The Reinvention of Obscenity  

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"Malesherbes’s usage of the term “obscenity” attests to the currency the concept had gained in France by the mid eighteenth century. As Joan DeJean has demonstrated [in The Reinvention of Obscenity], obscenity emerged as a category during the second half of the seventeenth century, following the 1655 publication of L’École des filles, ou la philosophie des dames, the first obscene prose work to appear in French and the inaugural text of the new genre of erotic “philosophy.” The sexually explicit work was deemed unacceptable." --A Monster for Our Times: Reading Sade across the Centuries[1] (2011) is a tex by Matthew Bridge.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002) is a book on obscenity in Early Modern Europe by American scholar Joan DeJean.



How and when did obscene words come to be considered obscene? How did the modern definition of "four-letter" words become accepted? These are some of the questions explored in The Reinvention of Obscenity. Joan DeJean shows how radically the modern conception of obscenity differs from that operative in antiquity, when obscene literature was produced exclusively for an elite male audience. Obscenity, DeJean argues, was reinvented when writers began to focus on two subjects previously unimagined: female genitalia and compulsory heterosexuality. The story of obscenity's reinvention is also that of the birth of modern censorship, mass-market print culture, and even tabloid journalism. DeJean's principal example is the career of the first truly modern writer, Molière, who cannily exploited the obscene to revolutionize the conditions of authorship.


"The trial of the poet Theophile de Viau in 1623 is a milestone both in the reinvention of obscenity and in the history of censorship..."


transgressive literature, modern obscenity, modern obscene, secular censorship, primary obscenities (more)

Book Description

The concept of obscenity is an ancient one. But as Joan DeJean suggests, its modern form, the same version that today's politicians decry and savvy artists exploit, was invented in seventeenth-century France.

Blurb 2

The Reinvention of Obscenity casts a fresh light on the mythical link between sexual impropriety and things French. Exploring the complicity between censorship, print culture, and obscenity, DeJean argues that mass market printing and the first modern censorial machinery came into being at the very moment that obscenity was being reinvented--that is, transformed from a minor literary phenomenon into a threat to society. DeJean's principal case in this study is the career of Moliére, who cannily exploited the new link between indecency and female genitalia to found his career as a print author; the enormous scandal which followed his play L'école des femmes made him the first modern writer to have his sex life dissected in the press.
Keenly alert to parallels with the currency of obscenity in contemporary America, The Reinvention of Obscenity will concern not only scholars of French history, but anyone interested in the intertwined histories of sex, publishing, and censorship. --via

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