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Hello and welcome to Armenian News Network, Groong.
In this Conversation on Groong episode, we’ll be talking about the role of the humanities and social sciences in Armenian life. Our host for this discussion is:
Dr. Asbed Kotchikian, who is a senior lecturer of political science and international relations at Bentley University in Massachusetts.
This episode was recorded on Thursday, December 3rd, 2020.
Academia and academic work, especially in the fields of humanities and social sciences, has always been instrumentalized by various ideologies and/or political regimes. Moreover, various disciplines within each of those fields such as anthropology, art history, literature, etc., have a long tradition of being the middle children of academia and are rarely considered to have a role in shaping minds and trends in society. In Armenia the roles of humanities and social science have undergone changes since soviet and immediate post-soviet times. At a time where both these fields were viewed as instruments of legitimization of Communism and later nationalism, academics in these fields had to navigate the murky waters of ideology less they were willing to be labeled “pseudo-academics” or even worse as traitors.
The challenge of having robust disciplines in humanities and social sciences in Armenia is manifold. These include encouraging critical thinking void of ideology, the role of individuals with degrees in humanities and social sciences in the larger society, challenging pre-existing paradigms and many more.
To talk about these issues, we are joined by:
Dr. Angela Harutyunyan, who is Associate Professor of Art History and the chair of the Department of Fine Arts and Art History at the American University of Beirut. She is founding member of BICAR (Beirut Institute for Critical Analysis and Research) and the Johannissyan Research Institute in the Humanities in Yerevan, Armenia. She is editor of ARTMargins peer-reviewed journal (MIT Press). Her monograph The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-garde: The Journey of the “Painterly Real'" was published by Manchester University Press in 2017 and 2019.
How would you justify the role of humanities in the world today?
The humanities deal with a different temporality than the expediency that the social and political world demands. To ask the humanities to respond in those terms means to subsume them under a different temporal regime and logic, which is one of immediate practical life.
It is already noteworthy that we are asked to “justify” the humanities. What are the conditions that require such justification? What are the modes of justification? Justification normally is made according to this regime of emergency or instrumentalization for expedient needs - ethics for engineers, art history for doctors, etc. (the late capitalist regime of catastrophes piling up upon each other).
The arts and humanities in moments of “historical danger” -1930s, 1960s-70s. The autonomous pursuit of humanistic scholarship through the means and tools provided by the internal laws of the humanities’ disciplines a posteriori rather than their politicization Avant le lettre. The Marxian debates of the disciplines’ relative autonomy but also the transformation of their spheres through the material world they are embedded in. Today, we have vulgar instrumentalisation, without either the nuanced politics of humanist thinkers or the dialectical thought of the good Marxists.
A brief overview of the place and role of humanities in Soviet Russia.
The fellow-travelers of the 1920s, critical philosophical discourses forming the armature of institutionalizing the humanities in the Soviet Union: how to deal with tradition, and especially with the bourgeois tradition of humanistic heritage (both European and Russian)?
Lenin vs. Bogdanov, the importance of discovering Marx’s EPM, the move of the Marx and Engels archives to Moscow (Marx-Engels Institute), discussions in aesthetic and literary theory while discovering “young Marx”; Deborinites vs. mechanists (Marxism as a positivist science to explain the mechanics of the world vs. philosophy as an autonomous discipline. Dialectics is not a law of philosophy but is in nature.).
1930s-Stalinization of the humanities, Zhdanovschina (culminating in the 1947 publication of the textbook
A History of Western Philosophy), the Thaw - relative liberalization and revisiting the legacy of the 1920s, partial de-Stalinization of philosophical thought as well as history, literature, aesthetics, but in its ESSENTIAL outlines the Soviet humanities is largely the heir of the Stalin-era scholarship (abolition of class for the sake of the nation understood in terms of ethnicity).
The specific nature of philosophy as sublated within the State and the Party to justify its historical-transhistorical necessity. We could call this an ideocracy - philosophy becoming the ultimate criterion of social reality itself, and in a way, replacing it. Social reality reduced to the sphere of ideation. Our own “Armenian ideocracy” - intellectuals standing above the quotidian life and its discontent and issuing verdicts from the purity of their thought.
Where does the field operate today? What are the pulls and pushes that influence these two fields?
The legacy of Soviet scholarship: tradition as doxa (unquestionable); knowledge as a weapon (especially in history, philosophy, art history), etc. on the one hand, and on the other hand, uncritical and schematic application of post-Marxist “Western” theory (Susan Buck-Morss’s story about the meetings of the philosophers from the East and West in the early 1990s).
Respectively, on the one hand, we have official academic disciplines in YSU, Academy of Sciences where the main ideological trajectory geared towards nationalism is a straitjacket for any scholarly inquiry (for instance, in the Academy’s newly developed textbook of the History of Armenian People the authors state that they have radically revisited the flawed and politically dangerous thesis that for centuries Armenian people were deprived of statehood. They claim that, in reality, the Armenian statehood that has a history of 5000 years (!) and was barely ever interrupted. Or the department of Philosophy at YSU mainly studies Garegin Nzhdeh (as the most significant philosopher.)
