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.

Researcher interested in Imperial Russia finds an archival heaven in Helsinki

By Minerva Juolahti, Vilja Myllyviita & Frida Wikblad

“The collegium has a great reputation and a great location. One of the attractive aspects of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies is that it has a broad spectrum of scholars in various states of their careers. I like that, I like to have that breadth.” Professor Peter Holquist reflects on the last six months he has spent at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS).

(c) Minerva Juolahti

HCAS has had the privilege of hosting Holquist from the University of Pennsylvania as a Core Fellow since last fall. In Helsinki he has been able to focus on his research concerning the role of Imperial Russia in the codification and practice of international law of war. His time in Helsinki has now come to an end and his next stop is the American Academy in Berlin.

Helsinki – a rich site for research on Russia and law

Holquist decided to come to Helsinki and the HCAS for many reasons. First of all, he had already visited the city several times, the first time already in 1983 for orientation prior to study in the Soviet Union. Secondly, the University of Helsinki has several research areas of his interest, where especially Russian studies and law are well represented by two of the university institutes: the Aleksanteri Institute is an important center concentrating on Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies, whereas law is well represented by the Erik Castrén Institute for International Law and Human Rights.

The Slavonic library of the Finnish National Library (formerly the University library), located right next to HCAS, was also important for Holquist’s decision to come to HCAS. Why Helsinki currently has a world-famous Slavonic library can be traced back to the period of Russian rule in Finland. When the University library was first moved to Helsinki in the 19th century, the Russian government designated the library to be a deposit library to store everything that was published in the empire. This is why the Finnish National Library now has such a stupendously rich collection of published materials, especially of the period that is the key point of interest for Holquist, the last third of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. The Slavonic Library has been very convenient to access and use, and the staff has been remarkably helpful in looking for material also from other Finnish institutions.

“The library has wonderful working conditions and an amazingly rich archive. I was able to order several different editions of the international law text books of the scholars that I’m studying. It’s wonderful having the entire run of the shelfs on many of the key Russian journals,” as Holquist describes his experience, when working at the Finnish National Library.

Free Public Spaces and Openness of Finnish Society

For Holquist, one of the great aspects about staying in Helsinki has been the chance to get to know a different cultural environment better. He has greatly enjoyed the openness of Finnish society, for instance the great availability of free public spaces, such as libraries. He has, for example, been able to use the resources of the Finnish National Library, the Library of Parliament and The National Defence University library. Also, Holquist’s wife was able to join him for his stay in Helsinki and, as an independent writer, she has greatly enjoyed the entirely open access to the libraries of Helsinki.

“There was a certain book I couldn’t find that wasn’t part of any of the Finnish university systems, but it was available in one place in Finland, the Library of Parliament, and that library is a public space as so many things in Finland are. They had no trouble giving me, a foreign researcher, a reading card.  And to my great surprise, I learned that it’s also a lending library! Most parliamentary libraries that I know of are on site libraries. So, I was able to work on this very fundamental book in my office alongside all of my other materials,” describes Holquist.

Wonderful Time at HCAS and Tips for Future Fellows

For Holquist, a collegial working environment and the freedom to focus on one’s research is valuable. What makes HCAS special from many other institutions of a similar nature is the fact that HCAS entails the entire career spectrum of scholars: early career and senior researchers work side by side. Time at the collegium has allowed him to concentrate on conducting research without having to spend time on administrative or teaching duties. The fact that HCAS is located at the very center of Helsinki, right next to the other essential institutions, has made it a very convenient place for him to work and do research. The possibility to present his own research, to interact with other scholars at the formal Tuesday seminars—as well as gathering at the informal get-togethers on Tuesday evenings—and the winter weather have been a few of the highlights of his stay at HCAS. During his stay, he also serendipitously discovered other scholars working on topics closely linked to his own study, both at HCAS and also at such unexpected places as the sauna in Töölö Towers.

(c) Minerva Juolahti

Holquist is now looking forward to incorporating into his academic writings the material that he collected during his time in Helsinki. He is also preparing his new book under the name ‘By Right of War’: The Discipline and Practice of International Law in Imperial Russia, 1868–1917.

