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Audio Guide: The Next Page - Transcripts

Welcome to the UN Library and Archives Geneva's Audio Research Guide! Here you'll find episodes from our own podcast, The Next Page, as well as podcasts and audio from or on the UN system and multilateralism.

60: Carolyn Biltoft on Media, Truth and Power at the League of Nations

by Katrine Knudsen on 2021-09-17T09:00:00+02:00 in UN Library & Archives Research Tools, United Nations, League of Nations | Comments

-- JINGLE --  

Amy Smith: Hello, and welcome to The Next Page, the podcast at the UN Library and Archives Geneva, designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. I'm Amy Smith and I met up this week with Carolyn Biltoft, an associate professor of international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva, who has just published a book called “A Violent, Peace, Media, Truth and Power at the League of Nations.” 

Professor Biltoft uses the league as a point of observation and the book looks at the interaction of mass media and mass violence. She has a way of distilling things to their essence, and I was interested as much in her methodology as in her choice of forgotten stories and the people she found in the archives, the connections she makes and meanings she finds. I asked her to take us through some of these stories, almost like little mysteries in this thoroughly enjoyable conversation. 

-- JINGLE -- 

Amy Smith: So, hello, Carolyn Biltoft, Welcome to The Next Page.  

Carolyn Biltoft: Thank you.  

Amy Smith: You're an associate professor of international history at the Graduate Institute Geneva, you did your PHD at Princeton University in world history and you've just published book “A Violent, Peace, Media, Truth and Power at the League of Nations.” And you spent a lot of time researching in our archives and yet this book is not really a history of the league as such, I see it more as a deeply humanistic exploration, a deep contemplation of the wonderful complexity of a particular period in time. Would you like to tell us a bit more about yourself and how you came to fuse together different approaches to study this sort of dynamic interactions you explore in your book around three mediums of language, money, and press - very topical subjects. 

Carolyn Biltoft: Yes, thank you, Amy and thank you for having me today. I'm very happy to be here. So the League of Nations for me became a point of entry for solving one part of this question, how do you do international or global history, right? And there is one way where you can trace a story from archive to archive around the world and there is another method which I used for the league which is to stand in a single point and watch the world move through that point. So, for me, the league was really a microcosm of the global inter war moment and it was also a place for me to think about how do you do global intellectual history? What is the history of ideas from a global perspective and where do you pursue it? Where are the locations you can pursue it? And because the League of Nations was a space, who even if it fell short of the objective of universalism, still aspired to universality and so at the bare minimum there's a conversation at work about what the global means, how it could be mobilised, and what are its aims, its parameters, its functions? So that was really the rationale behind the choice of location, but also because I think in many ways stories of supposed failure are overlooked as sites of investigation in history, right? Not and not necessarily from the perspective of what went wrong, but kind of the the paths that were opened. So people forget to look at projects that were that were initiated and then fell apart with any other metrics than failure, right? So? So there's something about the the story that that was the aspirations that were pursues and so the outcome really was less important for me than the storylines that that that that aspiration initiated. So that's the kind of meta methodology in the background, but the specific methodology was thinking about this inter war question of the relationship between mass media and mass violence and feeling like there was a lot of theoretical work, on the one hand, in media theory about this kind of this notion of mass culture and its contribution to the horrors of the holocaust and then there's a lot of specific history of how specific fascist regimes mobilise specific propaganda campaigns, but I was really interested in the question in a much broader, more conceptual way, which is what is this thing called mass media, and how did it interact with our pre-existing hatreds, prejudices, right? So so rather than thinking about media as a tool of only of manipulation, I was really interested in that interactive question, about how media transforms our fears, our desires, our urge for power, our longing for certainty and to me, the league was such a fertile point of observation because it's not like the League of Nations, you can draw a straight line saying that it participated in the mass media fascism, not at all, right? But it's a place where the idea that you could change the world that you could achieve certain objectives through the use and diffusion of information. 

