Reticent No Longer

Published January 1, 1998

Books & Culture

How did we get here? That is the subject of Rochelle Gurstein’s important book, The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill & Wang), which traces the triumph of the “party of exposure” from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. For anyone who wants to understand the peculiar logic of our culture, and especially for those who share the conviction that the assault on privacy has had a disastrous impact on the public sphere, Gurstein’s meticulously documented study is essential reading. Michael Cromartie interviewed Gurstein in October 1997 in New York, where she teaches at Bard College’s Graduate Center.

In the crowded rack at the local superstore, not far from the cover of a men’s magazine showing an extraordinarily beautiful young woman with fetchingly unzipped jeans, and about three feet north of a colorful array of gay magazines, the headline for the cover story from the Nation (Nov. 24, 1997) caught the browser’s eye: “THE NEW PURITANISM.” (The story, by John Leonard, took off from the failure of the new movie version of Lolita to find an American distributor.) Yeah, those New Puritans are really on the warpath. Who knows where the iron hand of repression will strike next?

It is not news that we live in a show-all, tell-all culture, where one of the year’s most talked-about books-an instant best-seller-is a woman’s memoir of incest with her father, carried on into her adulthood and recounted in lascivious detail, and where jaded 14-year-olds with a library of videos and cds have already seen and heard everything. Yet even among those of us who are repelled and disheartened by such excesses, there are many who would be loath to return to the conventions of a century ago, if such a return were possible.

How did we get here? That is the subject of Rochelle Gurstein’s important book, The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill & Wang), which traces the triumph of the “party of exposure” from the late nineteenth century to the 1960s. For anyone who wants to understand the peculiar logic of our culture, and especially for those who share the conviction that the assault on privacy has had a disastrous impact on the public sphere, Gurstein’s meticulously documented study is essential reading.

In your book you quote Hannah Arendt: “[T]he activity of taste decides how this world is to look and sound, what men will see and what they will hear in it.” And then you conclude that “the public sphere has degenerated into a stage for sensational displays of matters people formerly would have considered unfit for public appearance.” I liked the two phrases you use to explain how this loss of taste and judgment has occurred: the “party of reticence” and the “party of exposure.” Can you define them for us?

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, new agencies of exposure suddenly appeared: invasive journalism, a new kind of fiction that prided itself on its unflinching realism, and a new kind of discussion about intimacy and sex through sex education. I call the people who championed the attitudes underlying these changes-and those who continue to champion such causes today-“the party of exposure.” Their opponents are “the party of reticence.” Today the latter are likely to be dismissed as “Victorians,” the epitome of all that is prudish and backward-looking. What I found instead was that there was a whole rich language that they had developed over many years, and that these new threats to privacy sharpened their self-awareness of beliefs that they had simply taken for granted.

Did these three engines of exposure-invasive mass journalism, the realist novel, and social reformers who promoted sex education-appear at the same time, more or less independently of one another?

Invasive journalism had predecessors before the Civil War, but it took a new kind of journalism-mass-circulation journalism-to develop the institutionalized prying into the lives of the rich and famous that began to flourish in the latter part of the nineteenth century. So, yes, these developments occurred simultaneously, and, yes, they were largely independent of one another. When I was doing my research for this book, I came across them in separate contexts. For the most part, these were three distinct discourses. What was striking to me is that most of the participants in these debates didn’t see the connections. And yet all three discourses centered on the question of what sort of things should appear in public.

So your book is really about what should be allowed in public and what should be kept private, and the tragic consequences of failing to keep these distinctions clear. And these distinctions started to break down when the party of exposure began to shine a light in all the dark places.

Yes, in the name of freedom. In their view, what was private was hidden-something was being covered up. They saw themselves as liberators.

Did the party of exposure have an idealistic view of human nature?

Yes, certainly the first generation did. They lacked a real sense of evil in the world. And this is why, for example, Agnes Repplier, who wrote the essay “The Repeal of Reticence” in 1913 from which I take the title of my book, was so appalled by the party of exposure. She was particularly scathing about the incorrigible naivete of the sex reformers. Even H. L. Mencken, whom I put on the side of the party of exposure, had only contempt for the sex reformers. He has that wonderful line about “making the unknown not worth knowing.”

The view of human nature held by the party of reticence was quite different.

Yes. In part, that was based on a religious foundation, as we can clearly see in the late twentieth-century heirs of the party of reticence. But I think there is also a secular version of it, which simply insists that there are aspects of bodily experience that need the protection of privacy and that, if exposed, dehumanize people and degrade them. The party of reticence was also strongly influenced by the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, with its notion that the home is sacred. The outcry against the early practitioners of invasive journalism was that they were violating the sacred precincts of domesticity. Now, there was a purely conventional aspect to this reaction, but I think there was also a genuine recognition that something very important and very fragile and mysterious takes place “at home,” and that you can’t violate that sphere of privacy with impunity.