As a tip for future fellows of the collegium Holquist states: “Reach out to people! For instance, in terms of research, I didn’t simply rely on what was available in the online catalogue, I went and asked for help from the researchers. The collegium is a wonderful place, but you also need to think whether there are communities outside of the collegium that you can benefit from.”

The Birth of Research from a Spirit of Intertextuality

By Anna Usacheva

Why are you a classical philologist?

Anna Usacheva

People often ask me what I do as a researcher. The questioner is clearly not interested in day-to-day practicalities: it is common knowledge that nowadays everybody from physicians to judges and football players to politicians spend as much time in front of their laptops as office workers. What the questioner really wants to know is why I spend so much time in front of my laptop reading or writing about thinkers or civilizations long obliterated from earth. Why don’t I devote my “screen-gazing” time to a more productive goal, such as comparing the number of likes given to one politician’s speech against those given to another, or to making and promoting culinary videos? The immediate benefit of these occupations is obvious and undeniable, while showing what is essentially useful in studying the lives and ideas of people who lived more than a millennium before us – this is a more formidable task. In what way can the experience of these people be relevant to our modern-day lives? And is there any real possibility of accurately interpreting this experience, given that their living conditions were so different from ours that even armed with the richest grammatical expertise in ancient languages we may fail to grasp the sense of some short casual letter inscribed on a piece of papyrus?

To this question one often hears the following response: Despite all the cultural differences which separate our age from the ancient civilizations, certain primordial and archetypal, or simply conventional, similarities nevertheless exist between our cultures, which may enable us to discover some useful information (like a recipe for some strong aphrodisiac) or entitle us to happily admit that “They were so clever that they even used bathrooms and plumbing systems as we do!” Though I do not deny an element of truth to this position, I don’t think it does full justice to either ancient civilizations or contemporary scholarship. I believe that our desire to study ancient cultures is due not to some sort of similarity between them and contemporary culture, but rather to the apparent difference between the two. Scholars may be mildly surprised when they start investigating the life of Roman citizens, but as they go further in their study, they are often astonished to discover the prosperity, intellectual and cultural achievements, and general self-satisfaction which many of the past societies enjoyed in spite of the defects of their medical care or transport systems. This fact suggests that our contemporary civilization has not discovered a universal theory of how to procure people’s happiness which would entitle us to look at previous civilizations as at infusoria under a microscope. We do not have the right to suggest that we know the correct method of reading “the book of human history” written on the scraps of papyri, manuscript pages or preserved in archeological finds.

How does one read “the book of the past”?

However, what seems to me to be rather inspiring in this status quo is that in our perception all the textual and material data that we have represent a continuum of the texts and stories in the book of our past. Versatile and miscellaneous as they are, these texts and stories have worked their way into the same leathery binding of human history, which will incorporate the texts and stories of our generation just as casually as it did with the opera of our ancestors.This simple fact allows us to cultivate in ourselves a healthy humility, which can prevent us from two misleading and, unfortunately, rather popular approaches to the research. The first consists of claiming that we can perfectly understand the texts of the past without bothering to study the historical context and original language of these texts, because there is no essential difference between the past and the present. The second approach exaggerates the gap between various historical epochs to the extent that renders it useless to make any inquiry into historical material because its meaning is unfathomable to us.

In my opinion, to find the middle way between these extremes, we should follow the “spirit of intertextuality”, which allows us to see the intertextual connections between the past and the present, the connections which neither blur nor exaggerate the distinctions between the texts and stories of different epochs. Belonging to our generation, we at the same time are the authors and the heroes of our stories as well as the readers of the texts of the past. To navigate in this stream of syllables and meanings, we should remember that the texts of the present are different from the texts of the past and that together they form a unique continuum of human history. In such a way, the all-embracing spirit of intertextuality binds and sews together various disciplines and attaches to them a particular anthropological strand. Whether written a millennium or a second ago, every story in the book of the past concerns human beings. Whatever the initial goals and aspirations of various disciplines may be, they all pursue their long and glorious journey through the universe, just as light travels to the earth unobstructed for nearly 93 million miles and emphatically a few feet above the ground it stumbles upon man and becomes a human shadow.

