Privacy at Sea

Last week, on November 7, my colleague Jesper Jakobsen invited me to a seminar at the Saxo Institute (University of Copenhagen). In this seminar, Dr Catherine Beck was presenting her work “Understanding madness at sea in the eighteenth-century British Royal Navy”. After working on a project about superstitions surrounding shipbuilding at the Arquivo Municipal de Vila do Conde in 2015, I was very excited to get in touch with sea-related research again.

In her presentation, Dr Beck discussed how the idea of “madness at sea” was portrayed in surgeon’s logs and court martial transcripts of the late-eighteenth-century British Royal Navy. Discipline, obedience, and self-care were crucial to survival in the context of a Navy vessel, especially due to the limited space and only occasional access to land. Life at sea was tough, and sailors were generally perceived as being resilient, but also superstitious and naïve. At the shore, sailors represented almost the opposite of the Enlightenment ideals, being associated with drunkenness and absence of “reason”. In a certain way, to the world outside the ship, sailors were already “mad”. So what would constitute “madness” at sea?

Night Alarm, Prepare for Action, 19th-century caricature

Looking at her medical and legal sources, Catherine Beck could identify different “marks of insanity”. Acting in inexplicable ways, incoherent speech, and non-conforming appearance were associated with madness, but also physical signs like red eyes, indigestion, and fevers could be indicators. Interestingly, these marks alone would not necessarily be correlated to insanity at first glance. Madness at sea was less a matter of the “acts”, and more a matter of the “actor”. Similar symptoms would be understood differently depending on the ranking, responsibilities, and social background of the individual. The accumulation of several “marks of insanity” was crucial to a sufficient diagnosis. These contingencies of diagnosis were also related to the individual’s usefulness within the ship. Official diagnoses of madness were mostly used for temporary discharges after trial, in order to avoid executions that would waste experienced sailors.

These sources, however, have their limitations. The cases that came to court were the ones in which the individual’s actions became too extreme, and some trials show that the person’s mates usually managed the symptoms by themselves, creating dynamics to protect the “mad” person and each other. This idea of social dynamics within the ship being a critical factor in how the individual was treated led me to think that these dynamics probably played a massive role in the creation of privacy at sea.

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease”

While high-ranking officials would have their own quarters, most of the crew had to share their space. As someone who lived for almost a year in a student commune that was just a large room filled with bunk beds to accommodate people, I can imagine that the sailors would find ways of creating privacy, just as us students did. While the materials (or lack thereof) onboard imposed difficulties, sailors improvised walls with sheets and created spatial definitions for themselves. Even in crowded sleeping quarters, one’s own hammock became their private space.

Ship deck, 1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In his work “Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy”, B.R. Burg describes how sailors would use the ship’s space to try to conceal acts of sodomy. Efforts to keep sodomy as private as possible in the Navy would take place especially due to article 29 of the Articles of Wars, which dictates: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial”. But given the spatial constraints, where would people engage in sodomy?

Sodomy trials show that members of the fleet would take advantage of any chance of seclusion, using any spatial nooks that could conceal them. A particularly important element of privacy at sea was darkness. Burg describes how the trials regularly mention the need to “grab a lantern” when people suspected of being committing sodomy were found. “Hidden places” were a bit harder to come by. Usually, the spaces described are between the ship’s guns, behind chests, or in burrows between shipboard gears (p. 66). However, the information we have at hand are of those cases in which people failed to conceal themselves. Or more importantly, they failed to conceal themselves from the wrong people. It is safe to assume that just as crewmates accommodated their mentally ill colleagues, they also found ways of providing privacy for other acts as well.

Privacy was not (and could not be) a matter of isolation from the others. Privacy was the systems created to allow everybody “their space” – not necessarily physical, but also mental. These dynamics of privacy did not depend only on spatial definitions, but of intentional acts that enabled one’s privacy: to turn one’s back, to avoid looking at something, to use one’s own body to become the “wall” for someone else, to ignore or keep secret information about others.

I am by no means a specialist in maritime history, so I would love to hear from my fellow historians about what kind of dynamics of privacy at sea they see in their sources. Any comments are more than welcome, but please bring your best “privasea” puns or keep them at bay.

