Mediterranean Flows: Tracing ancient and contemporary mobility on Zoom

By Maijastina Kahlos, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Anna Usacheva and Elisa Uusimäki

The HCAS Symposium “Mediterranean Flows” was held on Zoom on December 10-11, 2020. As we stated in the rationale for this symposium, our aim was to create a space for interdisciplinary inquiry into the movement of individuals, objects, and ideas, focusing on the Mediterranean region. All of us organizers work on the ancient world, with texts and/or material culture, but thanks to our diverse group of colleagues at HCAS, it soon became clear that contemporary cases of Mediterranean-related movement would provide excellent conversation partners to ancient modes and moments of travel and mobility. This is how “Mediterranean Flows” came to be.

We are happy that we followed the Collegium’s cross-disciplinary vision, as the symposium turned out to be a delight. So many scholars, so many perspectivesso much to think about! We heard excellent contributions by researchers trained in history, archaeology, sociology, anthropology, classics, theology, study of religion, philosophy, and geography.

Poster for "Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion". Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.

Poster for “Mediterranean Flows: People, Ideas and Objects in Motion”. Photo by Maijastina Kahlos.

MULTIPERSPECTIVES ON MOVEMENT

We started the symposium with a session titled “Mobility–Ancient and Modern”. The two papers delivered by Greg Woolf and Lena Näre worked admirably as the opening presentations of the conference because they invited us to think of movement and connectivity across time and place, both as documented in historical sources and as experienced and narrated by people today. These presentations introduced several useful concepts, prompting us to reflect on different aspects and agents of movement, whether movers and stayers, ranges of distance, direction of movement, or selectivity of flows. We were also encouraged to think about the role of imagination and emotions as driving forces of human mobilityand how these are reflected in imaginaries of daily life, as children’s drawings, for example, demonstrate.

In the second session, Sarah Green expanded our notion of movement by reminding us that movement does not concern only people, objects, or ideas. Indeed, other living beings like animals and insects also move or are forced to move with people. Such travel companions can also influence human travel in unexpected ways. Antti Lampinen, in turn, explored mobility-related anxieties in antiquity, urging us to think of otherness and the process of “becoming Greek”. In his talk, Lampinen captured ancient testimonies concerning the intriguing interaction between movement and the process of building self-identity, whether the question is about the travelers or their hosts.

In the third session, which also focused on antiquity, Peter Singer explored Galen’s testimonies to educational travel and demonstrated how laborious the movement of such an ethereal thing as knowledge could be. Miira Tuominen, in contrast, focused on reception as a type of intellectual travel of ideas and on the change that accompanied it. Both of these topics resonate with our own professional lives that typically involve exchanges, library visits, field trips, and conference travels, all driven by the desire to know more, though Corona has now prompted us to create new ways of acquiring knowledge that we can’t obtain at home. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria may be right in saying that “Many persons … have come to a wiser mind by leaving their country” (Praem. 18-19). Similarly, another ancient Jewish author observes that “a person who has roamed has learned much”. Yet, we are also lucky to live at a time when technology enables us to come together virtually. Thanks to  Zoom, we were able to invite the experts abroad into our own homes and offices.

On the second day of the symposium, we had two wonderful sessions, or in fact three, given that we had to combine sessions 5 and 6 because of some last-minute cancellations. In the fourth session, we studied material culture across time. David Inglis talked about global wine dynamics and related waves of globalization, after which Andras Handl analyzed long distance relocations of relics in antiquity. On Friday afternoon, we heard three papers that ended the conference with intellectual fireworks. Bärry Hartog introduced the concept of glocalisation and read the Book of Acts in light of it, while Elisa Pascucci and Daria Krinovos analyzed labor and transnational mobilities. In the final paper, James Gerrard explored fascinating cases of travel and movement in the Roman periphery.

ORGANIZING A CONFERENCE AT THE TIME OF COVID-19

The symposium went through some major changes because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Initially, we had planned a workshop with invited speakers, who would have flown to Helsinki for two days, and a mainly Finnish audience at the university. During the first wave of the pandemic, we postponed the event from September to December, but it soon became clear that we had to change it into an online conference. We wanted to address as wide and international an audience as possible. Therefore, the conference was advertised in the e-mailing lists of classicists, archaeologists and biblical scholars.

We realized that an online conference is an opportunity to reach a wider and more international audience than would have been possible in the case of a traditional conference. Preparations for an online meeting were also different, but we obtained assistance from the HCAS office and interns. Initially, we were concerned that the online conference would be lacking in the informal social gathering typically enjoyed at traditional conferences. However, to our pleasant surprise, the audience, the speakers and the chairs were very active both in the discussions and in the chatas well as in the final discussion. In the future, when online seminars and conferences will be everyday life, the social aspect should be developed and informal conversations could be encouraged in many ways, for example, by making use of the breakout room function on Zoom.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word "people" as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

This word cloud made of all the abstracts of the conference displays the word “people” as the unifying element of the diverse presentations.

There is obviously much to digest after this conference! Overall, we sought to offer a series of perspectives on the Mediterranean and thus create an event that would encourage us to step outside of our disciplinary comfort zones and enable us to learn from scholars in other fields, whether they study the past or present. We feel like we succeeded in achieving this goal.

We wish to express our sincerest thanks to HCAS, our speakers, chairs, and participants! We especially thank all the speakers for taking their time to prepare and deliver their presentations. The year 2020 was troublesome, and we all had so much to take care of, which makes us extra grateful that you made this event happen. Thank you, or kiitos, as we say in Finland!

Framing the push for Open Access

By Aleksi Pelkonen

When Natalya Bekhta was completing her MA, she realized she had a problem.

“If a department, like mine in the humanities, did not have money to pay for articles we could not get access to them,” Bekhta, now a literature researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, explains.

And so, as she did not have access to the latest research in her field, Bekhta had to use her personal contacts in order to get what she needed to complete her project.

“What ended up happening was that my friends and family, whenever they would travel abroad, would bring back books for me,” she says.

With their help, she was able to complete her work.

While these methods may seem unconventional, they are in fact something of the norm in many academic endeavors; Bekhta’s experience is not the exception but often the rule.

Academic institutions being priced out of access to relevant literature strikes one as inherently unfair.

“The results of publicly funded research should be a public good,” says Hanne Appelqvist, deputy director of the Collegium. “If they are made into a commodity for which you have to pay, then neither the further use nor critical assessment of the results is maximized.”

How then to maximize it? The commercial publishing model leaves many academics frustrated.

“Researchers do not get paid for their contributions to journals, and also the editors and referees typically work pro bono,” says Appelqvist, who also is series editor for the Collegium’s OA academic publication series AHEAD and Editor-in-Chief of OA aesthetics journal Estetika. “When the article gets published, it is the [commercial] publisher that collects the financial profit by selling it back to the community that originally produced the academic content and guaranteed its scientific quality.”

cOAlition S, an initiative of “a group of national research funding organisations, with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council,” has one proposed solution. They call it Plan S, and its objective is “making full and immediate Open Access a reality.”

