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Robert Darnton - Two Information Systems at War, in 18th Century France
Princeton, New Jersey, April 2007 
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Darnton has spent much of his career investigating the system of information control in eighteenth century France prior to the revolution of 1789. This research brought him to Neuchatel in Switzerland, one of the important centers of printing of the period, where materials forbidden in France were published to be later smuggled into the country and distributed through sophisticated networks.

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00:00:05 In most countries on the continent
00:00:08 There were princes, they were absolute regimes,
00:00:13 The degree of absolutism was relative to a particular setting,
00:00:17 But If you take France as the most important central, most populace country,
00:00:22 you had a very elaborate system of censorship, but in addition to that,
00:00:27 you had a monopoly of production in the bookseller's guild in Paris,
00:00:32 it had police powers
00:00:34 and then the police itself had specialised inspectors of the book trade
00:00:38 so you put all of that together
00:00:40 and the state was very powerful in its attempt to control the printed word.
00:00:45 By the time you time you get to the age of the Enlightenment
00:00:48 there's a highly organised administration of the book trade,
00:00:53 so in principle anything that appears in print has to pass the censorship
00:00:58 and be registered,
00:01:01 to go through an elaborate process,
00:01:03 and of course this didn't work
00:01:06 that the directions set,
00:01:10 the organisation set up by the state was so elaborate,
00:01:16 so baroque in its bureaucracy
00:01:18 that in a sense it was counterproductive.
00:01:21 Censorship, you know,
00:01:23 varies from regime to regime.
00:01:26 We think we know what censorship is,
00:01:27 but i would argue that it's a different thing under different systems,
00:01:34 so the basic idea of censorship in 18th century france
00:01:38 is the concept of privilege or private law,
00:01:40 a publisher gets the right to publish a particular text
00:01:44 that is denied to others,
00:01:46 so he has that privilege.
00:01:48 that's different from censorship under stalin, say, or hitler
00:01:52 There is a monopoly of what's called the booksellers guild of paris.
00:02:00 it has police power;
00:02:02 its syndics and aguane are obliged to inspect
00:02:09 all of the printing houses in paris
00:02:12 and printers are officially limited to 36 printing shops.
00:02:17 And so the guild is supposed to go around from shop to shop
00:02:20 and find out what they're printing,
00:02:22 make sure there are no illegal books being printed.
00:02:25 No books that contravene privileges
00:02:29 the equivalent of copyright in a sense etc. So yes they have powers
00:02:35 and they also inspect every single book which is shipped into paris.
00:02:38 the books are stopped at the wall which surrounds paris
00:02:42 and any ship which is marked 'libri' books
00:02:46 is sent to a special large hall
00:02:51 where the booksellers guild and inspector of police will inspect it.
00:02:54 Essentially what you have
00:02:57 is a centralised administration for controlling the book trade
00:03:02 using censorship and also using the monopoly
00:03:06 of the established publishers
00:03:08 against that you've got publishing houses,
00:03:11 print presses that surround france
00:03:14 in what i call a 'fertile crescent'
00:03:16 dozens and dozens of them producing books which are smuggled
00:03:20 across the french borders
00:03:22 and distributed everywhere in the kingdom by an underground system,
00:03:25 so in effect you've got two systems at war with one another.
00:03:30 And it's the system of production outside france
00:03:34 that is crucial for the enlightenment,
00:03:37 virtually all of the works that we associate with the french enlightenment
00:03:41 are published in Amsterdam, in the Hague,
00:03:44 in Brussels in Geneva, in Neuchatel, in Basel
00:03:48 these are the places where Rosseau, Voltaire
00:03:51 and company get themselves printed,
00:03:54 but these printers also produce other things
00:03:57 because they're in it not simply to spread enlightenment,
00:04:01 many of them are sympathetic to the enlightenment
00:04:05 they're in it to make money. So they will satisfy demand,
00:04:09 whatever the demand might be...
