ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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No Offence Taken

A complex entanglement of knowledge and prohibition characterises censorship and supposed offence-giving, as countless literary examples reveal.

The story goes that when Dr Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author and lexicographer, compiled and published his great dictionary of the English language, he received a visit from a group of respectable ladies of London who arrived at his Fleet Street lodgings and thanked the revered polymath for not including in his dictionary words which were commonly considered offensive or obscene. The venerable doctor, cordial as ever, thanked the ladies in turn for their commitment to look up those missing words in his dictionary.

Humorous as it is, the story reveals the complex entanglement of knowledge and prohibition which characterises censorship and supposed offence-giving. Generally speaking, the practice of censorship appears to appropriate an a priori order of knowledge, one which may conveniently be used to pre-empt supposedly deviant modes of expression in speech, literature and other creative forms in the public domain. It thus constitutes a set of moral and i­ntellectual principles and an overarching order authorised to pass judgments on documents of fact as well as on works of fiction.

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