Under Plan S, any academic material that received grant funding from signatories of Plan S would be required to make the academic output freely and openly accessible; hence the name: Open Access.

This all begs the question: What is ‘full and immediate Open Access,’ and how does one make it ‘a reality’?

Easy as APC

A good starting point to understanding OA is by looking at cOAlition S’ plan itself. Plan S contains ten principles for ensuring an Open Access model which they claim will improve access to research papers. Plan S claims that Open Access can be made ‘a reality’ as long as these principles are upheld.

This is easier than it would seem from the layperson’s (i.e., my) point of view: academic publications have extensive peer-review processes which are demanding and critical. As a consequence of this, the costs associated with academic publishing are high; this system persists to ensure that high-quality articles are produced.

A work-around for this problem, for OA journals, is to have authors pay a publishing charge (called an ‘APC’) in order to fund the editing and publishing of works. If authors pay, then any prospective readers can read high-quality articles for free (provided they have access to the internet), while publishers still are able to adequately fund their services.

However, this can be prohibitive for many researchers, especially from low-income countries or less-well-funded research institutions. Instead of ‘democratizing’ academic output, this ‘pay-to-publish’ model is sometimes criticized for widening existing gaps.

Plans S plans to address this issue with principle 4 which states that, “[w]here applicable, Open Access publication fees are covered by the Funders or research institutions, not by individual researchers.” This would help researchers clear the APC-wall that could potentially lead to their research projects going unpublished.

The Invisible (Sleight of) Hand

Whatever publishing model is chosen, the money must come from somewhere, and a lot of it, if current numbers are anything to go by.

To prove this, one can peruse the financial reports of academic publishers. Take, for example, a company called RelX that owns Elsevier, a widely used academic publishing resource. RelX’s ‘Scientific, Technical & Medical’ market segment, which owns many of the world’s leading academic publications and distribution platforms, posted an adjusted operating profit in 2019 of just under £1 billion (page 7, link is to PDF). Taylor & Francis, owned by Informa PLC, posted an operating profit of £163,5 million in 2019 (page 178, link is to PDF).

“When this commercial model is applied to research it creates problematic consequences,” Appelqvist says. “Given that the free exchange of ideas is a condition for scientific progress, we should be concerned about the commodification of research results.”

One would not get the impression that academic publishing houses are similarly concerned when reading their financial reports. T&F stated that 2019 was a year of “good growth in our Open Access (OA) business” (above T&F hyperlink, page 73, emphasis added).

RelX was even more bullish: “Our open access publishing programme […] saw its growth rate in articles submitted and published accelerate further as we continue to gain market share” (above RelX hyperlink, page 15, emphasis added).

Both large publishers seem to support the OA movement. T&F’s website states, “We want to make the option to publish in open access journals available to as many researchers as possible.” Elsevier is no less exultant on its own OA page.

The reader will perhaps notice a potential contradiction here. OA is supposed to ‘open’ research results to the community. That this would be at all possible while big publishers continue to gobble up ‘market share’ is questionable. Publishing an OA journal after sending an expensive APC invoice to a public institution leaves one wondering how this is any kind of solution to the problem of equality.

Plan S, while very specific on the OA requirement, is comparatively vague on the issue of fees, only appealing for ‘transparent pricing,’ according to its Principle 5. Furthermore, on cOAlition S’ website they state that:

To reassure publishers, who may have concerns regarding legal implications of sharing price and service information, we will ensure that any system we support to collect and share the price and transparency framework data is developed in a way that fulfils competition law requirements. […] [O]ne likely solution would be through the establishment of a registration and authentication system, which would allow customers (researchers, funders and institutions) to access these data but would not allow publishers to access their competitors’ data (Source: cOAlition S, all emphasis added)

Market Madness

There are purposes here which seem to be unaligned with one another. Academics ‘produce’ and ‘consume’ academic research for its intrinsic value, while many major publishers have the tendency to prioritize profitability.

cOAlition S emphasizes in its principles and recommendations that it is not attempting to minimize the commodification of academic research. Customers, after all, are sold commodities; it would be unusual to frame something as such when referring to public goods. The terminology seems to be selected so as to be inoffensive to major publishing companies and their interests.

This in and of itself is not an issue per se but seems to be relegated to a secondary concern in much of the discussion regarding OA. OA is a development that can be fit for many different ends. It can be a step in academia’s privatization journey, depending on how it is designed.

The transition to OA has the potential to further complicate an already convoluted publishing model.

“To take just one example, there are many academic journals run by professional academic society associations,” explains Tuomas Forsberg, director of the Collegium. “Their subscription fees enable them to exist, pay salaries and support their research community in various ways. So, if we change one part of the publishing model, we need to think about how others will be able to create income.”

By characterizing the academic system as a market, with publishers, operating for profit in a competitive environment, selling output to ‘customers,’ the Plan S framework further imbues a certain kind of logic into academic research. In the current ‘market,’ some producers (academics) are excluded, while some consumers are unable to pay for the commodities they want.

Plan S seeks to replace this dysfunctional market with a different kind; one where costs are shifted onto funders, rather than producer-academics or ‘customers.’ By setting its objective in this way, cOAlition S sidesteps a more fundamental question:

Should market logic dictate academic research at all?

Aleksi Pelkonen is an intern at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

For further reading see Jutta Haider and Philip Mirowski.

Why are we so exhausted? We are deeply entangled beings

By Christine Daigle

We are all exhausted. Even when we manage to get enough sleep, which is not possible for many, energy levels are at an all-time low (as described in this CBC radio feature and this article from The Insider). Of course, the many disruptions, large and small, brought into our lives by the COVID-19 pandemic have required that we rethink almost all aspects of our lives. This is exhausting.

The pandemic has not only brought with it a disruption of habits and an increase in the number of decisions we have to make, but also an overload of information and negative news. This has consumed a great amount of cognitive energy, in an effort to either deal with or ignore the flow. In addition to these cognitive challenges, we are deeply affected in our bodies. Our chests feel compressed even if we know, rationally, that we are safe. Our guts are twisted in knots, even if we just filled the pantry with essential (and non-essential) foods. Our bodies are fatigued, despite the plentiful sleep and reduction in physical activity caused by staying so much at home. But we are also exhausted by the social collapse we are going through.

Romi Crawford has argued that “I can’t breathe” are now America’s defining words[1] (see her blog entry “Connecting Breaths”). These are the words uttered by those directly suffering from one or the other virus affecting the USA: Sars-Cov2 and racism. These two diseases are both potentially deadly. I would argue that even when one is not directly infected by these diseases, one still suffers from them.

Protestors wearing face masks wear shirts that read "I can't breathe".

