CfP: "Popular science in twentieth-century dictatorships" (for BSHS Annual Conference, Aberystwyth, July 2020)

Symposium proposal for the BSHS Annual Conference 2020, July 8 – 12, 2020, Aberystwyth University

The role of popular science in dictatorial regimes, in the “age of extremes” – as historian Eric Hobsbawn defined the century-, deserves further investigation. In dictatorial contexts, with top-down narratives and strictly controlled expert-lay circulation of science, or knowledge in transit – in Secordian terms-, the role of potential audiences for science is highly problematic. Official records, censored media, ministries of propaganda, pro-regime exhibitions, and all sort of communication strategies seem to be monopolized by the elites in power giving no voice to the citizens and audiences at large. In these regimes science in its popular version has played an important role in terms of political propaganda as part of an ideological programme – from Nazi racism, Italian fascism and Stalin’s communism, among others, as an agent of coproduction of the regime in itself and a key actor in what historian Andreas Daum called “the ugly narratives of the 20th century”. In fact, in many dictatorial regimes, popular science probably served different political purposes: it reinforced discourses of scientific and technological progress; it accompanied technocratic projects of material wellbeing for the population under no liberal, political freedom; it brought to the fore universal, cosmopolitan images of science, and scientists often served as political ambassadors of these regimes; it described in detail foreign discoveries and scientific achievements as way to provide a certain image of openness and freedom for the internal consumption.

Habermas' idea of "public sphere" has been increasingly dismissed as idealistic, Eurocentric and patriarchal but it continues to be invoked in debates around democracy, citizenship and communication. What kind of public sphere generated science popularization in dictatorial regimes? Could we say that there were elitist/habermasian "public spheres" in dictatorships? Did the popularisation of science in dictatorships open spaces of debate that helped create critical thinking about the regime? Or it was the other way round and these spaces helped legitimise the regime and make it stronger? Is it compatible thinking of the press as a pool for critical reasoning, promoter of a public sphere, with thinking of it as a controlled and censured tool for propaganda?

Apparently, non-democratic societies had a very weak “public sphere”, in terms of a space for critical reasoning and exchange of plural ideas. Nevertheless, once we enter into a more concrete historical research, things become more subtle and complicated. Geert Somsen has studied, for instance, how, in Mussolini’s Italy, political elites opposed entrepreneurs’ traditional will to display spectacular, gadget-like, machinery sensationalism in exhibitions, to spread an image of an ‘universal’ Italian science, as a tool for a ‘civilizing mission’ for all countries embracing fascist ideologies. Curiously, in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, James T. Andrews has identified a public sphere among the Soviet population that asked for more information about space race technologies and soviet big science projects. Therefore, that kind of soviet popular science and technology of the Cold War seemed to have been stimulated, even in that totalitarian system, by some citizens’ demands.

With the former examples in mind, we will welcome contributions of new case studies on popular science in twentieth-century dictatorships. In order to establish a fruitful discussion with the rest of the cases in the panel, the questions we would encourage your case studies to address are:

1. Did popular science in your case suffer censorship? How?

2. Did popular science in your case become a tool for political propaganda? How?
3. Was there any kind of "circulation of knowledge" among expert and lay actors? Did amateurs play a significant role? Were there other audiences?

4. Beyond a traditional top-down model, could we identify a "public sphere" in dictatorships in which scientific topics could be more or less openly discussed? What about the role of daily press and periodicals?
5. Were there some "shelters" in which popular science could be practiced and spread with relative freedom?

6. Could we compare your case study of popular science with other examples in dictatorial regimes? And what about formal liberal democracies such as UK and USA?

Literature cited:

Andrews, James T., Science for the Masses: The Bolshevik State and the Popular Imagination in Soviet Russia, 1917-1934, College Station: Texas A&M University Press 2003.
Daum, Andreas, “Varieties of Popular Science and the transformation of public knowledge. Some historical reflections”, Isis, 100, 2009, 319-332.
Hobsbawn, Eric, Age of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991. London: Michael Joseph, 1994.
Secord, James A., “Knowledge in transit”, Isis. 2004; 95(4):654-72. 
Somsen, Geert, “Science, Fascism and Foreign Policy. The Exhibition “Scienza Universale” at the 1942 Rome World’s Fair”, Isis, 108(4), 769-791.

We plan to set our case studies in 1-2 symposiums in form of organised panel. Each paper should last 20-25 minutes, to allow time for questions.

If you are interested in participating, please send a title and a 300 words abstract before December 23 to:

Clara Florensa and Agustí Nieto-Galan