Different times – different horizons

 An example of this situation can be easily found in my own research project entitled “Physiology of Human Cognition in the Scientific, Theological and Monastic Contexts of Late Antiquity”. If I were to advocate the necessity and actuality of this study, I could speak about the fascinating brain mapping theory, found in the late antique treatise On the Nature of Man, which I am going to study. Although historians of medicine have recognized that this work contains the first evidence of the theory of the ventricular localization of various physiological functions in the human brain, so far nobody has really explained how this theory could have been formulated without fMRI machines and in circumstances where medical scholars were not even permitted to dissect a human body. Captivating in its own way, this is not the chief interest of my research, because I marvel not at vague and illusive similarities between ancient and contemporary medical theories but at the apparent contrast between the scientific methodological approaches of late antiquity and those of contemporary science. The author of the treatise I study saw no fault in combining the most progressive medical theories of his time with the philosophical and theological concepts of his and previous periods. Thus, he even claimed an analogy between human and divine natures, and in building his theological theory, he heavily relied on the treatises of famous Greek physicians.

Anatomical face, Leipzig, late 19th century

I find it difficult to imagine a contemporary priest using an anatomical or pharmacological textbook in his or her preaching along with (or even more extensively than) the Bible. We all used to believe that a reasonable gap between science and humanities should be preserved in order to prevent our civilization from falling into “the chaotic alchemical obscurity of the Middle Ages”. While solid and legitimate in its own way, this methodological principle cast a shadow on the collaboration between the sciences and humanities, which meant that many of the brilliant theories which were successfully deduced from experience failed to find their way back into the life of people. The peculiar skill of combining these branches of human knowledge exemplifies one of the differences between contemporary and late antique societies. This fact inspired me to study and learn from the experience of conducting interdisciplinary research in the past.

Questions for the sake of questioning

Different disciplines complement each other not only because a historian may one day discover that their curiosity concerning ancient numerical systems has something of the rigorous interest of a contemporary mathematician, but because both scholars may be startled at recognizing various ways of looking at such a regular and stable phenomenon as a number.  Understood in a broad sense, intertextuality is an integral part of successful research, not so much because somebody can reasonably hope that all the numerous aspects of phenomena can be identified and a comprehensive explanation of them provided. To expect and strive for this result would be equal to voluntary (though perhaps unconscious) suicide, because for all the mysteries surrounding the human mind, one thing is more or less clear – it lives as long as it runs and runs as long as it lives. Therefore, there should and, hopefully, will always appear many more questions and fascinating strands to long-recognized and abundantly discussed problems. Eventually, a very practical and obvious effect of this everlasting scholarly thirst is that every generation has the right to discover our universe for the first time and to make it a comfortable and even more beautiful place for us. And this goal can be achieved only if we understand those people whose comfort and well-being we enthusiastically promote. To understand ourselves, we need to compare our society with a different one, which may well be one that lived more than a millennium before us.

Anna Usacheva has been working as a Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies since September 2018. Her research project focuses on the physiology of human cognition in the scientific, theological and monastic contexts of late antiquity.

 

 

 

Collaborative methods at the Collegium: Working together on a study of boys and masculinities

By Ann Phoenix and Marja Peltola

One of the dreams of a stay at the Collegium is of time to focus intensively on one’s own work, bringing long-dormant writing to publication and having space to do exciting new research and think fresh, fruitful thoughts fueled by discussions with outstanding fellows and other university colleagues. This is certainly to be prized but, for us, our sojourn also enabled a different version of collective working that would not have been possible without the Collegium investment of space, money and time that has been enormously productive and hugely enjoyable. Our experience underlines the point that collaboration is an important method that, in itself, informs the methods of fieldwork and analysis. We tell the story of those methods below.

In many continents, the media, politicians and organisations periodically raise moral panics about boys and masculinities. In particular, concern focuses on boys’ poor educational attainment in relation to girls, their disengagement from schoolwork and their propensity for violence.  While many researchers have explained that the picture is more complex than a ‘poor boys’ discourse would warrant, there remains relatively little research on boys and masculinities in Finland. We brought together histories of doing youth research and of studying masculinities in 11-14-year-old boys.