Photo by Clay Banks from Unsplash

In a book chapter to be published in 2021,[2] I explain that we are radically entangled beings and, as such, we are open to the world and what happens in it, whether we consciously choose to be open or not. This means that our bodies are permeated by things like the pollution we breathe in or the chemicals we ingest, but it also means that we suffer a high degree of mental pollution via the news, discourses, and ideologies we are constantly exposed to. This is a posthumanist material feminist point of view, that sees humans as constituted by manifold material and subjective entanglements. The beings we encounter, materially and/or subjectively, shape who and what we are, just as much as we shape who and what they are. In a world currently permeated by various toxicities, from the new coronavirus to resurgent fascist and racist modes of thinking, we are constantly exposed to these toxins—and sickened in body and spirit from them.

The pandemic has certainly taught us this lesson: we are interconnected in ways we often don’t suspect, yet one of the measures taken to combat the spread of the virus was to try to minimize this interconnection via lockdowns and physical distancing. However, can one really cut oneself off from the violence in the world, and the discourse and ideologies of those perpetrating it? Is it desirable to turn oneself into one of the three wise monkeys, or all of them at once? If one does not see, does not hear, and does not speak evil, then evil does not exist … does it?

One of my old uncles shared with me his impressions of his trip through Central America with his wife and brother and sister-in-law, back in the days when such travelling was still possible. They drove an RV across several countries, and then cut across Mexico and the USA to come back to Quebec. He commented: “It is so poor down there [he was referring specifically to Mexico], it is horrible. I don’t want to see this!”’ I still love him dearly, even if he was being a wise monkey.

Statues of the three wise monkeys.

Image by Joao Tzanno from Unsplash

As users of media—traditional, digital, social—we are constantly exposed to the evil in the world, and cannot cut ourselves from it. It can be argued that we all suffer from at least a mild case of PTSD as a result, since we hear about, read, or even see the beating and killing of humans on a daily basis because of their race, their creed, or their objection to the dominant political and economic powers. I have been exposed to the violent assault and killing of many American black people via my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Activists I follow, such as Shaun King (@shaunKing) and Michael Moore (@MMFlint), populate my feed with such news. The violence needs to be exposed so that we may resist it. However, each and every exposure is a punch in the viewer’s gut, as it also exposes us to the racist worldviews and hatred of the perpetrators, as well as the senseless pain and death suffered by their victims. Such exposure is violent and destabilizing; but, I would claim, it is necessary.

The unfolding social unrest in the USA and the heightened crisis following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing BLM protests are potent signs of the erosion of the social fabric in that country. But it is also a reassuring indication that resistance to oppression can be revived. The BLM movement is not new, but was suddenly and powerfully re-energized by this act of hatred as well as the many other killings of black people at about the same time, such as Breonna Taylor and Daniel Prude. The killings never seem to stop. But resistance does not seem to wane either. Indeed, cities like Portland have seen ongoing unrest as masses of people protest such killings and systemic racism. The state reacts through the violent oppression of their protests, thereby continuing to fuel the fire.

Portland Police line up blocking the street while protesters rally in front of them at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse.

Portland Police line up blocking the street while protesters rally in front of them at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)

The almost daily occurrence of such killings has been going on for years—for decades—and may have caused a sort of short-term desensitization to their brutality. There are moments when the amount of bad news is just overwhelming. We feel despaired and disempowered. It was heartbreaking to hear Michael Moore cry on his Rumble podcast episode 120 “Emergency podcast system – R.I.P. RBG. Wipe Your Tears and Fight!” on September 19, discussing the devastating news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and what consequences this was going to have, but also the fact that there is so much intense evil and violence going on in the world. He sums up the feelings of activists and members of the population:

“Do we just sit by and say ‘What are we going to do? I can’t take it anymore. There is a pandemic going on. There is a thug in the White House. Black Americans are being shot by police. Every few days there is a new piece of footage of our police treating black people like animals. How many people have died since March? It just doesn’t seem…’ I know, I know. I know what you are feeling, I know. But my friends, we have to buck up and we have to just wipe those tears away and move on, immediately.” (transcription of segment starting at 11min 28sec)

Even such a staunch activist as Moore, who has fought so many battles over the years, can feel overwhelmed by all of this. Simply reading the summary he provides is overwhelming. And you may feel overwhelmed again reading this blog entry. I am by writing it. But, we have the capacity, and we have a duty, to expose ourselves to the many evils out there and convert our feeling of despair into anger, and to feed resistance with this anger so as to strengthen it. Perhaps it is the case that the higher the degree of despair, the greater the anger and resistance must be. This means that it is affectively extremely painful. But trying to avoid the pain and the anger will not be successful. We will continue to be exposed to the pain and suffering, and may be directly impacted by the violence and hatred. Indeed, if it is not resisted, it will only worsen. We cannot afford the wise monkey strategy, since it would only lead to our demise.

References

[1] By which she means the USA, a point Canadians like me are eager to raise. We get irked by this misuse of the name of a continent to refer to a country. This misuse serves to lump us together and erase our identity, at least symbolically. But we consider ourselves very distinct even as we are immediate neighbours.

[2] “Fascism and the Entangled Subject, or How to Resist Fascist Toxicity.” In Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn (eds.). Deleuze and Guattari and Fascism. Deleuze Connection Series.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (forthcoming 2021).

Christine Daigle, a Core Fellow at HCAS in 2020-2021, is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Posthumanism Research Institute at Brock University. Her current research project explores the concept of posthuman vulnerability and its ethical potential from a posthumanist material feminist point of view.  

How does coronavirus affect academic research? How should it?

 By Tuomas Forsberg

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally impacted societies as well as the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the world. How will – and particularly how should – the crisis affect scholarly research? Relatedly, what lessons can be drawn from the crisis when it comes to the organization and funding of research?

Blue glowing human figure and several green coronavirus visualizationson a dark background

Photo: 123rf

Although the academic world was not exactly caught unawares, it is clear that much more research than before is needed to tackle the pandemic head-on, to find out where the virus originated from, and how it behaves. The pandemic also necessitates increased scholarly efforts to develop a vaccination and medicine, facemasks and ventilators: these preventive, protective and curative innovations require substantial research from the most basic level to practical and applied dimensions, while in times of crisis the cycle from idea to product needs to be accelerated.

The coronavirus crisis has also underlined the vital need for the social sciences and humanities. We are ostensibly dealing with (almost) the same kind of virus, but the societies it is infecting are different. If we want to prevent the virus from spreading, we need to know how societies work. Social norms and practices as well as beliefs vary. Social structures and spaces are diverse. The crisis exposed an interesting gap between research outputs based on simulations and those based on the real world (even though the simulations assumed certain elements of the real world). Hence, we need research and researchers that are knowledgeable about the various societal and cultural conditions and international networks, and that take account of the differences between them.

In Finland, a key area of expertise that has been in demand during the crisis concerns the law and the restrictions of basic rights. But the debate quickly extended to issues concerning language and communication as well as moral philosophy. Due to the crisis, we are rethinking some very fundamental questions about ethics and politics.

