A spring trip to Aarhus

Mariagrazia Portera and Isabel Kusche

From Thursday 4th to Saturday 6th April, the two EURIAS Junior Fellows at IASH, Dr Isabel Kusche and Dr Mariagrazia Portera, attended the EURIAS Annual Meeting for all fellows supported by the European Institutes for Advanced Study (EURIAS) Programme. The meeting took place at the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark and brought together about 30 fellows from all over Europe as well as directors and administrators from their host institutes, who held the Annual Business Meeting of the Network of European Institutes for Advanced Study (NETIAS) at the same time.

On Thursday afternoon, the academic part of the Annual Meeting was kicked off by a keynote on Greek tragedy and Irish politics. An unlikely combination at first sight, the speaker Isabelle Torrance brilliantly showed how contemporary Irish drama has frequently made use of classical tragedies like Antigone to address the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland and to reflect on the chances of and barriers to reconciliation and peace. With the possibility of a no-deal Brexit imminent in early April, the talk had a particular urgency and ensured lively conversation during the subsequent reception.

Friday morning started with a Science Slam. Each fellow had three minutes to present his or her research. A large clock counted down the seconds and created a kind of pressure to which researchers are hardly ever exposed. Yet the format worked really well as an overview of the diversity of projects that the EURIAS programme has made possible. It was followed by four one-hour panels, each of which gave two pre-selected fellows the opportunity to dive a little deeper into their projects. All participants in the meeting were rewarded with a fabulous dinner on Friday night.

A lovely view of the University Park, close to the Institute for Advanced Studies

Isabel Kusche:

I presented my project Big Data Analytics and the Relationship between Politicians and Voters in a panel session on Information, Data, and Society. I had fifteen minutes to convey a few preliminary results from my project, which is obviously better than just three minutes but still not a lot of time. I focused on political microtargeting and used the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a shortcut to illustrate the problem. The scandal has increased public awareness of how big data can be used to identify small groups or even individuals in the electorate who may be particularly susceptible to certain kinds of political messages. This raises the prospect of voter manipulation, but there are reasons to think that political microtargeting is actually quite bad at influencing individual voting decisions in a decisive way. However, I pointed out indirect effects, related to the non-public character of microtargeted communication and a possible erosion of trust in ballot secrecy, that could prove detrimental to the quality of democracy in the long run.

The other presentation in the panel focused on the use of big data in insurance and its potential to undermine the welfare state and I identified interesting parallels to my main points, which suggests that the composition of the panel worked really well. The questions and comments from the audience regarding both talks indicated the great interest that the topic of big data currently generates but also a (very understandable) tendency to sweeping generalizations. The reactions have strengthened my conviction that a comparative perspective, which looks at several European countries, is a promising way to work towards a better understanding of the specific challenges that big data pose in the realm of democratic politics.

ARoS, Aarhus Art Museum

Mariagrazia Portera:

In my 15-minute presentation I addressed some of the issues and questions at the heart of my project Grasp Your Habits! Habitual Behaviour, Cultural Transmission and the Arts from the Perspective of the Environmental Humanities, which I have carried out at IASH in the last months. 15 minutes are a short time for a comprehensive presentation of a project: I thus decided to just sketch out some interconnections between the three concepts around which the project revolves: habit (a crucial notion in sociology, in philosophy, in the neurosciences etc., and which enjoys today a huge resurgence of interest in many different academic disciplines), the arts and the environment (= environmental issue). The power of incessantly forming new habits and accustoming (or “habituating”) itself to new conditions is one of the most amazing features of our human mind; as William James once wrote, we are, as humans, “creatures of habits”. By looking at habits and at our capacity to form, consolidate, break and change them, we can thus gain fundamental insights into the nature and functioning of the mind. However, habits are a very challenging notion to analyse through a strictly analytical/reflexive/philosophical lens; as David Hume very clearly stated, “habits, when are stronger, tend to conceal themselves”. In my project I thus argue that the arts may provide an alternative, more effective way to “grasp our habits” (and indeed, just think of how crucial the notion of habit is, habitude, in Marcel Proust’s literary masterpiece La recherche du temps perdu…). An important part of the project consists, in this sense, in analysing and evaluating a selection of contemporary artistic projects with a main focus on “grasping” human habits/habitual routines. I am particularly interested in the “ecological” relevance of habits, i.e. in the role that habits and habitual behaviour play in our relation to the environment.

What I find most fascinating in the notion of habit is its truly interdisciplinary nature: from sociology to neurosciences, from literature to philosophy, from social psychology to anthropology, biology and even chemistry, habits can be approached and described from an extraordinary number of different perspectives. This fact, however, also poses a big challenge when you have to talk about habits to an audience with heterogenous backgrounds, as it was in Aarhus, and having a short time at your disposal. I got questions and also some criticisms from my audience, which will surely help me improve the project and also my way of presenting it.

On Saturday morning all EURIAS fellows visited ARoS, Aarhus Art Museum, an amazing museum that hosts interesting and thought-provoking exhibitions. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition Tomorrow is the Question, which includes a selection of international contemporary artworks eliciting reflection and discussion of present and future global challenges, with a special focus on environmental challenges.

ARoS, Aarhus Art Museum, Tomorrow is the Question, Allora & Calzadilla, 2 hose petrified Petrol Pump, 2012