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IV. Cultural Domination and Censorship

Until the age of mass electronic communications, most cultural forms were local or national. Cultural indoctrination was carried out mainly through educational institutions. Today a soap opera produced in New York can be seen within weeks in an Indian or Latin American village. The media have made possible a new form of cultural domination, the global monoculture, which has become a threat to cultural diversity and specificity the world over. Its products are pitched to the broadest level of taste, emphasizing sex and violence in order to reach as wide a market as possible with commercials for cigarettes, soft drinks, or beer. Throughout the world, the mass media are increasingly dominated by commercial cultural products from the North, especially the United States.

A parallel development has taken place in the publishing industries of Europe and North America, where production is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few transnational conglomerates. Ten years ago, the U.S. publishing industry, for instance, included many medium and small sized companies expressing the individual tastes of their editors. While the reading audience was somewhat smaller and "best-sellers" sold fewer copies than they do now, there was room for considerable diversity of taste, interest and audience. Now the field has been leveled; small and medium sized companies have been driven out of business or gobbled up by conglomerates, so that the major U.S. publishers are now actually a film company, an oil company, a newspaper company, etc.

These conglomerates make few concessions to individual editorial taste; their interest is the bottom line and they see writing as just another product, like soft drinks or sneakers. "Big" authors are brand names; the publishers' goal is to have writers who are different enough from each other to create a brand preference, but similar enough so that all can reach the broadest possible market. "Little" authors are of little interest, no matter what they say, unless they too can be commodified. Publishers may encourage such writers to direct their attention to some suitably commercial subject; in Chile, they tell writers, "Your stories are very well written and beautiful and maybe we will publish them someday but, for the moment, could you write a special story for us about this or that other subject?" 8 Similarly, Northern publishers stress the importance of turning out a book every two years, on schedule, preferably all similar in length, style, and subject matter, in order to create a predictable product line.

It will soon be possible, if it is not already, to go into the bookstores in the commercial section of any city in the world and find only the same ten international "big best-sellers", written in the North. Local literature and individual, idiosyncratic voices that emphasize language and expression will have been driven to the margins. This has already happened in the United States, as the poet Adrienne Rich describes:

"Here is a chain bookstore, stacked novels lettered in high relief luminescence, computer manuals, intimacy manuals, parenting manuals, investment-management manuals, grief-management manuals, college-entrance manuals, manuals on living with cancer, on channeling, on how to save the earth....I'm on a search for poetry in the mall. This is not sociology, but the pursuit of an intuition about mass marketing, the so-called free market, and how suppression can take many forms—from outright banning and burning of books, to questions of who owns the presses, to patterns of distribution and availability."9

The growing world domination of the North American commercial monoculture Rich describes is an extremely unhealthy development, the equivalent in culture to the hegemony of commercially bred seeds and the practice of monoculture in farming. Both drive out diversity. Both impoverish the soil they feed on. Both produce sterile seeds, without a living relationship to their environment.

Conservative politicians and religious demagogues react to the commercial monoculture by calling for censorship. Frightened by the violence and the exploitative use of sex in the media, some in the women's movement echo their cry. As writers, we know this is not the solution, for there is no government that we trust enough to give it control over our access to art and information. We know the first people any government censors are its critics, and that anti-pornography laws have in the past often been used against women who did sex education or expressed an antipatriarchal view of sexuality. With censorship, pornography merely gets driven to the back streets and becomes a profitable illegal business, while people who offer new, critical ideas or agitate for human rights are jailed, driven out of the country, or killed.

Our dislike of censorship does not, however, mean we think all forms of cultural expression are equally benign or that the free market will encourage the best to prevail. We are repelled by the cult of violence in Northern commercial culture and the way its mass media sexualize and racialize every aspect of life, down to the exploitation of racial stereotypes and eroticized images of children in advertising campaigns. But we believe this degradation should be fought by methods that strengthen the women's movement rather than the state. Such methods include satire, public protest, criticism, consumer boycotts, and the creation of independent cultural productions by writers, artists, and film-makers whose values are not shaped by the market.

Our problems lie not in creating such works but in finding ways to get them into the hands of those who need them. When we try to do so, we run into the censorship that, in one way or another, confronts all genuine social critics and that, when added to the disabilities piled on women simply because of gender, poses a considerable obstacle to the right of free expression.

8 Cristina da Fonseca, letter to author, 5/6/95.back
9 Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), pp. 30-31.back