The value of the social sciences and humanities in bridging the natural sciences and societies is not always understood. Just before the coronavirus crisis, the populist party newspaper in Finland ridiculed research that the Academy of Finland had funded in the social sciences and humanities, claiming for example that a particular study on the history of mobile healers in sub-Saharan Africa was not based on science. But the whole point was missed: in order to foster vaccinations in Africa, we need to know what people believe and why they might have more faith in magic than science, because that will affect their willingness to be  vaccinated.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised questions concerning multidisciplinary research. It has become fashionable to gather multidisciplinary research groups around certain topical phenomena and even to build study programmes focusing on them. Yet since COVID-19 did not exist before, there was no research group in place that would have been designed just for this pandemic. Accordingly, many multidisciplinary research groups were quickly formed to study questions related to the crisis. These groups, however, were not typically based on an array of scholars practising multidisciplinary research, but on scholars with disciplinary expertise. That said, good disciplinary research often requires interdisciplinary knowledge and input from other disciplines. Moreover, organizing a multidisciplinary research group to deliver new expertise in times of crisis is undoubtedly facilitated by background knowledge and experience of other disciplines and the way in which multidisciplinary research groups work. Either way, COVID-19 clearly did not obviate disciplinary knowledge – quite the contrary – since what is relevant in encountering new unforeseen phenomena is abstract, theoretical knowledge as well as methodological skills, not empirical knowledge of a different phenomenon.

In this sense, the crisis has once again demonstrated the importance of basic research. This suggests that the funding model for science needs to be based on the belief that basic curiosity-driven research will yield the best results at the end of the day. No applied or policy-relevant research that aims to make a difference can serve societies well without robust basic research. The more research funding is tied to narrow thematic projects, the less flexible it is in dealing with new crises as they emerge. The more research is tied to topics that have been defined top-down, the likelier it is that nobody has conducted research that is directly relevant to a crisis that was unforeseen by the authorities or funding agencies. In this context, I have in mind two researchers: one who had completed his PhD on the Great Lakes in Africa just before the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and another who had worked on Afghan languages just before the terrorist attacks in 2001. Both of them had been perceived as working on esoteric and non-policy-relevant issues and yet their expertise turned out to be of critical importance. Such anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Of course, it does not follow that core issues should be discarded. Yet, the bottom line is that when a topic has become important enough for the authorities to regard it as worthy of research funding, the research that emerges is already a few steps behind in terms of novelty.

Why should we trust in the fact that basic curiosity-driven research can respond flexibly to new problems? In addition to the belief that various topics might already be covered by researchers driven by curiosity  before they become acute problems, I believe that the key reason is the ethos that researchers, even when focusing on basic research, want to contribute to resolving common problems. There are many signs that researchers, if they have time, will immediately focus on crises such as the coronavirus. This spring, a number of seminars have been held and special journal issues edited on COVID-19 quite spontaneously. The coronavirus crisis will inspire a great number of studies in the years to come since it has provided data and raised new questions in a multitude of research fields.

How will the coronavirus crisis affect future research? I do not know the answer to that question. But if asked how it should affect research, I would use it as an opportunity to organize and fund studies in the following way. Sufficient funding is needed for basic research that is not directly tied to narrow projects. International cooperation and the exchange of ideas are vital, not least in the social sciences and humanities, but we need to rethink the role of conferencing and strengthen mobility by other means. Disciplinary expertise coupled with interdisciplinary input, knowledge of other disciplines and experiences of multidisciplinary collaboration are valuable not insomuch as we would be able to organize research around certain wicked problems on a permanent basis, but rather because they pave the way for the flexible organization of multidisciplinary research groups in times of crisis.

The allure of conspiracy theories in a time of pandemic

By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (HCAS Core Fellow)

Two people holding white paper with the text pandemic #covid19

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

I initially became interested in conspiracy theories when studying a blog of a key Polish far-right activist in the context of my Collegium research on mediated racism in Poland. Although this activist first gained public prominence and recognition during the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ as one of the leaders of the anti-refugee movement, my analysis quickly revealed that the crux of his writing was, in fact, the elaboration of a multi-layered superconspiracy machinated by the Jews. While the timeworn leitmotiv of the Jewish cabal secretly orchestrating the course of history survives and thrives primarily – though not exclusively – in the anti-semitic far-right milieu, the current proliferation of spurious theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic lays bare the societal and political significance of conspiracy theories beyond the radical fringes. In Poland, for example, a recent survey has found that as many as 45 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘some foreign powers or countries are deliberately contributing to the spread of the coronavirus’, compared to 42 per cent who attributed the pandemic to ‘natural processes’.

With this in mind, it is as worthwhile to dispel conspiracy theories forcefully as it is to try and untangle their appeal.

Old explanations for a new situation

At the most basic level, a conspiracy theory refers to ‘the conviction that a secret, omnipotent individual or group covertly controls the political and social order or some part thereof’ (Fenster, 2008: 21). Although they might be based on kernels of truth, conspiracy theories exploit undisputable facts as a source material for questionable extrapolations. In other words, they are based on ‘the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable’ (Hofstadter, 1966: 38).

As a major part of the political and social (dis)order on a global scale, the ongoing pandemic has rapidly given rise to an impressive range of more or less half-baked conspiracy theories that seek to explain the situation. Symptomatically, many of them have latched onto the already existing explanations and implicated the usual scapegoats. Accordingly, it has been possible for politicians to tap into the seemingly bottomless deposit of antisemitism and represent novel coronavirus as a yet another Jewish plot to alter the world order, take control of sovereign countries and ‘neuter their populations’.

In a similar vein, White House officials have repeatedly intimated that the virus has been engineered in a Chinese lab, perhaps even as a biological weapon. This theory is a perfect illustration of a ‘curious leap of imagination’ that Hofstadter wrote about: it has been inferred from the Chinese government’s secrecy, the underestimation of the number of infections, and the underreporting of deaths. What makes this theory truly useful, though, is that it handily reinforces two anti-Chinese views at once: it confirms the malevolence and callousness of China’s pursuit of world dominance but also, through exposing the security compromises that enabled the virus to escape from the lab, it betrays characteristic Chinese incompetence.

The new villains: intangible, yet personified

More ‘grassroot’ conspiracy theories differ from those propagated by politicians in that in their search for an explanation they turn to the realm of the invisible and the intangible. In particular, the phony links between Covid-19 and technology and/or science seem to take centre stage.

In the technology department, the most popular conspiracy theory draws on 5G scaremongering. In this view, 5G technology weakens the immune system, rendering humans susceptible to viruses which, in turn, use the 5G network as a communication channel. The novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan because it was – counterfactually – the first city where 5G coverage was rolled out.

The next level of this conspiracy theory has been spun by the anti-vaccination movement, which eagerly combines scepticism towards (medical) science with mistrust of technology. The ‘vaccine hesitancy’ groups have piggybacked on the spurious connection between 5G and the novel coronavirus in the origin story that they have concocted for the Covid-19 pandemic. In that tale, the novel coronavirus is produced by 5G technology so as to warrant the creation of a bogus vaccine, intended not to cure the disease but rather to implant microchips through which humans could be remotely controlled.

At that stage, however, some questions still remained unanswered. Does 5G technology generate the virus autonomously? And who is supposed to take control of humanity once it has been microchipped?