Greetings, Personal Space, and Privacy

 

Greetings can be weird.

When you are new in town, greetings can put you in awkward situations because of unknown tacit conventions of the new cultural environment. I was once at a party in Montréal and the topic of greetings came up, each of us outsiders reporting on awkward moments where greetings went wrong in the new town. I had been living in Québec for a while and had noticed that people would often greet each other by offering their left cheek for a kiss. I had also noticed that people who came to Montréal from elsewhere in Canada were more likely not to kiss as a greeting, but rather shake hands or just wave, sometimes hug. In my experience until then, coming from São Paulo, I had seen most people offer the right cheek for a kiss when greeting someone, which sort of trained me to also do the same, allowing for a seamless greeting experience of the cheeks fitting nicely. But that habit was tricky, because in Québec, with people trained to offer the other side of their faces for the kiss, a polite greeting would very often almost turn into a kiss on the lips, which was not the desired goal! I had to retrain myself on how to greet people.

Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain
Meeting of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, and Philip IV, King of Spain, on the Isle of Pheasants in the Year 1660 by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) and Edme Jeaurat (1688–1738)
Source: https://library.princeton.edu/versailles/item/905

Greeting conventions intersect with conventions of personal space, and for us humans they seem to change depending on a lot of variables: region of the world, social occasion, differences of gender, hierarchy, sometimes even by the mood of the people involved. A friend of mine recently told me about an international professional occasion gone weird. After a productive conversation with a potential client, she offered her business card, and when the two people were parting, she offered a firm handshake as a final greeting. The man with whom she had been conversing—older and from a different region of the world than the one she came from—at first shook her hand, but after a split second of hesitation, smiled awkwardly, and offered a hug in addition to the handshake. She was slightly surprised, but in the quickness of the moment, she responded to the hug as if it were normal. But she was left with a weird feeling because, even though hugging was normal where she came from, she knew from experience that this was not the case in the place where she was, where people rarely hugged each other in professional occasions.

Regarding this anecdote, I waver between an innocuous interpretation, and a more grudging one: was the man—being aware of the cultural difference between himself and my friend—trying to culturally adapt to the situation by offering a hug? Or did he misinterpret my friend’s upfront and confident demeanor as flirting, then try to take things from the professional realm into the personal with his awkward hug?

When we greet someone, we temporarily shrink the bodily distance that we normally keep between us and other people. This can put us on alert mode. In his book The Spaces Between Us, neuroscientist Michael S. A. Graziano compares the function of this buffer region around our bodies to bubble wrap: it is a sort of layer of protection that arises because some of our brain capacity is dedicated to constantly monitoring the region around our body. Graziano spent the 1990s studying peripersonal neurons and peripersonal space (which had been first described by Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues in the 1980s). According to Graziano, our bodies use different sensory inputs—vision, touch, audition, perhaps even smell—all in combination with our memory to keep track of the safety of our bodies, making sure that we maintain a minimal distance from potential threats to our wellbeing.

This is not unique to humans. Graziano credits biologist Heini Hediger as a pioneer on the study of proxemics on other animals. When Hediger was director of the Munich Zoo, he transformed cages into environments that attended to the needs of the animals that inhabited them:

More than just having territories, animals partition their territories. And this insight turned out to be particularly useful for zoo husbandry. An animal’s territory has an internal arrangement that Hediger compared to the inside of a person’s house. Most of us assign separate functions to separate rooms, but even if you look at a one-room house you will find the same internal specialization. In a cabin or a mud hut, or even a Mesolithic cave from 30,000 years ago, this part is for cooking, that part is for sleeping; this part is for making tools and weaving, that part is for waste. We keep a neat functional organization. To a varying extent, other animals do the same. A part of an animal’s territory is for eating, a part for sleeping, a part for swimming or wallowing, a part may be set aside for waste, depending on the species of animal. (Graziano 2018, p. 14)

As a historian interested in questions of bodily privacy, I am constantly confronted with the idea that privacy is a Western concept. People with more radical positions, who I have once in a while encountered in casual conversation, even go so far as to say that this purportedly Western concept is culturally imposed on other cultural environments of the world, where people are prone to live more communal lives and not worry about privacy so much.

