Robert Darnton on Enlightenment, profits and linking

Maria Lúcia G. Pallares Burke interviewing Robert Darnton, in The New History (Polity Press, 2002), pp. 163, 173-175.

France was the first police state. Of course, the word police meant something different in the eighteenth century: it meant something like rational administration. But the fact is that there were police agents everywhere reporting on public opinion. I found the archives of police spies in cafés, about forty cafés in the 1720s, so that you can almost listen in to conversations in cafés thanks to this police state that was trying to inform itself about public opinion. /…/

Your book on the Encyclopédie reveals this central educational text of the Enlightenment as part of a huge economic enterprise more devoted to making money and gaining power than to spreading enlightenment. /…/

Certainly someone like Voltaire believed in the campaign to crush l’infâme, the infamous thing, which really meant the Catholic Church. Voltaire rarely made money from his books; he was really not interested in profit from their sales because he had made money in other ways. He even collaborated with the pirates who pirated him because that was a way to spread more light! /…/
So I don’t mean to depreciate this genuinely idealistic commitment. /…/

if you look at the publishers, we should remember that publishing is a business, and it’s quite wrong for us to assume that publishers did it for truth and beauty. I do not think that, of course, some of them had values and believed in truth and beauty and were outstanding people, but they had to make their business work. They had to return a profit; if they didn’t, they could go under. /…/
the publishers of this famous book, the Encyclopédie, were people who basically had to make money. /…/
So they were willing to do all kinds of things: they would slip spies into the competitor’s printing shop, they would slip spies into the competitor’s printing shop, they would steal things, they would speculate hen they had their back to the wall in illegal literature and do very dangerous things.

So, yes, it was a business where economic interests were predominant; but what they were selling, in the case of the Encyclopédie, for example, was a book that had in it, in its text, the essence of the Enlightenment: was a book that had in it, in its text, wonderfully daring and shocking things scattered throughout the text, even in its cross-references. My favourite one is in the first volume, the one with the letter A, where there is an article about cannibalism (which is ‘anthropophagie’ in French), where you get a very straight description of cannibalism: how to make the fire, and put the water in the pot and eat people; then, at the end, it says only one thing in its crossreference: ‘see Eucharist’. And then in the volume with the letter E, under ‘Eucharist’, you get a perfectly orthodox Catholic description of Holy Communion; and then at the end it just says ‘see anthropophagie’. /…/
So the book they were selling was a very radical book, but they liked to hide it by inserting its radicalisation between the lines or through techniques like these cross-references.

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