Russia by the Numbers: symposium on the humanities + mathematics


Watch the video of Panel 1 here

Watch the video of Panel 2 here

The Jordan Center hosted a symposium on Friday March 7th, Russia by the Numbers, to discuss the relationship between mathematics and Russian-focused humanities, as well as the emergence of the “digital humanities” as a discipline. The central question dealt with the challenges posed by newer, more statistically-focused methods of inquiry, to literary studies. In what ways could our increasing reliance upon statistics and data potentially influence the analysis of phenomenon outside the traditionally number-oriented realms of science and mathematics?

Anne Lounsbery, Chair of the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU welcomed Michael Holquist, Emeritus Professor of Comparative and Slavic Literature at Yale University. Holquist thanked Lounsbery for the opportunity to join in the discussion of “so improbable a topic.” He said that with his paper he aimed to stimulate conversation about not just the relationship between history, literature, and math in Russia, “but more generally about how mathematics relates to everything else in our lives.”

Holquist reminded everyone,“this is a black period in the history of philology–humanities are on the defense right now.” He argued that the difficulty isn’t in convincing people to read challenging texts, rather it’s about the “tsunami of quantification” the humanities and other fields are confronting. Though Big Data and statistics are witnessing a golden age at the moment, Holquist admitted, “the problem we confront is an old one.”

He pointed out the physical proximity of the symposium to one of the biggest and most influential mathematics institutions in the world, the Courant Institute, where, as far back as 1957 mathematicians voiced their concerns about “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics,” and concerns that, though incredibly useful, math is also inhuman at its core.

Holquist pushed further back into history and pointed out how often numbers make their appearance in 19th century Russian literature through the themes of “the rule of chance, the fable of ranks, and the illogical nature of logic.” These elements, Holquist argued, are the result of writers’ attempts to confront how notional patterns relate to larger social and historical events and processes.

Holquist pointed to Gogol’s Diary of a Madman as an example of a text that references the tension between pattern and event, a dichotomy which brings to mind numbers versus human individuality. The story juxtaposes linear dates with what Holquist called the “extraordinary disorder” of the narrative text.

Dostoevsky was also concerned with this dichotomy. Holquist argued that one of Dostoevsky’s central concerns was “the problem of generalization,” and the gap between the resulting systems and how they might apply to the human condition. This is what Dostoevsky understood to be “a paradox at the center of human existence,” Holquist said. However inadequate the general may be at capturing singularity, “it’s necessary for [Dostoevsky] to have both because they speak different truths.”

Holquist concluded his paper presentation by bringing the focus back to the present. Russian literary preoccupation in the 19th-century with the disparate roles of pattern versus event is relevant today, he argued, “because we are living in an age of intense quantification, to the point where it’s changed some of the basic categories for organizing historical experience.” Holquist outlined his concerns for the future of the humanities as stemming from the danger in looking to pattern for the study of literature and history. When numbers take precedence, there is a danger in losing focus on the unquantifiable deeper meanings and distinctly human aspects of literature and the arts.

After moving to comments, discussant and historian of science from Michigan State University, Nasser Zakariya, listed a series of what he called “my reservations about [Holquist’s] reservations.” Zakariya pressed the round table to think carefully about the questions being asked here. “Is the question of computation itself extra computational?” He also called into question Holquist’s reservations about quantification. “Aren’t mathematical rules human institutions?” Zakariya wondered.

Holquist acknowledged that all of these questions were very important. However, he pointed out that Dostoevsky, “recognized that all systems are fallible, including language,” and that the author understood it was important for mathematics to be incorporated into non-mathematical contexts. “But,” Holquist reiterated. “How this impacts education is important.”

Michael Shapiro, former chair of Slavic at Brown University and now Professor at Columbia, contributed thoughts from his own experiences as a linguist working with quantification in the humanities. Shapiro wrote an article in which he made use of statistical analysis as a means of quantifying genius in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shapiro explained this article was extremely polarizing. The negative response, he argued, demonstrates “this inherent tension which can never be solved– the tension between the collective and the individual.”