It was a place to look at the mentality of fear, certainty, anger, hatred, desire and how it moved through this this new phenomenon called global public opinion or world public opinion, right? So it really became a space for reflecting on the globality, but also the philosophical resonances of the way that mass media really interacted with our own fears, anxieties, doubts, hatreds. So that was the kind of rationale behind using the leagues archives, and then once you're there as I say in my book, literally every section of the league has some relationship to media, right? It really became a multimedia factory or it really became a space where nations outsourced their public relations. It really became this global discussion forum, multimedia corporation, public relations firm, advertising firm like the league was really partly this, and so as the more I dug into the archives, the more I realised the centrality of of information dynamics and then also conflicts in the world were playing out over conflicts about how to define the nature of truth. 

Amy Smith: It certainly is, and that's a lot in one small book - a lot of research and a lot of things condensed into it, and I know that during the launch of your book at the Graduate Institute recently, you mentioned that you deliberately written a book that cannot be skimmed, and I know having read this and savoured every sentence and looked at nearly every footnote. I can assure everybody that this is true, and I wonder what was your aim with that? 

Carolyn Biltoft: So I mean, the more that I began investigating not to be modular, but there's something that I found always a little bit sorrowful about the modern information system, even the rise of Facebook made me vaguely sad just because of the ways it frames intimacy. It so quickly foments, prejudice and hatred. I mean, these are just kind of personal observations and so my puzzle became, how do you write a book about the information system that doesn't mimic the worst dynamics of the information system, right? So, for for for people that produce knowledge the goal these days is that it's something can be quickly summarised, so that it can be packaged, distributed, so that it can be skimmed, so they can be reproduced into something else, and then on the other hand, this this notion of the non-reductive story, right? The story that if you really want to tell a human story, human stories are complicated, right? Human stories are multivalent and rarely reducible to a single lesson, moral, outcome and because there are a lot of human figures in my tale, I wanted to honour the humanistic impulse to not reduce something to either an explanation, just an easy explanation or some you know statement of knowledge that could be reproduced and packaged as policy, right? So, there are all these ways in which I was trying to figure out a critique of the information system that would somehow keep my book out of the information system right, it's not possible, right? Because for people to I want people to read my book right. The point isn't that I'm not Emily Dickinson burying my poems in the sand but it was a real dilemma for me, how do you examine the information system without replicating the ways it hides complexity.  

Amy Smith:  But I think it really comes through the your attachment to the people and the stories within the book very much comes through and I am interested in how how you write because you have mentioned your methodology in the book and you state that it is to look through rather than at the league and so if you're willing in this podcast I I'd like you to lead us into this world that you take that through some of the stories, they're almost like little mysteries that you that you've discovered in in your book and that you relate and you find the meanings so that they hold. So if you're willing...   

Carolyn Biltoft: Yes, of course. 

Amy Smith: And so we'll go into these three different sections that you look at in your book. The mediums of language and money and the press. And so, starting with language you know just after World War One, there was a general hope of talking. I think it came from from the British actually, that using words rather than weapons would be preferable to war.  And you quote Woodrow Wilson, who in a speech at the Sorbonne in the 1918, had said that if the powers involved had sat down together to discuss the purpose of this war for a single fortnight it would never have happened. And there is this really tremendous confidence in words. How did that play out? 

