• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

From Ancient Inscriptions to Blogs: Different Disciplines’ View on Ego Texts

HSE has held its post-graduate humanities summer school 'History in the First Person: From Antiquity to Our Time'. The summer school was dedicated to texts written or recorded in the first person, as well as to various methods for analysing them. The school’s organizers and participants spoke with the HSE news service about what ego texts are, how representatives of different disciplines work with them, and how French methodology differs from Russian.

Oleg Voskoboynikov, historian, Tenured Professor at the Higher School of Economics

In the late 20th century the status of personal experience, and even discourse – abandoned by chance yet recorded by history – changed dramatically in the humanities. Figuratively speaking, history discovered direct speech, which is heard in ego-texts – correspondence, diaries, autobiographies, poetry, memoirs, confessions, denunciations and interrogations, interviews, notarial acts and memorial books from medieval monasteries. The carriers of such information, which range from ancient inscriptions to interviews and medieval manuscripts to blogs, are as diverse as the methods used to analyse them. The development of these methods over the past two decades has significantly enriched the dialogue with societies of the past and has opened up promising new avenues for research.

We conceived of the school with our Parisian friends Alain Blum and Larisa Zakharova in 2013 right after a cooperation agreement was signed between HSE and the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. We were later joined by Emilia Koustova of the University of Strasbourg, where there is a long tradition of Slavic Studies, and Hélène Mélat of the Centre of Franco-Russian Research in Moscow. As a result, HSE now has an excellent team of French specialists who have a strong knowledge of Russian culture and psychology. We have virtually no restrictions in terms of geography or period of history. The purpose of the school is to learn how an individual’s voice sounded and was recorded in texts throughout history – from antiquity to the present day – and what research strategies can and should be used by experts from different disciplines to identify this voice.

Historians, philologists, and philosophers ask different questions of both historical facts and the texts where they are recorded, but as it turns out during debates, they have quite a lot in common

The interdisciplinary nature of such a school is self-evident; one of its main tasks was to create conditions for professional conversation among researchers who come from different backgrounds, use different methodological tools, and take different approaches to the study of ego-documents.

As for historians, I am convinced that we need to constantly reflect on what historical fact is, how it is recorded, how we should analyse it, and what lies behind it. And the outside perspective is not the perspective of an historian but rather that of a participant in the events, which even if biased may help in seeing the different layers of reality behind one fact and one text. Historians, philologists, and philosophers ask different questions of both historical facts and the texts where they are recorded, but as it turns out during debates, they have quite a lot in common.

For example, when the writer Anna Berdichevskaya describes life in the Gulag, what is she describing in reality when she tells the story about her mother? After all, there are several stages of information processing between the reality of the Gulag and us, sitting in a classroom and listening to the report of a student who is taking an interview. First, it was the will of Berdichevskaya’s mother, her ability to express an idea, and her willingness or unwillingness to tell something. Her silence is also an historical fact. Second, it is her daughter’s thoughts on what she heard from her mother; the result of these thoughts is a recorded story. Third, there is the work that editors and proofreaders do with the printed version of this story. And fourth, there are the mind, heart and voice of our rapporteur who interviewed Berdichevskaya, and this voice of the researcher makes its transformation to the past.

At the school, we were able to bring 30 such voices to the classroom – 20 French and 10 Russian. Naturally, most of the reports were on the 20th century, but there were a few reports on antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the modern era. To some extent, I feel as though I am a French envoy to our university, and for me it was important that almost all of these voices were heard in French – a language with a rich intellectual tradition. I am convinced that the humanities will die if such national intellectual traditions that are entitled to their languages are lost.


Alain Blum, historian, demographer, Professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris)

We chose a theme that allows experts from different fields to find interesting topics for themselves. We have been cooperating with HSE for a long time, and I think that we already have a tradition of working together; this school has once again confirmed that we understand one another. We brought quite a few French students to the school, and the extent to which they could work here productively and in an intellectually enriching way (in many ways due to the fact that the school was French speaking) confirms that we have truly managed to establish cooperation.


Larisa Zakharova, historian, Professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (Paris)

In French the name of this school – À la première personne, écritures de soi de l’Antiquité à l’époque contemporaine – sounded like ‘History of the First Person: From Antiquity to the Modern Day’, but I think it would be more precise to say ‘From the First Person: Ego-Texts from Antiquity to Our Time’. The second option better reflects our idea of holding an interdisciplinary gathering. With the peculiarities of translation, it seems that from the Russian side historians were the main ones to express interest in the conference, but from France there was a variety of disciplines – philosophers, historians, philologists, anthropologists, and linguists. However, in the end, we really managed to go beyond the disciplinary framework and show historians how ‘their’ object of research is seen by other scholars.

Over the course of the three days, we saw three approaches to the analysis of ego-history. The first can be called ‘demarcation’, which implies very clear disciplinary boundaries, with representatives speaking only from the perspective of their field and not showing particular interest in what is happening in other disciplines. The second approach is ‘integration’, when we are enticed by the idea of being ​​interdisciplinary, borrow approaches from other disciplines and apply them mechanically without thinking about the fact that this transfer involves an epistemological shift. The third approach is ‘conversationalism’ – a transfer of ideas and approaches developed in one discipline to another in which there is a correlation of methodologies and concepts of two fields. This approach is just beginning to appear at the school, but I am certain that it will be the starting point for something more substantial. 


Hélène Mélat, literary historian, Centre of Franco-Russian Research (Moscow)

I have been studying contemporary Russian prose for quite some time. It’s still a very interesting topic, as cultural life in Russia has remained dynamic. Although it’s not the same as it was in the 1990s, but still... Here you can feel how society is changing and how literature is changing with it. You can feel the drive for change that fuels culture, and how marginal art becomes mainstream.

