Galison in Utrecht

I just got home from Peter Galison’s first talk as Visiting Professor at Utrecht University. As advertised in a previous post, the lecture focused on the role of secrecy in modern science. Actually, the focus was a lot broader than that. Galison’s interest was to trace what he saw as some significant historical changes in the legitimization and enforcement of secrecy in western societies, roughly from the early 20th century until today. A significant part of his argument was that scientific discourse became subjected to secretive forms of political regulation from WWII onwards.

Secrecy can mean a number of things, and fill a thousand different roles. What Galison really looked at was secrecy as a specific mode of controlling the flow and accessibility of information – with “information” understood in the broadest possible sense (e.g., special objects would classify). From this definition things easily take a political turn. How do social structures with power – governments, agencies, companies, armies, etc. – regulate the flow of information? Why do they do it, and how does it impact the broader society and the special social groups that ordinarily deal with information and knowledge, such as scientists, journalists and academics?

Very briefly put, Galison presented a three-stage development in the organization and use of secrecy in western societies (“western” here being more or less interchangeable with the NATO countries). Conspicuously, the three changes that he observes are all connected to military conflicts and power politics.

The first period was the Great War of 1914-1918. The role and use of secrecy in this period was connected to two things: political and moral censorship, which by no means was a new idea, and espionage, which was more novel. The US got its Espionage Act in 1917, for instance, which was followed up the year later by the Sedition Act. The former restricted the availability of information about the armed forces, while the latter posed sanctions against using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” to talk about the US government and national symbols. While these and similar legislative actions in Europe infringed on freedom of conscience and speech to ensure national security, regulations of science and technology remained significantly absent.

This was the major shift of the period which Galison terms “the Long War” of 1939-1989 – WWII plus the Cold War. The role of these wars and conflicts in creating 20th century government funded “Big Science” is of course well known. The particular place of the Bomb is also evident. The race for nuclear weapons, and then for better nuclear weapons, predictably played a major part in Galison’s narrative of how secretive policies swallowed science as well. The Manhattan Project and all surrounding institutions and entities were shrouded in secrecy in the 1940s, as were the efforts to produce new weapons, particularly the H-bomb, in the 1950s.

Here again an interesting legislative change occurs with the passing of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, setting down how the US should control and regulate its nuclear technology and facilities. It involved a crucial shift in the use of secrecy, particularly by introducing the concept of “born secret”: all knowledge pertaining to fission technologies were defined as “born secret” and hence classified. Essentially, this was a political regulation of a certain type of natural knowledge – if you happened to discover a way to use radioactive isotopes to split atoms completely on your own – without having been taught or without taking any vows of secrecy – you would be prosecuted if you disseminated it. And that’s not all: the punishment also became particularly Draconian, with the prosecuted facing execution as a consequence of disseminating these “born secrets”. There’s a lot more to be said about all this, but I’m not going to steal the whole lecture.

The last phase in the development of the organization and use of secrecy according to Galison is in our own present situation: the “Terror Wars” (2001 – ?). What happens is that the use of secrecy and information control gets decentralized, unbounded and outsourced. On the one hand its application gets boundless in the sense that, in a situation where any infrastructure is a potential target for terrorists – civic and private buildings, monuments, bridges, dams, powerplants, etc. – there arises a desire to control and restrict information about all sorts of infrastructure as well. On the other hand the actual strategy of secrecy changes in that it is typically taken out of the legal system and centralized government bodies. In stead, the use of military tribunals in a juridical no-mans land, and not least the outsourcing of security operations to private companies ensure that the flow of information evades any public scrutiny. Galison referred to these developments, somewhat obscurely to my mind, as “para-secrecy”.

At the end Galison made it clear that these changes in the use and significance of secrecy should not be seen as a set of stages which completely supplant each other through successive historical “ruptures”. Rather, the development is one of accumulation. If he’s right, then this is a somewhat grim observation. The “propositional” secrecy of the first stage, with its targeted censorship of specific ideas, practices and forms of expression, was not completely replaced, but rather kept – at least as a strategy – when the systemic secrecy of the “Long War” emerged from new historical, social, political, and scientific developments. Finally, the now largely empty and obsolete structures of the Cold War are still with us today, two decades after the disintegration of the Iron Curtain. These continue to regulate the flow of information within and between governments, while the new forms of “para-secrecy” are added to it, encircling it with specific anti-terror measures on the private and public levels.

That’s the gist of it, in 950 words. Or so my word count says.


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  1. […] the place for me to see visiting historians of science. A couple months back Peter Galison gave  lectures and a workshop on secrecy and science, and now last week, the alchemy specialist Lawrence Principe gave the […]

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