Poletayev Readings is an annual conference of the Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities dedicated to the memory of the Institute's founder Andrey Poletaev.
About the conference
The Poletaev Readings in 2020 are the tenth and ‘anniversary’ conference for IGITI. Realizing the solemnity of the moment, we decided to focus our discussion not on traditional topics related to the history and theory of the human and social sciences but on the multiple futures of theoretical knowledge. Thus, together with our speakers, we propose to discuss what is the future of theory in the epoch of big data, how we can talk about academic ethics and more broadly — the moral economy of the future university, finally, what the public history of the digital era prepares for the past. The proposed topics are related to the upcoming projects of IGITI, and therefore we look forward to a fruitful start of a conversation with interested researchers, teachers, and students.
16:00 – 16:10 (GMT+3)
Irina Savelieva, Alex Pleshkov (Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, HSE)
Session 1. Do we still need scientific Theory in the time of Big Data and AI?
16:10 – 18:15 (GMT+3)
A recent proliferation of machine learning and other advanced calculation technics dealing with very large amounts of data has opened novel perspectives and possibilities for knowledge acquisition in various scientific domains and fields of practice (new drugs discovery or fine-grained analysis of social preferences, for instance). These advances in calculation and data intensive, empirically oriented, approaches have re-actualized debates on the role and the future of scientific theory in both natural and social / human sciences. Some could have even announced a near “death” or unusefulness of Theory. Bringing together perspectives from the history and philosophy of science, as well as from data science, this section will reconsider these old/new epistemological problems and debates in a present-day cultural and economic context, dominated by global IT-industries.
Chair: Olessia Kirtchik (Poletayev Institute)
Ivan Yamshchikov (Yandex/HSE), Empirical Science: navigating the post-theoretic future
Summary: In this talk, we briefly discuss the evolution of scientific methods and highlight the epistemologic roots of theory. We revisit driving mechanisms that promoted theory throughout history and discuss to which extent could these “engines” be vital for scientific progress in modern era under present (almost) limitless computational capabilities available to the scientific community.
Alexey Grinbaum (Paris-Saclay), Correlation is not causation: can AI help with human theory-building?
Summary: AI systems do not treat semantic meaning of propositions in the way humans do: in short, they “understand nothing”. Yet they produce uncanny, non-human behavior, which often comes as a surprise to their own designers. Just like the proceedings of medieval alchemy, this behavior is based on correlations, not on causal influences. Just like alchemy, humans may leverage it for creating works of art but also—as I will argue in this talk—for building theories. There is a major hindrance, however. If AI-catalyzed serendipity were to lead to new scientific breakthroughs, one would have to solve the problem of AI non-interpretability, but perhaps only a partial solution will do.
Yves Gingras (UQAM, Montreal), A new “magnetic crusade”?: Can “big data” replace thinking?
Summary: the history of the empiricist belief that measuring all data points of the Earth's magnetic field using ships sailing around the world for the British Empire would give rise to an understanding of the theory behind that phenomena, provides a nice example of the naïveté of the renewed idea that “Big data” will replace thinking and thus “theory”. Though no one would seriously doubt that meauring phenomena is a necessary condition for understanding, it is a naïve remake of a 19th century positivism to believe that it will now work and that “data” will replace “theory”, thanks to computers and algorithms.
Session 2. Public history in the Digital Age
18:30 – 21:00 (GMT+3)
The modern world is defined by the "expansion of the past." The past is often at the center of various social conflicts and public debate. Moreover, the communicative infrastructure of historical culture is undergoing significant changes. Digital technologies create new types of audiences and forms of representation of the past, which calls for taking into account the hybrid nature of contemporary historical culture. Against this background, the academic status of public history is as high as ever. Yet, the practical issues related to the actualization of the past in modern culture turn out to be inextricably linked to theoretical challenges. There are numerous discussions concerning the implementation of the principles of publicity, the temporal framework of modernity, effects of digital technologies, criteria of authenticity in relation to various artifacts of the past and forms of its appropriation. Theoretical ideas and concepts require reexamination and testing with regard to new social and technological contexts. This round table proposes to discuss the state of this area of knowledge and the prospects for its further development.
Questions for discussion:
- What fields in the study of historical culture define the development of public history today? What ideas and theories of memory studies, heritage studies, media studies are used by public historians today? Are there differences in approaches to public history in different countries?
- How are ideas of the public and public sphere changing in modern culture? Does the development of modern historical culture ask for rethinking of the classical concepts of J. Habermas, H. Arendt, and others?
