Edward Snowden: The Most Dangerous Censorship / Essay by Danilo Kiš




At the height of events in Poland, just when the Solidarnosc union was banned, I received a letter stamped NIE CENZUROWANO. What exactly did these words mean? They were probably meant to indicate that the country he was from was free from censorship. But it could also mean that the letters not bearing this stamp were censored, a guarantee of the selective character of this function, which apparently distrusts certain citizens while trusting others. This could of course also mean that all the letters bearing this stamp actually passed through the hand of the censor. In any case, this symbolic and ambiguous stamp gives a deep insight into the nature of censorship, which on the one hand wants to establish its legitimacy, while trying to camouflage its very existence. Because, if censorship considers itself a historical necessity and an institution intended to defend public order and the political party in power, it does not like to admit that it is there. It sees itself as a temporary evil, to be applied during a state of war. Censorship is therefore only a transitional measure which will be abolished as soon as all those who write letters, books, etc.

Such is the opening of Censorship / Self-censorship, a historical essay by Serbo-Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš, born in Subotica, on the Hungarian-Yugoslav border in 1935 and died in Paris in 1989.

Published in English in an anonymous translation in 1986, KiÅ¡’s essay on censorship is akin to a personal manifesto and draws on the work of many other mid-Cold War dissidents who sought to elucidate some structure of power in the dreaded Soviet censorship system. who prevented the publication of their books and the making of their films and television shows. The dissidents of closed or closed societies naturally come to understand the 16th century wisdom of Étienne de La Boétie: the state is an abstraction, which depends on citizens – on individuals – to carry out its will.

KiÅ¡ was intrigued by the manner of this performance. Its systematization of censorship was tripartite and hierarchical: at the top was the official apparatus – the various offices responsible for formulating and enforcing rules and policies. Below this official level was the publicly readable or popular level, the world of media such as newspapers, magazines and publishing houses, which employ editors and editors to control their pages. In KiÅ¡’s view, the very reason that editors and editors can perform censorship tasks is that they are “not just censors”, but… editors and editors. Their official titles give them cover in the accomplishment of the work that the state asks of them, which is not to shape and create writing, but to distort and destroy it. Finally, at the bottom of KiÅ¡’s hierarchy are what he calls the “last resort”: the printers, who, “as the most responsible elements of the popular classes, will simply refuse to print the offending text” .

However, the censorship apparatus does not stop there. There is also what I might call ‘first resort’, those censors who exist below everyone, and yet above everyone too: manufacturer. “That number is me – and this figure is you. He is someone who takes the burden of censorship on himself, without any official censor or censor commanding him. According to KiÅ¡, this figure threatens to become the ultimate vessel or the embodiment of the state, a person who has internalized their oppressions and works them on themselves. According to KiÅ¡, the more censorship occurs at this level – at the level of Marxist production, or at the level of your post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – the more the presence of censorship, if not the more the very existence of censorship, is hidden from the public.

Think about it: if the suppression is happening in your own home, if you are suppressing your own speech, who will know? And how can you ever call for help?


The liar paradox, attributed to Eubulides, is famous in philosophy and logic. Its classic expression is: “This sentence is a lie. How to assess the veracity of the sentence? Can it be evaluated? Any attempt in this direction leads to a paradox.

It is the same paradox that underlies all attempts to discuss censorship with censors, and especially self-censorship with self-censorship. How to start? With what? NIE CENZUROWANO: “This statement is not censored.”

Kiš, who narrowly escaped the Holocaust and whose work was ultimately suppressed in Yugoslavia, wrote passionately about this struggle:

However you look at it, censorship is the tangible manifestation of a pathological condition, the symptom of a chronic disease that develops alongside it: self-censorship. Invisible but present, far from the public eye, buried in the depths of the mind, it is much more effective than [official] censorship. If both induce (or are induced?) By the same means – threats, fear, blackmail – this second disguises badly, or in any case does not denounce, the existence of any external constraint. The fight against censorship is open and dangerous, therefore heroic, while the fight against self-censorship is anonymous, lonely and witnessless, and it makes its subject feel humiliated and ashamed to collaborate.

Self-censorship is reading your own text through the eyes of another person, a situation where you become your own judge, stricter and more suspicious than anyone else. You, the author, you know what no external censor will ever be able to discover: your most secret, most tacit thoughts, which you nevertheless feel must be obvious to others “between the lines” … Therefore, you attribute to those imaginary censors of faculties that you do not have yourself, and to the text a meaning that it does not have in reality. Because your alter ego pursues your thoughts ad absurdum, to the dizzying end where everything is subversive, where walking is dangerous and reprehensible.

“Solitary and without witnesses”, “dangerous and condemnable” – The perfect and tragic adjectives of KiÅ¡ – describe how many people feel today, when faced with the many opportunities for self-presentation of the Internet, and also the many opportunities for self-destruction. Under the ruthless eye of mass surveillance, which funnels the most hesitant strike into our permanent archives, we begin to watch ourselves.

Unlike the middle of KiÅ¡, or in contemporary North Korea, or Saudi Arabia, the coercive apparatus does not need to be the secret police knocking on the door. For fear of losing a job, losing admission to school, or losing the right to live in their country of birth, or simply from social ostracism, many of today’s best minds in the states se – saying free and democratic have stopped trying to say what they think and feel and have been silent. That, or they take the party line of whatever party they would like to be invited to – whatever party their livelihood depends on.

Such is the spillover effect of the institutional exploitation of the Internet, of corporate algorithms that thrive on controversy and division: the degradation of the soul as a source of profit – and power.

By Edward Snowden

Danilo Kiš o cenzuri


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