But the need to protect one’s body from harm is not a cultural imposition from the West. It is a widespread need that spans across many species. I am left with an empirical question: what is the relationship between this buffer space around our bodies—which arises from the need to protect oneself from physical danger and which is present in many species beyond humans—and the need for a safety buffer zone around ourselves that has a more emotional nature, which we sometimes associate with the concept of privacy?

In my next post, I will talk about what I have been learning from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work on the social construction of emotions and put it in conversation with what I learned from Michael S. A. Graziano’s work on peripersonal space.


Graziano, Michael S. A. The Spaces between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Towards a history of privacy: conceptual and methodological considerations

If privacy is a highly debated topic today, particularly in the USA, it is mainly because of increasing concerns in the last two decades regarding the rise of digitalization, on the one hand, and surveillance promising security against “terrorism,” on the other. As a look at the surge of the term “privacy” in an n-gram Google books search shows, this had been a rising concern since the 1960s.

Alan F. Westin published the first seminal book on privacy in 1967, Privacy and Freedom, which influenced several legal reforms in the 1970s and 1980s in the USA. He devised a taxonomy with four different states of privacy: solitude, intimacy, reserve, and anonymity. The central issue was already the interception of communications, physical and increasingly electronic. In a similar vein, the growing use of the internet triggered concerns regarding a seemingly limitless invasion of privacy. Jeffrey Rosen published The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America in 2000, and The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age in 2004, with an emphasis on privacy in a digital world. James B. Rule in 2007 Privacy in Peril, offered an account of the tradeoff involved between privacy and security or other conveniences by individuals willingly giving electronic information to government and corporations.

In his 2008 book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, Jonathan Zittrain showed how the transition to a web 2.0 also involved a transition from a “Privacy 1.0” (data gathered by and stored in government and corporate databases) to a “Privacy 2.0” (data created and freely shared by individuals). In that spirit, in Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change, edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes in 2011, leading US scholars imagine the state of things to come and suggest policies and legal solutions to issues related not only to technological advances in surveillance but also neuroscience and genetics.

In conceptualizing privacy, these works have in common that they consider privacy as a valuable good from an individual point of view, an individual right that needs protection. Of course, I do not contend that we should not see privacy as a right that needs protection, but as a historian, and particularly an intellectual historian, this present conceptualization is problematic and is the starting point of a Foucauldian interrogation on a “history of the present.” How did we come to consider privacy as a human right? It was not present in the 1789 Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, but is in article 12 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Privacy is however difficult to conceptualize and attempts to do so may lead to everything and nothing. Daniel J. Solove, in his 2008 Understanding Privacy, noted this difficulty and suggested a new taxonomy different from Westin’s (information collection, processing, dissemination, and invasion of privacy). Solove suggests avoiding an essentialist conception of privacy with a defined “core.” Instead, one should consider Wittgenstein’s theory of language and “family resemblances” when studying privacy. Rather than looking at one issue, Solove suggests a bottom-up approach by understanding “privacy as a set of protections against a plurality of distinct but related problems” (p. 171). This set of related problems forms a cluster of disparate notions that we solely for practical purposes unite under the common denomination “privacy.”

As a parenthesis on Wittgenstein, one may note that he exiled himself in Skjolden, Norway, in a secluded and isolated hut, which was visible to all in the village downhill. A sort of “conspicuous privacy.” This points the finger on one issue, which is also identified by many book covers and also the logo chosen for the Centre for Privacy Studies: an external eye witnessing the “private.”Eye dilate

Now, a key issue in intellectual history concerns the methodological and conceptual characterization of the object of study, typically a concept, idea, any intellectual production. Consider liberty. One could chose to define liberty first, and then look to the past to identify how the defined liberty was used and thought of, and how the concept was formed. This way of writing history, however, runs the risk of anachronism. As Quentin Skinner showed in Liberty Before Liberalism, one may overlook other conceptions of liberty, a neo-Roman or neo-Republican conception, than the one determined by the dominant paradigm of liberalism. The issue is this: writing the history of an intellectual object has two occupations. First, writing the history of the object in the past. Second, writing the history of the formation of the object in the past–how we got this object today.