Carolyn Biltoft:  So I think this some part of the story is the growth and diffusion of technologies of information that seemed suddenly so powerful, right? So you have you have the radio, it's not just the Telegraph, but it's also the emergence of radio and then cinema and this this sense you know, as as Walter Lippmann said, that the kind of media campaign of World War One was another front to be to be fought in one propaganda, so partly it's this growth of the idea that with new information technologies you can literally reach the nooks and crannies of every distant corner of the earth with your message, right? So crafting a specific message became a way to achieve certain political ends, right? So this this story. But for me because it's the world of international politics and international relations, I think, so often they get disconnected those stories of international politics get disconnected from the cultural and intellectual histories that were taking place simultaneously, right? So for me it's significant that Dadaism just down the road in in the Cabaret Voltaire was experimenting with altering and randomising speech as a kind of revolutionary point, and it's significant to me that there was also the birth of semiotics, right? This understanding of the relationship between words and reality that it was somewhat arbitrary, and it was significant to me that psychoanalysis came up with the talking cure, right? Which is that you could expunge neurosis through the power of discussion, right? So to me, it became very important that you resituate the history of the League of Nations out of the typical linear tale of international peace and international war, and place it, as you know, a kind of, yeah, just one object, one space among many that we're trying to rethink the relationship between speech and power, and between truth and power. So it's a decentring of the league story, but place it, plunging it back into the history of the world. And so I think only by decentring the typical story of could it prevent war or not? Do you begin to see the other forms of significance and signification that people attached to that space, you know pilgrims, letter writers, poets, revolutionaries, they place so much hope in this project of international peace and cooperation. So, whether or not it worked keeps us from seeing what was the process by which people believed in it or didn't believe in it, by which they participated, by which they were cynical or sincere. And language was this foundation stone for me, because the question of if we're going to have a global therapeutic appointment, what language will we use? And so, this question of Esperanto that there would be a neutral, international, auxiliary language rather than a national language which carried its own questions of politics and prestige and inequality, there was this brief hope that you could have an international language to meet the demands of an international talking shop - a neutral, non-politicised tongue. And it gained as I show in that chapter on languages, is it actually had a tremendous following, right? It wasn't insignificant at all. It was quite widespread.  

Amy Smith:  We'll come back to Esperanto in a moment, but I also wanted to pick out this you know this idea of the League of Nations, and as you're saying, this whole movement, this to hope, in the in the League of Nations. In your book you paint a very vivid picture of a sort of world stage at the at the Palais de Nations and and all the backstage workings, the Secretariat, everybody producing all these words and documents and papers and and how they were putting pigeonholes, and when they're delivered and they work overnight to produce these things, and then how to send them out and the connections via telephone and other and other means, and you even mentioned a pneumatic tube that was to go to Geneva’s main post office. Now I don't know whether that actually existed or either it was simply planned for, perhaps you have the answer to that. 

Carolyn Biltoft:  No, I've actually been trying to figure that out. As far as I can tell, because I just cross reference with several documents and where it it does occur as something that's just mentioned casually. So I'm assuming that it existed before they moved to the new building, that from the Palais Wilson to the post office there was some pneumatic device. I don't know if it was to a weigh station or if it went direct to the post office.  

Amy Smith:  But apparently there was something. 

Carolyn Biltoft: There was something.  

Amy Smith: Yeah, yeah, I noted that you've even counted, you know how many files in the archives there are relating to language and words and these sort of things. And it's really quite astonishing. But also at at this time there were also, you've made an unusual connection, I find, between the technological advances that we've made in warfare and sort of machines for war, but also machines that we'd started making for for words - typewriters, and I think any civil servants listening will be quite intrigued to see that things haven't changed much since the time of the secretariat of the League of Nations and and that there is a little intrigue around the case of the missing typewriter. Could you tell us about that and how you interpret its significance? 

Carolyn Biltoft: Again, this was part of my trying to attend to stories that get overlooked, right? Stories that seem to not go anywhere and what they can tell us about. I think this is for me, one of my most important kind of methodological points that I use for myself, which is that which is unmarked by an archive, organisation or an organisation as insignificant, which is insignificant, will reveal something about what we might call the subconscious of right? Not literally, but the metaphor is, it's something about the subconscious of the organisation, something about it's it's deeper, unifying logics, its meanings that are sort of there, but not articulate as the mission, and so the missing typewriter suddenly in the 1919 as there's all this flurry and activity around, really establishing the Permanent Secretariat of the League of Nations, including a move from London to Geneva. There's an archival file dealing with the fact that for reasons they don't understand, the typewriter went missing and maybe it was stolen or maybe it was lost in the kartoffel. So they actually reached out to the Remington Typewriter Company with whom they had a deal to supply the typewriters to report the typewriter is absent. But just this attention to a single machine in this work of this flurry of informational activity, it prompted me to look into the history of the typewriter, especially because it was the Remington company that was involved and it is not at all insignificant and the German media historian Richard Kitler also speaks of the fact that typewriters really emerged to use fallow machine gun equipment after the American Civil War. So as an effort to put this this, this fallow equipment to use, they started producing typewriters instead of machine guns. And there was a lot of discourse, even in the 19th century about, oh, this is so revolutionary because we'll start producing words instead of weapons. And yet, right? My point is more like because of the power structures of the modern world, words and power are they're really inseparable from the very kinds of projects that also produce war, which is the distribution of power and resources, how is it secured? How is it contested? Kind of the workings of hegemony. How do you hold a power system into place? And so I think it's not to be cynical, right? It's just to allow for the full complexity of the human experience to say where there is an effort for peace, it's impossible to disentangle it from the structures of power that exist, right? So, you so you at least have to look at the intersection of you know, efforts for peace and stability, and then these these other questions of power and resources and just and look at how and look at how they intersect or how they work in the background. And that's not to say that efforts for peace are not meaningful. It's just that that it's we can't find them as fully disembedded in a pure way, from the workings of power. 

