Under the Radar

Totalitarian regimes often employ strong centralised censorship of media channels as a means of exercising control. It’s interesting to note how often these operations develop blind spots to particular media, allowing some discourse against government ideas to filter through. The blind spots often develop around areas of humour or fantasy – seemingly pointing to a certain literal-mindedness or lack of imagination in the average dictator and his or her apparatus of control.

The most commonly cited example of this is the Soviet era’s willingness to publish science fiction, such as Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” and the Strugatsky brothers’ “Monday begins on Saturday”, which offered thinly-veiled criticisms of the state. Not all subversive work escaped the censors – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” was largely circulated via underground channels, for example, but still many subjects could be broached because they were done so in disguise.

The example of this topic that we’ll examine today is the syndicated cartoon strip “Feeling Lucky, Adventure Jim?”, which appeared in the Ogopathian tabloid newspaper “Petelin”, (literally “The Cockerel”, but linked via various phrases to the concept of freedom) in the years immediately after the digital revolution known internally as The Encryption. As a state-registered publication, Petelin was watched closely by the Ministry of Information, and editorial and news content followed the party line. The curiously-titled “Adventure Jim” typically featured on the back page, and purported to inform citizens of the appropriate response to the new surveillance technologies that were being rolled out across the country. An early example does this in a rather straightforward fashion, although the somewhat clownish appearance of the eponymous hero strikes an odd note from the start.

 Jim assures us that he is lucky, to have the support of the Ministry in thinking an acting like a citizen of the new regime.

Within a matter of weeks, the tone of the strip has changed somewhat, offering a range of rather disconcerting imagery, such as the representation of the state as a bowl of talking disinfectant:

Sufficient elements of the earlier strips, and of official party wording, are retained, but the juxtaposition of the phrase “emptiness is serenity” with Jim’s look of outrage or horror tells us a lot about the cartoonist’s sympathies, and his/her expectations as to what the largely automated censorship process will and won’t pick up on. (The identity of “Buffalo” has never been firmly established, and, as has been noted elsewhere, the symbol of the Buffalo was co-opted by both the ruling committee and elements of the early resistance, based on the ambiguity of the nonsense sentence popularised by the jazz band The Overcoats in the years immediately prior to The Encryption.)

Having secured a few column inches out of the censor’s watch, Buffalo appears to have placed a test strip that openly lampoons the earlier message:

Having got away with that, subsequent strips appear to offer veiled references to emerging technologies being developed by the Ministry of Information, and their deployment.

The nonsensical reference in the strapline message has been speculatively linked to the town of Cnoot, out of which a cell of resistance operated for some years. Further strips demonstrate awareness of the micro-sensors that were deployed in the third decade after encryption, and of the cottage industry of “tin foil hats” thought to guard against some of the Ministry’s more intrusive systems.

It should be pointed out that the samples shown here illustrate the few examples of direct knowledge of Ministry activity, and that inbetween times, the strp would run for weeks in a rather more whimsical mode, developing the diverse cast of characters including the increasingly argumentative feet, and the singing bath tub. Whatever the nature of the elusive Buffalo, the strip ran for little more than two years before it was unceremoniously dropped, and most references to it within official documentation wiped. 
In contrast to the slow-moving bureaucracy of the Soviet era, the censorship apparatus of post-Encryption Ogopathia was highly adaptive and innovative, and one can only assume that Jim’s adventurous author soon found that his/her luck had run out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s