Interview with Robert Darnton

21 June 2004
Only in en
Robert Darnton outlines his vision on new forms of electronic publishing and its effects on libraries and journals, universities and on ways of bookreading. As an historian concerned with the history of the book, Darnton connects historical ways of reading and book publishing with the latest revolutions brought upon by the internet.

Marek Tamm: From the very beginning, you have been fascinated not only by history but also by journalism. Your father worked for The New York Times and already at the age of four, you handed in your first “contribution” to that paper. Even after your graduation, you opted for the job of a New York Times reporter instead of professorship. Although you did choose history some time later, you are still cooperating closely with journalism, particularly with The New York Review of Books. Probably, your characteristic desire to communicate the results of your research to as wide an audience as possible derives from your experience with journalism, too. In your introduction to The Kiss of Lamourette1 you pose the straightforward question: “Why shouldn’t history be as interesting as homicide?”

Robert Darnton: Yes, I agree that journalism has always been important to me, first as a family affair and later as a subject of study. From my earliest years, I felt predestined to be a newspaper reporter, mainly because my father was killed as a war correspondent during World War II and, consciously or not, I thought I should follow in his rather large footsteps. (We didn’t use the grander term “journalist” in my family; “reporter” connoted the honest, “shoe-leather” man who followed events at street level.) After working on school newspapers, I underwent basic training on The Newark Star Ledger, where I covered police headquarters and learned what newspapermen considered to be “news.” After that I worked part-time for The New York Times and finally joined The Times after completing my Ph.D. in Oxford. Back in New York, I found myself covering more armed robberies and murders. But after many weeks in the pressroom at police headquarters, the game of cops-and-robbers turned stale. All the stories began to look the same-that is, to correspond to set stylistic patterns-and I yearned to return to the archives. I used to go into police headquarters with Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance hidden inside a copy of Playboy so that the other reporters would not suspect my secret high-brow tendencies. Finally I quit The Times, and I must say that as a historian I have lived happily ever after. But I still believe that historians should write in a way that can be understood by ordinary readers. I would even venture to say that they should make history a pleasure-not trivial entertainment, of course, but rather a satisfying experience, one that enlarges the understanding of the human condition.

M.T: Throughout decades, your research has focused on the France of the Enlightenment. Yet if historians have, as a rule, been interested in the great ideas of the great thinkers of the period, you have taken an interest in low-life2 , instead; you have tried to write a kind of intellectual history of non-intellectuals3. What, however, could be the role of these little known authors and booksellers – the “pauvres diables”, as Voltaire called them – in the Enlightenment movement, in general? Has your study of the Enlightenment from below, as it were, enabled you to reassess the period?

R.D: As I first formulated it, the notion of studying the Enlightenment “from below” led to some confusion, because in fact my research concerned writers in general, whether or not they were aligned with the philosophes. In retrospect, I think I was attempting to develop a sociology of authorship, not a new interpretation of the Enlightenment. Since my first work on the subject, which goes back to the 1960s, I have tried to do more systematic research on the entire population of the literary world during the eighteenth century, of its social composition, and its changes over time. I continue to believe that writers who came of age in the 1770s and 1780s were inspired by the examples of the great philosophes. They frequently wanted to join Voltaire’s “church” and seethed with resentment when they failed to break into the first ranks of the Republic of Letters. Many of them became Jacobins. But there is no absolute correlation between frustrated ambition and Jacobinism. Some hack writers became counter-revolutionaries. Barnabé Farmian de Rosoi is a good example: a prolific hack from the Ancien Régime, he turned into a royalist journalist during the Revolution. (He merits a biography.)

Grub Street was a complex place, and it deserves to be studied in all its complexity, without succumbing to psychological reductionism. It certainly furnished many of the shock troops of the Enlightenment-journalists, pamphleteers, polemicists, auxiliaries and intermediaries of all kinds. If you think of the Enlightenment as primarily an attempt to spread light, these bit players look quite important; for they were the ones who did the vulgarizing and propagandizing. True, Voltaire himself manipulated the media of his time. He was a master at dominating public opinion. But he could not have succeeded without the foot soldiers that he was able to inspire and mobilize. By studying their activities, one can see how the Enlightenment worked its way deeply into the fabric of society. That is the direction in which I have tried to take Enlightenment studies-toward what can be called a social history of ideas.

