By Sophie Foster
On May 13, Associate Professor of Spanish and Director of the Black Studies Program Dr. Elena Deanda published her debut book, “Ofensiva a los oídos piadosos: obscenidad y censura en la poesía española y novohispana del siglo XVIII,” or “Offensive to Pious Ears: Obscenity and Censorship in Eighteenth Century Spain and New Spain.” To celebrate the book’s release, the Rose O’Neill Literary House and World Languages and Cultures Department co-sponsored a talk in John S. Toll Science Center’s Litrenta Lecture Hall to discuss the book’s content.
The talk began with an introduction from Associate Professor of English and Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. James Allen Hall, inviting attendees to glimpse the work of Dr. Deanda and hear perspectives from the panelists, Assistant Professor of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literature Dr. Katie Charles and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies in the World Languages and Cultures Department Dr. Martín Ponti.
According to Dr. Deanda, who followed Dr. Hall to the podium after the introduction, her book began with the discovery that a folk song and dancing style she enjoyed as a child, called Chuchumbé, were deemed offensive, and that many Spanish folk songs were subject to banning in the era of Spanish colonization because of their associations with obscenity. This practice drove Dr. Deanda to question what, exactly, determined the obscene characteristic, and who the right to make that determination belonged to.
“The obscene doesn’t exist unless a person names it as such,” Dr. Deanda said.
According to Dr. Deanda, the nature of obscenity is innately paradoxical due to its interaction with censorship. The obscene, she said, does not disappear when censored; rather, it continues to move underground. Obscenity cannot exist without censorship deeming it offensive in the first place, and censorship cannot exist separately from the practice of deeming certain works as uniquely offensive.
Dr. Deanda’s book “investigates an analogous tension,” Dr. Charles said. According to Dr. Charles, Dr. Deanda “has a knack for surprising conjunctions,” such as that between sexuality and repression.
“The relationship between censorship and the obscene is dynamic and inherently under renegotiation,” Dr. Charles said, pointing to cognitive shifts as a key feature of Dr. Deanda’s areas of research and study.
Dr. Ponti agreed, putting forth the idea that Dr. Deanda’s work “helps readers make connections beyond a specific field.”
According to Dr. Ponti, the driving question is whether obscenity exists because of the content itself, or because of the people performing and sharing it, taking social factors into account.
Dr. Deanda is “building a cartography…that charts the poetics of the obscene,” Dr. Ponti said, concluding his insights with the reflection that “censorship is a paradox…in trying to make it disappear, [one] gives it…a name, title, power.”
The talk ended with a period of open question-and-answer between the audience and panelists, during which attendees drew on both personal and academic experience to ask questions regarding the material that was presented, such as the role of pornography, culture, and art itself in the mentalities individuals have toward obscenity and censorship.
“In a way, we’re all censors,” Dr. Ponti said.
“And we’re all obscene,” Dr. Deanda said in response.
According to senior Eylie Sasajima, who attended the talk, Dr. Deanda “did a great job of highlighting the complications surrounding censorship in the twenty-first century. Censorship is harmful in the case of banning books, but necessary in order to prevent the circulation of hate speech. There’s no clear cut answer as to whether censorship is ‘good’ or not, and it’s an issue that is as relevant in the modern day as it was during the [Spanish] Inquisition.”
Dr. Deanda’s book is available now in Spanish, and can be purchased on Amazon or Iberoamericana-Vervuert.