Amy Smith: So coming back to Esperanto because that's also linked. How did this new international universal language that's going to bring peace and is so attractive and seems so attractive to the League of Nations as well. It eventually was dismissed as an idea, and it almost came to be seen as a as a threat. So, talking about power, what to you, does language represent in this symbolic realm? 

Carolyn Biltoft: I think This is why there is often still in the in the current United Nations, there are still questions about which languages will be official. So, I think part of the main argument of my book is that a world that is increasingly run through through information, the workings of symbolic capital, become more literally symbolic capital, right? So so the symbols of power become a kind of form of cash. Not just cachet, but like a literal form of accumulated value. And so, in a world that's that's run by words whose language – and you know, and there are many scholars of the dominance of the English language on the world stage that have discussed these points, right? Linguistic hegemony became a threat because it promised to neutralise. It it promised to neutralise speech, right?  It would be, it would be a language no one owned right, right? Everybody would be on the same grounds, right? So Esperanto - I mean, the goal really became to have not just competing for primacy, just like states competed to have global empires, right? The empires are global, right? But they're there for the enrichment of a certain nation state. So, France wanted francophone. English speakers wanted Anglophone and German speakers, wanted Germanophone. You know there was not -- Esperanto posed a threat to the idea they were seeking hegemony, not equality on the world stage.

Amy Smith:  Yeah, so you also pick out another little story that you found around this in the archives. So about how a Swiss linguist who was a promoter of Esperanto, Edmund Prevatt, he ended up as a member of the Persian delegation. How did that happen?

Carolyn Biltoft:  Yeah, so so the Persian delegation couldn't afford to have its full number of representatives, so Edmund Prevatt made a deal with them, saying that he would basically serve on there for free if they would support the bid at the league to to expand the use, or at least to certify the teaching of Esperanto. So, the league never considered taking up Esperanto as an official language. The question was really would they give their endorsement to the project and even that they say in the end they stepped back from endorsing Esperanto. But there's a lot of discussion and a lot of delegations that really want Esperanto, because it's extremely easy to learn and the whole idea was that it would really equalise this project of international discussion because everyone will be on the same ground. And felt like there could be no world peace as long as there was linguistic conflict and so that was his rationale for joining the league on an official delegation to promote the work of Esperanto, because he truly believed that the road to world peace was through linguistic equality.

Amy Smith:  Yes, so talking still about words I noticed was a word that was quite recurrent in your book and that is “emergence”, right? I did actually count, and it occurred about 41 times, emerge emerged, emergence and you talk about this in reference to the league, the league, the League of Nations emerged, information systems emerged, you know political publicity, communication means, and so on, all in terms of emergence. And I wanted to come back to this idea of the construction of this world stage because we hear a lot nowadays about redesigning multilateralism or perhaps more the multilateral system - and I was thinking in relation to your use of the word emerge and given that we're talking about complex systems, what scope do you think we really have to shape multilateralism? Is it perhaps more a question of emergence?

Carolyn Biltoft: I think the interesting thing about the League of Nations and the study of systems, including international systems, is there are non-linear effects. So, every effort, we can certainly try, but I guess the kind of, if there's a lesson, it's partly that which exceeds our grasp, so I kind of my best hope and this is what I tell my students, it's that greater attention to human complexity - is the best we can do. Because they will always be power and there will always be bids for power and there will always be some shadows lurking in the darkness of even our most pure-hearted projects. And yet an urge for simplicity, like the simplification of the world, reduced to slogans, campaign slogans, advertisements. And so this attention to the nonlinear, non-cause and effect dynamics, of the international system, I think it's kind of what I think is the best we can hope for.