A douche, with liquid dripping, photographed in front of a stash of cash

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Any conspiracy theory becomes complete when the ultimate orchestrator is unmasked. And for Covid-19 pandemic, Bill Gates emerged as the grand operator. As a vocal critic of the Trump administration, a technological mogul turned philanthropist, a zealous proponent and generous funder of vaccine development, the Microsoft co-founder is the perfect scapegoat for a crisis that emerges on the intersection of technology and (medical) science.

According to this theory, the evidence of Gates’s culpability abounds. In a 2015 TED talk, he publicly and brazenly anticipated his evil plan by criticising and revealing the shortcomings of global pandemic preparedness. He has even had the audacity to cipher his evil plan in the official name of the disease: ‘COVID-19 (C)ertificate (O)f (V)accination (ID)entification – (1)=A (9)=I “Artificial Intelligence“.’ Already all-powerful, Gates is set to benefit from the pandemic, and the vaccine it brings about, in two ways: through garnering financial profit and enslaving humanity.

The discreet appeal of conspiracy theories

Predictably, the conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic are based on evidence that is circumstantial at best and, more often than not, simply absurd. As such, they have been repeatedly debunked, declared a public health hazard, and ridiculed. Yet, the old plots still circulate, and the new ones continuously emerge, in social media and certain legacy media alike. We must then ask: what currency do conspiracy theories have in contemporary information-rich societies?

Crucially, not only are conspiracy theories a conviction or a set of beliefs, they also fulfil certain cognitive and psychological needs which are otherwise unmet in times of crisis.

Firstly, a conspiracy theory is a mode of cognitive mapping: an attempt to disentangle a complex situation through concocting a graspable, though not necessarily plausible or logical, explanation (Fenster, 2008; Jameson, 1988). Thus, the belief in conspiracy theory helps people to make sense of and navigate a confusing and inhospitable reality (Bale, 2007: 51).

In the case of Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories provide complete, simple, seemingly rationalistic and watertight explanations. This is in stark contrast to the available scientific knowledge – complex, fragmented, changeable and contested – and to the actions of political decision-makers and state authorities, which appear haphazard and self-contradictory. Accepting that the pandemic has a singular cause (technological/military experiments), however absurd, might be more manageable than coming to terms with the complexity of the situation in which too many variables remain unknown.

Secondly, a conspiracy theory functions as a (maladaptive) coping mechanism. Under circumstances of social change, upheaval or crisis, conspiracy theories serve to grasp a rapidly unfolding situation that has a bearing on one’s life but is beyond individual control (van Prooijen and Douglas, 2017). To do that, such theories often rely on spurious new evidence to confirm what is already known, namely a superstition or a prejudice (Byford, 2011). By outsourcing blame onto the usual suspects, conspiracy theories enable people to rationalise, albeit in a way that does not stand to reason, their present difficulties (Bale, 2007). Accordingly, conspiracy theories provide a way for those who view themselves as innocent victims of the pandemic to explain their predicament as having a known, identifiable and evil source, be it the Jewish plot, Chinese incompetence, or Bill Gates’s machinations.

Thirdly, and relatedly, conspiracy theories are a paradoxical way partly to overcome the feeling of powerlessness (Bale, 2007). By denouncing culprits, individuals can reassert their own agency: while in the know, they are able to act on the previously incomprehensible and overpowering situation. If one believes that Bill Gates is single-handedly responsible for Covid-19 and the ensuing pandemic, taking to Instagram and bombarding Gates’s profile with accusatory messages might seem like a reasonable and potentially effective course of action.

Taking all the above into account, ad-hoc factual refutations and emotional dismissals might not do much to dispel the allure of conspiracy theories. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories will always be a step ahead of carefully crafted, evidence-based theories in providing an overarching, rationalistic, simple and, therefore, compelling explanation.

While I do not claim to have any practical pointers on how exactly to combat the adverse effects of conspiracy theories, it seems to me that a more effective way to do so would be to enable general public to accept, and cope with, the complexity and unpredictability of the world. Admittedly, this would require some sweeping changes in political communication, media crisis reporting as well as schooling and education, to name but a few examples.

Portrait of Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius

Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius (Photo by Tero Alenius)

References

Bale JM (2007) Political paranoia v political realism: On distinguishing between bogus conspiracy theories and genuine conspiratorial politics. Patterns of Prejudice 41(1): 45-60.

Byford J (2011) Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fenster M (2008) Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (2nd edition). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hofstadter R (1966) The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Jameson F (1988) Cognitive mapping. In C Nelson and L Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 347-357.

van Prooijen J-W and Douglas KM (2017). Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory Studies 10(3): 323-333.

Freedom to Change Gears – An Interview with HCAS Alumna Josephine Hoegaerts

By Kaisa Kaakinen 

In 2017, Josephine Hoegaerts received good news. Being a Core Fellow at HCAS at the time, she would be able to stay in Helsinki with her ERC project “CALLIOPE: Vocal Articulations of Parliamentary Identity and Empire”, which she conceived at HCAS. We had a conversation about the impact of the HCAS Fellowship on her career and about tensions inherent in her current role as a Principal Investigator, who sets the research agenda not only for herself but also for others.

Portrait of Josephine Hoegaerts

Josephine Hoegaerts (Photo by Veikko Somerpuro)

 “It was a deeply uninformed decision”, says Josephine Hoegaerts and laughs, when asked about her reasons for coming to HCAS in 2015 to work on a postdoctoral project on the history of voice, after her first postdoc in Belgium. Hoegaerts now holds a position as Associate Professor at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, but back then she did not know much about the University of Helsinki or about Finland. But, in addition to the prospect of learning a completely new language, Finnish, she was attracted to Helsinki by the opportunity to do research in the interdisciplinary and international environment of HCAS.  

Hoegaerts turned down another postdoc in Germany connected to an archive of popular music, which would have directed her work more specifically towards musicology. The Core Fellowship at HCAS gave her the time and freedom to step back and look for a wider interdisciplinary framework.

“I was trying to get out of strictly doing history, and into interacting with musicology, sound studies, literary studies, and HCAS seemed like an environment in which people would let me get on with that.”

 

Intellectual stimulation and collegial support at HCAS 

It turned out that HCAS was an excellent environment for shifting gears as a researcher. Hoegaerts found that she could engage with people from different fields in a particularly meaningful way 

“My postdoc project was on history of voice but was mainly looking at educational scientific manuals. It had a very specific, history of science approach. I was looking to pull it more in a political and social direction. At HCAS I had the time to attend different reading groups with people from different disciplines, reading up on stuff that I otherwise would not have planned.”  

Many of Hoegaerts’ collaborations at the Collegium began by chance, at lunch discussions with colleagues, whose work resonated in interesting ways with her own. One of these discussions led to the symposium “Embodiment and Emancipation,” co- organized with political philosopher Leszek Koczanowicz and literary scholar Ulrika Maude. Another HCAS Symposium “Writing Voice and Speaking Text” was a collaboration with Mari Wiklund, French philologist specializing on prosody and university lecturer at the University of Helsinki, with whom Hoegaerts is now co-editing a publication. 

