Evgeny Kazartsev, the Head of the HSE Moscow School of Philological Studies, as well as Professor at the Department of Philology and Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Basic Research at HSE St. Petersburg, talked to The HSE Look about overseeing the project ‘Literature and society: the experience of socio-cultural description’.
What is this project about?
The aim of our research project, generally speaking, is to analyze how literature affects society and how society affects literature, given that Russia has a literature-centric culture (or at least that is the hypothesis) and literature in Russia carries a great philosophical and ideological potential and forms the principles of human behavior.
We have around 13 sub-projects and 240 people studying the stated research question from various angles. Some are trying to understand what tasks our society sets for literature, what kind of order comes from it and forces literature to create relevant products. Although we believe that writers are free to write whatever they want, the phenomenon of a social order existed under social realism already and apparently exists today. What does it look like today and what did it look like 20-30 years ago, what formed readers’ interest and what public institutions or channels of communication between society and literature could influence it – these are the questions we also try to unveil. Other subprojects consider how libraries have influenced the choice of certain literature by readers - what books were ‘made’ paramount/mainstream and, as such, what authors appeared unexpectedly in different years. Furthermore, certain sub-projects are dedicated to Russian literary canons from different eras. For now, we limit ourselves to Russian literature though, of course, Soviets also read foreign literature.
How do you plan to analyze this literature-society-literature interface?
Each subproject has its own methodology. One of the main methods is in-depth interviews at the intersection of sociology and literature with different generational cohorts, who were exploring Russian literature at different times (with the aim of finding out how their interest was formed and how the pieces they read shaped their consciousness). We also look at Russian novels and stories and markup the texts accordingly. To explore how Russian and foreign literature was reaching out to society through the theater, we study the posters and periodicals of Moscow theaters (i.e., what performances did the audience go to and in what interpretations, what was the reaction?). We also work with archives in order to study what underground literature crossed our borders and was read by Soviet people.
All the materials are then uploaded to the SocioLit computer system, which will be able to carry out a linguistic analysis of certain structures, concepts, images, and phrases in different types of texts. We also employ iFora methods, which were invented by Leonid Gokhberg’s team for analyzing legal texts. At the moment, we use them for analyzing literary texts.
We want to see how certain ideas - introduced by literature or online users – continue to live and develop. For example, in what other literary works (and contexts) has the catchphrase from the Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the ‘cudgel of the people’s war’ – been used. Or, how different writers described intergenerational relationships. Or, whether a contemporary literary work has been inspired one’s understanding of certain philosophical/moral/ethical issues discussed online. With this in mind, the system will also be able to crawl through texts that are available on the Internet, including reader reactions.
It seems like you are creating an ‘eternal knowledge’ database. What will be your product after the project’s three-year timeframe?
Upon the project’s completion, we plan to have a literary corpus (and maybe a corpus of political discourse and our interviews) and a reliable method/search apparatus for searching the database, as well as the collected corpora. So, when we search for a certain concept or a keyword, the SocioLit system can go through all corpora and provide a proper analysis.
In fact, the system has commercial potential and may be of interest to various specialists. For example, it will be able to forecast demand on the publishing market. In other words, what makes a best-selling book? Or, why do certain books fail to sell? What themes in fiction do different generations want to read about today and would they like to read about tomorrow? Moreover, finally, what are readers’ reactions to particular literary themes?
Are students involved in the project? What makes it interesting for them?
We have around 120 students working on this project – philologists, sociologists, and many others. These are Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD students. In addition, they are very keen to participate in the creation of new tools, and with this knowledge and hands-on experience, they can work in the future as experts or specialists in similar or related fields. Participation in the project, of course, can help to cultivate their project skills and hopefully this type of activity can qualify as credit units or/and students’ research activities.
Can you share some of the outcomes and/or unexpected findings?
We are already analyzing a large body of Russian fiction and considering various generational cohorts, while also applying algorithms for this linguistic analysis. We created a prototype for SocioLit system and have gradually started filling it up with literary data.
When talking about unexpected results, it was not our assumption that literature would be one of the central interests of young people. However, our sociological research shows that today’s youth are indeed interested in literature. They read a lot and even try to copy the behavior of famous literary heroes and heroines. In fact, it seems that literature gives its readers an idea of what is good and what is bad. For instance, people see themselves in literary heroes, while others fall in love with fictional characters.