Amy Smith:  Yeah, so we're moving on to something, perhaps a bit more solid, or perhaps not. But I hear that we're actually sitting on a pot of gold here at the Palais because your book reminds us that there's a time capsule and it's sealed under the cornerstone of the foundation of the Palais. Tell us what's in it and why you see this as significant.

Carolyn Biltoft: So, in that time capsule is a species, right? It's an example of the money of every nation state that member of the League of Nations in 1928, when the foundation stone was built, so this does lead to the other medium that I look at - and I really think of money as a medium like language and like the press, right? And maybe in a world of cryptocurrency, that metaphor is not even metaphorical, it's more literal, right? But just like language, the idea of a national currency was a legitimising force, right? It gave a state legitimacy to have its own currency. So, in the league's ambition to create international cooperation based on the sacrosanctity of sovereignty - of the sovereignty of nation states - money became a symbolic limitation of the legitimacy of the states that were involved in in the project of the League of Nations.

Amy Smith: So, you've already mentioned this the the the idea of following the First World War, there's this Hawking back to simple, simpler and surer times and what was solid and authentic and what you could rely on - and you'd write a third sense to the English word ‘utter” that I didn't know at all and had to look up. And it's “to utter” also means to put money into circulation, so I don't know that. Would you like to say a bit more about that?

Carolyn Biltoft: Yeah, this is my, you know, like when I'm the the the linguist Fernanda Saucer spoke of the relationship between language and reality, he also used money metaphors, right? Of the relationship between the money and the value and how it is arbitrary. And so, the way in which it really drove home for me the idea that this this symbolic dimension of money is every bit as important as it's what you might call real or or material dimension, and to show also became like language a source of anxiety about what's real and what's not real, right? So artificial languages, counterfeit currency, people with the rise of information people became very anxious about “how do we know what's true and how do we know what's real”? So, beyond the kind of quest for power, there's another, more existential question is if money can be printed, and language can be reproduced if it can fly across the earth via radio waves, how do we know it's real? How do we know it's true?

Amy Smith: And so, there was another mystery here. That's the “l'avare de phobie”?

Carolyn Biltoft: That was an incredibly complex story, but there is a case of the Hungarian counterfeiting of the French franc and it created a lot of sensation at the league and the French really pushed to have a conference at the league against the counterfeiting of bills, because suddenly there is the age of hyperinflation when already the money of like the value of money, could could fluctuate wildly, right? So the metaphor is the wheelbarrow of money for a loaf of bread, right? The idea that you could counterfeit money, created all of these forms of anxiety about how do you stabilise - not just the value of the currency - but how do you stabilise the faith that people have in that currency? So, it's really a double question. It's not just the value, it's the faith in the in the medium of exchange. And so, what was fascinating to me about reading the league’s “proccess verbal” -I don't know how to say it in English suddenly - of the of the conference on counterfeit, was the passion with which people were speaking and the metaphors and the and the fear and the anxiety around “how do we know what money even is?” Like after an age of hyperinflation and then suddenly counterfeiting technologies become more sophisticated? There's this panic about how do we even know what money is, let alone how do we protect it, stabilise it, secure it? That was very fascinating. And so, one answer is the solidity of gold, right? But as I tried to show in the book the gold - the International Gold Standard had long been actually an informational standard itself, right? The metal is what made the creature solid?

Amy Smith: And another of your claims is that the league didn't just influence world opinion, but also had a task of - in your words - rebranding something called Western Civilization. And there was an information section at the at the league and you also show in your book how the league adapted its communication for different audiences, which is really quite interesting. How do you see through the Lantern slides project and what was it?