- What are the most important changes in social memory caused by the development of digital culture? What new phenomena do public historians have to face, how have these processes influenced the methodology of the discipline?
- Do differences in social and cultural contexts bring about distinct interpretation approaches to the phenomena of historical culture? What new factors have to be taken into account?
Chair: Daria Khlevnyuk (Poletayev Institute)
Serge Noiret (European University Institute), Interdisciplinary and participative: digital public history as a public good in society
It has been written that public history lacks theoretical depth. Indeed, public historians’ activities focus often more on interdisciplinary methods and ethical issues when engaging with the past and public memory in society. Research and projects engage with different social groups but the questions they ask are universal and comparable worldwide meanwhile, their application is specific, local, contextualized, and better studied through the lenses of micro-history methods. These glocal aspects of the public historian’s profession are decisive because they need to engage concretely with their publics as objects of research. Doing history with a public purpose aims at a better societal understanding of the complex architecture of the present, and of how individuals and collectivities behave. This is why anthropological and sociological methods contribute to the needed interdisciplinarity of the field of public history. The hermeneutics of Public History relies on the study and communication of collective pasts through direct contacts with the components of specific social groups. This implies the sharing of a professional authority between peers, experts, and other scientists in interdisciplinary ways and the recourse to collaborative inquiries able to generate and communicate content about the past. Today these methods require to be re-examined because of new social and technological contexts that are produced in the digital realm. This contribution will tackle how, during the last twenty years, digital methods reinforced public and individual participation in the study of history, the creation of new digital data and sources, and how this transformed the overall practice of public history.
Mykola Makhortykh (IKMB), Historia ex machina: Algorithms as agents of public history
The ongoing digitization of museum and archival collections together with the growing number of grassroots historical and commemorative projects result in the unprecedented availability of historical content. However, these processes also raise concerns about information overload and prompt the need for new mechanisms for navigating the wealth of historical information accessible online. Under these conditions, information retrieval algorithms, such as the ones used by corporations to power their search engines or research institutions to fetch materials from their collections, become agents of public history, which determine what historical sources and interpretations are prioritized. In his talk, Mykola will briefly discuss what are the opportunities, but also the challenges of relying on algorithmic curation in the context of public history.
Andrei Zavadski (Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), The Age of Plurals: From Sharing Memory to Sharing (Digital) Conversations about Memories
We live at a time when everything has become many: history gave way to histories, memory to memories, and the public sphere to multiple publics. Moreover, the digital keeps multiplying them further, turning shared 'plurals' into separated, bubbled 'multitudes'. As a result, histories are continuously contested, memories are fought over, and publics are disrupted. The—seemingly—key question posed today in terms of our relationship to history and memory is: Can there be a past that is able to unite us? I suggest asking a different question: What can unite us with regard to the past? If sharing memories cannot do that, can sharing and reposting?
Session 3. New Perspectives on Academic Ethics: Bridging the Gap between Contemporary Practices, the Social Sciences, and History
18:30 – 21:00 (GMT+3)
Today universities face numerous college admissions and harassment scandals, and academic dishonesty gives rise to concerns both inside and outside the academic community. Trying to address these issues, steps are being taken to improve the work of ethical committees, reporting systems, and ensure compliance with honor codes. Gaining momentum, ethics is becoming a force that can change academia from the inside out, but there is also a risk that it can be eroded and primitivized. Nothing can make the case for the reconsideration of academic ethics better than the cultivation of integrity narrowed to the enforcement of elaborate rules and the implementation of plagiarism detection programs. However, the role of ethics in the development of academic communities and of particular individuals is easily overlooked because of managerialism, audit culture, and the efficiency discourse dominating the contemporary university. There are several possible responses to this challenge.
On the one hand, social theory can help provide a new background against which both history and recent developments of academic ethics can be studied in a new way. To reach this goal, ethics should be placed in the broad context of the social sciences and, particularly, of recent studies on the ecology of knowledge, the knowledge society, and academic temporalities. In this respect, time is an especially important topic. Sometimes academics have no time for their direct duties, not to speak of reflection on ethical issues, but it is not only the lack of time that affects academic ethics. The modern-day university is mostly defined by the ever-increasing tempo of academic life and its complicated timescape; ethics also contribute to this diversity since different norms, values, and virtues require different temporalities.
On the other hand, academic ethics can be historicized and viewed through the lenses of specific cases from the past. However, it is crucial not to lose sight of the more comprehensive theoretical frame of reference. To bridge the gap between different approaches, we probably should find a balance between schematism and antiquarian history for its own sake, bearing in mind that even opposites can complement each other.
