Nothing new…

via: The New Republic

Stop me if you have heard this one before. A group of citizens are unhappy with the government. A viral communications network is born, spreading words of dissent throughout the land. The authorities crack down with a vengeance. This may sound like the story of a Twitter or Facebook “revolution” in some repressive corner of the world. In fact, it is a tale of how illicit poetry spread through the streets of eighteenth-century Paris.

I admit at the outset that I do not know a lot about eighteenth-century Paris, unlike Robert Darnton, who seems to know a great deal. It is as a student of communications networks and their social and political implications that I presume to write about Darnton’s thought-provoking and uncannily relevant book. In his new study, Darnton demonstrates that even in a semi-literate society, information can travel far and fast. He challenges us to re-examine our assumptions about today’s new and “unprecedented” information universe. As he rightly observes in the book’s introduction, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.”

Poetry and the Police begins in 1749, when politically controversial poems swept through Paris. A police lieutenant was sent out to nab the dissident author of an ode with the line, “Monstre dont la noire furie,”or “Monster whose black fury.” The monster in question was Louis XV, and referring to him in such terms was an act of lèse majesté. (A little less than two centuries later Osip Mandelstam wrote a similarly irreverent—and personally catastrophic—poem comparing Stalin’s mustache to the bristles of a cockroach.) Tracing the origins of the poem was no simple matter. The poem had crossed paths with several others, and each took its own route. The verses were copied on pieces of paper, dictated, memorized, or sung to the tune of popular songs.

The police deployed a legion of spies to get to the bottom of the matter. They interrogated a medical student who had recited the poem, and he identified the individual who gave the poem to him. A string of arrests followed, ultimately filling the cells of the Bastille with fourteen individuals accused of taking part in unauthorized poetry recitals. (The incident is thus known as “The Affair of the Fourteen”.) The poem was apparently passed along by a relatively young group of students, clerks, and priests. The original author was never found.