Stephen Frosh, Ann Phoenix and Rob Pattman: Young Masculinities (Palgrave, 2001)            Marja Peltola: Kunnollisia perheitä (Nuorisotutkimusseura, 2014)

We focused on masculinities and ethnicities in three Helsinki schools; this intersection was especially interesting since the ‘migrant crisis’ of 2015 had accelerated a shift in Finnish national identity so that multiculturalism, at least in Helsinki, became more prominent than previously. The three schools we selected differed, amongst other things, with regard to the pupils’ ethnic and class backgrounds.

We first asked boys and girls who brought back signed consent forms to take part in group interviews and then invited them to be interviewed individually. The group interviews allowed us to learn about the breadth of issues and opinions on masculinities that were important for boys, girls and particular schools before we explored these issues in depth with individual boys and girls. We asked about the meanings of gender, (masculinity and femininity), about life in school and at home, and general everyday practices for young people.

Marja Peltola (Photo by Ann Phoenix)

Collaboration was crucial throughout this process. Working as a British-Finnish team enabled us to take a more “international” perspective on the Finnish context while also benefitting from “insider” linguistic skills and knowledge of the Finnish schooling system and society. Since Ann does not speak Finnish, it was Marja, for whom Finnish is her first language, who communicated with the schools and conducted the interviews. Marja wrote fieldnotes of each school visit and each interview and we began a practice of discussing the minutiae of school visits and any issues or interesting points that had arisen as soon as possible afterwards.

The Collegium enabled both fairly fast transcriptions of interviews and translations into English, done by the Collegium paid interns Linda Sivander, Anna Koivukoski and Olli Heiniö.

The interviews were very different in nature. In a group interview with four boys, for example, jokes were a key way to cope with the potential risks of losing face and place in the hierarchy of popularity; whereas in a mixed-gender interview of two girls and two boys, everybody took care to avoid absolute categorizations and to present uncontroversial views. Gender organized physical positioning and interactions in both groups, but in different ways. In the former group, the boys used joking to signal their distance from girls in general and the woman interviewer in particular, and to try to establish power relations over her. In the latter group, the boys and the girls sat separately and indicated difference from each other by organizing the interaction in “the girls’ turns” and “the boys’ turns”.

Another group interview with five boys illuminates well how narratives on gender difference were created collectively. There was a lot of echoing and in the fast-paced discussion, the boys often finished, or tried to finish, each other’s sentences, when creating the story that was presumed to be shared by all the boys present. This meant that they often cut each other off. At the same time, there was (some) room for negotiating acceptable, but exceptional, differences.

Luka: Boys do not use any–

Elias: Dresses or–

Luka: Do not use any, face lotion things.

Mikael: I do sometimes apply some lotion [laughs] if it is dry but otherwise I do not.

Luka: No but the kinda masks you know–

Mikael: Yea I know.

Luka: –to the face so–

Oliver: Yea the kinda, girly clothes and stuff.

Marja: You said about the makeup that sometimes boys do makeup-

Bikram: Yea.

Marja: Is it well is it then girly anyway, or?

Elias: Not like that

Mikael: Well depends on how you do it, slightly.

Luka: Famous people, men, they do makeup.

Bikram: Yea they do use makeup.

Mikael: They do put it on so that they are more visible [laughs] in the photos and so on.

Marja: So nobody here in the school?

Mikael: No, no no! [laughter]

Bikram: I do not know anyone.

We conducted joint narrative analysis of the English translations of the focus groups with Marja checking translations against the Finnish transcriptions, sometimes against the audio recording and with her memory of the interaction. We began the analysis of the first focus group interview by reading the whole interview together out loud and so staging it.  We first did the reading line by line, covering up the lines below so that we could not see them and read on. We spent a great deal of time analysing the meaning of each line and using the analysis of one line to anticipate what we expected to happen next in the transcript.

This method was developed from Marine Burgos’s notion, drawing on Paul Ricoeur’s narratology, that narrators have the difficult task of bringing together disparate events into an ordered and relatively coherent narrative so that there is always a struggle when people have to start telling stories. Even if they are not aware of it, Burgos argues that conflicts are often evident at the start of stories, as are the key issues that animate people’s narratives and the subjective positions that narrators take up in relation to their subject matter.  While line-by-line reading was too time-consuming a method to apply to the whole corpus of data, we continued reading the interviews out loud, staging them and discussing our interpretations to ensure that we shared understandings. We analysed both the researcher’s questions and the participants’ responses and comments in this way, on the basis that social interactions are co-constructions where comments and questions produce particular possibilities for response and new narratives.

