About⏐À propos

The project deals with the construction of social norms as originated from the dialogues between arts, literature, medicine and sciences in Central Europe and Russia from the 18th century to nowadays. Our working hypothesis is that the evolution of social norms proceeds from the interactions between scientific and cultural inventions through their shared imaginaries. We aim to explore how such interactions have shaped up normative constructions in Central and Eastern Europe, a region whose later socio-economic modernization was an incentive to new theories aiming at overcoming the civilizational gap or at warning against the dangers of industrial civilization.

The institutionalization of these various fields (literature, medical science, life sciences…) in Central and Eastern Europe has followed a meandering path, which for a long period of time were under-institutionalized: the norms of scientific practice were still in the making, open to negotiation. This made the boundaries between fields very porous. The cultural habitus of many of the social actors under scrutiny in this project allowed them to easily switch professional interests, being active in various disciplines. This makes our focus of a variety of disciplines a necessity. Oftentimes what connected these diverse discourses and practices was their inclusion into general debates about social norms: the impact of modernization, the role of the individual, the structure of state power, gender roles, etc. It was this broad nature of these discussions spanning across the disciplines that ensured a certain coherence to the large cultural field. Our use of the general concept of “societal norms” aims at tackling exactly these overarching debates.

Because they combine specific imperial, multinational legacies to a long experience of state violence, Central Europe and Russia can be viewed as a theoretical incubator of new societal norms. To quote but two phenomena, the elaboration of psychoanalysis in Central Europe, or the formalist theory born in Russia that asserts the possibility to unfold a scientific discourse to study linguistics, literature and arts, are cases in point. Indeed, the cultural field—including arts, literature, but also behaviour patterns as studied by cultural anthropology—does not merely “reflect”, but spreads, questions and co-creates the scientific norms. The scientific, artistic and linguistic imaginaries of these regions are thoroughly intertwined and give rise to new patterns for these European cultures. For instance, N. Fyodorov, the author of Philosophy of the Common Task viewed as work of science his religious project to resurrect the elders, which he linked to a project of communication between the planets. His vision has nurtured scientific imagination and inspired K. Tsiolkovsky, the father of Soviet aeronautics. The formalist theories have influenced film editing and representations, which in turn generated new literary approaches to temporality and light. Bakhtin’s theory of chronotope was fuelled by Einstein’s conception of time and space. Reversely, literature, and especially science-fiction, has acted as a matrix of hypothesis awaiting to be tested by scientists. Such discontinuous representations of reality have fashioned the nascent identity concept and led to a serial conception of the individual, reshuffling along the way ethical norms and behaviour patterns.

Early 20th century modernist currents, while challenging and transgressing existing norms, were at the same time a space of elaboration of new normative imaginaries. The Stalinist regime drew its new norms in pace with industrial objectives out of the early 20th century literary and artistic utopias promoting technical progress and utilitarianism. In the Moscow-ruled ultra-normative societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the “moral” qualities of individuals came to depend on their utility (productivity-wise) and conformity to the serial pattern of the mass-produced objects. The individuals were summoned to produce themselves and were viewed as “waste” when they did not meet the norms any longer. Norm-turned industrial rhythms produced theories and practices of movement that impacted new rhythmic representations of collective bodies (one just needs to remember the giant human pyramids built up on the Red Square for sport ceremonies).

As individual and collective identities were shaped in order to fit the new cultural agenda, all norms, including gender and sexuality, were thought over in a legal, political, social, cultural and medical perspective simultaneously. The cultural hygiene of the new revolutionary states was to correspond to standard medical hygiene, within which homosexuality was first tolerated, then condemned not only as a sexual but as a socio-cultural deviance. In such countries as Poland and Hungary, the long-lasting influence of Catholic norms combined with the post-agrarian social structure resulted in a gap between socioeconomic modernisation and cultural conservatism, also turned against “Jewish modern influences”. Here the long-lasting fights and still vibrant debates around the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of death sentence or the depenalisation of homosexuality.