Chair: Andrew Ilyin (Poletayev Institute)
Mario Biagioli (UCLA), Impact and the cost of time
There are multiple ways in which time is involved in academic misconduct. For example, the "publish or perish" pressure is not uniformly distributed but concentrated around specific career transitions, like the first postdoctoral fellowship, or tenure-track position, or tenure itself. But time connects to misconduct more intrinsically, as we see in the various forms of manipulation or gaming aimed at increasing the perception of the impact of one's research. In this case, I will argue, time is literally of the essence in the sense that impact is defined as an effect of the publication that, as such, can only be measured in time. Impact grows and cannot, by definition, be instantaneous. Impact is in the future, and it will take time for it to be measurable in the present. In its alleged pursuit of an objective measure of academic work, therefore, metric-based forms of evaluation have effectively slowed evaluation down, turning it into a "historical" process. It is this slowing down of the process of evaluation brought about by the new focus on quantitative impact that is spawning, as response, very creative forms of manipulations to make it look like impact is accumulating faster or has already accumulated. Rather than merely manipulating metrics, these forms of misconduct turn the logic of impact-based metrics upside-down, producing time-independent impact.
Ben Eklof (Indiana University Bloomington), Ethical Choices Facing Professors Today: Observations in Search of a Theory
Tenured professors at an American research-1 university are a privileged lot, with light teaching loads, money available for research-related travel, adequate salaries [and generous benefits, something crucial in our unique work-connected health care system]. But many seek to advance their careers on the open market, which in turn often leads to an exclusive focus on their own research at the expense of teaching their students well (measured in terms of outcomes and student well-being), mentoring or collaborating with colleagues at hand, or serving the needs of their department and the university as a whole. This is in stark contrast to the world of academia a generation ago. Changes driven by demographic and cultural forces but also by the corporatization and cost-benefit analysis that now drives administrators here and elsewhere, and even by geopolitics, have fundamentally altered academic life since the “Golden Years” brilliantly described by Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes). Specifically, how have these changes shaped teaching/research/service priorities? How have “postmodernism” and constructivist approaches to research—forfeiting all claims to objective authority—undermined the capacity of research communities to play a role in a democratic polity, posing ethical challenges for professors in a world no longer seen as progressing in a linear fashion fueled by scientific advance? This talk acknowledges the substantial literature summarized in “Accelerating Academia” [Filip Vostal] depicting the structural changes in university life brought about by the introduction of neo-liberal corporatist policies in recent decades. Based on the speaker’s participant observations and background training in social history and anthropology, and four decades as a professor of history at Indiana University, the focus here however is upon the changing ethical choices confronting academics then and now, and how the subjective life-world has altered, given that the long-standing belief one is ipso facto doing “good” [for the universe] as well as “well” by pursuing one’s self-interest in academia has collapsed. Whether we examine tenured professor’s choices in terms of deontology [duty, obligation], consequentialist ethics [outcomes] or virtue ethics [setting an example for others], their remarkable lack of reflexivity and self-centeredness calls for further explanation—whether it be through discourse analysis, microhistory, or even the approaches pursued by some sociologists [Bruno Latour, Karin Knorr Cetina].
Thomas Stapleford (University of Notre Dame), Beyond Morality: Virtue and Academic Ethics
In this presentation, I’ll pursue three theses. First, the concept of morality that commonly undergirds many discussions about professional ethics is incoherent in ways that limit the scope and meaning of ethics in professional life, including academic ethics. Second, a loosely Aristotelian form of virtue ethics provides a richer and more robust framework for thinking about professional ethics, in part because it arises from taking seriously the ways in which humans actually do analyze and discuss their own actions. The bulk of my talk will be spent on this thesis, illuminating how core aspects of an Aristotelian virtue ethics are manifest in our everyday ways of discussing and making sense of human behavior, including the behavior of scholars. From this analysis, we can gradually build a more comprehensive and compelling conception of academic ethics in which our ethical commitments provide ideals for excellence in the scholarly life, not merely bare minimum guidelines barring us from unethical or “immoral” scholarly actions. Third, I show how and why this treatment of academic ethics requires linking scholarly activity to some broader conception of human flourishing. Though virtue ethics per se does not tell us what constitutes human flourishing, it does suggest some characteristics that any such definition must satisfy.
The conference will be held online. Please fill in the registration form to receive the Zoom link.
Please, contact Andrei Ilyin if you have any questions: email@example.com.