Agora Speaker Series: A Poison More Deadly than Arsenic: Judicial Authority and Childhood in Euro-American Obscenity Doctrine from 1708-1896

January 10, 2020 - 3:00pm to 5:00pm

For centuries, children have figured centrally in social panics and legal controversies in the United States involving obscene media content. Historians of obscenity law commonly note that fears of moral corruption and juvenile delinquency are key features of obscenity discourse even when no actual children are involved or present (Cassidy 2018; Heins 2007). While many have recognized this relationship, few have theorized the specific functions the invocation of a “child” performs in judicial writing, or questioned why children remain an enduring figure despite notable changes in law, culture, and media environments across several centuries. This project contributes to the historical study of obscenity law by attending to judicial writings on childhood and obscene media as rhetorical texts, materials that both “describe reality through language” and which reflect communicative processes by which signifiers are mobilized and gain subjective significance (Cherwitz and Hikins 1982). In this presentation, Primack focuses on a chapter of their dissertation that examines early English and American obscenity doctrine from 1708 through 1896.  In their reading of these early texts, they find that the court addressed three broad and interrelated exigencies in obscenity doctrine: the rapid development and spread of printing press technologies, a decline in religious institutions’ legal authority over obscenity, and the development of a constitutional legal system. These exigencies served as new sources for judicial anxiety, providing continual frustration for court officials by establishing conditions whereby judicial authority is never given in advance. In addressing these concerns, court officials constructed and relied on innocently figured images of children in need of protection as an ultimate justification for their authority to decide cases about obscene media. By articulating childhood innocence as under threat and in linking that threatened innocence to the security and future of the nation, court officials produced a new source of authority as the ultimate addressees in controversies involving mediated representations of sexual desire.

Location and Address

208B Cathedral of Learning (CL)

Directions and Parking Information

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