The turn of the 19-20th centuries can be considered as a pivotal moment in the elaboration of new cultural and societal norms stemmed from this dialogue between arts and sciences. Yet our study calls for a longer time-span, from the 18th century onwards, when scientists envisioned the relationship between arts and sciences as a continuum: M. Lomonosov, for instance, who led works in physics, chemistry and natural sciences, elaborated both new linguistic norms (including a system of versification) and a new system of social welfare. The late 18th-century Russian poet G. Derzhavin developed an interest in optics and Newton. At the turn of the 18-19th centuries, Russian sentimentalist narratives about aerostation and, especially, N. Karamzin’s interest in the French fashion for hot-air balloons, show how physics were used by the Russian writer to develop political metaphors on the relation between individual liberty and control from both the public sphere and the State, in order to promote normative types of behaviour as models for the Russian educated nobles. Russian sentimentalist views on deaf education, as understood through the normative works of Paris-based De l’Épée and Sicard, who “proved” the deaf mutes had a soul, go along the “normalization” of Russians into human beings undertaken by Peter the Great and Catherine II.

This very example is but a reminder of the very special connection between culture and medicine, which stands at the border between humanities and sciences. We take special interest in physician writers, such as A. Chekhov, S. Freud, A. Schnitzler, T. Żeleński-Boy, M. Nordau, M. Boulgakov, L. Németh, G. Vámoš, J. Korczak, F. Langer, S. Lem, Viktor Kandinsky or Nikolai Kulbin to quote but a few from our areas. The aim is to investigate their social and intellectual networks and better understand how their medical and/or psychoanalytical practice imbued their literary works, in turn contributing to the social normative constructions of body, deviance, monstrosity, and so forth.

Finally, special focus will be put on the investigation of the new norms produced by the historical memory of state generated violence in Russia and Central Europe. Commemorations, museums, monuments all elaborate mainstream discourses and narratives, new rules of cohabitation, political loyalties and oppositions, along with collective imaginaries. This institutional memory is grounded on new technologies and strongly shaped up by the inputs of current cognitive and neuroscientific research.

The project is founded on complementary approaches from the history of sciences and cultural history, literary studies, art history, sociology of literature, gender studies and cultural anthropology. Seeking to integrate from an early stage colleagues from the faculty of sciences and medicine of Sorbonne University, we hope to develop a truly interdisciplinary methodology. Understanding these interactions between sciences, medicine and arts rely on the scrutiny of cultural periodicals and journals of popular science, along with a thorough archive investigation in order to reconstruct the—informal and institutionalized—exchanges and debates between the representatives of these various fields. Sources include private diaries and other ego-documents including travel narratives, correspondence, archives of learned societies and cultural centres, and so forth. University programs and private seminars will also be explored through the available accounts of their members and the documentation and publications they produced. Museums and memorials will be crucial sources to approach nowadays normative memorial discourses. Relying on the team members’ linguistic skills and previous research work, this systematic research seeks to shed some light on the imaginary transfers between these fields and uncover their tacit connections, which only a collective approach can seize and interpret.

We plan to meet in a common seminar to be held every month to discuss the projects of the team members with colleagues from the Faculties of Medicine and Sciences of Sorbonne University. One of our first aims is to build an interdisciplinary research network with scientists and historians of medicine and sciences in order to initiate a common research project (ERC or ANR). We will organize a workshop at the end of each year to develop our network with partner institutions, whose proceedings should be published as working papers in a specific research blog. After two years, we should be ready to write a research project evolving around the construction of societal norms through the interaction between the scientific and cultural fields.


Le programme de recherche SAMSON a pour vocation d’interroger la construction des normes sociétales en tant qu’elles résultent du croisement entre les domaines des arts, de la littérature, de la médecine et des sciences en Europe centrale et en Russie, du XVIIIe siècle à nos jours. Assumant un prisme interdisciplinaire (histoire, philosophie, anthropologie, histoire de l’art, psychologie sociale, études littéraires, études cinématographiques), le projet donnera l’occasion de réunir des chercheurs français et étrangers, chacun apportant une expertise propre et capable de mettre en perspective l’hypothèse de travail suivante : l’évolution des modèles normatifs au sein de ces contextes procède des interactions entre les développements de la science et de la culture.


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