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Interview by Michael Cromartie
The Repeal of Reticence
On 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.
Michael Cromartie interviewed Gurstein in October 1997 in New York, where she teaches at Bard College's Graduate Center.
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 ...