Hoegaerts also stresses the impact of the collegial and supportive atmosphere of HCAS. The career phase after the PhD is plagued by insecurities that, in her view, are related less to the content of one’s research than to institutional conditions. She found it rewarding to be constantly challenged in terms of content, as fellows from various disciplines posed questions about the very foundations of her project. The same people, however, were extremely supportive as colleagues.  

When I arrived at HCAS, there was a large group of youngish female postdocs, six or seven of us, very much in the same situation, going for sushi every week, complaining. But we were not competing for the same jobs, which meant that if you got a grant or if you got something published, everything was celebrated. There was this enormously supportive atmosphere.”  

Hoegaerts also praises the director Sari Kivistö and other HCAS administrators of the time, who were well prepared to assist researchers coming to work in a new country. She remarks that support structures for international researchers are too often lacking in other units of the university, especially after the centralization of the administrative services. There is nobody in her current unit responsible for answering questions about the structure of the MA program or the Finnish tax system, for instance. As a new employee coming from abroad, you do not initially even know which questions you should be asking, she adds. 

But what made Josephine Hoegaerts decide to stay in Helsinki, when she could have taken her coveted ERC funding to another European university?  

“A sense of loyalty, she says. “I had been supported really well by the funding services as well as by the Collegium.”  

She was also simply tired of moving, a sentiment shared by many early-career academics. And finally, University of Helsinki offered her career opportunities that were not available everywhere: a tenure-track professorship. 

Curiosity-driven research for the lucky few? 

When Hoegaerts thinks back to her career path, she cannot help but notice a contradiction in her current position as a Principal Investigator of an ERC project, who employs PhD students and postdocs. While she herself has always been able to find funding that does not limit scholars’ freedom to set their own research agendas, she is now, in a sense, forced to limit the freedom of others. 

“I get the impression that particularly at the postdoc stage, it is becoming more and more difficult to find a place that is not within a project. At the same time, there is a demand for people to be autonomous, and this is a very odd tension.” 

In her own career, the freedom to set one’s own agenda meant that she could come to her current research on citizenship, political influence, and empire from an unusual angle: through thinking about voice and sound.  

It takes time to build confidence, particularly as a woman in academia, to want to talk about politics. Five years ago, I definitely would not have felt I could say anything about citizenship. I was doing something quite weird, and I am still doing something weird, but I am now moving in a direction that could be considered a big and important topic. I feel that this was a better way of coming to such topics than being in a project, in which you are forced to think about big issues.” 

Hoegaerts finds it problematic, particularly in the humanities, that research is now so strongly connected to projects, in which resources are concentrated around a few PIs. The researchers employed by the PIs do not get to define their research focus freely, which makes it difficult for them to build a career.  

“The idea behind this is that they want us to be more collaborative. But I am not sure that is the result, because collaboration should be more horizontal than what we have now. There seems to be a growing gap, at least to a degree, between the haves and the have-nots. A few people are lucky at some point and start to get money and get to define the research agenda to a much larger degree than is perhaps necessary.” 

Hoegaerts wants to make sure she supports the people employed in her project in a way that brings them forward in their own careers. At the same time, she is held accountable to the ERC to stay within the limits she “defined one summer in Helsinki,” as she puts it.  

She is currently planning a new research project that tackles the problem of professionalization and the notion of excellence, taking a critical view on the frequent talk about the latter. She adds, smiling, that this effectively means that she is asking funding agencies to give her money so that her team can tell them why their whole rationale is wrong.  

Those lunches and coffees 

When asked what it means now for her to be a Collegium alumna, Hoegaerts says that there definitely is a “bizarre bond” between people who have been at the Collegium. As for how this has come about, we – as so often when talking to fellows of institutes of advanced study – come back to how shared lunches build a sense of community and spark bottom-up forms of academic collaboration.  

 This is the one thing I really miss from the Collegium”, Hoegaerts confesses. 

Helsinki Collegium fellows sitting at the lunch table in the Common Room of HCAS during Orientation Week in September 2019.

HCAS Fellows at lunch during Orientation Week in early September 2019.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020

Interview with Art Fellows, filmmaker Minou Norouzi and poet Matti Kangaskoski

By Irinja Bickert & Riikka Juntunen

For the academic year 2019–2020, the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies hosts two Art Fellows, researcher and filmmaker Minou Norouzi, and researcher and poet Matti Kangaskoski. HCAS offers a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Arts, funded by Kone Foundation, which aims to develop new forms of cooperation and dialogue between art and scholarship. The fellowship is intended for practitioners of all fields of art having a doctoral degree either in the arts or in a different academic field.

Picture of Minou Norouzi and Matti Kangaskoski

Norouzi is a filmmaker, writer and curator based in London and Athens. Her project at the Collegium is called “Revolutionary Patience: The Ethics of Non-interventionist Documentary Encounters”. Through filmmaking and writing, she examines ‘the objectification of the real’ – the process of turning reality into material for the purpose of art production. Her film applies a mix of autoethnography and critical theory, exploring migration and political responsibility. She draws from her own experiences of coming to Europe as a child from Iran during the Iranian revolution.

Kangaskoski is a poet, novelist, and researcher based in Helsinki. His artistic-scientific study is called “Poetics of the Future: Logic of Selection, Cultural Interfaces, and Literary Production in the Age of Digital Media”. He is interested in exploring how contemporary digital cultural interfaces and their logic influence culture and society, and specifically literature. As digital media have penetrated all levels of society from everyday practices of work, politics, and communication to art, research, and even love, it is, according to Kangaskoski, crucial for both art and science to examine this condition and to reflect on its consequences.

“The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work and of course, the other way around.”

Kangaskoski’s artistic project, a novel, imagines a near-future society that has reached full digital saturation, and explores the logic of thinking, being, and loving born out of this entanglement. The scientific part investigates current digital cultural interfaces and their influence on specifically literary production using interdisciplinary methods from philosophical cultural analysis, literary and media theory, and software, code and affect studies.

Meeting points of art and academia

The Collegium provides Art Fellows with a unique opportunity to create art in a scholarly environment, working as a part of a community of academics. What attracts an artist to work in this distinctive setting?

For Kangaskoski, the academic and the artistic are interconnected, as he has always been doing both simultaneously. “The research I do feeds the thinking that’s then the basis for the artistic work, and the other way around,” he explains. The Collegium provides the opportunity to cultivate this connection. Kangaskoski is pleased with his current work environment: “The Collegium is an amazing place both artistically and academically, because of the variety of ideas, people and disciplinary perspectives.” Sharing a physical space is important; fellows form a community, and interdisciplinary encounters take place in seminars, reading groups, yoga classes and coffee breaks.

Norouzi feels that, as far as her work is concerned, she is better placed in an academic context because it affords her the freedom of making work away from market pressures. Being a film maker in an academic environment allows her to maintain the position of an outsider from the inside, she notices.

