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Upcoming Lectures on Ocean Science Politics to Give HSE Exposure to Modern Anthropology

Stefan Helmreich, Professor and Elting E. Morison Chair in the Department of Anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be at HSE Moscow and HSE St Petersburg from September 25 – October 4, 2016 to deliver a series of lectures and lead a discussion on the politics of contemporary ocean science. He will also take part in the round table 'Soundscape in the Anthropology of Science and Art' during the Days of Ethnographic Cinema festival organized by the HSE School of Cultural Studies.

Anthropology – HSE’s Missing Discipline

Professor Helmreich’s visit comes during a particularly interesting time for anthropology at HSE. ‘There are several anthropologists who are dispersed in different departments and campuses. But anthropology is one of the few academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences that HSE still institutionally lacks’, said Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, Associate Professor in the Department of History at HSE St. Petersburg, which he joined in 2015 after teaching anthropology for 15 years at the University of Cambridge.

Anthropology in Russia is still very commonly understood as just physical anthropology, according to Professor Ssorin-Chaikov, and the focus of Helmreich’s research is unlikely to be familiar to Russian scholars.

‘The anthropology that Stefan does belongs to a very different kind of academic tradition. This is social or cultural anthropology that explores the contemporary world in its cultural complexity’, said Ssorin-Chaikov.

Professor Ssorin-Chaikov, who holds a PhD in anthropology from Stanford University, teaches anthropology in tandem with history that focuses on empires, history of science, environmental history, and historical memory; these areas are all very close to contemporary issues that anthropologists are interested in.

‘Last year we had a series of very interesting workshops in the religion and secularism and cultural heritage where these productive links were visible’, said Ssorin-Chaikov. ‘If there will be anything distinctly Russian about anthropology emerging in the context of this dialogue, it will be its formal identity as “a historical science” — as ethnology and ethnography have been traditionally classed in the Russian academic system’.

If there will be anything distinctly Russian about anthropology emerging in the context of his dialogue, it will be its formal identity as “a historical science” — as ethnology and ethnography have been traditionally classed in the Russian academic system 

Professor Ssorin-Chaikov’s research is already moving in this direction. In addition to the subjects he teaches, his research interests cover Siberian indigenous studies, as well as Russian Empire and Soviet and post-Soviet society, which he explores by looking at public gifts the Russian and Soviet state leaders receive. In 2006, he curated an award-winning exhibition, ‘Gifts to Soviet Leaders’ at the Kremlin Museum in Moscow together with art historian Olga Sosnina.

‘Pay attention to the ocean’

Ahead of his visit to Moscow, Professor Stefan Helmreich agreed to speak with the HSE news service about his upcoming lectures, his research interests, and what inspired him to pursue them.

— What will be the focus of your lectures and discussions when you’re in Moscow?

— I think I will centre my lectures and discussion on the politics of ocean science in the contemporary moment. I am interested in how the sciences of oceanography are transforming as new kinds of objects — biological and physical — are discovered. Such objects include the range of microbial life that is hosted by the ocean, and which is now believed to be essential to the control of the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles, as well as such freshly understood entities as ‘rogue waves’, larger than expected wave phenomena that are now known to be more common than previously believed and that increasingly effect the pathways of global shipping.

— Could you speak a bit about how this ties into your research interests as an anthropologist?

— I am interested in how scientific knowledge about the ocean — one of the ‘wildest’ spaces of ‘nature’ that there is — is assimilated (or not) into international and state bureaucratic planning, political imaginations about the possibilities and limits of ‘nature’, and activism about the state of the world’s oceans. I will examine these questions using particularly anthropological approaches, employing ethnography I conducted with scientists and analyses keyed to questions of cultural meaning and practice. In an age in which ‘the Earth’ is being treated as an increasingly legible scale of analysis (scientifically, politically), it is worth listening to the latest stories we tell ourselves about the oceans.

— Will you touch on the issue of your latest research on wave science? How did water and sounds attract your attention?

— Yes. I became interested in water — and the ocean in particular — because of the ways that marine and ocean creatures have tested the limits of what biological scientists have known and assumed about earth’s organisms. One of the reasons I wrote a book entitled ‘Alien Ocean’ was to highlight this way that the ocean tests the boundaries of common sense about territory, ownership, control, and the possibility of classifying all of Earth’s inhabitants and processes. My interest in underwater sound follows closely upon that curiosity, for the world of underwater sound is also unfamiliar and inhuman and tests the boundaries of what we think we mean when we talk about ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’ — which unfold quite differently for sea creatures (as well as humans in submarines) than it does for landed hearing people. In some sense, these curiosities are canonically anthropological — about understanding ‘other worlds’.

— What are some of the main findings of your book ‘Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond’, and what message do you hope to convey?

— I think I would best answer this question by quoting a portion of the book’s introduction on the topic of water:

In an era when changes in global climate drive rising sea levels; when pollution, hurricanes, and tsunamis upend landed technoscientific schemes; when infrastructures of aquaculture, irrigation, and water supply fracture and ramify into ever more elaborate schemes, the form and substance of ‘water’ becomes disturbed, troubling stable boundaries between land and sea as well as modes of defining what water is in the first place, in both social and natural science.

— What has inspired your research?

— I am interested in very traditional anthropological questions about the relation between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and how people in various social worlds understand these. That interest inspires me to look for ‘limits’ — for places where these categories become difficult to discern or define the boundaries of. Ultimately, I think that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are themselves categories that we need to historicize.

— What have you found to be the most upsetting and frustrating issue?

— This is difficult to answer — partly because I believe that frustration is always part of the anthropological research experience and is, in fact, a kind of experiential datum!

— What are some of your favourite non-fiction writers?

— Non-fiction? I suppose I like the work of historian of biology Donna Haraway, and of anthropologist Hugh Raffles. ‘Primate Visions’ and the ‘Insectopedia’ are two of my favourites. 

— Do you have any particular message for students at the start of the 2016-2017 year?

— Pay attention to the ocean.

Prepared by Anna Chernyakhovskaya, HSE News Service

See also:

The Earliest Cat on the Northern Silk Road

HSE researchers Irina Arzhantseva and Heinrich Haerke from the Centre of Classical and Oriental Archaeology (Faculty of Humanities) have been involved in the discovery of the earliest domestic cat yet found in northern Eurasia. The presence of Dzhanik (as the archaeologists have begun to call the tomcat) implies that there was a reasonably large settlement with a sedentary population even 200 years before it was surrounded by big walls and was called a town.

Ours/Others, Africa and Urban Indigenous Peoples: Guide to the ‘Days of Ethnographic Cinema’ Festival

Seeing life in other countries in a way that even seasoned travellers cannot see it, discussing endangered urban cultures, and understanding the reasons of nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ will be possible at the ‘Days of Ethnographic Cinema’ festival that will be held from September 24-30 by the Higher School of Economics together with the Russian State Humanitarian University and the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. This guide covers the events worth following for specialists and curious non-specialists alike.