00:04:11 the pirates had agents in paris
00:04:14 and everywhere else, who were sending them sheets of new books
00:04:17 which they think will sell well,
00:04:19 the pirates are systematically doing market research
00:04:25 in hundreds and thousands of letters, they are sounding the market,
00:04:33 they want to know what demand is
00:04:35 the reaction of publishers at the centre is of course extremely hostile,
00:04:41 I've read a lot of their letters;
00:04:43 they're full of expressions like buccaneer
00:04:46 and private and people without shame or morality etc.
00:04:51 in actual fact many of these pirates were good bourgeois,
00:04:56 in Lausanne or, Geneva or, Amsterdam
00:04:59 and they thought, that they were just 'doing business'.
00:05:03 after all there was no international copyright law
00:05:07 and they were satisfying demand. If the demand hapend to be in france
00:05:11 well, that's a problem for the french,
00:05:13 but not for the dutch or the swiss
00:05:15 I must admit, I always hesitate
00:05:18 to pronounce on world historical trends.
00:05:21 But i've spend a lot of time in the archives
00:05:25 and you can at least glimpse something,
00:05:28 that might look world historical from time to time,
00:05:31 as you go through various bits of old paper.
00:05:34 What is clear is that during the 18th century
00:05:38 that the printed word as a force is expanding everywhere
00:05:43 and we can go into a lots of detailed studies
00:05:46 to find out why an how that this happened
00:05:49 The population is increasing, the educational institutions are spreading,
00:05:54 literacy is going up and there is this new thing we call 'public opinion'.
00:06:00 The phrase itself is first used in the middle of the 18th century,
00:06:03 I think the phenomenon existed earlier,
00:06:06 but for the last half of the 18th century
00:06:09 there is a public that is fascinated with public affairs,
00:06:14 now the mechanism for controlling the media
00:06:18 if you want to use that expression notably the print media
00:06:21 is simply not adequate to controlling this demand.
00:06:25 So everywhere around france, even within france,
00:06:30 there are entrepreneurs who take it upon themselves to satisfy this demand
00:06:36 and this can be in the form of clandestine manuscript newsletters,
00:06:40 it can be in a form of fully printed books and there are many other forms
00:06:46 the one that I find most interesting is songs.
00:06:49 It turns out that everyone in the 18th century, if you take paris,
00:06:55 had a repertory of tunes in his or her had, as we do today.
00:07:00 most of my tunes come from commercials actually
00:07:03 People would improvise
00:07:06 new words to old tunes, everyday.
00:07:10 And these would be sung in the streets of paris,
00:07:14 sometimes by professionals, who had hurdy-gurdys
00:07:18 and would simply belt out the last verse tune that everyone knew.
00:07:24 And it could be about the kings mistress,
00:07:27 it could be about a minister who is abusing power,
00:07:30 it could be on a whole variety of quite political subjects.
00:07:34 This new verse is then picked up because it is a great mnemonic device
00:07:39 and the song is been song throughout the streets of paris.
00:07:43 I imagine the street of paris - it is just echoing everywhere with songs.
00:07:48 So that is a good example of how in the absence of news media
00:07:54 of proper newspaper, a new kind of medium developed,
00:08:01 that actually does the job of newspapers
00:08:04 I've studied hundreds of these songs and I would say, they were sung newspapers.
00:08:10 There's no way that an absolutist political system
00:08:15 can totally suppress the spread of information
00:08:18 new media adapt themselves to these circumstances,
00:08:22 and often they can become even more effective because of the repression.
00:08:27 It's a fascinating process and it culminates frankly
00:08:31 right on the eve of the france revolution, so that i would argue,
00:08:35 Not only did this new media system spread the enlightenment
00:08:39 but, I won't use the word 'prepared', the way for the revolution
00:08:42 it indicted the old regim
00:08:47 that this power, public opinion, became crucial
00:08:51 in the collapse of the government 1787-1788.