You say in your book that there is a deep structure in our consciousness of the shameful and the sacred.

This has to do with exposure and concealment. There are deep human instincts for modesty and privacy, which transcend cultural and historical differences. So, for example, among people whose conventions of dress are much different from our own, those instincts are still operative. It’s no accident that when people want to humiliate other human beings whom they have in their power, to destroy their self-respect and their resistance, they often strip them naked. In our society, the party of exposure continues to insist that this taboo or that taboo is merely a vestige of repression or intolerance or superstition. But the threshold has to keep being raised. The taboos that the late nineteeth-century reformers overthrew seem really quaint today. So whether you look at the art world, or pornography, or the news, you see in our society an escalation of the assault on reticence. One of the things that people used to say in the nineteenth century, which I think is true, is that the more you are exposed to unseemly matter, the more easily you get used to it, so that you don’t even notice it. One of the defining qualities of sophisticated modern people is that nothing shocks them, as opposed to the party of reticence, where showing shock or blushing was a sign of refinement.

You suggest that the party of exposure didn’t realize how fragile our private and intimate lives are. What do you mean by the “fragility of intimacy”?

Again, it is this question of scale, which comes from the classical notion of genres. Private life, both love and also the activities of the body, are things that are slight in scale but important in their proper sphere. To speak about them either in a reductive scientific fashion or in a too casual manner deprives them of their importance. One of the criticisms of the sex reformers is the scientific quality of their language and the flattening that goes with that.

Before the turn of the century, people could only speak about sexual intimacy as either lust or love-it had a moral component built into it. What the sex reformers tried to do in the name of freeing people from Freudian neuroses was to split off sex from the valuation of shame or lust or love. This didn’t make sense to the party of reticence. They rejected the notion that we start with a fact of biology and then clothe it with some kind of value. Rather, the value and the fact are one.

You suggest that the struggle between exposure and reticence was essentially decided by the 1930s. Now this will probably surprise most readers, who would tend to assume that the party of reticence didn’t lose the battle until the 1960s.

One piece of evidence I put forward is a quotation from a man who had become the president of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. He suggested that obscenity and vulgarity can be split apart, that obscenity belongs to morality and vulgarity to taste. So he said, in 1935 after the Ulysses decision:

Tastes necessarily differ, and with books that simply offend good taste and are hopelessly vulgar (and not flagrantly pornographic, obscene, or immoral), we cannot in this age, when former notions of propriety and decency have so radically changed, attempt to take restraining steps which might not meet with broader views now taken by our courts. . . . Times have changed and we must change with them.

In practice, this distinction between obscenity and vulgarity was fatal to the party of reticence. What happened was that all sorts of things that would have been frankly labeled as immoral by social consensus were suddenly redefined as mere matters of taste. If the party of reticence had still had some life in it, it would have contested this distinction much more vigorously. But it didn’t, and so the battle was essentially lost.

Did the triumph of the party of exposure result in a culture that its founders had no intention of creating?

It’s hard to imagine that when they were thinking about free speech and the First Amendment they had in mind violent rap groups like 2 Live Crew. I think if many of the reformers from the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century could see the videos that many kids watch today, they would be horrified.

You cite an interesting reaction at the end of the 1960s by the lawyer Morris L. Ernst. What were his second thoughts?

Ernst was a prominent free-speech advocate who was the lawyer in the Ulysses trial in 1933-34 as well as many other famous cases. He was quoted in the New York Times in January 1970, saying that when he defended Ulysses and the right to use four-letter words, he did not have live sex onstage in mind. He was appalled by what he saw in American culture in the 1960s. This was a man who had written many books as an uncompromising libertarian, and who had always sought to portray himself as a free thinker and free liver. So for him to say toward the end of his life that he had second thoughts-that this is not what he had in mind-was really astounding.

Am I right in saying this problem of exposure is going to be hard to deal with through the law because the law lacks a vocabulary to analyze the more amorphous subject of our common life together?

Yes, I believe that very strongly. The law has failed to control obscenity. In writing my book and thinking about these questions, I have come to the conclusion that the language of rights and interests, harms and victims, is always looking for a specific person who has been hurt. So it is very difficult then to say, What’s the public dimension? We have become captive to this new way of thinking-that you need to produce an actual person who has been harmed, a “real victim.” The same sort of argument is used with regard to environmental pollution. It’s clear to me that we are all suffering as a consequence of the triumph of the party of exposure, but unless you can say, Here’s someone who has cancer because of this thing, it’s hard to get any control on the polluters.

