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Poletayev Readings 9¾

On October 2, 2020, Poletayev Readings 9¾ took place – annual conference of the Poletayev Institute for Humanitarian Historical and Theoretical Studies. We present a report by Elizaveta Lysenko, Alexander Mikhailovsky, and Ksenia Belik, and video recordings of the round table discussions.

Poletayev Readings 9¾

On October 2, 2020, Poletayev Readings 9¾ took place – a traditional conference of the Poletayev Institute for Humanitarian Historical and Theoretical Studies. Every year, it is organized in memory of the economist, historian, and co-founder of the Institute, Andrey Poletayev. This year’s conference should have been the tenth installment of the Poletayev readings. However, as an offline meeting was impossible, Institute’s head, Alexei Pleshkov, suggested holding "almost 10th" readings, Poletayev Readings 9¾. As the platform on London King’s Cross, the readings took place in an alternative reality, the reality of Zoom. We are sure that Andrey Poletayev would have been in on our joke. As the conference was held online, colleagues from different countries and time zones were able to join.

The first section, "Postcolonial turn in the history of knowledge", focused on post-colonial criticism of scientific approaches, its possibilities and limitations. The section began with a discussion between Michael Gordin (Princeton University; IGITI) and Marina Mogilner (University of Illinois at Chicago). 

Michael Gordin raised a question about the geography of the postcolonial theory, which formed essential principles for humanitarian research. According to his opinion, the theoretical mainstream is concentrated within the borders of Western Europe and the USA. The culmination of the development of theoretical concepts was the construction of the European humanitarian tradition with its special language. This tradition has defined and limited the main scientific field. Theorists guided by European trends, leave many ideas and alternative opinions outside the field of "science". The attention to the ideas that do not correspond with Western criteria of scientific knowledge seems important to Michael Gordin.

In her turn, Marina Mogilner suggested that postcolonial studies set a course for researchers due to epistemological criticism of existing scientific norms. This prompted humanities scientists to review these conventions and terminology and expand their research space. In her opinion, the language of theorizing is a tool to legitimize Western disciplinary conventions. As a result, a myth about the impossibility of "non-Western" theory has spread among researchers. The problem is broader: the post-colonial turn left the discourse of authenticity as the only alternative to the "Western norm". Science outside the "Western norm" was faced with a choice – either colonial silence or a description of national "authentic" cases, detached from the general discussion.  

During the discussion, Olga Bessmertnaya (Higher School of Economics) agreed with Marina Mogilner that modern humanities science has no wide range of development options. She stressed that history should not just combine the two approaches (the opposition between Eastern and Western stories), but develop a special approach and language that takes into account the ideas of both concepts. Continuing this thought, Rossen Dzhagalov (New York University) urged not to focus on postcolonial criticism as a method of analysis and proposed the creation of a transdisciplinary super method. As an example, he turned to Marxism, which was originally focused on the internationality of thought and in many of its practical embodiments advocated the renunciation of the European theoretical monopoly. 

Andrei Mozhaysky (Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, Higher School of Economics) joined Michael Gordin in noting that tools and methods of humanitarian research are still based on Western ideas. As an example, the researcher cited the creation and development of archaeology theory. The theory appeared in XVII-XVIII centuries and was based on French, German, and British approaches. The theoretical-methodological model formulated by the scientists of these countries became decisive. Subsequently, this model became applicable in other countries, including Russia. In the 1970s, this approach was criticized and several researchers offered original versions of the archaeological theory.  

Alexander Ovchinnikov (Tomsk State University) drew the attention of the section participants to the need to revise the theory and language tools for communication not just between people within the academic community, but between the academic community and society. In his opinion, all ethnonational/local stories without methodological guidelines have a lot of simplifications and myths. However, the complexity of language and the focus on a narrow academic community prevails in the concepts that rely on the methodology. The relationship between these two types of rationality requires reflection.

The discussion also unfolded in the Zoom chat. Alexandra Yatsyk (Kazan Federal University) drew the attention of her colleagues that local cases are still usually just empirical data or illustrations for theory rather than a foundation for new hypotheses. Mikhail Boitsov and Kirill Levinson noted the differences in the intellectual practices of Western and non-Western sciences and the difficulty of combining them under one paradigm. Alexander Dmitriev recalled the works of historian Boris Rybakov: his activities cannot be ascribed neither to science, nor to myth.