Diana Greene, Slavic Librarian and Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU, challenged Shapiro’s assertion that genius can be quantified. “What does it mean to say something’s good? It depends on who you’re asking,” she argued.

Ilya Kliger Professor at Russian literature at NYU said that in looking at pattern versus event, perhaps, “the point is not to pick one or the other,” but to consider both within a cost-benefit analysis. Kliger pointed out that pattern and quantification are not the only forms of analysis that have been criticized for their limitations in certain contexts– formalism and structural semiotics were also criticized for their “anti-humanism and the failure to consider individuality.” On the other hand, Soviet literary criticism emphasized the danger in considering anything as an isolated event.

Kliger wondered, “is there anything literature can teach statistics?” He said though he couldn’t provide a definitive answer to this question, he pointed to the fact that even simply counting as a method of analyzing a work of literature, “doesn’t always work.”

After a brief break, the symposium resumed to discuss a paper written by Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at U-Penn, Peter Steiner. He explained the his paper came out of his study of Russian formalism, and focuses on three theorists, with extremely divergent backgrounds and seemingly little in common — Viktor Shklovsky, Carl Schmitt, and Karl Popper but for whom “repetition is the bête noire.”

Schmitt, a political and legal theorist, understood exception to be the most important aspect of the law, and stands in opposition to a simple repetition of logical processes that automatically arrives at an outcome. Furthermore, Schmitt insisted that the constitution lies outside the law. “It’s a political act,” Steiner explained. He said that the political aspect of Schmitt’s theory, “intrigued me,” and that Schmitt’s idea was based on assumption that politics translates to a struggle between groups, the opposition between friend and enemy.

Shklovsky also resisted the notion of inflexible systems and infallible scientific truth. Steiner quotes Shklovsky: “In literature heritage passes not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew.” Steiner noted that Shklovsky also pointed to art’s use of cognitive dissonance as a means of making us aware of reality. Whereas science defamiliarizes our connection with the world and reality.

Popper, a philosopher of science, rejected the idea that the scientific method could result in concrete proof. Rather, he argued that it could only lead to the disproving of certain theories and hypotheses.

Steiner argued that in these ways, each theorist implicitly or explicitly resisted the idea that quantification could result in unshakeable truth.

Michael Gordin, Historian of Science from Princeton University, commented that he “liked all three,” theorists chosen by Steiner. “Because they are all fundamental to schools [of thought] in the present.” But Gordin pointed out it was important to consider how divergent politically each of these thinkers was. Shklovsky was a futurist artist and socialist. Schmitt, Gordin described as a conservative and an “unrepentant Nazi sympathizer.” Finally, Popper is “an old school 80’s liberal who hates fascism and socialism.”

Because of their disparate views, Gordin wondered– “What happens if you write the politics back in? Napoleon, Hitler, and Khlebnikov are each one’s interlocutor. What do we do when we put them together?”

Steiner replied that Gordin was “absolutely right,” but that the point of this paper was to illuminate tropes and that what he was pursuing was purely intellectual exercise. “And you’re right, it’s weird,” Steiner said. “But I wanted this to be weird.” However, Steiner noted, that all three theorists clearly shared a critique of positivism. “What’s interesting is this insistence on exceptionality,” he said.

Holquist agreed. “One of the reasons why Schmitt is so seductive is the primeval notion of politics: us versus them.”

Anne Lounsbery, Chair of the Department of Russian & Slavic studies at NYU, pointed out that the categories being discussed at the symposium were “implicitly gendered.” She wondered if this mattered, and if anything could be learned from making this explicit.

Holquist agreed that a great deal of what had been discussed that day dealt with binary.“Gender is one way to think about it,” he said.

At the symposium’s closing, Ilya Kliger thanked the speakers for their contribution.

Visit our YouTube site to see more of the discussion.