All this sounds rather dry and earnest, but we were often to be found in the Collegium Common Room laughing and drinking tea/coffee around the sun lamp in the winter as we puzzled out what something meant and considered the dynamics of interviews. Having established the habit of Common Room convivial working, we frequently also worked there in the summer when the sun lamp had long been put away.

Photo by Meri Parkkinen

Ann Phoenix and Marja Peltola in the Collegium Common Room (Photo by Meri Parkkinen)

Our point in combining focus groups and individual interviews lies not in comparing the “authenticity” of the different types of data but in increasing understanding of how social context and ways of asking influence narratives of masculinity. Collaboration throughout the process has provided us with a more nuanced understanding and interpretations that each of us might have missed alone. It ensured that our stay at the Collegium was maximally productive.

Ann Phoenix held the Jane and Aatos Erkko Professorship at HCAS in 2016-2018. During the 2017-2018 academic year, she collaborated with postdoctoral researcher Marja Peltola on the research project “Masculinities in New Times: 11-14-year-olds in Helsinki schools”. 

Notes from the field: violence and insecurity in a Central American capital

By Florencia Quesada Avendaño (Core Fellow, HCAS)

It was a blue-sky day at the beginning of February in Guatemala City, our last day of fieldwork in the community of Arzú (Photo 1) – named after Alvaro Arzú, former Guatemala City mayor and former president of Guatemala (1996–2000). Arzú is a slum located in a high-risk area in zone 18, which is the largest and most populous zone in the northern part of the city. The municipality of Guatemala is divided into 22 zones, with the greatest number of precarious settlements being located in zones 3, 7 and 18 (SEGEPLAN 2015).

Photo 1: Panoramic view from the community of Arzú(Photo: Florencia Quesada)                                                                                         Many slums in Guatemala City are built in vulnerable places, like the ravines that surround the capital.

The fieldwork, conducted in cooperation with our local partners – a local NGO called “Perpendicular” – was both challenging and difficult.[*] The main goal was to conduct interviews in precarious settlements about the daily life, struggles, problems, organisation and perceptions of the inhabitants with respect to violence, insecurity and environmental risks. Local contacts with community leaders and the previous and recent experiences of our local partners working in the communities of Arzú and 5 de noviembre opened the doors rather quickly to a complex urban space.

Guatemala City is the largest city and capital in the Central American Isthmus. Its metropolitan area has a population of 2.8 million inhabitants, distributed over 2189 km2 (SEGEPLAN 2015). At the same time, the metropolitan area accounts for the largest concentration of poor people by square metre in the country, with an estimated 412 precarious settlements (SEGEPLAN 2015).

In these unequal and unjust urban spaces, insecurity and fear are the daily bread of the urban poor especially in Guatemala City. Nevertheless, nobody escapes from violence in the country. Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world. This extreme social urban segregation, characteristic of Latin America’s urban landscape, is well represented in zone 18. A high percentage of the population lives in poverty and extreme poverty. Some of the slums are located in high-risk areas prone to landslides, flooding and earthquakes. Precarious settlements are characterised by self-built housing, with very limited and insufficient public services and infrastructure (Photo 2). Over the years, and through the organisation of the community, the limited aid of the municipality, the State and NGOs like TECHO, some of these precarious settlements have improved their living conditions and services, but always still working from a marginal and excluded position.

Photo 2: Precarious settlements built in high-risk areas, Guatemala City(Photo: Florencia Quesada)

As part of the same complex urban panorama, these communities are also very insecure and violent. Certain parts of zone 18 have the reputation of being the most dangerous in the city. Especially in the lower-class areas, youth gangs like ‘Mara 18’ (18th Street gang) and other minor gangs control territory by extorting money from local businesses and public buses and taxis. Doubly stigmatised because of its poverty and the bad reputation of zone 18, daily life in both communities is a day-to-day struggle, as was evident in all of the interviews.

Paradoxically, the violence has been normalised: it is now perceived as a central and inevitable part of society. One of the reasons for the trivialisation of violence has to do with being bombarded with sensationalist TV news on a daily basis. Shootings, homicides, kidnappings, assaults and rapes dominate media; they are presented as the norm, the tragic reality that feeds paranoia – a big business for some – exacerbating those imaginaries of fear. Most of the interviewees highlighted how insecure and dangerous the city was by referencing their first-hand experiences, but they especially mentioned their perceptions being influenced by the television news.

