Thursday, September 29, 2011

Please, Keep Trying to Ban Books

Then we must first of all, it seems, supervise the storytellers.  We'll select their stories whenever they are fine or beautiful and reject them when they aren't.
--Plato, The Republic, 376c

This semester, I am teaching a class on representation.  It's an amazing class to teach, because almost everything we do in our lives involves representation of some form or another, and it's exciting to watch students be able to make connections between the texts that we read and what they see in their everyday lives.

We started off the semester by reading Plato's Republic, a text that at its heart asks "what justice is and what its origins are" (358e).  Using Socrates and his teachings, Plato builds the ideal city--the republic--to see how justice can be found there.

On the surface, this doesn't seem to have much to do with representation, and it has even less to do with Banned Books Week.  But as we read more about how this republic would look, we see Socrates advocating that the leaders of this city--the guardians--receive an education that cultivate their wisdom.

And as the quote above suggests, that education is filled with censorship.

You see, Socrates tells us, it's important to know that gods and heroes are good, and so stories that portray them in a bad light should be thrown out.  He even has this (I think) hilarious line about how he'll ask Homer and all the other poets "not to be angry if we delete these passages" that don't portray the gods in an appropriate way (387b).  And as the dialogue continues, Socrates himself continues to suggest a number of other ways in which representation should be guided, limited, and even censored.

This, along with my title, probably has you wondering: what place does this article have in a week celebrating banned books? 

The answer can be found, once again, in the Republic.  Socrates moves on to talking about artists--who he calls imitators (which makes sense if you are familiar with Plato's idea of the Forms)--and how someone is only able to imitate one thing well, because he or she can only specialize in one craft.  But the Socrates says this: "It seems, then, that if a man, who through clever training can become anything and imitate anything, should arrive in our city, wanting to give a performance of his poems, we should bow down before him as someone holy, wonderful, and pleasing, but we should tell him that there is no one like him in our city and that it isn't lawful for there to be" (398).

Wait, what?  Praise him and then kick him out?

What this suggests, I think, is that Plato is keenly aware of the power of representation.  He knows it is a power to be praised, but he also knows it is a power to be feared.  An artist capable of imitating anything is worthy of honor--but he or she also has the ability to disrupt a lawful city, which is exactly what Plato is trying to avoid.

This recognition of the power of representation is why I am heartened when people keep trying to ban books.  Because while I absolutely believe, as Kat does, that banning books is unequivocally unacceptable, I also think that it is all too easy for us to forget how powerful these forms of representation are.  We are so innundated with images, with sounds, with words, that we can start to think they don't matter. 

And that, I think, is a problem as dangerous, if not more, than banning books itself.

And so that is why I want people to continue trying to ban books.  I don't want them to succeed, but I think it's vitally important for us to be reminded that words do matter, that they shape the way that we understand the world, and that they aren't something that we should just sit back and absorb.  They are something we need to engage with, inhabit, and fight for.

So, yes--please keep trying to ban books.  I will be right there, trying to keep them on the shelves.  But perhaps we can come together in the middle and raise a glass to something we both understand--the power of words.