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Why it is of interest to think about boycott and censorship at the same time.
Why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, and state power at the same time.
Why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, state power, and freedom of articulation at the same time.
Why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, state power, freedom of articulation, and the public sphere at the same time.
Why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, state power, freedom of articulation, the public sphere, and politics at the same time.
Why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, state power, freedom of articulation, the public sphere, politics, and art at the same time.

The general definition of boycott is: a withdrawal from relations.

A boycott can be a punitive measure. When states boycott other states, states resort to the boycott as a specific form of punishment for purposes of politics, foreign policy, and global affairs. By means of the boycott, states interfere in the affairs of other states. In most instances, the political strategy of the boycott, which is seen as a nonviolent political instrument, has immediate and drastic consequences for the economies and resource politics of the states being boycotted and hence for the everyday realities of those states’ residents. The means of the boycott result in constraints. The effects of such interference and the resulting – often material – constraints, of the scarcity of even essential goods, constitute a form of violence that all those who live in the territory of the state being boycotted must endure and overcome. The people who feel the brunt of boycott measures in their day-to-day lives and, often, on their very bodies are the residents of states. The boycott, a measure taken by a state that represents a specific withdrawal from certain relations between states, is enacted on the backs of the population. The boycott impacts those who have no say over the boycott. The boycott knows no right to be heard.

A boycott can be a form of protest. When intellectuals, artists, or writers call for a boycott and disassociate themselves from major cultural events, refuse to participate in them, or cancel their participation, they typically do so less as a form of punishment than as a way of drawing attention to a grievance and denouncing those they hold responsible: of protest against states of affairs that shock the conscience, against intolerable violence, against the exploitation of resources. They often do this by rejecting an invitation to participate in an international festival or a major global cultural event such as a biennial. They may decline to attend as well as refuse to stage or exhibit works of art. The boycott as a form of protest is a refusal of intellectual, artistic, and cultural articulation. The boycott as a self-chosen and self-organized form of art-political protest reflects the fact that festivals and biennials are dependent on intellectual and creative labor. No works, no festival; no works, no biennial. The boycott as a form of art-political protest exacts a price. It requires the sacrifice of an opportunity to articulate ideas through staging or exhibiting works of art for the sake of an opportunity to articulate ideas on another plane: to articulate the reasons that compelled the refusal to participate and collaborate. The boycott is the refusal to stage, present, and publish intellectual and artistic work. The fruits of artistic and intellectual labor are withheld from the audience. The boycott impacts those who have no say over the boycott. The boycott knows no right to be heard.

A boycott – both the political top-down boycott, which is a punitive measure taken by a state in its relations with another state, and the art-political bottom-up boycott, which, by refusing to participate because of catastrophically violent political, economic, or human-rights situations, not only refuses to be involved in these situations but at once also points them out and generates spectacular public visibility for them – capitalizes on the global economy of attention. A boycott is effective when it is effectively communicated and widely covered by the media. A boycott makes punishment and refusal as public as possible. A boycott hinges on the mobilization of global public attention. A boycott is a form of media-effective global public relations. A boycott is eloquent. A boycott is loud.

Can a boycott constitute a form of censorship?

Censorship, generally speaking, is the prohibition, suppression, or prior restraint of the articulation of specific ideas or of specific forms of the representation of ideas. Censorship relies on the arguments of morality, politics, and, increasingly, public safety. The exercise of censorship is a form of the exercise of state power. In the contemporary world, state power is not the only power to operate with organs of censorship; so do global social media platforms such as Facebook, which employ moderators to implement their censorship regimes.

Censorship is a form of curtailment of the freedom of articulation. Censorship is the interdiction of articulation. Censorship in the name of morality censors what poses a danger to morality. Censorship in the name of state power censors what poses a danger to or criticizes state power.

Censorship censors what must not reach the eyes and ears of the public. What has been censored has disappeared. What has been censored is what must not be said, what will not have been said. What has been censored is what must not be represented, what will not have been represented. What has been censored is what is silenced, what must not be made public.

Where the boycott harnesses media-effective public articulation to communicate its punitive measures and measures of refusal, censorship prefers to stay in the background and – buttressed by legal frameworks and laws – exercise its power. Censorship is invisible. Censorship is quiet.

For a boycott not to become censorship, for calls for a boycott not to lead to censorship, zones of reflection, discussion, and debate are needed that – however paradoxical it may seem – are and remain both boycott-free and censorship-free. Only when media exist that fight for open spaces of critical, nuanced, and nuancing reflection, that do not become agents of interdiction and silencing either through boycotts or through censorship, is the public not shut out of the debate. Discussing anti-anti-Semitism, anti-racism, and anti-xenophobia together and engaging the conflicts between them is painful and difficult. That is why we must stand up for media that, instead of shutting off the debates through boycotts or standing on the refusal to engage, seek to provoke debates, to engage in them, to keep them going.

Thinking, writing, arguing, acting against the consequences of the silence that is imposed, enforced, and perpetuated by boycott and censorship, by the boycott as censorship, requires a turn toward an engagement that does not align with the individually internalized lines of conflict, of hatred, which sustain state power. Boycott and censorship are widely known, historically well-rehearsed, and calculated techniques of the exercise of violence and suppression and, as such, comply with the logics in which they originate. By contrast, finding forms of engagement that do not rely on this calculus and try to leave the logics of violence behind is a much less familiar undertaking, one for which we have no historical precedent.

In her conversation with Isabelle Graw and Dirk von Lowtzow, the feminist rabbi Delphine Horvilleur notes that “we have a duty” today “ to finally hear these voices of otherness that were muted in our society for centuries.” Censorship and boycott are ideas and techniques that are ready at hand to put measures of punishment and suppression in place. The ideas that summon us to a different way of listening, of listening much more intently, the antidotes to the contagion and proliferation of boycott and censorship, are not widely familiar. They are not well-rehearsed, nor well-prepared as techniques for relations between states and between humans. Horvilleur further argues that “we need to make sure that these voices don’t become [so] violently monolithic.” She issues this call for nuance in opposition to the “discourse of […] purity,” which we can understand as defined at its core by forms of exclusionary censorship conforming to the logic of violence. This future labor of speaking, of listening, and of being-listened-to without lapsing into a dictatorship of purity, which is a perpetuation of boycott and censorship by means of the politics of the exclusion of differences on all scales and in all organizational forms of interpersonal engagement, is the labor that lies before us. This future speaking, listening, and being-listened-to will need to be dedicated to a different ethics of responsibility. For boycott and censorship also silence responsibility: no one could take responsibility for his or her speech, his or her response, if such responsibility were always already canceled by the imposition of silence. Being-silenced, having-been-silenced, means and has meant being condemned to being incapable of taking responsibility – for one’s own voice, one’s own utterance. Learning to undertake this responsibility without perpetuating the figures of boycott, censorship, and their encoding in forms of what is diagnosed as the dictatorship of purity: that is the challenge we face. Horvilleur emphasizes this responsibility, for which there are no easy prescriptions. She asks how people can be taught that they bear responsibility for what they do and for what happens to them. She underscores that we need to find a way to strengthen the idea of responsibility. Boycott as censorship is the opposite of the idea of strengthening responsibilities. That is why it is of interest to think about boycott, censorship, and the development of the freedom to responsibly articulate ideas at the same time, and to begin daring to practice the freedom of articulation for which responsibility is undertaken and borne.

Translation: Gerrit Jackson

Dr. Elke Krasny is a professor of art and education at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. She studies feminist perspectives on care as well as questions of social and ecological justice in architecture, art, and urban design.