As for the topic of the conference, my interest is related to the huge layer of ego-texts (memoirs, diaries, etc.) that are published in Russia. Today, everyone is ready to write something, for example, about how they lived in the 1990s. A separate discourse has been formed – a special type of writing about oneself. At its centre is an individual storyteller. Together with the multitude of specifics and descriptions of the smallest details of everyday life that seem to have no relation to big history, a picture of an era is emerging that you will never see in a textbook.


Irina Mastyaeva, 2nd year Master’s student, ‘Historical Knowledge’ programme

When philosophers start talking about the internal and external ‘I’ that is heard in a text, they do so quite unlike historians would. When literary historians work with memoirs or letters (what are called ego-texts or ego-documents today), it is obvious how they work in a different way and draw other conclusions. During these three days, I constantly felt the need for translation from the language of one discipline to that of another; this is the challenge and the essence of the school.

Since I study medieval France, I found an academic conference on the French language interesting. On the one hand, I saw it as an opportunity to practice the language in which I have to read much of the literature and write. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to once again admire the French academic methodology. When you read French studies, their three-part structure sinks in and becomes something native. Even my French teachers, who do not see themselves as fans of the French system, eventually return to it. They attribute this to the fact that their academic culture of thinking (and writing) goes back to Descartes, so they are systematic and logical. We have learned something from them, and I hope that we have also taught them something.

See also:

‘We Have Always Loved You, Sakhalin’: Research Expedition Studies Sociocultural Anthropology of Miners' Working Life in the USSR

Researchers from the School of Foreign Languages and the Group for Historical Research, together with students of the History programme at the HSE University campus in Perm, have come back from an expedition to Sakhalin Island, where they studied Soviet industrial culture and the working life of miners. The expedition participants shared their impressions of their ‘immersion into the past’ and the extraordinary landscapes of the island with the HSE News Service.

Digitization of Manuscripts: Months of Searching Can Turn into Hours and Even Minutes

HSE staff members are participating in the ‘Russian Cultural Heritage: Intellectual Analysis and Thematic Modeling of the Corpus of Handwritten Texts’ project. This is aimed at developing a methodology for the automated analysis of manuscripts, eliminating the need for manual processing. HSE News Service spoke to Ekaterina Boltunova, project manager, Professor, Head of the Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective' at HSE Faculty of Humanities.

HSE Students Explore Environmental Problems at Summer School in South Urals

The summer school 'Space in/for Environmental Humanities: Reconsidering the Global through Studying Peripheries' explored the impact of human activity on natural environments and their transformation. It was co-organised by the School of Environmental and Social Studies (Anthroposchool) at the University of Tyumen (TSU) and the HSE Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI), with support from the Mirror Labs programme of HSE University.

HSE University Hosts Third Summer School on Machine Learning in Bioinformatics

Between August 23rd and 25th, the HSE Faculty of Computer Science held its annual summer school on machine learning in bioinformatics. After two years of being held online, the school returned to an offline format for this year. Over three days, more than 120 participants attended lectures and seminars by leading experts in the field from institutions such as HSE University, Skoltech, AIRI, MSU, MIPT, Genotek, and Sber Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Faculty of Computer Science Holds its First Entrepreneurship School

At the end of August, the Centre for Internships, Projects and Entrepreneurship of the Faculty of Computer Science, with support from the HSE University Business Incubator, held the first summer school on entrepreneurship. More than 40 HSE University bachelor’s and master’s students participated in it. The school was aimed at developing the students’ entrepreneurial skills and introducing them to the art of presenting ideas and products.

ICEF Holds Summer Bridge School in Financial Economics

The ICEF Summer Bridge School prepares students from various countries and universities for their master’s studies. It is a short-term summer programme for students of bachelor’s and master’s programmes who are planning to apply to the Master’s in Financial Economics at ICEF and similar master’s programmes at other universities in the coming year. The participants of this year’s School included students from Uzbekistan, Russia, Ghana, Azerbaijan, Italy, Armenia, Nigeria, China, Turkey, and others.

HSE University Students Enjoy Uzbek Hospitality at International Summer School in Tashkent

HSE University students have taken part in the ‘Uzbekistan—Land of Tolerance’ International Summer School. The event was held in July in Tashkent at the Mirzo Ulugbek National University of Uzbekistan, a partner of HSE University. The HSE University students shared their impressions of the local sights and hospitality.

MIEM Holds ‘Electronics, Photonics and the Internet of Things’ Summer School

Over three days, the participants learnt about the main subject areas of the master's programmes of the HSE School of Electronic Engineering. About three dozen undergraduate students and graduates from different Russian universities took part in the summer school. Leading MIEM teachers and visiting lecturers from Russian companies were among those who spoke about promising areas of development in electronics, photonics, quantum technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT).

‘I Have Always Respected the University’s Comprehensiveness and Inclusiveness’

Throughout July, students of the HSE International Summer University are studying Russian History and Behavioural Economics. The courses are taking place in an online format—something that seemed unthinkable for a summer programme before the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent years have shown that online learning is a unique opportunity for students from all over the world to study with leading HSE University professors from the comfort of their own homes.

I’m Writing to You: What Postcards Can Tell Us

Not so long ago, postcards were a popular way to congratulate someone or send a message. Today the postcard can instead be described as an exotic means of communication, and a rich field for research. This is what encouraged the students and teachers from Fundamental and Applied Linguistics at the Faculty of Humanities to embark on a flash mob project called ‘Send a Postcard to a Linguist’. Deputy Dean Timur Khusyainov of the Faculty of Humanities (Nizhny Novgorod), the curator of this flash mob and an experienced postcrosser, discusses whether postcards can be helpful for researchers and how they relate to digital humanities.