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The Art of Deleting: A Study of Erasure Poetry, Practices of Control, Surveillance, and Censorship

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ARTDEL (The Art of Deleting: A Study of Erasure Poetry, Practices of Control, Surveillance, and Censorship)

Reporting period: 2020-08-13 to 2021-08-12

“The Art of Deleting” (ARTDEL) investigates the topic of deletion and redaction as a poetic, aesthetic, and political act. ARTDEL analyzes works of erasure poetry as forms of resistance and activism in digital culture. ARTDEL elaborates case studies on the cultural and political contexts of production and reception of poetry in Portugal, China, and the United States. The project is a comparative study of the legal and political processes applied by the state apparatus in the control and regulation of the literary field. Due to the scientific, socio-political, and critical perspectives concerning power and technology, ARTDEL is a timely project that significantly contributes to new knowledge on cultural production in the digital age, but also how different ideological regimes conditioned and continue to condition literary production and intelectual life.
The incredible rise of erasure techniques and works in the 2000s and 2010s, in relation to the 1980s or 1990s, can be explained by different facts. This erasing impulse stems from the growing and then widespread access to the Internet in the rich and industrialized countries, how easily data can be reproduced and modified in digital media, the rapid and ubiquitous spread of images in social network sites, the proliferation of databases and the concentration of social networks, the popularization of the form via a number of influential authors, publications, and events, and the netizen’s overwhelming feeling that there is too much information. Too much information, too many documents, too many literary, visual, and sound works documented and available in archives.

Another interesting aspect is the return of documentary art and literature, which is in tune with what has been happening with documentary theatre, for example. When comparing the output of works that use erasure, the two more active moments are the decades of 1960-70s and the 2000-2010s. These two big waves in erasure suggest a reemergence of experimental practices and documentary sources tied to global political turning points—the May 68, the Vietnam War; or the 9/11, the Iraq Invasion, the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, etc.—for which authors use erasure to denounce, resist, and affirm progressive change, while taking advantage of media documents and archival material. We can observe how the documentary form has had a comeback, in that the use of legal and political documents seems to gain a new impetus, in connection with politically engaged creative works. It has become a site of exposure of covert state action and persecution, as well as gender, class and racial inequality, but also of reinvention of what political art, literature, and poetry can be.

Erasure is tied to the way in which the state apparatus has controlled and surveilled writers, as well as the modes of production, circulation, and reception of literary and artistic works. In authoritarian regimes, the implementation of these methods is often associated with the scale and the degree of visibility of journalistic, citizen-generated content, as well as intellectual, artistic, or political activity. The autocrat seeks to maintain power and the status quo by fighting against pluralism and dissident voices. This context was clearcut in those authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century that implemented prescriptive or repressive censorship that included book and artwork burning, censoring or prohibition of mass media and books, direct and indirect control of cultural activity, repression and fear as a catalyst for self-censorship, operational interventions, search warrants, financial selection or restriction, imprisonment, and torture.

Despite the proclaimed ideological differences between the United States and Portugal during the Cold War, archival documents reveal the identification of common threats to the state apparatus and national security, especially under McCarthyism and Salazar’s New State. Surveillance and censorship were exercised on the grounds of nationalism and patriotism (“not patriot enough”), political subversion and communism, moral conduct, and pornography. Along with the surveillance and repression of oppositional voices, the contempt for sexual diversity, or the negation of class, gender, and race equality is atrocious. In China, during, and after the post-Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, we find similarly repressive measures on the grounds of class struggle and the fight against Western capitalism and imperialism.

ARTDEL created a community on the Zenodo OpenAIRE repository to aggregate all the outputs of the project: https://zenodo.org/communities/artdel
At the R&D level, besides publications and lectures, the ARTDEL created several datasets, typology files, and visualizations that are the first of their kind. The most important are the dataset documenting more than 400 creative works that employ erasure, and the dataset compiling the first full inventory of censored books via the transcription of the card index of the Estado Novo Censorship Commission. This is a resource that a lot of researchers, as well as the public, have been waiting for, but that no one had taken the Herculean task of doing it. Even though transcription is still in progress, 15% of the hard work is already done. This output will be a reference and it help in correcting the erroneous lists of books published in different occasions, which are still today used not only by historians and researchers, but also by news agencies, booksellers, antiquarians, libraries, etc.

ARTDEL's fieldwork in different archives and libraries has created an awareness among professional archivists and librarians that the censored books need to be treated as unique cultural artefacts that have traces of reading patterns and censoring decisions, because they have specific labels with data on the spine, stamps and marks, which need to be identified, inventoried, preserved and studied. Departing from the groundbreaking work with the discovery of the lost library of the Censorship Commission at BNP, there are societal implications in terms of collection, document and memory preservation, storage, and history recollection, but also in terms of restoring editions. Future work can now be done by a variety of specialists in the humanities and social sciences, including literary studies, Portuguese studies, translation studies, contemporary history, book history, political science, and sociology, but also history of design, graphic design, or economics. The impact of this discovery is so huge that it might transform nearly fifty years of Portuguese book and intellectual history. The future study and restoration of editions may also supply the publishing industry with material, including critical editions and corrected versions.

Another strand connected to the impact of the MSCA outreach program was the “Erase!” conference and festival. The series had an incredible turn over in terms of diversity, geography, and viewings, both online and onsite in public institutions and libraries. All the videos of the event were archived on Vimeo and made available in open access at https://erase.artdel.net
ARTDEL website preview