M.T: One of the fields of history writing, one that you have actively promoted for more than thirty years, is the history of book4. In recent years your interests have broadened, however, and instead of the history of book you are interested in the history of communications5 more generally, as testified also by your latest book, George Washington’s False Teeth. How would you describe the development of your interests in this particular direction?

R.D: I think your description is very apt. In studying the history of books, I had to confront the history of reading, to seek out connections between the diffusion of literature and the formation of the mysterious phenomenon we call public opinion. It became clear along the way that books were but one of the many media at the time. In fact, printed texts often incorporated oral material-gossip, songs, “bruits publics”-and then transmitted messages that re-entered oral circuits of communication by means of discussion or reading in groups. So, yes, I think that book history opens onto the larger history of communication. Thanks to modern media, we can study ancient modes of communication in new ways. After discovering hundreds of improvised songs about current events in manuscript “chansonniers” from the 1740s, I came upon manuscripts with the musical annotation to the songs. A friend of mine, Hélène Delavault, who is a superb cabaret singer in Paris, agreed to sing them. They now can be heard in an electronic version of one of my essays-at . It sounds corny, but we can make history sing.

M.T: It would be difficult to imagine your research work without the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel discovered by yourself at the beginning of the 1960s. These archives hold the rich heritage of the greatest 18-century Swiss publishing house, which enable to gain an uncommonly comprehensive idea of how books were made and spread in the 18 century. Over the years, you have read all the 50,000 letters and other documents held in that archive. These sources provide a starting point for many of your research projects, among other things for your thorough-going study of the publishing history of the Encyclopédie, which offers us, as it were, an everyday-level understanding of how such an enormous enterprise was actually carried out6. Could it be said that you became a book historian thanks to these archives?

R.D: When I first wandered into the archives of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), I had never heard of book history. In fact, I don’t believe the expression existed at that time, not in English and not as “histoire du livre” or “Geschichte des Buchwesens.” I arrived in Neuchâtel in 1965 in order to follow the trail of the leading Girondist of the French Revolution, Jacques-Pierre Brissot, who published most of his pre-revolutionary writing with the STN. After going through a few hundred letters, I decided that the history of books was more interesting than the biography of Brissot. I then met other scholars who also wanted to understand the printed word as a force in history. We became historians of the book without knowing it-something like the way Monsieur Jourdain learned he was speaking prose. Of course, many scholars, especially bibliographers, had studied books long before we did. But once we got to know one another, we found we were working through new problems in new ways; and in the end we had the sensation of contributing to the creation of a new discipline. I think the history of books is now the healthiest and most rapidly growing field in all the humanities.

M.T: A considerable share of your research work has been dedicated to French 18-century forbidden literature. Thanks to your research, we have a pretty good idea of that literature which was secretly read by most Frenchmen and comprises mainly the so-called philosophical books, as they were called at the time – that is, anti-clerical and pornographic writings7. You have concluded that it was the wide spread of underRobert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, pp. 169-246.
ground literature that played a significant role in the breakout of the French Revolution. This is a view criticized, among others, by your good friend Roger Chartier in his book The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, published recently in Estonian in the same book series. Although you have later specified and explained your views,8 I would still like to ask you to return briefly to the central issue of that argument – do books cause revolutions?

R.D: Roger first put the question in that form during a trans-Atlantic debate we had on “France Culture”, the French radio station. Although I can’t remember what I said then, I recollect thinking it too simple to envision a straight line of causality-one that leads from the purchase of books to the reading of books to their assimilation (or “appropriation”) in the minds of the readers to public opinion as a collective phenomenon and finally to action. All sorts of complications and distortions set in at many points in the line of transmission. It probably is misleading to imagine a linear process in the first place. But the question remains valid, if formulated differently: Do books have a place in the complex mix of elements that can be studied as causes? I think the answer is yes. I still believe it is important to know what the French read during the twenty years before the Revolution, even though we don’t know how they read.