During the final discussion, Michael Gordin expressed his fears that forming a common language of humanitarian knowledge could become destructive for many research concepts. After all, accurate translation of some local terms and concepts is extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible. Мarina Mogilner noted that it is impossible to create an universal discourse model, and the translation of individual concepts into one unified language does not entail unification and leaves a field for interpretation.

The second session, "Atheoretical turn as a challenge to the humanities", was opened with a talk by Galin Tihanov (Queen Mary University of London, Poletayev Institute). According to Galin Tihanov, theory (as well as Theory with capital T) is a specific mode of thinking rooted in the Western project of Modernity. It claims universal validity for its own conceptualizations and generalizations. Galin Tihanov pointed out three basic reasons for the demise of theory in the contemporary world: (1) global transition to the new mode of knowledge production; (2) persistent presence of new social media in our lives; (3) enormous significance of migration, and mobility nowadays. The impossibility of universalizing literary theory is defined by (1) transition of literature to the new regime of relevance, which makes it impossible to sustain an autonomous aesthetic value of literature; (2) new situation of global migration that makes basic presuppositions of western thinking on literature neither self-evident nor universally valid. 

Tatiana Venediktova (Moscow State University) concentrated on the heuristic value of the concept "regime of relevance", proposed by Galin Tihanov. Speaker has noted an asymmetry between socio-political and economic regimes of relevance on the one hand, and an artistic regime of relevance on the other hand. The first two regimes assume the definition of value of literature "from without", while the artistic regime of relevance allows for the definition of value of literature "from within". Growing difficulty with the autonomous definition of literature value is reflected in new theories of language, pragmatic theory of relevance in particular. According to this theory, language is not a self-sufficient system of binary oppositions, but rather an intricate fabric of interpretative efforts and cognitive effects. Nevertheless, according to Tatiana Venediktova, the demise of structuralism and theory has brought not the death of theory, but rather a nascence of theories in the plural. 

During the discussion, Ilya Kukulin (Higher School of Economics) proposed relocation of emphasis from the question of "resistance" to theory to the question of what can be called theory today. The basic trends of contemporary literature, such as over-valorization of individual experience and attention to the unusual experience of otherness, necessitate us to model literary theory as a communicative aesthetics of the experience. Resistance to theory rather presents a call for self-reflection and self-objectification of theory in such a framework. 

Sergey Zenkin (Higher School of Economics) proposed a conceptualization of resistance to literary theory from the perspective of the theory of the sacred. The demise of the artistic "regime of relevance" is equal to the desacralization of literature in this perspective, since sacred objects allow only for distant contemplation. On the other hand, resistance to universalizing western thinking can be understood as a neo-romantic reaction to the quasi-Enlightenment of universal structuralist literary theory in the context of intellectual history. These transformations, though, can be analyzed by way of theory and promote the interdisciplinary alliance of cultural studies with philosophy. 

For his part, Sergey Kozlov (Russian State University for the Humanities) drew attention to alternative explanatory frameworks that can provide an interpretation for the demise of universalizing literary theory. In particular, according to the theory proposed by Jean-Claude Milner, the paradigm shift was defined by the catastrophe of assimilated Jews as main representatives of "universality" in Western culture. Marc Fumaroli associates the demise of structuralist literary theory with an all-European crash of Marxism, which embodied Scientism and Progressist (Leftist) tendencies. 

Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya (Higher School of Economics) problematized connections between literary theory and digital humanities. Digital humanities are a field that suffers considerably from the absence of theories. Existing major projects such as the digitalization of cultural heritage rather induce us to inquire if technology needs theory at all. Nevertheless, there are also important theoretical questions in digital humanities, mostly related to the ways of understanding text as a medium. Anastasiya pointed out that the prevalent explanatory framework in digital humanities today is a theory of cultural evolution. It has several significant limitations on the questions that can be asked with its help. 

In the final part of panel session Alexey Vdovin (Higher School of Economics) proposed some observations from the field of literary history. Alexey suggested that, as a practitioner of literary history, he feels more comfortable in the situation of multiple theories. The speaker referred to the semi-utopian project of the theory of literary history by Franco Moretti and its deficiencies flowing from the employment of big data in the formation of "grand narratives" of literary history. According to Alexey, institutional limitations and curtailment of literary theory’s departments are also a principal challenge of the contemporary situation.

The third section of Poletayev Readings was devoted to the topic "Culture for Inequality: Theoretical Shifts in Inequality Studies.