Privacy is no different and is a typical case of an object of study, for which the word did not necessarily exist in the past or rarely occured. As Ferdinand de Saussure put it, an object has two components: a signifié (signified), or the concept that a word is designating, and a signifiant (signifier) or the word that designates the concept. Now a historian looks at sources, documents, that prove the existence of an object in the past. However, looking at the word is only looking at one side of the object when it is an intellectual one. A concept may exist before a word appears to define it. Also, the same word may designate a different concept than the one we have today. One could see this as making the object of study two dimensional rather than one-dimensional.

Of course, the concept of privacy obeys the same methodological considerations for the historian. From an intellectual historian’s point of view, it is, therefore, a double endeavor: investigating how past human beings thought of privacy, and investigating how the notion itself developed and became a word. For the first endeavor, we often lack a word, so there is a need to consider alternative methods. For the second, we lack a clear conceptualization of what notions to look for that will create the word. A quick look again at Google books shows the beginnings of the use of the word “privacy” and a peak in the mid-17th century after the end of the English civil war.

Moreover, privacy is more than just a concept. It is also a feeling and a condition.  Beate Rossler has theorized three dimensions of privacy: decisional privacy (the privacy of actions), informational privacy (the proper “right to privacy” or “right to be left alone” from Warren and Brandeis), and local privacy (the traditional private home separate from the public). That may be a third dimension to understanding privacy as an object of study. Privacy is, therefore, a great case for a truly interdisciplinary study program and deserves to be expanded into a whole field of study: privacy studies.

The Centre for Privacy Studies opted for an ambitious methodological and theoretical approach while maintaining a firm and clearly delineated bottom-up case-based study. Centre director Mette Birkedal Bruun published two papers on the centre’s working method. One is “Privacy in Early Modern Christianity and Beyond: Traces and Approaches” Annali Istituto storico italo-germanico/Jahrbuch des italienisch-deutschen historischen Instituts in Trient 44 (2018/2), 33-54. Another one is available on the Centre’s homepage. We understand privacy both as a quality and a threat from the perspective of all parts involved. In order to examine family resemblances, we not only analyze the stem “priv” in a corpus of texts–“priv- words”, i.e. words like “ “private,” “privacy,” “privy,” in various languages–but we also use a semantic mapping of words related and/or opposed to “private”–such as “common,” “professional,” “public,” etc. We also use heuristic zones to delineate the intersection, exclusion, and overlap of various spheres of privacy:

By examining how some problems related to privacy occurred at different places and times, we want to present a micro-historical observation of the human condition. All these cases could then serve for the basis of a bigger macro-analysis of the variations in thinking of and living with privacy.

This is what a scientific research program in the humanities aims to achieve: to provide society the tools to understand itself and the human condition in order to make better-informed decisions for the future. However, humankind does not understand universally the concept of “privacy” in the same way. Barrington Moore wrote a seminal anthropological and historical study comparing an Eskimo community, classical Athens, the Old Testament, and Ancient China. The first issue lies in the translation of this cluster we call “privacy” in other languages and in wondering with Moore whether it is universal at all. In my next post, I shall consider “privacy” in the French language as an example.

Privacy Challenge Seminar: Family Secrecy and Privacy

With Associate Professor Karen Asta Arnfred Vallgårda, SAXO-Institute, University of Copenhagen.

Family Secrecy and Privacy

Every family has a skeleton in the closet, or so the saying goes. A dubious deed or a disgracing detail that is kept under wraps through more or less elaborate practices of secrecy. But what does this convey about the family and its relationship to society or the state? And how might a historical perspective help us better understand the nexus between the public and the private in contemporary society? The presentation introduces the collective research project The Politics of Family Secrecy, which examines practices of knowledge management related to different taboos in twentieth century Denmark, and reflects on the historical and contemporary connections between secrecy and privacy.

Karen Asta Arnfred Vallgårda’s research centers on political family and childhood history in the 19th and 20th centuries. She examines how people have organized their family life, how power is exercised in intimate relationships, and how such relationships have been shaped by shifting social, economic, political and legal circumstances.

About the Challenge Seminars:

PRIVACY hosts two Challenge Seminars each semester. Here, the PRIVACY’s research team join with invited experts on topics such as surveillance, privacy rights, medical ethics, work-life balance or social cohesion, in order to pose mutual research challenges.