Why privacy studies?

As a center of excellence funded by the Danish National Research Foundation, the Centre for Privacy Studies gathers together interdisciplinary scholars to pursue notions of privacy within their respective fields. In September 2019, the Centre for Privacy Studies welcomed a new cohort of scholars from across the world to develop innovative research that furthers the field of privacy studies.

Four scholars from the PRIVACY team got together to discuss their research journey into notions of privacy. Natália da Silva Perez, who has been working as a postdoctoral researcher for a little over one year at the Centre for Privacy Studies, got together with new colleagues Frank Ejby Poulsen, Natacha Klein Käfer, and Dustin Neighbors to chat about each of their takes on privacy studies.

Frank Ejby Poulsen: For the most part, intellectual historians emphasize the written word as the source for their analysis; the field is mostly a text-based discipline. There are two main methods, the contextualist “Cambridge School” approach, or the Begriffsgeschichte approach. They both consider concepts from the perspective of the written language.  Notwithstanding, there has been a growing interest in including other types of sources; often, visual representations. Quentin Skinner is an example of this when he analyses Hobbes’s frontispieces for De Cive and Leviathan as summaries of the books’ arguments in one picture. Of course, he is not the first one to include sources that are not made of words as a source for intellectual history; e.g. Lucien Braun comes to mind, or Roland Barthes have worked on images in (the history of) philosophy.

Intellectual history, writ-large, focuses on productions of the mind–intellectual productions. The mind does not solely produce words. This is why I became interested in this project. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the “concept” of privacy had much more to do than the mere written theoretical concept “privacy.” It is much more than that, it deals with emotions, feelings, spatial, intimate cognitive processes. Intellectual history needs to expand in order to touch on these topics.

Helmstedt Merian 1641
Colored engraving of Helmstedt by Merian in 1641 first published in the “Topographia Germaniae” in 1654 (public domain)

In my work, I examine interactions between intellectual productions and privacy, including the intellectual production of privacy. For example, at the University of Helmstedt (or Academia Julia), professors went from living the life of a bachelor to living in private households linked to the university. They were citizens of the city university inside the city of Helmsted. For me, it is interesting to have the opportunity to explore the relationships that were fostered by this environment. Professors gave public lectures under the university’s control, and private ones with little control for a fee. Paul Nelles has studied the teaching of historia litteraria in the 18th century. Professors recruited students through pamphlets and their wife and children were also involved in the recruitment. Practical knowledge and fashionable topics were taught in private. Professors’ households also offered lodging, meals, and other services for students-they were called “Bier, Brot und Küche” professors. Many “new sciences” were taught in private before they were taught in public. Can we talk of a market capitalization of knowledge? I hope to investigate that in my research here at PRIVACY.

Natacha Klein Käfer: I work in the field of charm studies and I was drawn to the idea of privacy studies because of the many methodological and theoretical challenges that these areas of inquiry share. Charm studies is a contentious discipline because our historical sources are always in between established categories: we study practical, everyday activities, like the use of amulets or short prayers, all of which were seen by their users as facilitating cures and helping with daily problems. This kind of popular knowledge is always in between religion and heresy, between medicine and superstition. Privacy Studies is similar: privacy is almost always defined as being in relation to something else, you know it when you see it, but it is difficult to define. I like that here at PRIVACY we work together to develop methods to identify historical notions of privacy in new ways. Privacy, in the sources and periods I study, most often depended on the practicalities of how people lived their lives. I focus a lot on local healers. These were keepers of private knowledge from people in their communities, and were often put in situations where they had to protect private information, like in the case of a witch trial.

“Beschwörer” from the frontispiece of the book “Magiologia: christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und Zauberey” Basel, 1674.

It is interesting for me to see historical instances of what happens when the secrets of the community go out and reach the ears of authorities. When I look at my sources, when I examine healers involved in witch trials, for example, I see that there is a concern about who is entitled to have or share certain private information, not only among the elite, but also among the common folk. The concern over private data being shared predates the idea of privacy as a right. So in my analyses, I am drawn to the consequences of privacy and also the negotiation of privacy between individuals and communities.

Natália da Silva Perez: During my PhD work, I realized something curious about the three women playwrights in whose work I focused: none of them had children. For instance, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz says in a famous autobiographical letter that she had no inclination to marriage… that is why she decided to become a nun. But being a nun was also what enabled her to become a prolific writer, with several volumes of prose, poetry and drama published within her lifetime in Spain and New Spain. Perhaps counter-intuitively for us nowadays, the cloister was precisely what gave her the freedom to cultivate her mind. Another case is that of Lady Jane Lumley, a noblewoman whose father was close to the royal circle in England. She was not what we would recognize as a professional writer, but she was definitely a scholar, a researcher, and someone with a curious mind, and a very privileged education. In the privacy of her father’s household, she and her siblings received an erudite humanist education. They lived in an environment that fostered intellectual development… they had the best resources available for their learning… And them I also have the example of Madame de Villedieu, who was the first female playwright to have one of her plays featured at the court of Louis XIV. She spent many years of her life longing for the love of a man who did not love her back, so she didn’t have any family, nor did she get married until quite late in her life. These three women were from the elite (sure, Lady Lumley was at a much higher status than Sor Juana or Mme. de Villedieu, but even these two were not from lower echelons of their society; they had connections). The fact that they were privileged enabled them to study and write (helped perhaps by the fact that they ended up not raising children). Then, at the end of my PhD, my question was: how was it for women of lower strata of early modern societies? How did they conciliate their need to provide for themselves with their obligations of motherhood? What if they did not want to have children? That is why I decided to study sexual privacy for poor women.

Dustin Neighbors: Coming from the USA via the UK, I did not grow up with a cultural connection to royal history and monarchs. As a historian of monarchy and court culture, I have always been curious and interested in the unspoken loyalty and the magnificence of rulers of the past, and the interactions between rulers and their people. Throughout my doctoral research, I focused on the details and points of contact through public royal spectacles, ceremonies, public events, and itinerant monarchies, which afforded agency and authority to rulers. Public processions and itinerant monarchies were what instigated the idea of political privacy. Consequently, the question that I arrived to at the end of my doctoral research was: if rulers were so public, did they have privacy or have private moments? Private moments, for someone like Elizabeth I of England, had larger public consequences, as well as impacting early modern sociability and political culture.

“Queen Elizabeth I receiving two Dutch ambassadors”, unknown artist, c. 1575, Neue Galerie, Kassell, Germany.

For instance, during a hunting excursion in 1564, Elizabeth I engaged two French diplomats in a political discussion surrounding the possession of territory in France, that once belonged to England. This private moment highlights the discussion of political issues and its eventual public consequence of further damaging foreign relations with France. However, private was not just about the unseen and unheard but also about the designation of private spaces. Hunting was a public event, but with no one else involved in the hunting excursion except the Queen and the diplomats, the act of hunting and its environs became private spaces. The private exchanges that dealt with politics (broadly speaking) is why I want to study and develop the notion of political privacy. Is this a thing? Is it visible within the evidence? By expanding my research to examine the European royal and electoral courts, I am able to explore the similarities and differences that privacy had in shaping royal power, foreign relations, political and court culture in the early modern period.

So what will this blog be? Just as we began this discussion, this blog will be the home for notes during our respective research journeys… Here, we will jet down our unfinished (or even polished) thoughts, as we explore notions of privacy as they emerge in our work. We look forward to contributing to the dialogue on privacy studies and to fostering interdisciplinary conversations in the humanities and beyond.


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