In his talk, Dmitry Kurakin (Higher School of Economics) problematized the displacement of cultural theory from sociological studies of inequality. The displacement causes the inability to shed light on the consequences of inequality, such as marginalizing large social groups and increasing polarisation in society. At the same time, sociology needs to react to the recent development of cognitive and neurosciences. The cognitive turn threatens sociology with reductionism. However, in the case of the study of inequality, it has its advantages: focus on the relationship between emotions and cognition makes it possible to bring cultural theory back into sociological studies of inequality.

Following Michelle Lamont and her colleagues, Dmitry Kurakin considers not only the economic dimension of inequality, i.e., the distribution, but also the emotional dimension, connected with recognition and dignity. How do cultural-cognitive configurations, namely cultural patterns of human behavior in conjunction with specific cognitive processes, fit into the economic and institutional context? To explain this point of view, Kurakin gave the following analogy: a professional athlete performs more successfully than a person who simply has excellent physical strength because the athlete's neuromuscular junctions fit a particular sport better. In the same way, examining how cultural and cognitive configurations of people fit or fail to fit into the institutional and economic context can provide a more comprehensive picture of inequality. This approach challenges sociologists to refer no only to economics, but also to cultural theory, cognitive science, and historical analysis. In the light of this, Dmitry Kurakin highlights a heuristic potential of interdisciplinarity in relation to the inequality research.

Jennifer Silva (Indiana University) started by discussing the methodological basis of research into the emotional foundations of inequality. The crucial questions for Silva's research are how people make sense of inequality and how their emotional experience of perceiving the world influences it. To answer these questions, the researcher uses the method of in-depth interviews, which allow her to see the underlying emotional patterns of decision-making behind large quantitative data. The life-stories give a clue to the understanding of the way, which led interviewees to attitudes that force them to act against their interests, such as not voting or asking the state for help. Jennifer Silva gave examples that show that behind the political decisions of a person suffering from inequality, there are emotions embedded in the narrative of identity. Therefore, emotions are highly influential in the reproduction of inequality. Besides, inequality sets emotional boundaries that disrupt social structures and lead respondents to choose individualistic survival strategies and base their identity on them. According to Silva, empirical research on collective emotions can bring new insights into inequality research.

Olga Simonova (Higher School of Economics) offered a view of this problem from the sociology of emotions. She stressed that a sociological study of specific emotions, such as shame as the main political emotion, makes it possible to see cultural and social contexts of inequality. Emotions determine whether people comply or resist and struggle to change the situation of inequality. Similar to the research by Jennifer Silva, examples from Olga Simonova's research prove that the emotional landscape of despair in Russian rural areas narrows the space for resistance to the existing unjust social order and explains the acceptance of low-paid physical labor in these areas. 

The discussion was continued by Elena Bogdanova (Centre for Independent Sociological Research), her research interests include the issue of respect for the elderly in Russia. She noted that the sociological research of emotions should be sensitive to the multifaceted nature of this phenomenon: superimposing the concept of emotions as a cultural phenomenon on a personal, psychological experience of the world can be an overhasty move. Respect and dignity, discussed in Dmitry Kurakin's paper as emotions, are captured by political discourse. They are highly regulated, rather than being a genuine way of reacting. An additional objection was that respect to the diverse social groups on a collective level is not a widely accepted and apparent phenomenon. For instance, students found it difficult to give an unambiguous answer when Bogdanova spontaneously asked them who in Russian society belongs to an undeniably respected social group. Thus, applying the cultural optics to inequality requires first and foremost attention to the accuracy of definitions, because of the intricacies of emotions as a phenomenon.

Leonid Borodkin (Moscow State University) took the floor to present the stance of economic history. He noted that, on the one hand, equity must be seen as an emotional value, it is a productive approach to the study of inequality. On the other hand, one should not forget to measure inequality and use accurate quantitative estimations, because it can be an onerous task to explain many phenomena only in terms of cultural and emotional approach, such as the significant increase in economic inequality in modern Russia.

Further discussion of the possibilities and constraints of Dmitry Kurakin's proposed approach to inequality studies focused on the issues of macro- and micro-level correspondence in this research area, epistemological and methodological problems of combining the cognitive approach and the theory of culture in the sociology of emotions, the need to decolonize concepts of inequality theories (in continuation of the theme of the first section), and the relations between the economic and emotional dimensions of inequality.

In their closing remarks to the Poletaev Readings 9 ¾, Irina Savelieva and Alex Pleshkov thanked all conference participants for bringing in new ideas and maintaining a high level of intellectual dialogue, which was essential for Andrey Poletaev.