And on the other hand, we have independent centers, critically minded scholars who subject the tradition that they take for granted to radical revisionism (for example, viewing through the glance of Western feminist theory “the sexuality of queen Satenik” - volume published last year by Socioscope where most of the research articles examining gender and sexuality from the pre-Christian age to the post-Soviet era, apply the Foucaultian theoretical language to varied historical examples) without historicizing the constitution of the tradition that they deconstruct. The tradition is assumed to be heteronormative, patriarchal and so on, but the actual historical work with that tradition that is subsumed under these labels is not done. Here, western theory as a critical “toolbox” for revisionism becomes a schemata that is applied (anachronistically and uncritically) to the local historical tradition. In addition, these revisionist attempts are caught up within the political regime of urgency.
As different as these two dominating trends are, what they share is that they operate with schemas and ready-made theories, they both accept “tradition” as an unquestioned phenomenon, and they subject scholarship to moral and political imperatives.
Discuss the importance of the historical and critical work to understand the nature of this “tradition”, how it is constituted historically, how it informs our present, the courage to confront the nature of “tradition” as distorted, falsified, erased (Missak Khostikyan’s example).
Another important point is to understand ourselves not in isolation but as part and parcel of a diverse and complex region of nations, ethnicities and cultures, something we have not done because of the orientation of our humanities and historical intellectual thought towards the West, through Russian. The slow work of cultural transformation through developing a self-understanding in our complex historical present. And this is not about intercultural dialogue, reconciliation and so on - but about understanding those forces - cultural, political that were formative of our identity and yet have been disavowed as such.
The problem with critical thinking is that when you question existing entrenched myths and narratives, there is bound to be a backlash. How have those backlashes manifested themselves in post-Soviet Armenia?
Proper critical thinking that engages with its object of critique imminently stops at dispelling myths and narratives but tries to understand the reality of these myths, what is the social basis of their historical constitution. How and why do they come to replace “reality”? Mythology, in a Marxian sense is a mediating link between social relations and ideology: Marx- “natural and social phenomena are assimilated in an unintentionally artistic manner by the imagination of the people.” – dichtung. Or a mythology produced by a special caste, in our case, the Church Fathers. What is the nature of these myths produced by the scholarly caste and the people? How do they clash and contradict each other? Ashot Hovhannissyan’s work in this context - how the wishes and desires of the people that produce myths, belief in miracles crystalize the very social contradictions, their unfulfilled dreams for liberation. And the idea of liberation as a political ideal serves as a cornerstone for Armenian modernity. Here the real world of struggle for liberation appears through reflection, which is ultimately a refraction - these myths show reality upside down.
The backlashes in post-Soviet Armenia normally take place at the moral and political level - you may be called a traitor or given other labels, but you can rarely expect an imminent critical engagement with your scholarship.
This is best crystalized in the inability to implement educational reforms in the past 30 years. The recent backlash against the criteria for school curriculum proposed by the Ministry of Culture and Education, especially in History and Literature. Especially the former is viewed as the disciplinary branch of the National Security Services. The criteria for the subject of History are criticized because of their supposed anti-Armenian orientation with the essential argument that the chair of the task force Lilit Mkrtchyan had participated in a workshop organized by the NGO Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation during which the teaching of History in Turkey and Armenia was discussed. The former late chair of the History Department at YSU Artak Movsisyan criticizes that Urartu is not presented as a kingdom of Armenians, a view that he had been advancing for decades without any historical evidence that could withstand critical scrutiny. The National Academy of Sciences went as far as declaring that these criteria are a “threat to national security”. Their justification? The concept of “patriotism” is absent from the proposal; the omission of 3000-1000 B.C. from “Armenian” history; and of course, Lilit Mkrtchyan’s participation in the mentioned workshop and publication of the proceedings is brought up as the main argument. These reactions contain no scholarly or critical substantial engagement with the proposal and focus on discrediting it via a character assassination.
History, as formed through persons: heroic and sacrificial deeds of individuals vs. the traitors of the nation. The recent “capitulation” and attribution of all guilt to one individual, the national shock, reality appearing as disintegrated, but the historical materialist knows that the world is always already broken. We are nowadays confronted with our naked reality without the possibility to further fictionalize it.
The importance of the autonomous pursuit for truth; not doing work politically and ideologically Avant le lettre but how one’s critical historical work might have unforeseen political effects; the untimeliness of the scholarly pursuit for truth, not in the presentist regime of political expediency but within an unpredictable temporality of historical transformation.
That concludes this week’s Conversation On Groong on Armenia’s debate on Armenia’s IT Industry. We’ll continue following this discussion and keep you abreast on the topic as it progresses.
We hope this Conversation has helped your understanding of some of the issues involved. We look forward to your feedback, including your suggestions for Conversation topics in the future. Contact us on our website, at groong.org, or on our Facebook Page “ANN - Groong”, or in our Facebook Group “Groong - Armenian News Network”.
Special thanks to Laura Osborn for providing the music for our podcast. Thank you for listening and talk to you next week.
Armenia, Armenian, Soviet, Humanities, Social Studies, Arts, Education, Stalinism, Marxism, Modernity, Yerevan State University
Additional: Democratization, liberalization, YSU,