Roger accepted my empirical findings but then denied their importance, claiming that eighteenth-century readers could have laughed off the seditious messages of libelle literature. But he produced no evidence to prove that assertion-none except some material from Mercier, which he later conceded to be inadequate. On my end, I have agreed that libelles probably were read in different ways-some sophisticated and skeptical, some naive and indignant. But even the sophisticates-the marquis d’Argenson, for example, or Mme Roland, or indeed Mercier himself-absorbed much of the message in this forbidden literature and worked it into a more complex response to the events of 1787 and 1788. During that pre-revolutionary crisis, I see a process that I call “radical simplification”-that is, the drawing of lines, so that ordinary people felt compelled to take sides for or against the government. Of course, ideas played a crucial part in the process of alignment. Those ideas included abstract notions developed by Enlightenment philosophers and complex arguments spread through parliamentary remonstrances. All sorts of ideological nuances can be detected on both sides of the great divide that separated the opponents and the supporters of the government during those crucial years. But the most important aspect of the crisis was the division itself. I think revolutionary situations involve polarization: lines are drawn, and public opinion coalesces around basic positions, such as opposition or support of the men in power. The perception of events becomes as important as the events themselves, or rather the two cannot be separated as events drift out of control and the entire system is swept into violence.

M.T: You belong among the historians that have contributed greatly to the dialogue between history and anthropology. For many years, you conducted a joint seminar on history and anthropology together with Clifford Geertz at Princeton University, and you have preferred to place your own research work under the title of “historical anthropology”. The great difference between a historian and an anthropologist, however, lies in the fact that while the former studies a culture immediately, the latter can only do it through the medium of texts. One of your earliest books bringing together the possibilities of history and anthropology, The Great Cat Massacre,9 was received not only with great recognition and attention, but also with criticism departing from the very question, whether the methods of anthropology are applicable in a historian’s work with texts?10 What is your answer to such criticism and what do you think are the possibilities for cooperation between history and anthropology, in general?

R.D: This question leads me back again to my friendly running argument with Roger Chartier. In his criticism of my anthropological work, he claimed that he could find a native informant who would provide a definition of symbolism incompatible with the one I used-and so he would undercut my anthropological argument by means of an anthropological technique. He therefore looked up “symbol” in an eighteenth-century dictionary; noted a definition that stressed how one thing can stand for another; and cited the dictionary’s example: the lion is a symbol of valor. In my reply, I insisted that the eighteenth-century dictionary did not provide an adequate notion of symbolism. It expressed one eighteenth-century view, but that view cannot be taken as a conceptual tool that is powerful enough to pry open the symbolic world of eighteenth-century Frenchmen. To develop an adequately anthropological approach, one must consult the concepts of symbolism developed in anthropological theory-not just by Clifford Geertz but also by Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Keith Basso, Renato Rosaldo, Marshall Sahlins, and many others. Despite some disagreements among themselves, none of them subscribes to the simple idea of one thing standing for another-a concept that works better in some studies of allegories, although they, too, tend to be complex. No, the anthropologists all insist on the multivocal, multivalent character of symbols, their ability to convey many different meanings, especially when they are used in rituals.

In The Great Cat Massacre I tried to demonstrate the complexity of the symbolic associations connected with cats. I also tried to show how the ritual slaughter of cats converged with other rituals in complex patterns of behavior-the trial and execution of criminals, the persecution of witches, the performances in boulevard theaters, and the sexual braggadocio of males. This argument, which I called “ritual punning”, has not, I think, been understood by my critics. But those who have some familiarity with semiotics have recognized the nature of my argument, even when they did not agree with it. Dominique La Capra, whom you cite, is much more hostile to my version of socio-cultural history than is Roger Chartier, but he accepts my general approach to symbolism. He then tries to undermine it by invoking notions derived from Derrida. My theoretical stance put me closer to Foucault. So one could spot some “maîtres à penser” looming behind us-and the contrasting sources of inspiration could be worked over at some length.

Today, however, those disputes look dated, and anthropology itself has shifted to other concerns. For one thing, it has become more historical. Anthropologists often do research in archives as well as field work, because they have recognized the deep, temporal dimension of the cultures they study. The old distinction-anthropologists study cultures set off by space, historians study cultures set off by time-no longer holds, and never did for anthropologists like Clifford Geertz. So I continue to believe in the fruitfulness of study that combines anthropology and history, even though the ground has shifted a great deal during the twenty years that have passed since the publication of The Great Cat Massacre.

