The examples of (child) pornography and
fascistic propaganda should indicate the problematic demand for the total abolition of
The book contains an annotated bibliography and a list
of important internet addresses for further research. The comparison demonstrates, that
the loss of a sense of humour on matters of taste, decency and hallowed icons is a
variable phenomenon of "Zeitgeist" and the changing of values.
"Between Freedom of the Media and
Intrusions of Censorship". An examination of media and law sociological research on the
influence of censorship on the popular culture of the Federal Republic of Germany.
This study, which focuses mainly on examples from
the media in the Federal Republic of Germany, examines the reasons for censorship and the
structure that such intrusions on the free speech can take. The thesis of the art-historian (M.A.) and
sociologist (Ph.D.) Roland Seim consists of two main parts: The first lays down the
historical-theoretical framework and examines the conditions of censorship on the basis of
their legal foundations. This preoccupation of his research includes a summary of the
history of censorship which will lead up to the position of post-war West Germany and a
description of the role and function of the main institutions which executes censorship.
The second part consists of a descriptive-empirical analysis and highlights such
intrusions into free speech by pointing to significant examples from diverse genres as
literature, film, music, art, comic, satire and new media. The aim to restrict the
publication and distribution of material on the internet especially demonstrates the
desire of government to control its contends. The state tries to gain influence against
unwanted expressions. A lot of different forms of censorship (mainly in Germany) will be
This work contains additional disgressions
into matters of political censorship and the fascination of banned material. Questions of
how to undermine such interest into prohibited areas are raised and the author establishes
the immense difficulties of governing bodies in judging between what can be tolerated and
what is to be banned. He also demonstrates how the boundaries of the permissible are in a
constant state of change and aims to demonstrate the different (and often subtle) forms of
govern-mental, religious and social censorship. The right of free expression, however, can
clash with human dignity. The examples of child pornography and fascistic propaganda
should indicate the problematic demand for the total abolition of censorship.
The thesis concludes with a comparative
examination of some censorship laws in various European Countries and the United States.
This international comparison demonstrates, that the loss of a sense of humour on matters
of taste, decency and hallowed icons is not only a German phenomenon.
Zwischen Medienfreiheit und Zensureingriffen
(= Between Freedom of the Media and Censorship [...]), Münster/Germany 1998: Telos
Verlag, PhD thesis ("magna cum laude") at the University of Münster 1997, germ.
lang., 557 pp., english dissertation abstract, 70 ill., ISBN 3-933060-00-1, DM 59,80 (=
$ 35.00 incl. postage).
All these books are available at:
Telos Verlag Dr. Roland Seim M.A.
- Verlag für Kulturwissenschaft -
Im Sundern 7-9, D-48157
Tel./Fax (+49)-251-326160 E-Mail: