Historian Ada Palmer traces censorship of radical ideas across centuries

Scholar’s multi-pronged project explores censorship, information revolutions

Ada Palmer is a historian, a folk musician and a science fiction novelist. In many ways, the University of Chicago associate professor’s latest project feels just as wide-reaching.

This fall, Palmer partnered with Prof. Adrian Johns and fellow author Cory Doctorow to host a series of dialogues designed to tackle how censorship and technology have influenced the dissemination of information through time and across disciplines. Titled “Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions,” the weekly lectures invited more than two dozen participants from various fields and also served as an undergraduate course.

Palmer also curated an accompanying exhibit in the Regenstein Library’s Special Collections Research Center, which explores how real-world examples of censorship differ from what was depicted in George Orwell’s 1984.

Every session of the dialogue series was recorded and will soon be available to the public on YouTube. The library exhibit will remain on display through Dec. 14.

Palmer talked recently about what she, Johns and Doctorow hoped to accomplish with their work, and why centuries-old copyright laws are still relevant today.

Why did you want to start this project?

A lot of my research examines how radical ideas travel in a hostile intellectual environment. Atheism, radical ideas about physics and the existence of vacuum, homosexuality, witchcraft—these are all very different from each other, but in another sense, they’re all very similar. They were right on the edge of what was permitted or not permitted. It’s interesting to look at how people keep disseminating and talking about this material—especially people who are hostile to the material itself. Every book that I’m looking at in the pre-modern world has been censored, and often has been banned.

The whole point of this project is to bring together scholars and practitioners—meaning editors, authors, publishers, activists—whose work intersects but who wouldn’t normally have ever met each other because they either work in different spheres, or they work on different time periods. It’s very rare for somebody who works on the 16th century to ever talk to somebody who works on the 20th. We tried to pair people who work on the same question across time to try and expose universal patterns in censorship, and how they often don’t resemble what we expect.

What is the difference between ‘censorship’ and ‘information control,’ and why is it important to discuss both?

It’s a gradient; they blur into each other. You can’t disentangle censorship from information control, meaning copyright, ownership of information, security—all these other things which are not censorship, but that do control where information goes.

For example, I publish a book. Somebody in Australia wants to read the e-book. That person cannot read the e-book because inherited copyright law left over from the British Empire means that an English language book must be published in Britain before it can be published in Australia. Me publishing it here in the United States isn’t enough. The effect of that on the person in Australia is identical to if the work were banned in Australia. The fact that they can’t have it is an inheritance of copyright law instead of an inheritance of somebody sitting down and saying, ‘I don’t like the ideas in this book.’ But the actual effect on the dissemination of information is the same.

I’m very interested in how we define censorship, and how blurry its edges are. Our library exhibit contains a book called ‘The Lost Cause,’ which was the foundation of a literary movement after the Civil War to exonerate the South and depict slavery as a positive institution. This history depicts happy slaves, glad that the master race is guiding them correctly. It spawned a whole world of novels and plays and art depicting this imaginary, blissful South. It’s definitely propaganda. It’s definitely presenting strongly distorted versions of historical facts. It’s definitely excluding historical facts. It feels like it’s in a sphere near censorship, but it’s not quite censorship, because it didn’t mean that nobody was publishing accurate histories. Yet, it suppresses so much material. It’s in the blurry edge. It’s near censorship, but it’s not at the bullseye.

The discussions are open to the public, but double as a College Signature Course. How have undergraduate students helped shape this project?

They shaped it enormously, particularly since two different signature courses have been part of this project, not just one. Last fall, a group of 35 students took a smaller course co-taught by me and then-postdoc fellow Stuart McManus where we curated the exhibit together, choosing themes, designing cases, and picking items which are now on display in the museum.

Many of the overall themes of the course emerged from those discussions. For example, a brilliant then-first-year student Kirill Shyshkin, who ended up creating our poster on censorship in the USSR, raised the question of how we judge when censorship “succeeds” or “fails.” That opened up the focus in this year’s course on trying to understand the goals of censorship, and how the goals frequently aren’t what popular imagination leads us to expect.

In particular, we tend to think of censorship as aiming to destroy information that already exists. But when we observe the real behaviors of bodies like the Inquisition, they rarely attempt that—focusing instead on labeling or policing information, trying to control who accesses what, and on spreading fear of their authority. If we look at the condemnation of Galileo, it was only a “failure” if we presume the goal was to silence Galileo’s ideas. The condemnation also frightened Descartes into not publishing a newly-completed radical treatise, which he then revised heavily to be much more orthodox and Catholic. The condemnation “succeeded” in preventing the publication of Descartes’s ideas, and those of numerous others who decided to self-censor out of fear. This led to one of the project’s conclusions: the majority of censorship is self-censorship, but the majority of self-censorship is intentionally cultivated by a censoring authority.

Why is this topic relevant right now?

Forms of censorship adjust to the presence of that new information technology. This is happening right now in the digital revolution, but if we look at past information technology revolutions, we can see that a lot of the patterns are very similar. One of the big questions, whether for the printing press or the internet, is: Do we censor material by requiring that the material be looked at before it can go to the public? Or do we allow it to go to the public—and then come after it if we decide it’s bad after it’s been released?

Media companies are facing that the same types of decisions that these pre-modern organizations did in the wake of the printing press. We’re in the process of deciding how information is going to be regulated online. We’re establishing the legal frameworks by which the circulation of information will be measured and monetized and used online, in ways that will radically transform what information there is.

We wanted to, through this project, help everyone think about that and realize how serious that is. We’re in the middle of so many different crises that it’s easy for something like the regulation of information to seem like a low priority. But if you move forward 200 years, our decisions about how to regulate Facebook are probably going to be impacting the world more than many of the other political decisions we’re making right now.