In a post-war society such as Guatemala (after a civil war that lasted for thirty-six years), the expressions of violence originate from and overlap with a multiplicity of reasons, like State violence, high rates of impunity and corruption, social and economic exclusion of broad segments of the society, to name just a few. Citizens’ sense of insecurity is closely related to the failure of the State to ensure the basic needs and rights of its citizens and to offer security to a majority of the population. Violence is a direct expression of exclusion and inequality and has a devastating impact on the daily life of the urban poor.

One of the interviewees, a blacksmith in his late 30s, is at the same time a good and sad example of such structural and daily violence. His self-built house is located on a steep hillside. To reach his dwelling at the bottom of the hill, you must first descend the concrete stairs built by the community. Ironically, he earns his living by selling iron fences for the protection of such dwellings. Three years ago, he was shot by a member of Mara 18, the gang that rules the area. The gang member came to recruit his cousin by force, who was working at the time in the man’s workshop. His cousin escaped, he was not so fortunate. The young marero turned to him and started shooting without mercy: four bullets hit him in the arms (two in each arm). While trying to escape, the last one hit his spinal cord; the bullet is still there. He can no longer walk and is condemned to life in a wheelchair. Now his life is limited to a 5×5 space, disabled, without any support or economic aid from the State; his possibilities are quite limited. His extended family – parents, wife and two adult sons – are the only support he has. He seldom goes out of the house since the logistics of going up the steep hill are complex (Photo 3). He has diabetes, which affects his eyesight. His steady gaze is gloomy.

Photo 3: Looking down the hill in the community of Arzú                    (Photo: Florencia Quesada)

Nevertheless, although the gangs are directly associated with high levels of urban violence, they are not the only ones to blame in the multifaceted panorama of urban violence. Gangs are easy scapegoats for the State, helping it to avoid facing the main causes of violence in the region, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, exclusion and the lack of possibilities to earn a decent living. Through this research project, we aim to understand and analyse the dynamics of these complex processes of violence and environmental risks in order to rethink alternatives and offer possibilities for these fragile urban communities, which only keep multiplying in Central American cities (Photo 4).

Photo 4: Precarious settlements in Guatemala City(Photo: Florencia Quesada)

[*]This research is part of a project funded by the Academy of Finland: ‘Fragile cities in the global South: societal security, environmental vulnerability and representative justice’, coordinated by Anja Nygren. The project aims to analyse the roles of new city-authority coalitions, organised civil-society groups and informal network-actors engaged in seeking new ways to manage societal insecurity, environmental vulnerability and representative justice in the fragile cities of the global South. Guatemala City is one of the case studies focused on violence and environmental risks, along with Villahermosa in México, Bogotá in Colombia and Calcutta in India.

Transmedia in the Digital and Networked Age

By Hanna-Riikka Roine

I started my postdoctoral research project, Convergent Worlds in the Digital Age. New Forms of Participation and Sharing in Transmedial Environments (2017–2020) in September at the Collegium. The project is based on my expertise as a literary scholar and narratologist. However, my aim here is to combine literary theory with research on digital media, social interaction, games and fan cultures in order to analyse the relationship between material artefacts and imagined environments in the art after the digital turn. In this blog post, I briefly explicate one of the key ideas of my project: why is it important to take the process of digitalization into account when analysing transmedia – and, vice versa, how might the analysis of transmedia help to understand the digital turn?

The Layers of Contemporary Transmedia

Although the ongoing technological change has been noted in transmedia studies, it has not yet been seriously addressed. To get a more thorough picture of the change and its effects on transmedia, I have coined the term transmedial environment, which is designed to cover both of the two layers of contemporary transmediality. Firstly, there is the layer that has already been observed in narrative theory and media studies and is often discussed through the concept of media convergence. It includes “transmedia storytelling”, the practice of using multiple media platforms to create narrative experiences, and the analysis of phenomena such as the transfer of media characteristics from one medium to another or narrative representation across media. Transmediality in this form is an age-old phenomenon, as the dissemination of Greek myth through various artistic media, for example, suggests.

