Speaking Volumes: The Yossarian Effect

(Published in the Business Standard, July 12, 2011)

Perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of the censor’s hard lot in life is to be found in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, where Yossarian is assigned the task of censoring letters while he’s in hospital. It is a monotonous job, and Yossarian does his best to innovate:

“To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the.”

For the hundreds of citizens employed as censors in China, the Yossarian Effect is inescapable. In 2009, a list of words and phrases banned in China was leaked, and offered a somewhat unsettling picture of what the regime considered dangerous or threatening. The banning of words like “democracy”, or phrases like “Falun Gong”, “Tiananmen Square”, “dictatorship”, “brainwashing” and “do not love the party” is to be expected. Some phrases are less explicable: “lonely young woman” is apparently as much to be abhorred as “toilet slave” and “bondage”, and I am unclear why the regime decided that its citizens should not search for either “take the kidney in vivo” or “Li Hong hemorrhoids”.

But the logic of censorship also dictates that euphemisms and veiled references must be censored, which can lead to bizarre twists. With every successive anniversary of Tiananmen, the phrase “16 years ago” or “18 years ago” would be censored. As rumours of Premier Jiang Zemin’s death circulate, the word “Jiang”, which means “river”, is censored — and so is the phrase “Jiangsu Province”. A few months earlier, fears of a growing “Jasmine Revolution” in China led to search engines censoring searches for jasmine tea, and in the offline world, the sale of jasmine flowers was briefly banned.

Getting past the censors in China has become a complex, almost pleasurable game. Many micro-bloggers and bloggers are quick to grasp the essential truth of censorship — unless you shut down all speech, reducing the Internet in China to a space where everything is blacked out except “a”, “an”, and “the”, people will find creative ways of getting around any block. “Writing on the Internet,” says a Chinese blogger who asks for anonymity, “is double-edged. You can find ways to say things that would never make it into print. But you have to be very dexterous to get past the censors online, and sometimes what we write is impenetrable to anyone outside a small circuit, because we have to use so many unusual euphemisms.”

Back in India, a more conventional publishing dilemma made me ask questions about how much the presence of ebooks and the Internet complicates censorship. The author Siddhartha Deb spent several years working on a book about contemporary India, The Beautiful and The Damned. One of the chapters in his book is about the founder of Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), Arindam Chaudhuri, and Deb took a careful but critical look at Chaudhuri’s empire.

The essay was carried in The Caravan magazine a few months ago, and last month, IIPM filed a lawsuit against Deb, The Caravan and his publishers Penguin India. They also sued Google, the search engine, on the grounds that Google had been the means of spreading Deb’s IIPM essay — an unusual, and risible, step that generated much mockery. Caravan and Deb are fighting the libel charges in court, and many legal observers feel they have a strong case.

But Deb’s book was due to be launched this summer, which presented his publishers with a problem — to hold off the release until the case is decided makes no sense. So Indian readers of The Beautiful and the Damned will, according to some reports, receive a copy of the book without the IIPM chapter —which is a key part of Deb’s observations about wealth, aspiration and the new millionaires in India. This is an awkward, but understandable, solution, though it’s unclear whether the UK copies of the book will contain the offending chapter — they should, since the lawsuit pertains only to India.

In the age of the Internet, though, it’s not that easy to censor a writer. The Caravan has pulled the article off their site, in compliance with the lawsuit filed by IIPM. But it is cached on Google, and the flurry over the suit against Deb, who is greatly respected for his two previous works of fiction (Surface, Point of Return), meant that more Indians had read the cached article. Another magazine, n+1, had withdrawn the issue containing the same article — and recently put it back in the public domain, as a way of protesting the lawsuit.

For either China or parties like IIPM, the question is whether it’s at all possible to censor the Net. The physical book is relatively easy to censor, and so perhaps is the ebook version. But Siddharth Deb’s case illustrates the power of the hivemind and of the online cache. The Web might end up creating multiple versions of the same book, from uncensored to emasculated, for different constituencies.






One response to “Speaking Volumes: The Yossarian Effect”

  1. Falstaff Avatar

    "For either China or parties like IIPM, the question is whether it’s at all possible to censor the Net"I disagree. I suspect that "parties like IIPM" are perfectly well aware that they can't censor the Net, and that they don't really need to. All they need to do is respond strongly and consistently, so that the very force of their counter-attack serves to discredit the Net in the eyes of their faithful. The outcome of a legal action doesn't matter – especially since by the time it's known the controversy will be long over – all you need is to be able to tell the sucke…errr..the people who believe in you, that you're suing for libel.

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