Carolyn Biltoft: So I think what's interesting about the Lantern slide project was basically an advertising project. So I think the league on the one hand, advertised for a certain world order and that world order was the one that was brought into place with Versailles and the other treaties that came shortly after. So that was part of the work of the league was to remain brand, you know, rebrand Western civilization by by making it a creature of peace instead of a creature of violence. But there was another branding that had to take place for that to work and that was branding the league itself as a legitimate centre of that that world order, and so the Lantern slided project was created to really advocate the league right, especially in places where people were not yet members or even in places where they were members, but there was considerable international disagreement about the value of being at the league about about the work that it could do. So, it created a series. It created a slideshow with all of these, I mean, and the process by which they thought pictures for that slideshow was amazing, right? They they had really specific things that they wanted in the slides, so there were all of these very spicific ideas about which pictures would prove that the league had done important work since its coming into being but for different audiences. So, this was really just an example of how much thought, energy, literal resources went into the project of advertising the league itself, but also the work that he was doing as something central to the reconstruction of the world after after the First World War.

Amy Smith: Well, I think now we need to talk about false news as it was called back then. We need to talk about Stephan Lucks. Tell us what happened in 1936 in the Assembly on the 3rd of July and what happened thereafter.

Carolyn Biltoft: So, Stephan Lucks was a Jewish poet, filmmaker and journalist, and he was observing as so many others with despair after the rise of Nazism in Germany, the kind of ripples of not just anti-Semitism, but for Stefan Lucks it is really about something like barbarism being acceptable? The discourse of violence being celebrated, and so he used - he secured a media badge to attend the assembly at the League of Nations through the proper channels. And then he walked into the assembly hall and he put a he put a gun to his head and he pulled the trigger and he left a series of suicide notes with journalists and also hmm designated for Joseph Avenell, which who was then the Secretary-General of the League of Nations. After that event, there was a a literal almost like an international conspiracy - or it seems like that although it wasn't intentional - it was just a reactive covering up of the event and the message. So, I went through and I reconstructed the treatment of that episode at the league in the press. The league buried the story. They even took the event out of the 1936 assembly records, so there's no record of the fact that a man came in in and killed himself for the express purpose of warning the world about how serious were the horrors that were growing each day inside of Germany and the regime and the Nazi Germany posed again, not just to the Jews, and that was very important for him like this is this is an attack on humanity, that was his claim as a Jew. It's not just attack on the Jews, it is it. It is an attack on humanity, and if you compromise with it, if you bow to it like it's a wound in the soul of the world and that was really his message and he really was desperate and saw no other way than to use the league public stage to commit an active *** and he really thought that it was going to make a difference and the tragedy of the Stefan Lucks chapter is that this is how the information system works. It reduces a human life to series of events. It reduces a human life to a headline to to something that has to be buried inside of the organisation and then something that has to be minimised in a specific way in the press. So in the press, it was strange coverage. The details differ a lot of anti-Semitic subtexts in the way the the even the American press was describing the suicide, like for example referring to him as far from penniless, when in fact he was penniless but because he was through in the anti-Semitic slur that he had been rich, which was not the case. So, you just see that even democratic media outlets are producing forms of truth that are dedicated to supporting certain positions. The question of false news is so much more complicated than fact-checking. It can never be only fact-checking. The way in which he put his whole life into - like he took his life really to deliver a message and then the information system just absorbed the message and and returned his voice to to silence.

Amy Smith:  Yeah, it was very effectively silenced and not a plaque or anything. Today we've barely heard of his name. So going back to the start of your book into your preface, you talk about current resonances with historical events as being uncanny sounds. Would you explain to us more about the trans historical patterns you see?

Carolyn Biltoft:  Yeah, I mean it was a very strange experience because I started this book before the rise of Trump and Bolsonaro, right? So this was a long, this was a long project. The word on canny is important for me because Floyd’s understanding of of uncanny is *** that did that which is not domesticated. Basically, that which is, that which is not ours, uhm, the unfamiliar. And I think that the past - the point isn't showing that the 1930s were identical to what we've been living through in the kind of expression of violence, and for violence, and this kind of activism that has been with us on the question of fake news since 2015, 2016. The uncanniness of the past is to show where their similarities *** , and so we have to strain, we really need to strain to see what was unique about them in order to help us understand this longing for truth and certainty. Maybe that that remains the same and the way that the longing for power and certainty - they both are pursued via the press and undermined via the press, right? Which creates these forms of instability. Uhm, reactive, us/them discourse and impatience and intolerance on both sides of the political spectrum. That is so much beyond, you know, we're not supposed to go to both siderism, right? Like the point is that, I was hoping there could be some kind of reflexivity about to the extent that we all desire absolute certainty, and to the extent that such a thing is not possible. To really think about the ways that we're susceptible to the kinds of information that makes us feel good, that confirms our biases or prejudices and our suspicions and to really think about what that means in a in a deep way, our own susceptibility, right? To, uhm, yeah, just the desire to be right just that right and how we seek confirmation.