Secondly, however, there is a more contemporary layer, which in the current context can be approached as a new environment for storytelling. It is the one of media hybridization: the way (previously separate) media and their techniques and properties get incorporated by the computer, becoming genuinely remixable as a result. Third concept that is often brought up in relation to transmedia is the conglomeration of media owners, but I will not address it here further.

Among the most widely known examples of contemporary transmedial environments are franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and Star Trek. All of these include novels, films, games, and so on. While they have been discussed in relation to media convergence and conglomeration (Star Wars, in particular), the fact that both authoring and using such environments are increasingly facilitated by the computational media has not yet been sufficiently addressed.

Quite a few transmedial environments are still created for the purpose of being “storytelling systems”. However, the ancient technology of storytelling is now enmeshed in a software-driven environment. This environment not only has the potential to “transmediate” all artistic media, but also differs fundamentally in its structure and strategies from verbal language, the traditional focus of narrative theory. It is therefore crucial to note that the logics of convergence and hybridization have not only enabled the rapid proliferation of entertainment experiences that combine affordances and properties of more than one medium, but are also being realized in contemporary transmedia.

The Effects of Digitalization on Transmedia

In order to understand the effects of computational environment on practices of storytelling, my project suggests that we look beyond the media objects and their content. Due to the ever-intensifying process of media hybridization, various originally print-based forms of media have begun to acquire properties of computational media. The two crucial markers of the computer’s ontology, the database and procedurality, have brought about a multiplication of narrative and the interplay between a single instantiation and the archive of many possibilities.

As a result, there is a definite shift of focus away from objects with a beginning and end towards the underlying patterns on which varied instantiations can be based on. For example, the basic elements of stories – such as characters – can be viewed as process-based instead of being understood as parts of an authored environment that is fixed and not open to variation. This development concerns the processes of both creating various media artefacts and engaging with them. Furthermore, it urges us to challenge the notion of transmedia as centred on a single narrative and content with clearly defined boundaries.

In my view, the shift away from beginnings and ends is visible on a larger level in the form of networks. The model of network also means that there is not centre – there are only nodes, connecting to one another, capable of endless expansion. This well illustrates the nature of contemporary transmedia in the sense that the author, the “originating transmitter” is quite impossible to define, giving way to the more communal, networked forms of authoring and creating. From the viewpoint of storytelling practices, this change marks a considerable shift from the model of transmission – and, especially, transmission of complete messages – towards the model of circulation and manipulation of content.

Instead of only looking at the ways in which elements such as characters can be transferred (or transmediated) from one medium to another, we could examine processes the characters and the ways they are maintained are based. In many transmedial environments, which can accommodate material indefinitely, new interpretations and instantiations of content are constantly created – and debated, as the heated criticism towards the reimagination of the Klingons and the Federation technology in a new Star Trek television show, Discovery, illustrates.

Together, the incorporation of various, previously distinct media by the computer and the network model inherent to the society powered by electronic information and communication technologies prove the importance of digitalization to the contemporary art and entertainment. Especially interesting is the question of narrative multiplication within the larger frame of social networking: while the new forms of participation and sharing do facilitate the fragmentation of old, “culture-defining” stories, the stories told within distinct communities are, more often than not, extremely standardized.

Hanna-Riikka Roine is Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her doctoral dissertation in Literary Studies, Imaginative, Immersive and Interactive Engagements. The Rhetoric of Worldbuilding in Contemporary Speculative Fiction (University of Tampere, 2016) pursues speculative worldbuilding as a rhetorical and communicative practice beyond textual fictions to digital, interactive, transmedial, and fan fictions. Her current research project combines narrative theory with research on digital media, games, and fan cultures, and aims to provide an innovative way to analyze both the poetics and the collaborative aspects of new creative practices.

On population genetics, emotions, and entangled differences

Venla Oikkonen

My first year at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies was intense, inspiring and rewarding. While starting a new research project on cultural debates about vaccines, I had the opportunity to finish my second monograph on the cultural dimensions of human population genetics. The book, Population Genetics and Belonging: A Cultural Analysis of Genetic Ancestry, was published in October by Palgrave Macmillan. Many of the final details of the book reflect discussions I had with my wonderful colleagues in the Collegium hallways, at coffee breaks, and in our Brown Bag seminars.