M.T: You have studied thoroughly the France of the Old Regime and its collapse in the Revolution. In the years 1989 to 1990, however, you unexpectedly had the chance to witness the collapse of another Old Regime through revolutionary events, yourself. As chance would have it, you spent the academic year 1989/1990 in East Berlin, where instead of writing another monograph of the 18 century, you took to putting down current events. These notes became the basis for your Berlin Journal, which brilliantly exposes the nature of the East German regime and records its decomposition11. In connection with this book, I would like to ask what, in your view, should be the historian’s relations with his contemporary period? Should history be written primarily in order to gain a better understanding of one’s own time?

R.D: I must confess that I think we should study history in order to understand the past, not the present. I don’t believe history teaches lessons. I hope it provides perspective-that is, it helps us to see the present in relation to other times and places. It can give us a deeper sense of the human condition, and it can help us avoid the time-bound, ethnocentric tendencies that impair all efforts to understand the world in which we live. All of us, I suspect, take the world that we inhabit, the here and now, as pretty much immutable. The reality we encounter and construe in our every day lives seems to us to be fundamental. Things are the way they are, inescapable, like death and taxes. But that point of view, which we slip into without noticing it, is wrong: history shows it to be wrong.

I certainly did not expect the Cold War to come to an end in Berlin in 1989. But I saw it happen. Even though I did not foresee it, it confirmed that things are not immutable, that the fundamental categories of daily life are not fixed, and that the world can be remade-not completely, of course, not without continuity from the past and not without disappointments that set in after the noise stops and the dirt settles. But things can fall apart, and the parts will recombine in new configurations, sometimes in accordance with some degree of human volition. Is that a “lesson”? I don’t think so, but I recently saw a film, The Fog of War, featuring Robert McNamara, the defense secretary during the Vietnam War. He described meeting a high official from the former Vietcong many years after the war ended, when they were both old men. McNamara remarked that in retrospect the whole slaughter could have been avoided, since it later became clear that each side could have conceded what the other wanted. The official replied by stressing that the Americans had failed to grasp a fundamental fact about their enemies: the Vietnamese would never have become a puppet state of Communist China; they had resisted Chinese oppression for centuries. Hadn’t McNamara known that? Hadn’t he studied history? The answer, of course, was: No.

M.T: Your recent views concerning the future of the book gave rise to a lively public discussion12. Although you have not joined the ranks of those that prophesy the imminent death of the traditional book, you have experimented with the new possibilities of writing and publishing offered by the electronic age. You published an electronic version of a smaller study on the 18-century Parisian “information society”13 which skillfully employs new technological means, such as pictures, maps, soundtracks, and sources. For several years now, you have been working on a comprehensive electronic monograph on the literary underground of 18-century France, where you attempt to make use of all the opportunities offered by the new medium. How would you sum up your experiences in the field of writing e-books and do you see e-books as the inevitable future of researchers?

R.D: The economics of publishing now seem to doom some forms of scholarly publishing, notably monographs in areas such as colonial African and Latin American history. So many factors feed into this situation, and they have been at work so long, that I think the esoteric monograph will not survive, at least not on the scale that existed ten to thirty years ago. Libraries, journals, the whole structure of academic life is changing; and scholarly publishing must change with it. That does not mean that the venerable codex is dead. On the contrary, more printed volumes are produced now than ever. But university presses have scaled back production in certain areas to such an extent that young scholars simply cannot break into print-and in the United States they must break through the print barrier in order to have careers. Meanwhile, however, all sorts of electronic forms of publishing have been developed, including a program I launched while president of the American Historical Association: Gutenberg-e. Despite some initial difficulties (mainly delays in the pipeline), that program has now proved to be a success. A related program sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies, History-e, also seems to be succeeding-and succeeding commercially, because both programs must become self-supporting after receiving enough support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to get started. It therefore is possible to give a modest, positive report on our experience with scholarly publishing by means of the Internet. We have done enough of it to know it is feasible. Is it the answer to everything? No: I think readers will continue to enjoy the traditional book in the traditional way. The triumphalist enthusiasm from the early stages of experimentation with electronic publishing has evaporated, and we now are dealing with workable projects.