“The Collegium does give us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.”

The Art Fellowship programme at HCAS is based on the idea that having artists and researchers in the same space is not only an opportunity for the artist, but also benefits the academic community. We asked our Art Fellows for their thoughts on this notion.

Norouzi suggests that artistic practice expands the methodology of academic research. She points out that the methodologies of scholarship are distinct to those of artistic production and that she had to adapt her working methods when shifting from an artistic environment to academia. Since practice as knowledge production is still a little on the margins in academia, Norouzi sees value in artists ‘infecting’ the academic environment with their practice methods. “You need someone to create some chaos,” she concludes with a laugh.

Kangaskoski agrees and adds that cultivating art as another kind of creative activity with different means of exploration, results and performance can be beneficial for the entire community. During his fellowship, he is planning on writing about the differences in knowledge production in the arts and in the context of academia specifically.

Opportunities for good thinking

Norouzi praises the Art Fellowship’s ability to grant stable conditions for creating. “For an artist, it’s an incredible opportunity to get a one-year fellowship – the stability offers a rare privilege.” The chance to combine artistic and academic concerns creates fertile ground for cultivating new ideas.

Kangaskoski points out that there are not too many institutional positions that combine art and academia. Usually one of the two has to officially be the main job, and the other comes as an addition. “It is nice to have them equally present in this position.”

Ideally, research should lead to concepts and conclusions that one wouldn’t have been able to predict at the beginning of the research project. “Someone asked me the other day whether I am outcome driven. Who isn’t? But processes are important, and the Collegium gives us the opportunity to be process driven rather than outcome driven.” Norouzi concludes.

Expectations and future aspirations

When asked whether her expectations for the programme have been met so far, Norouzi answers, “Absolutely.” She commends the Collegium for striving to create social cohesion amongst the fellows.

After a hectic start of his fellowship, Kangaskoski is now looking forward to “the fun bit: good research, good thinking and good concentration on developing ideas”. Norouzi, too, is excited about getting to explore what she does not yet know. “Surely we’ll discover!”

Film maker Minou Norouzi has used pictures from her family album in her art projects.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

The makings of early Islamic identity

By Ilkka Lindstedt (HCAS alumni)

During 2016–2019, Ilkka Lindstedt was a Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. In this piece, he presents some results of his Collegium project “Early Islamic inscriptions as historical sources” and demonstrates that the development of a distinct Islamic identity was slower than what has commonly been thought in scholarship on early Islam.

Fred M. Donner begins his 2002–2003 article “From Believers to Muslims: Confessional Self-Identity in the Early Islamic Community” (Al-Abhath 50–51: pp. 9–53) as follows:

Studies of early Islam, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have almost without exception taken as axiomatic that Islam from its earliest days constituted a separate religious confession distinct from others – in particular, distinct from Judaism, Christianity, Magianism, and of course from the mushrikūn, those who “associate other beings with God.”

In this article and later studies (particularly his monograph Muhammad and the Believers, 2010), Donner has questioned this idea of a distinct Islamic identity during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 CE) and some decades later. As his evidence, he uses early dated and datable sources, such as the Qur’an, Arabic coins and inscriptions, as well as Syriac texts.

Photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

Fig. 1: The beginning of the fifth surah of the Qur’an, photo by Ilkka Lindstedt

First, he points out that the community seems to have lacked a proper name in its beginning. The in-group appellation used by the early sources is muʾminūn, “believers,” scarcely a word that would differentiate the community from Jews and Christians, who also called themselves believers. Second, Donner notes that the Qur’an and some other early sources often present the “People of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians, favorably and as belonging to the community of the believers (though the evidence is conflicting and stereotypical and othering views of the Jews and Christians are present too).

For example, Qur’an 3:113–114 states: “There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelations during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous” (transl. Abdul Haleem).

Thus, Donner argues, it is probable that the early community of believers included people from distinct backgrounds: Jews, Christians, gentiles, and others who accepted the stringent monotheism of the community and the Qur’an as a new revelation adding to but not necessarily supplanting earlier revelations. To use the terminology of social psychology, the believer affiliation that the Qur’an articulated and put forward was a recategorized and superordinate identity that did not exclude religious sub-identities.

According to Donner, it was toward the end of the seventh century – around 50 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – that Islamic identity properly speaking started to be articulated. This occurred through e.g. discoursal processes where the believers adopted the names “Muslims” and “people of Islam” as their in-group designations and drew the border with Jews, Christians, and others by emphasizing the overarching signification of the Prophet Muhammad and rituals that were specific to Islam.

Arabic inscriptions and the “parting of the ways”

Fred Donner’s hypothesis of the late “parting of the ways” (to borrow a concept from early Christian studies) has been received with both appraisal and criticism. In any case, his studies have been widely read, and even those critical of the argument have had to react to them.

To test Donner’s hypothesis, I conducted, during my Collegium Fellowship (2016–2019), a systematic analysis of early dated Islamic-era Arabic inscriptions engraved or painted on stone. These are a unique corpus of evidence, because it is

a) produced by the members of the community of the believers, so it does not suffer from outsider stereotypes;
b) produced by both elite and lay people;
c) often absolutely dated by the writers;
d) the inscriptions are religious in nature and hence proffer information on how the believers perceived and articulated their religiousness and religious identity.

For a comprehensive examination of the available evidence, I collected the (around one hundred) published Arabic inscriptions dated to 640s–740s CE, a period when other sources are scarce. I reread, translated, and analyzed the inscriptions. My study will be published as an article entitled “Who Is in, Who Is out? Early Muslim Identity through Epigraphy and Theory” (Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 46, 2019). As my analytical framework, I used the social identity theory, promulgated in social psychology since the 1970s.

The Arabic inscriptions, I submit, provide evidence corroborating Donner’s suggestion. If anything, the inscriptions suggest that the Islamic identity-formation process was slower than Donner put forward in his article, with identity negotiation and permeable borders being attested in the epigraphic texts well into the eighth century CE.

To summarize my findings, the corpus of dated Arabic inscriptions attests indeterminate pious formulae up to the 690s CE, when the first instances of the emphasis on the Prophet Muhammad surface in the texts. In the 700s–720s, there are first mentions of specifically Muslim rites such as pilgrimage, prayer, and fasting. Moreover, it is in the 720s–730s when the words Muslims and Islam began to become consolidated as references to the in-group, supplanting the more ambivalent “believers.”

In my article, I suggest that it is around these decades (720s–730s CE) when we should date the “parting of the ways.” That is to say, since that time most Muslims have categorized themselves as being separate from other religious identifications, such as Jews and Christians, though intergroup contact and influence naturally continued throughout the centuries.

The Qaṣr Kharrāna inscription (710 CE)

As an example, let us cite the following text. It is written in ink on the wall of a building nowadays known as Qaṣr Kharrāna, in Jordan. The text is written by someone named ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar; the inscription is dated to 710 CE. The ink is badly damaged today (see Fig. 2, around the center of the photo, for the inscription), but most of the text is still decipherable.