As the title suggests, the book is an account of population genetics as a means of making communities, identities, and belonging. Human population genetics is a field of science that studies genetic variation within and between populations. The book explores technological practices and cultural imaginaries that population genetics has engendered in contemporary societies. For example, population genetics underlies commercial genetic ancestry tests, which promise to trace our personal roots to prehistoric communities and connect us to people who share genetic markers with us. Population genetics provides the basis for national genome initiatives. Population genetics informs the study of DNA retrieved from ancient human remains, playing a crucial role in attempts to imagine human evolution. Population genetics structures the ongoing building of biobanks, which are meant to accelerate scientific research and pharmaceutical development through faster circulation of samples and information. Population genetics is also present in the marketing of pharmaceutical products to specific ethnic communities on the basis of assumed population-level genetic differences. Moreover, population genetics has been invoked in both pro- and anti-immigration campaigns, revealing the ambivalent relationship between population genetics and politics of inclusion and exclusion.

How has population genetics become part of all these diverse projects? How can it support opposite political and social agendas? Why are the tensions and connections between these projects and practices seldom discussed? In Population Genetics and Belonging, I investigate the mutability and persistence of population genetic imaginaries by tracing shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics from the late 1980s until today. The book explores these shifts and continuities through a range of materials including scientific articles, journalism, popular science books, online genetics websites, and fiction.

Throughout the book, my analysis of shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics focuses on two issues: affect and intersectional differences. Affect refers to the cultural circulation of emotions and the emergence of emotional intensities around objects such as genetic technologies or biological samples. By intersectional differences I refer to how technologies are entangled with assumptions of gender, sexuality, race and class, and how these differences are constituted through one another. I argue that in order to understand the potential impact of population genetics in society, we need to pay attention to how population genetic technologies shape gendered, racialized, classed and sexualized differences, and how these differences become emotionally charged.

The theory of “Mitochondrial Eve” developed in the 1980s provides an illustrative example. “Mitochondrial Eve” is the most recent maternal ancestor of all currently living humans traced through mitochondrial DNA inside our cells. Eve is not a specific woman but rather a statistical point of origins in the past where mitochondrial variation among modern humans originates. Through an analysis of scientific, media, and fictional texts, I trace how the theory of Mitochondrial Eve becomes contested, celebrated, and gradually routinized in the early 1990s. I also explore the appearance of another gendered figure, “Y-Chromosome Adam”, in the mid-1990s. While Mitochondrial Eve draws on the idea of an unbroken maternal chain between us and our evolutionary past, Y-chromosome Adam is the most recent patrilineal ancestor of currently living men traced through Y-chromosome DNA. In cultural discourses surrounding population genetics, Y-Chromosome Adam became almost immediately portrayed as Eve’s counterpart, partner, and even boyfriend. This portrayal questioned the initial cultural representations of Eve as a strong and independent woman, as well as contradicted the scientific evidence that placed Eve and Adam at different prehistoric times.

Population Genetics and Belonging shows how the figures of Eve and Adam mobilize cultural assumptions of gendered, sexual and racialized differences while traveling across science and culture. The first chapter demonstrates how the pro-feminist and multicultural undertones of the figure of Mitochondrial Eve evoked strong emotional responses in science journalism, mainstream media, popular science, and fiction, and how some of the underlying cultural anxieties were alleviated through heteronormative narratives involving Adam. In subsequent chapters, I ask what happens to these emotionally charged differences when mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA is used in commercial genetic ancestry tests, ancient DNA research, or debates about the roots of national populations.

All in all, the book argues that genetics and emotions are thoroughly entangled: emotions shape as well as reflect developments around population genetics in society. In particular, emotions arise around cultural perceptions of how genetic accounts of human evolution may reshape social categories of difference such as gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity. Finally, the book suggests that formations of affect and difference around biotechnologies call for critical exploration also beyond the field of population genetics.

Venla Oikkonen is Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her research interests include evolutionary theory, genetics, vaccine controversies, pandemics, and theoretical questions related to affect and intersectionality. Her first book Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives was published by Routledge in 2013.

TUHAT research profile: https://tuhat.helsinki.fi/portal/en/person/voikkone