Laura Lindstedt: The writer’s freedom of expression in a world dominated by spectacle

What comes to mind from the words “writer’s freedom of expression”? Do you think of imprisoned, exiled or murdered writers, who have attempted to do their work in dictatorships? Do you recall the stabbing of Salman Rushdie in New York state in August 2022? “Don’t Say Gay”-legislation in Florida? Or do you connect the question of freedom of expression to the potential stifling effect of different ideologies, for example reading of manuscripts by sensitivity readers?

The writer’s freedom of expression is the subject of discussion when it appears to be under threat. The threat is often understood in concrete terms as silencing or more subtly quieting down. The latter is more difficult to recognise and prove. The unorthodox core argument of an essay is watered down to nothing in the editing process. The writer ends up self-censoring because of imagined or real pressure. Quietly, expression becomes hygienic and complies with good manners. Subjects are left out. Highly sensitive questions are only discussed in close circles, behind closed doors.

All of this happens, but are the above-mentioned examples really at the core of the problem? “What if the most significant question about freedom of expression concerns the expectation that we all produce speech without pause – often even without considering quality of content or thinking” (informal translation), asks Markku Paasonen in his collection of essays Lykätty salamurha (An assassination postponed, informal translation) (Teos 2023). The space is filled by information waste, which, with its mass, overwhelms what is essential.

According to Paasonen awards have taken the place previously held by penalties. Awards maintain order in a positive way. The talk that surrounds awards has taken over the “dominating ideological landscape so completely, that their ideological character is no longer seen” (informal translation). The disciplinary society of Foucault gave birth to martyrs, which “contributed to the realisation of precisely the concepts it was meant to resist”. This danger does not exist with a culture of awards. Those who are left without an award are simply forgotten.

But what happens to dissenting thinking? Paasonen argues that in a world dominated by spectacle wrong thoughts are in reality greatly favoured. They arouse strong feelings, which generate profit for platform owners. Dissenting thinking has become impossible. The only form of resistance open to art is to refuse to communicate.

If we believe that Paasonen’s contemporary diagnosis applies, we need to return to a level that precedes the problems of freedom of expression – to the question of freedom of thought. Thought is becoming commodified, sloganised and endlessly multiplied in the era of digital breakthrough. Is the task that remains for the person who writes to throw sand in the machinery?

Laura Lindstedt

The writer is an author and a member of Finnish PEN’s board.

PEN Tiedotus