Photo by Hannu Aukia

Fig. 2, photo by Hannu Aukia

“O God, have mercy on ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar and forgive him his earlier and later sins and those that he made public and kept secret and those that You know best; he … if you do not forgive me and have mercy on me, I will be among the losers [Quran 11:47]; my Lord, You bestow benefactions upon me, for You are certainly the Benefactor; and You have mercy on me, for You are certainly the Merciful; I ask You that You accept from him his supplication and prayer; amen, Lord of the world, Lord of Moses and Aaron [Quran 26:47-48]; may God have mercy on who recites it [the inscription] and then says, ‘amen, amen, Lord …, the Mighty, the Great’; and ʿAbd al-Malik ibn ʿUmar wrote [this inscription] on Monday, al-Muḥarram 27, in the year ninety-two.”
[AH = November 24, 710 CE]

The writer asks God to forgive his sins and have mercy on him, among other things. The inscription contains some Qur’anic quotations and adaptations (referring to Qur’an 11:47 and 26:47–48), but apart from that there is nothing we might call Islamic identity signaling (and even the Qur’anic passages cited do not include anything that would not be acceptable to Jews and Christians). The writer does not mention the Prophet Muhammad, but instead refers to Moses and Aaron, figures that are venerated by Jews and Christians too.

Religious categorizations and pluralism in early Islam and modern Islamic thought

All in all, the epigraphic record, complimented with other contemporary evidence, show us that the Muslim affiliation came together around one hundred years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad through the construction of perceived shared ideology, social history, scripture, practices, and other common features. It should also be noted that Muslims were, for many centuries, a minority group in the Near East, conversion to Islam being very slow.

The issues of religious categorizations, inter-religious dialogue, and pluralism have been revisited in the modern era by many Muslim scholars. There is an ample literature on these questions. To mention one example, Jerusha Lamptey’s book Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (2014) tackles the question of religious categorizations head-on. She offers an insightful reading of the Qur’an that is in agreement with the idea of pluralism, suggesting that according to the Qur’anic categorizations the differences between religious groups are lateral rather than hierarchical.

She notes (p. 165) that “all revelation and messengers share a common goal of teaching people about God, of guiding them to correct practice, and of warning them of individual accountability and the Day of Judgment.” Since the Qur’an rarely mentions the Prophet Muhammad by name and more often simply talks of a messenger (rasūl) or the messenger (al-rasūl), Lamptey (p. 250) interprets that “in the Qurʾān all people are called to obey a messenger but they are not all called to obey the same messenger.”

Social categorizations are subject to change, if need be, as well as to social and historical context. Fred Donner has put forward a bold and intriguing hypothesis as to how early Islamic identity was articulated and established. In my article, I suggest that the evidence of Arabic inscriptions and social psychological analysis agree with the claims of Donner’s studies. This line of research requires naturally more probing and refining and comparisons with Arabic literature (which is, however, not contemporary but later). An increasing number of Arabic inscriptions and papyri, for example, are published every year, and scholars must take them into account. Furthermore, the studies on early Islamic identity that have been carried out so far do not discuss geographical and other contexts in detail. It is to be supposed that social categorizations functioned in divergent ways in different regions and environment. Hopefully, with more sources available, it will be possible to study the makings of Islamic identities in all of their variety.

 

Making of: Moral Machines

By Susanna Lindberg & Hanna-Riikka Roine

As our contemporary world is increasingly digitalized, the ethical, moral and political issues it encompasses require our immediate attention. Technology can no longer be considered as a mere tool since it has a significant effect on both its users and the surrounding environment as well. This can be seen, for example, in the way we assign new tasks to our computers every day. Needless to say, digitalization has been extremely useful in science, technology, economy and everyday life; despite this, however, we also need to examine our relationship to digitalization with a critical eye.

Moral Machines? Ethics and Politics of the Digital World conference began as an idea to bring together N. Katherine Hayles (Duke University) and Bernard Stiegler (University of Compiègne), the two prominent scholars examining the constantly increasing digitalization of our society. After they agreed to come, we started drafting the overall plan for the conference and quickly realised the vastness of the topic. The development of technology and digitalization are phenomena which comprehensively shape our society, and it is for this reason that such phenomena should be examined in an interdisciplinary context.

N. Katherine Hayles giving her keynote lecture at Think Corner (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Furthermore, we saw an urgent need to reflect upon the moral and political implications of digitalization, not only the technological aspects. This is why we not only wanted to appeal to scholars from multiple different fields, but also to create an arena focusing on the humanities and social sciences perspectives. On top of that, we wanted to include an artistic programme.

Initially, Moral Machines was supposed to be a much smaller symposium, but after the call for papers closed, we had received so many good proposals for papers that the symposium doubled in size. This is also why we ended up having six keynotes in a fairly small conference: besides Hayles and Stiegler, we had contacted Erich Hörl (Leuphana University of Lüneburg), Maria Mäkelä (Tampere University), Frédéric Neyrat (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Francois-David Sebbah (Paris Nanterre University) about joining us.

Susanna Lindberg and Hanna-Riikka Roine opening the conference (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

Due to the wide variety of perspectives to the topics of the conference, the first day of the conference was dedicated to fiction, media and art, while the following two days had parallel session tracks focusing on philosophical and sociological discussions. The presentations ranged from fictional representations of moral machines and the understanding of social media as a moralistic storytelling machine to discussions of various uses of data and theories of thinking and knowledge in the digital world.

The first day culminated in the artistic evening programme organised on the Tiedekulma Stage, with Otso Huopaniemi’s performance, Riikka Talvitie’s composition for the solo clarinette of Fàtima Boix, and the performance of Black Mödernism, a group consisting of the poets Matti Kangaskoski, Eino Santanen ja Tuomas Timonen. The artistic programme proved out to be a real success. As many of the people participating in both the sessions and artistic programme of the conference pointed out, the performances engaged the same questions as the academic presentations but from a completely different – and therefore refreshing – angle.

black mödernism’s self-directing “A to B Networking Collective” presents: “A:sta B:hen. / From A to B. Kaksiarvoinen moraaliesitelmä / Binary Moral Presentation.” (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

The conference had almost 120 registered participants, and many more came by to catch the keynote talks and sessions and watch the artists perform. From our perspective, everything went quite well, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Moral Machines confirmed the fact that while the challenges that digitalization poses are complex and numerous, they are being addressed and examined within various different fields. To our delight, Moral Machines was able to bring some of these together in a way that easily surpassed the instinctive digiphilia or digiphobia. In the end, it appears that most presenters rejected the idea that ethical, moral and political responsibilities could be delegated to machines only (as in the famous “moral machine” experiment. However, in the contemporary world, digital systems affect all existential and social situations, either because computing itself takes over certain affective tasks, or because ethics and politics take an active stance to technological frameworks and human-machine assemblages. No doubt, in order to follow the transformations of ethics and politics in a digital world it is useful to assembly expertise from different areas, as the conference was able to do.