My own work, as you mention, includes an attempt to produce a large-scale electronic book on the subject of publishing and the book trade in eighteenth-century France and Switzerland. It will include a vast amount of archival and visual material, and readers will be able to use it in many ways. I expect them to read it as a conventional narrative, horizontally, so to speak. But they also will be able to read it vertically-that is, to click down through successive layers of mini-monographs and data. In this way, the readers will create their own personal paths through the material. Thanks to technical advances in the printing industry, they will then be able to print and bind their own paperback book in a matter of minutes and to read it in the comfort of their armchairs, or in whatever way they like. This kind of book will create a new relation between reader and author, a new kind of reading, one that empowers the reader, making him or her a collaborator and a critic of the author and opening up endless possibilities for enlarging our understanding of the past.

There is one aspect of the conventional codex that I regret: in the case of history books, it gives the impression that we have got history under control, under wraps, packaged safely between covers, fixed in print. Anyone who has spent a lot of time in the archives develops the opposite impression: we have hardly begun to capture history; most human beings died without leaving a trace of their existence, and the traces that survive-millions of documents scattered throughout thousands of archives and attics-have rarely been read. Taken in by the solidity of the well-made book, we live with the illusion that we have a good grasp of the past. I think that most of it has slipped between our fingers or lies beyond our reach. The electronic book may provide a way of capturing some of humanity’s lost experience. It will increase our knowledge, certainly, but it also will sharpen our awareness of how little we know. That, too, is a lesson we can learn from history.

  1. Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette. Reflections in Cultural History, New York, London, W.W. Norton, 1990, pp. XVIII-XIX.
  2. Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Cambridge, Mass., London, Harvard University Press, 1982; Robert Darnton, Gens de lettres, gens du livre, Paris, Odile Jacob, 1992.
  3. Robert Darnton, "Two paths through the social history of ideas", Haydn T. Mason (ed. by), The Darnton Debate. Books and Revolution in the Eighteenth Century, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, 1998, p. 284.
  4. Cf. Robert Darnton, "What Is the History of Books" [1982], Robert Darnton, The Kiss of Lamourette. Reflections in Cultural History, pp. 107-135; Robert Darnton, "Histoire du livre-Geschiche des Buchwesens: An Agenda for Comparative History"Publishing History, no. 22, 1987, pp. 33-41; Robert Darnton, "Scholarship and Readership: New Directions in the History of the Book", Books and Prints, Past and Future, New York, The Grolier Club, 1984, pp. 33-51. ,
  5. Cf. Robert Darnton, "La France, ton café fout le camp! De l'histoire du livre à l'histoire de la communication", Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n. 100, 1993, pp. 16-26.
  6. Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800, Cambridge, Mass., London, Harvard University Press, 1968.
  7. Robert Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime; Robert Darnton, Édition et sédition. L'univers de la littérature clandestine au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Gallimard, 1991; Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, New York, London, W. W. Norton, 1995; Robert Darnton, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France 1769-1789, New York, London, W. W. Norton, 1995.
  8. Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, pp.169-246.
  9. Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, New York, Basic Books, 1984.
  10. E.g. Roger Chartier, "Text, Symbols and Frenchness. Historical Uses of Symbolic Anthropology", Journal of Modern History, vol. 57, 1985, pp. 682-695. Cf. Dominick LaCapra, "Chartier, Darnton, and the Great Symbol Massacre", Journal of Modern History, vol. 60, 1988, pp. 95-112. On the reception of The Great Cat Massacre, cf. Eduardo Hourcade, Horacio L. Botalla, Cristina Godoy, Luz y contraluz de una historia antropologica, Buenos Aires, Editorial Biblos, 1995.
  11. Robert Darnton, Berlin Journal, 1989-1990, New York, London, W.W. Norton, 1991.
  12. Robert Darnton, "The New Age of the Book", The New York Review of Books, March 18, 1999, pp. 5-7. See also, Robert Darnton, "Lost and Found in Cyberspace", The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 12, 1999, pp. 134-135; Robert Darnton, "No Computer Can Hold the Past", The New York Times, Juin 12, 1999.
  13. Robert Darnton, "An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris", Darnton has also published an electronic monograph with the Voltaire Foundation: Robert Darnton, J.-P. Brissot, His Career and Correspondence (1779-1787), Oxford, 2001,:

Published 21 June 2004

Original in English
First published in

Contributed by Vikerkaar
© Vikerkaar Eurozine


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