You talk about the “pollution of public space.” Explain what that means.

That came from reading nineteenth-century debates about obscenity. Pollution and contamination were words that they used to describe the consequences of obscenity. Often they were speaking of invasive journalism in this context, but I was very interested to find that in early obscenity trials of the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, the courts would refuse to put the actual obscene passages into their records. The defendants would then make the case that the charges against them were not clearly specified. But the courts time after time would respond that they could not permit the actual obscene words to be introduced into the public record because to do so would be to pollute it. This idea of pollution or contamination of public space is something we need to revive.

There is a movement among some conservative religious communities to employ economic boycotts in an effort to restrain the party of exposure. What kind of difference do you think boycotts might make to cause Hollywood, for example, to be a little more reticent?

The standard response of filmmakers and music producers and other purveyors of culture today is that they are simply giving people what they want. A really effective boycott will show them that they have misjudged the market, and they will be forced to adjust, not out of moral conviction but out of self-interest. I think that those kinds of local responses are very good.

Local more than national?

Well, national would be good, too. But I think that local is better in the sense that people are more involved. There are problems with a national boycott of Disney or Hollywood or Madison Avenue-it’s hard to boycott entities that operate on such a vast scale. And I think the people who decide to protest in this way need to make it clear on what grounds they are boycotting.

You speak of the need for the recovery of taste and judgment. What are your thoughts on censorship?

As I’ve said, our legal language as it now exists lacks the resources to talk about the real harm to the public sphere. The courts as they are currently thinking of this question can’t address what’s important. It’s very hard for me to imagine that censorship would help. Censorship frames the loss of reticence as a First Amendment question, and I would want to get away from that. There have been recent attempts by Catherine MacKinnon and other radical feminists who want to shift the emphasis away from the First Amendment and say that it’s a question of the Fourteenth Amendment-that obscenity and pornography reinforce a system of inequality at large against women. I prefer that approach to the First Amendment argument, but I still don’t think it’s the right move. I think in the end it ends up trivializing what the Fourteenth Amendment is.

Some people argue that obscene materials are really not a matter of protected speech. But that argument is not being won today, is it?

Well, I’m heartened by the connections that are being made between hate speech and pornography. There is some good work being done where, in the face of the cult of free speech, people are making the point that there is a lot of speech that’s already prohibited: seditious speech, libel, and treason, for example. And if these forms of speech are already prohibited, you cannot defend pornography on the basis of an absolute freedom of speech. Why then should pornography be permitted? Why should hate speech be permitted when there are already existing restraints on speech? You’re right, these arguments are not carrying the day, but I am happy to see that there is already a group of people who aren’t accepting libertarian thought without questioning it.

What are your thoughts about the so-called Yale Five, the Orthodox Jewish students at Yale who are demanding that they not be required to live in coed dorms because the environment-with bags of condoms hanging from the doors, and so on-is clearly at odds with their religious beliefs? Is that an example of the battle between the party of reticence and the party of exposure?

Those students, I would imagine, knew that coed living was part of the deal of going to Yale. So one could say, when they made their choice to go to Yale, they knew what was in store for them. On the other hand, one can rightly ask, Why doesn’t Yale have noncoed dormitories? It doesn’t seem to be such an outrageous request, not only for people whose religious beliefs are being trampled upon and assaulted, but for people who may just be modest and who may not want to be seen by their own sex, let alone someone of the opposite sex. So I’m very surprised that Yale doesn’t even have that option.

How does society recover a cultural reticence?

I am not very hopeful that one can. We’ve all been polluted and alienated in some way, even people who want to be part of the reticent sensibility, and we make these distinctions self-consciously. I think it’s a world that’s lost, and that those of us who are sympathetic with it can take inspiration from it as an ideal. I must say in a confessional tone (which is inappropriate to an author on reticence), when I started writing this book I was not in the party of reticence. I was in the party, not exactly of exposure, but more comfortable with the idea of exposure.

And what happened?

In reading-this is only way I think that reticence can be reborn: in reading-I came to hold to positions that were foreign to myself.

You began to see through your research the debilitating effects of the party of exposure all around us?

I think I began with the premise that our world was ugly. And that there was something wrong. But it was a revelation to me to discover this discussion about shame and sacredness. Take the case of Mapplethorpe, for example, and the debate about him. I felt very uncomfortable finding something wrong with Mapplethorpe because of the pressure to be sophisticated and modern. But I was convinced that there had to be another way. The consequence of not having a sense of shame, and believing that nothing is sacred, is a world that looks like ours. And I find that very distressing.

Source Notes
Books & Culture, Vol 4, No. 1

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