The widespread circulation of obscene or ‘dirty’ words and images has remained an unresolved cultural and legal problem in the United States since at least the emergence of 19th century censorship laws pertaining to the regulation and surveillance of the U.S. postal system. Developments in media technologies over the 20th and 21st centuries exacerbated the problem, precipitating novel articulations of sexual, violent, and illicit content. My dissertation focuses on the ways that American media industries have been caught in the moral regulation of culture, particularly in light of a legal framework which constitutionally guarantees the right to free speech. This dissertation connects a number of historical ruptures regarding obscenity or indecency, points at which audience members, media professionals, and the state came together to determine the acceptability or legality of a cultural text. I am especially interested in the problem of propriety and contestations over what is socially permissible in public narrations of the body, identity, or the self. Questions guiding this research are: what ethical principles guide media censorship in America and how have they been formed? What are the impacts of these regulatory frameworks on cultural production and free speech?
The first chapter of the dissertation examines the social history of obscenity in America. As media forms like film and TV became increasingly ubiquitous, they also came to be seen as circulating ideas and modes of behavior that would soil and corrupt the purity of Americans (particularly women and children). While many media forms have been at the center of obscenity controversies, early film and television were seen as especially problematic for compounding troubling kinds of speech, gesture, and image. Community groups like the pan-religious Legion of Decency were outraged by performances involving blasphemy, suggestive innuendo, vice, and crime. Through protests, public condemnation, and the threat of boycotts, the Legion of Decency managed to pressure industry leaders into developing and adhering to prohibitive codes of practice. Not only was this framework critical to mass-produced culture, but it also influenced how Americans understood what was permissible in culture more generally.
After mapping the rise of this regulatory formation, I delineate the life and career of stand-up comic Lenny Bruce to demonstrate how mass media regulation also worked upon niche and live performance spaces. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, live standup comedy in coffee houses, bars, jazz clubs, and strip-clubs increasingly involved the performance of private life. Much of the content of what came to be known as “sick comedy” (figures associated with this tradition include Mort Sahl, Joan Rivers, and Richard Pryor) dealt with the individual’s experiences with taboo subjects and intimate issues. For many Americans coming out of the McCarthy era, this turn in comedy was seen as a much-needed openness in American culture. For many others, it represented moral decay in the entertainment industry. While there were no specific laws governing the legality of raunchy jokes in nightclubs, the outrage of members of the state, of audiences, and of some segments of the entertainment industry fueled a widespread campaign for the censorship of sick comedy. Lenny Bruce, arrested on four separate occasions for obscene performances, was at the center of these controversies. The state-led persecution of Bruce did not go unchallenged, however, and Bruce launched a free speech battle against his critics with the support of a prominent First Amendment lawyer named Ephraim London, along with several other cultural figures that had similarly been embroiled in their own obscenity controversies (e.g. Allen Ginsberg, Hugh Hefner, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer). Examining the unintended consequences of mass media regulation on live performance helps to illustrate the dynamics of media ecosystems and the informal ways that performances and speech are regulated.
Chapter three examines the role of the subscription TV company Home Box Office (HBO) in altering conditions of televisual production. As network television continued to be regulated by a principle of inoffensiveness, technological developments in direct satellite transmission led to new regulatory possibilities for HBO. Through the 1970s, the company differentiated its content from that of broadcast networks by presenting live events, mature themes, and edgy content. This chapter maps the way that technological developments in cable and satellite led to new ways of understanding television, which, in turn, opened up entirely new forms of content for the medium. Comparing the intimate and autobiographical narratives of performers appearing on HBO stand-up comedy specials against the comedic performances of NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson helps to illustrate the relationships between technologies (broadcasting vs. cable), economic models (network advertising vs. subscription), regulatory models, and televisual content.
The fourth and final chapter turns to the present to demonstrate the problems with the public display of private information in the age of the networked computer. At the same time that the Internet enables quick and easy cultural production, it also poses problems regarding an individual’s ability to control personal information. This chapter looks at the ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ privacy legislation in the EU, which grants individuals the right to remove legally published personal information online if that information is no longer considered relevant to the public domain. Although this right was created to serve the dignity of individuals, it also poses substantial difficulties for American companies (e.g. Google and other search engines) that have been built on the ideals of open and available information. The Right to Be Forgotten legislation has also raised concerns about the erasure of history, the ability of individuals to tamper with the public record, and dangers to free speech. This chapter, then, complicates the notion of free speech in the context of the indefinite spatial and temporal reach of the Internet, and considers the problems and promise of erasure in projects of self-determination.