Amy Smith: So, do you think that the way in which communications around Steven Lux's death were handled would happen again today?

Carolyn Biltoft:  I think that it happens all the time. I think that I think that if you take a Conservative newspaper and a liberal one, you put them side by side in their in their treatment of the story - you see interesting things and that is not to say I think that the protection of the freedom of the press is so important and I think also, there is this more complex question about what is hate speech and how that's different from virulently expressed opinions and you know so those questions are difficult to resolve, but I think it is the nature of the media machine to circulate spin, right? And it's still a business and it's still a four-profit business in most places and and even where it's emanating from centres of politics or non-governmental organisation, there's still an objective in the background and so rather than. And no, so I just think the job is analysis and not to be overly pedagogical, but I tell my daughter all the time “You really need to spend time reading things that you don't agree with and then just observing what happens in your analytical field” like when you observe things that upset you, like especially those of us living in societies that are sufficiently peaceful. And if we have sufficient food and resources to have the luxury to be analytical, I think it's our job. So that's the one - I try to avoid the moral, you know, the moral lesson, but I still really believe, especially as an educator, that this will to complex analysis, that isn't just about protecting your own ego, your own territory, your own reputation, but that is transversal probing questioning, I still think that's why we need to promote free education and and also the freedom of the press. And I think there's just a way in which some things have to be protected instead of hyper regulated and and and the media is one of those cases where I think we need more emphasis on education and less fighting over what can appear or not appear in the press and more emphasis on teaching people to read deeply, to think carefully, to be patient with information that upsets them, right?

Amy Smith: And so, what about the three mediums that you chose? Language, money and the press? Do you still think they are the main mediums by which today's world actors vie to impose their reality?

Carolyn Biltoft:  I mean, they are certainly still very central. I mean it was only if you think about the there were there were reforms to the grammatical structure of French from the Academy Francaise pretty recently, right? So I think the the question and and in the United States there has been questions about the duel language or dialects or something about the public sphere. And the quest to control it that does collate on those three medium right on on language money in the press. What can be said? In what language? Who has access to money and who doesn't? You know these are kind of the foundational, the infrastructure, as it were of that thing we call the public sphere, and so these are where the lines of contestation and conflict continued continued to occur and I think this is also why I found like for example, I found so moving the Black Lives Matter marches in the middle of COVID. There's a way in which the physical presence of people appearing through the media channels in ways that might defy the storylines we want to tell about certain versions of conflict. Just seeing people united marching together and knowing that that's not, that's also not a non-complex issue, right? So, I'm not, I'm not saying that it is, but there's something about the human that has so often defied our efforts to reduce it to something intelligible. And yeah, so I just I hope I keep hoping to write stories that produce the emotional lens of watching people march for their rights, right? Which is there is a way to reduce that to a certain political storyline or you can think of everybody as a story. Every single body is having their own version of the story, right? There isn't one version.

Amy Smith: And you say in your book holds a single lesson on what you call the desire for free City you point us Demetrice birth of tragedy and the cry of nature misses ceaseless flux of Vermont phenomena Share with us if you would what you hope for. For people for us and dealing with the ceaseless flux of phenomena.

Professor Biltoft, thank you very much for joining us. Your book is a work of rare beauty I think, and I encourage everybody to read it. Thank you for joining us.

 

Carolyn Biltoft:  Thank you and thank you for reading so carefully. You know, as a writer that spent ten years in the in the in the mines and then writing to get your comments and questions and to have your he played with a book that was very meaningful to me, so thank you for that as well, thank you very much.

 


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